Spring Means Unpredictability and Budgets

Photo of Patrick StolikerBy Patrick C. Stoliker

Deputy Director of NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center

It’s springtime again at Dryden. You cantell by the wild fluctuations in weather: cold and dreary, gale force winds, orsunny and balmy –  sometimes all in oneday! The wild flowers start blooming, sometimes spectacularly; but this yearnot so much. I was at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, west ofLancaster, two weeks ago and the poppies were few and far between. 

Another principal indicator of springtime isthe leap into the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) cyclefor the Agency’s budget. For those not familiar with the process, let meexplain.

We start off with PPBE guidance tricklingout of Washington (stamped Draft, of course). This is followed by StrategicProgram Guidance (SPG) – Draft 2. These documents provide the ground rules foreach of the Centers and the Agency Mission Directorates to input their budgetinformation into various databases. The budget information includes workforce numbers, procurement expensesand travel. It provides a top-level description of the Agency’s activities forthe next five years. Why is this important? Because it helps set the strategicdirection and constraints in which we must complete our research priorities.

This is followed by the Program and ResourceGuidance (PRG) from each Mission Directorate. The PRG is a more detaileddescription of the work the Mission Directorates plan to accomplish. We spendthe rest of early spring revising inputs based on project plans, gettingrevised instructions, and revising timelines.

Image of SOFIA aircraftIn reality this is a critical effort. What arethe staffing and resource requirements for the Center to successfully operatethe SOFIA aircraft for 1,000 hours of science flights? What are theimplementation plans for the Aeronautics Research Directorate and how do weutilize our workforce to accomplish them? What is the schedule and what are theappropriate resources to support launch abort system testing for MPCV? Workingwith all the organizations at the Center, we will develop our best answers tothese questions, and effectively use the resources to execute these missions.

All the while we are using a very blurrycrystal ball to extend this guidance five years into the future. So these arethe things keeping us busy: building spreadsheets, attending Budget ControlBoards, and chasing shifting time lines every spring.

For me, one of the best parts of spring isdriving onto the Center at sunrise after the time change and Hangar 4802 is litup and lined with airplanes. That sight never disappoints me.

Two days ago it started bright and sunny, aweek ago I shoveled a foot of snow off my driveway, and another storm is comingin this weekend. I’m certain it is going to snow, my apple trees all startedblooming this week…it’s springtime at Dryden again.

Seeing Stars

By Jill Pestana
NASA Dryden Student Intern
We were screeching down the runway, engines blasting, accelerating until the shuddering giant leapt off the ground into flight. SOFIA was in the air. The thought of flying on board an airplane that has a hole in its side and carries a 17-ton telescope was a little disconcerting, but after several weeks on the SOFIA project as an intern, learning all about the effort it took to make the aircraft operational, I trusted that we would return to Palmdale safely.
Image right: Cal State-Long Beach student intern Jill Pestana has a big thumbs-up for her experience on a night flight aboard NASA’s airborne observatory, the SOFIA.

Within the first few minutes of the flight, fellow intern Stephanie Sodergren and I were giggling with excitement from our seats in what used to be the modified 747’s first-class cabin. We quickly hung a picture of the predicted flight pattern, planning to highlight the path as we traveled overnight. We got out our NASA “meatball” tattoos and stuck them to our biceps. “It’s only been thirty minutes and we’ve done so much! We still have nine and a half more hours of flight to go!”
It was a clear and calm night over the Pacific Ocean. I gazed through the cockpit windows on the upper deck at the billions of stars visible, and thought solemnly that this may be the closest I will ever be to the stars. I pretended I was in space, gazing down at clouds I imagined to be the continents of Earth. Below, on the lower deck, the scientists and flight crew were looking through the telescope at pinpoints in this vast, unknown universe.
Sitting at the conference table on the passenger deck, I gave myself a fast lesson in the basics of star formation, using a textbook written by Dana Backman, SOFIA education and public outreach director. Relating the information to my college course material and my knowledge of the GREAT – German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies – instrument mounted on the SOFIA telescope, I gained a deeper understanding of how complex technologies are used to “look” through the cocoons of dust to see stars forming. Two astrophysicists sat across from me, receiving the GREAT’s real-time data output. “Here, come look at this!” they would say to me over the audio distribution system’s headsets. They turned their laptop screen around so I could see the fresh data on newborn “cocooned” stars in the giant gas nebula known as the Elephant Trunk formation. When it was announced that we were flying at 45,000 feet, the highest altitude flown on a SOFIA science mission, the scientists and I exchanged excited glances.

