Kia Ora

June 24, 2017

Greetings from the flight line. Greetings from the flight line.

Kia Ora is a Maori word for “have life be well/healthy” used as a greeting or a farewell and expression of thanks. Tonight team SOFIA met the Vice Mayor Andrew Turner of Christchurch, plus professors from the neighbouring universities and members of the city council and parliament. The evening had a variety of conversations about history, astronomy, rockets (as New Zealand had just recently christened a new rocket launch facility on the north island), and rugby (as the All Blacks were playing the British/Irish Lions, and the All Blacks were ahead during the dinner).

After an exchange of greetings, the SOFIA project presented the City of Christchurch with German and US flags (SOFIA is an international partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt [DLR]) flown at 45,000 feet as a thank you to the city’s support during these southern campaigns. In return a Maori symbol of intertwined two shoots was given to the SOFIA to represent the joining of two cultures.

I found myself speaking with a science teacher telling me about visits to science museums and the US Space Camp in Alabama and those trips’ influence on his students, a entrepreneurial woman trying out different Maker-Faire workshops with the University of Canterbury and Polytechnics in Christchurch, an Air Traffic Controller at Christchurch airport loving learning new things when supporting balloon launches by NASA and Google and when SOFIA comes to town, a professor of Maori history at the University, and a former Member of Parliament, and former Science Minister, Honorable Margaret Austin, an educator and biochemist by training, as she related what made her go into politics in the 1980s. A most fascinating evening with loads of conversations cut short as we had to depart by 9pm.

Arrival in Christchurch

June 23, 2017

My first introduction to the land of Hobbits, is the refreshing rain on Friday June 23rd. Not to mention the cold and wind. With the first realization that maybe I needed more warm gear (she writes, despite her bags being full of fleeces and thermals). Nonetheless, my flask of hot tea, has indeed come to the rescue.

After disembarking from SOFIA, going through passport and customs control – I did make sure to toss all my nuts and raisins, and my boots passed inspection. Then a short hop to the hotel, a work telecom (almost on schedule) and I am surprisingly still awake to remember (there is a 19 hr time difference from California), and then some warm tea to warm the inner Kimberly and freshen up.

So I make my way down to the Antarctic Research Station, the homebase for SOFIA for these few months. I see the team hard at work, unpacking crates and boxes. We have three science instruments on this campaign, GREAT, FIFI-LS and FORCAST. GREAT was attached to the science instrument port on the telescope for the ferry-flight. FIFI-LS and FORCAST were placed in the cargo hold.

All of the infrared instruments need to be cooled such that their detectors can work appropriate and also the thermal radiation from the internal optics does not itself saturate the sensitive detectors. GREAT was transported in a warm configuration, so what happened today was to get it on the cryocooler, a mechanical cooling system (a refrigerator) to get down the instrument to 4 Kelvin.

SOFIA’s new capability for science instruments – cryocoolers, upper deck SOFIASOFIA’s new capability for science instruments – cryocoolers on the upper deck.

The time it takes an instrument to cool down depends on the mass of the volume to be cooled. For the instruments on SOFIA, they typically need few days for the initial cooling from room temperature. Cooling of the GREAT instrument will occur aboard SOFIA and the other instruments are being transferred from their travel crates to their lab crates to make shift lab areas to get them ready when it’s there turn to fly.

GREAT getting pump and cool downGREAT getting a pump & cool down.

I hope to explore the city soon. Right now I am in total immersion in learning how the SOFIA team prepares for the first science flight.

The 747 SP, She’s rather fine

June 22, 2017

Okay, I’m gushing. I got to sit in the cockpit of a 747 while in flight and even on landing into Hickman Air Force Base in Honolulu.  That was just amazing!

Kimberly in SOFIA Cockpit

The pilot teams are neat. SOFIA flies with 2 pilots, flight engineer and a navigator. Now, for today’s commercial long hauls, the roles of the navigator and flight engineer have been taken over by combined airplane computer aided by the pilots. SOFIA’s cockpit has been updated with modern navigation tools, but the way the dials, knobs and readouts are configured, if you were sitting in the front seats, you could not see them all. Here’s where the flight engineer comes in, doing engine heats, checking projected speed vs. fuel vs. heading, among many other “background tasks” thinking ahead. It was fascinating to watch those three individuals work, common language provided by the 747SP.

SOFIA Cockpit Flight Engineer Station

When you are far from ATC/air traffic control, the pilots got commands to/from a sat nav system. That was fun to see, as they plugged in their heading or altitude request, and got back instructions to proceed or not. In addition to the weather requests, which got printed out in 20th century means. For the checklists, a variety of modern (ipad) and not-so-modern (pen and paper) plus laminated sheets, were used.

Pilots Discussing Next Steps


Fly the Line & Learning about “Airframes”

June 21, 2017

It was basically a straight line from Palmdale, CA (outside Los Angeles) to Honolulu, Hawaii: a lot more relaxed than a normal SOFIA science flight, which has all those legs and turns enable doing the astronomy (the telescope is only located on one side of the plane, combined with targets rising in the east/setting in the west).

I got a chance to hang out in the cockpit and spent time with Steve, the Flight Engineer, who walked me through the small changes pilots Dean and Paul needed to do from time to time. There was a kind of camaraderie among these three men, who yes, have flown together, but not flown a lot together recently, as Steve lives in Denver working for United, and Dean and Paul are off flying ER2s and other NASA “airframes.” They all knew how to do their jobs and kept each other vigilant on monitoring the many dials, doing tweaks to elevation, turning on the engine heaters by hand (as a known precaution) for 1 minute every 30 minutes (unless the engine oil gets to -5 C and then its 1 minute every 10 minutes), refreshing their knowledge about the weather, etc. etc. Apparently when you do most of your flying out of the desert, you get used to “no weather” and where we’re headed down south (to New Zealand), we’ll get “some weather.”


The rest of my fellow passengers are a mixture of mechanics, software engineers, telescope operators, and avionics technicians (techs). I learned from my seatmate, Darrell, about how the wings of the 747SP uses hydraulics rather than screw types for adjusting the lift. This was a more efficient design that enables long-haul operations (go to Europe from the US in one flight). I had remarked that when I fly on airlines, depending on the “airframe” sometimes as part of the pilot’s checklist you can hear the whirring noises in the wings, which Ken called out to be the screw adjustments, which are not present in all “airframes.” Not everyday you get to fly next to folks who know how to build aircraft.



$400 Chicken Nugget

June 20, 2017

I wandered to see our beautiful flying observatory, settled in her home at Bld 703 in Palmdale, CA, in the hangar to keep cool. Temperatures down here in the desert got to over 107 F (42 C) this week.

SOFIA June 20, 2017

Chatted with three mechanics, before they went home for the day, who will be on the flight out to Christchurch New Zealand. All had been on the prior deployments. They commented on how cold it will be there in New Zealand (as we have this conversation in over 100 degree F weather). One actually shipped some long johns courtesy of Amazon. Now that is planning ahead. They specifically mentioned to bring bags full of warm clothes, but no wool. Something about wool not liked by New Zealand customs? Oh and food, if not declared. Their advice to me. Declare everything. Most likely all the food will be confiscated by customs. If I don’t declare contents I would face a hefty fine. Apparently one of the SOFIA team had to pay for a $400 Chicken Nugget. Now that’s food for thought.

My bags are full. The plane is ready. The adventure begins tomorrow.