Friends in high places

I’m sitting in the pilot seat of a $2billion NASA plane, staring at the hundreds of flashing buttons in horror, Dr Trinh’s words still hanging in the air.

“Just don’t knock anything.” He’d said, as I slid into the seat. I’m instantly paralysed with fear. The man has no idea how clumsy I am. What if my knee kicks a lever and we start trundling towards the commercial planes on the strip ahead?

Sitting in the pilot seat with Dr Trinh behind me watching carefully!

I’d met Chris in the bookshop a few months ago. He told me he was a NASA astronomer, here to study the Southern Hemisphere from the back of a modified Boeing 747, and I could get a tour if I liked.

“That’s the worst chat up line I’ve ever heard.” My friend Becky said when I told her.

I ignored the naysayers and booked my bus ticket.

Chris on the airfield with SOFIA behind us

I needn’t have worried. Dr Chris Trinh is a natural guide, passionate for the project and mindful we haven’t all got PHds in astrophysics. He bounds up to me in a very cool coffee-coloured flight jacket with a NASA badge on the front and instantly apologises.

“You’ll have to forgive me.” He says as he shakes my hand. “I was on the night flight last night, 10 hours in the air. I might not make much sense.”

Once past security, where the guard tentatively asks me if I work for NASA (I wish), we admire SOFIA from the airfield.

You can just see the bump at the back where the telescope is built!

SOFIA is a Boeing 747 with a huge door cut into the side, usually where the dodgy seats by the toilets at the back go. Once in the air, the door opens, and a 17-tonne telescope can gaze unblinking into the universe.

“We try to fly as high above the stratosphere as possible, around 45,000 feet.” Chris says. “At this height, we fly over most of the water vapour that distorts data from ground telescopes.”

Chris looking very NASAish

SOFIA is currently the highest telescope in the world, the first of its kind, and has enormous potential to collect new data.

“Last year, we chased the shadow of Pluto as it crossed the earth. If you were in a ground observatory, you’d just have to pray it passed your lens.”

The inside of the plane looks like a Sci-Fi film set. Its body is gutted, with just a few computers, some tables and chairs, and then the telescope: the multi-coloured elephant in the room.

Wowsa. That’s a whole lotta physics.

My mind boggles at its size. How can there be a giant telescope mapping the skies through an open door in a plane as it’s flying so fast? What about all the films I’ve seen where a gunshot in the wall means windows smash and suitcases get sucked towards the bullet hole?

Apparently my physics education from watching James Bond films isn’t entirely accurate.

“We’re trying to create knowledge that will be available for generations to come.” Chris tells us happily, “That’s SOFIA’s goal.”

The plastic bag/ liquid nitrogen solution

Wow. It’s got a real Star Trekian feel to it, boldly going where no Astronomer has gone before…

“Why are there plastic bags on the telescope?” Someone asks. It’s true – a couple of standard carrier bags are inflated on top of the most complex piece of machinery I’ve ever seen.

“That… is our high tech solution to stopping the liquid nitrogen frosting over the outlets. The bag keeps the air warm enough. See how they’re slightly inflated?”

We’re guided up a flight of stairs, and for the first time in my life (and probably the last), I’m standing in First Class.

Must. press. a button.

Well, it used to be. The minibar has been ripped out and replaced with a functional cupboard, a few plush seats are missing. That’s when we spot the pilots’ cabin. It’s just how I imagined Willy Wonka’s elevator, every inch of wall space covered with odd shaped buttons.

We all take turns to have a look, sit in the pilot’s seat, and try to fathom what every knob does.

Chris has flown over 75 missions in SOFIA – roughly 750 hours in the air

“I’m a little worried I’m never going to find a job as cool as this one.” Chris admits, as we step off the plane.

You’re worried? I want to say, as I reluctantly hand back my NASA visitors pass. I know I’ll never be on a plane as cool as that one.

Massive thanks to Dr Chris Trinh and NASA for the tour! Learn more about SOFIA here


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