Several hours later, we were nearing the end of the journey home. I was the last of the five interns awake, eating cookies with the astrophysicists as they showed me their compiled data. It was a successful science mission, and everyone was in a good mood. A faint glow began coming from the horizon, so I headed back up to the cockpit for the landing. As the light from stars shining across the heavens was overcome by our own star’s light, I felt a twinge of sadness about my SOFIA flight coming to an end. I was exhausted, but part of me wanted to go right back up to the stratosphere. As I was listening in on the headset in the cockpit, I could hear an Australian airline on approach to California. Land was now in sight as mountains began to emerge beneath snowy clouds. I estimated we were flying right over California State University, Long Beach – my college!

With the desert approaching in the distance, I felt such a sense of pride for what had been accomplished overnight. All the effort by engineers, technicians, scientists and managers, German and American, had congealed to produce scientific data from a world incomprehensibly far from our own island of life. I had never felt our species’ innate aspiration to explore and discover more strongly than at that moment. Humbled by the vastness of space, I was beaming with pride and confidence in mankind.
I can only describe my experience of flying on SOFIA as beautiful. From the bright stars to the flight crew’s camaraderie to the notion of such a small speck of humanity – me – gazing out into the limitless unknown, I had learned so much besides the basics of star formation that night. I was ecstatic, thinking about the universe we live in. With so much effort being put into each mission by everyone in the SOFIA program, I had to pause and reflect on the words of J.F. Kennedy as he initiated our quest to the moon: NASA does what it does not because it is easy, but because it is hard.
My 10-week internship experience has been fantastic. I have met so many great, smart people who have helped me learn all about NASA, SOFIA, science, program management, astronomy, and much more. I had the best summer working with my mentor, Stephen Jensen, and fellow interns at NASA. I’m looking forward to applying what I learned and sharing my experiences back at school, hopefully inspiring others to pursue similar experiences. Because of this internship, I was able to secure a job working with SOFIA’s education and public outreach department, and will be working with Stephanie Sodergren on the department’s website during the next school year.
Thank you, NASA, for giving me this opportunity, and for showing the world what humans are capable of achieving.

SOFIA Captures a Speeding Shadow

By Brent Cobleigh

SOFIA Platform Project Manager
On June 23, the SOFIA returned from a mission that the principal investigator, Ted Dunham, called “gutsy.” As a star passed behind Pluto, a faint shadow passed over the Earth at a speed of 51,000 mph. The 100km-wide shadow passed over remote areas of the Pacific Ocean, out of the view of most ground-based observatories. The SOFIA’s unique ability to carry our 17-ton telescope to an altitude three times higher than the world’s best ground-based observatories is one of the reasons this program exists. Here is a quote from Ted:

“Occultations give us the ability to measure pressure, density and temperature profiles of Pluto’s atmosphere without leaving the Earth, which is 3 billion miles away from Pluto. Because we were able to maneuver SOFIA so close to the center of the occultation, we observed an extended, small but distinct brightening near the middle of the occultation. This will allow us to probe Pluto’s atmosphere at altitudes lower than usually possible with stellar occultations.”

The Pluto Occultation Mission was performed with the High-Speed Imaging Photometer for Occultation instrument, which is specifically designed to maximize science collection during an occultation. The photometer is the third science instrument integrated onto the aircraft this year. And we also started flying the water-vapor monitoring system back in March.

The Pluto success comes on top of finishing the first competed flight phase, Basic Science 1 – or BS1 – a few weeks ago. I checked a schedule that we made back in November, to see how close we were to finishing the BS2 flight phase as planned, and we finished one day early! Developing and testing the SOFIA has been a huge challenge, but the hard work is paying off.

And the year is not over. We expect to start the BS2 flight phase in July. After that, we will start testing the liquid nitrogen pre-cooling system that will chill the telescope mirrors prior to takeoff so that we don’t have to waste valuable flight time waiting for temperatures to stabilize. We also have enhancements to test that will improve the telescope pointing accuracy, and a goodwill deployment to Germany in September. The team is developing systems for the segment 3 downtime scheduled to start in November. Completing, installing and testing all the new and upgraded systems will be another challenge that will require the diverse skills of the Platform Project team.

On June 24, I was notified that SOFIA was selected to receive a NASA-wide group achievement award for the Initial Science Flight that we successfully completed last November. Congratulations to the whole team.

My job satisfaction is always based on two things: achieving an ambitious goal, and working with an excellent team. So I am glad to have this job because it allows me to achieve both. Though I’ll be the first to admit that there are ups and downs from day to day, the bottom line is that we are executing what we planned and fulfilling our promises to the science community and to the public. Like many ambitious projects, there are 10 hectic days for every day available to reflect on our success (sometimes it feels like 100 to 1). From time to time, step back and realize the progress we are making.  

Many thanks to SOFIA team members for their hard work and dedication.

All In A Night's Work

By Beth Hagenauer
Dryden Public Affairs
I settled into my assigned seat for the 10-hour journey. The red-eye flight would cross 11 states, eventually reaching an altitude of 44,000 feet and traveling 4,700 miles. The ticket price was very good – it came as part of my job as a public affairs media escort for a prestigious documentary crew.

As the aircraft lifted off at dusk from the Air Force Plant 42 runway in Palmdale, Calif., I realized this would be no ordinary 747 flight; I was aboard the SOFIA, or the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a flying astronomy observatory.

SOFIA is the airborne platform for a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center DLR. The program is based at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale. To modify the 747 for its new role, a 16-foot-high hole has been cut in the aircraft’s port side and a one-of-a-kind infrared telescope installed in the opening. Most of the former airliner’s trappings – seats, food-preparation galley and movie screens – have been removed and replaced with workstations equipped with computers and sturdy passenger seats with five-point seat-belt harnesses.

Image right: Terry Herter, principal investigator with the FORCAST instrument, takes a minute during a SOFIA flight to explain a concept to a visiting television crew.

The television film crew was aboard to record the science mission; their viewers who have a working knowledge of astronomy are familiar with ground-based telescopes and satellites, but an aircraft carrying a telescope brings a different dimension to studying the solar system. The usual flight crew was on tap for the mission, but so was a gaggle of German and American scientists and telescope operators who had planned a flight route that would take us to observation points for targets with names like Alpha Boo and Frosty Leo – the latter, I learned, a dying star. The 17-ton German-built telescope sports a Cornell University instrument called FORCAST, which is an acronym for Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope.

As soon as the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign was turned off, the science crew took their stations at consoles outfitted with computer screens to begin their night’s work. About an hour into the flight, the exterior door covering the telescope cavity was opened. White dots of varying sizes surrounded by colored boxes and text that seemed to be astronomers’ code began to appear on the computer screens. The aircraft is very noisy, so all communication was via headset. One of the mission director’s tasks is to monitor scientists’ conversations and transmit information to and from the pilots if necessary – say, for changes to the flight plan that might mean getting a better look at a target.

About three hours into the flight, I went upstairs to the cockpit. More than 500 tiny lights illuminated a variety of circuit breakers and gages; the SOFIA cockpit is original technology and has not yet been upgraded with a “glass” cockpit, the current standard in modern aircraft. Looking out of the windows, I saw a sea of clouds lit by the full moon. It was easy to see stars with the naked eye – or visible light, as the astronomers refer to it – in the dark sky.

Unlike the environment in the main cabin, the cockpit was quiet except for occasional radio transmission between the NASA 747 and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers in Seattle.

The most auspicious passenger was a small stuffed koala mascot that had flown more than four million miles on SOFIA’s predecessor, NASA’s fabled Kuiper Airborne Observatory. Earlier this year, the bear had been passed, along with the astronomical-research torch, from one generation of NASA scientists to the next.

Image below: Beth Hagenauer takes her seat in NASA’s newest airborne observatory, the SOFIA.

As the flight progressed the scientists continued their work, the adrenalin rush that comes from collecting real-time science data keeping them awake. (It had to have been that, because there was no hot coffee anywhere on board.) A flight on SOFIA is literally the only opportunity astronomers get to conduct their work in a shirtsleeve environment.

And my impression? Not being an astronomer by training, I still found myself in awe of the telescope. I never tired of watching its slow and precise movements, knowing that this activity replicates a tilting of the telescope mirror that was “peering” at the stars from within its specially designed cavity.

I brought my own dinner, since not even the dreaded “airline food” was available. I put my coat on when the aircraft reached 44,000 feet. Above all, I was tired when the aircraft landed at dawn back in Palmdale. As I watched SOFIA being towed back into the hangar and sent a very happy film crew on their way, I was reminded of a phrase that I’ve heard NASA colleagues say many times: “…and they pay me to do this?!”

Talking Science with Bill Nye

One of the best parts of my job is sharing with the public the details of our many research projects. On occasion, we get to meet some really cool people.

Bill Nye interviews Bob MeyerImage right:  MatKaplan, Media Producer for the Planetary Society, records video as BillNye The Science Guy interviews Pam Marcum, lead SOFIA scientist and BobMeyer, SOFIA program manager in front of the German-built infraredtelescope mounted inside the 747SP aircraft.

Just last week, Bill Nye The Science Guy paid a visit to our facilities to conduct interviews for an upcoming program for the Planetary Society. The focus of his visit was to learn more about the SOFIA, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. As his host, I was curious to see what he was going to be like in real life. I wondered if he was really into the science, or if it was just some act he put on to make a few bucks. Let me tell you, it is no act!

As I greeted Bill and his colleague Mat Kaplan from the Planetary Society in the parking lot, before we could even finish exchanging greetings Bill had to show me the new Volt he was test-driving for General Motors. He was jazzed about the technology behind this vehicle and had to point out all the cool features. 

As we went inside the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, small crowds of curious bystanders started shadowing us as we walked through the hallways and hangar. Young and old, technicians, physicists, administrative and professional staff alike, the reaction of those he passed was the same: awe, admiration and sheer excitement at getting to see and meet The Science Guy! Many of our staff commented to Bill that his whimsical and often humorous approach to science had been instrumental in motivating them to choose their career paths. Now, they had an opportunity to repay the favor by showing Bill a thing or two about what they are doing in support of making great astronomical discoveries with the SOFIA.

Bill Nye and Kevin Rohrer

Image right:  Bill Nye The ScienceGuy takes a break from conducting interviews with the SOFIA team andposed for this fun photo with Kevin Rohrer, NASA Dryden public affairsteam lead.

Bill and Mat seemed to spend as much time learning about the modified 747SP aircraft and the 2.5-meter infrared telescope it carries as they did conducting interviews. Bill noted that, as an engineer, before achieving celebrity status he’d actually helped design portions of the aircraft. “How cool is that?!” he noted.

As we were giving them a background briefing on the SOFIA science aspects, you could see Bill’s mind wandering into the unknown…what discoveries would this team make, how would the telescope complement other ground-based instruments…will they let me fly the plane?

The walk-through tour of the aircraft brought out both the engineer and scientist in Bill. His interview questions of Bob Meyer, SOFIA program manager, and Pam Marcum, lead SOFIA scientist, were on target and are sure to make an exciting program for the Planetary Society. The story should be posted to their website, www.planetary.org, in a few weeks.

Kevin Rohrer, Public Affairs Team Lead