Guest Post: When a Small Part Bursts Your Bubble

by Mary Martialay on May 21, 2013

SOFIA - Inside the hanger

Flight training

(In our last report, Daniel Angerhausen, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Jon Morse, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor of physics, was poised to fulfill a longtime dream and fly about NASA’s flying observatory, SOFIA. Alas, the path to science is often paved with setbacks and … well, we’ll let him tell you about it himself.)

Recently I wrote about my trip to California to make a long-cherished dream come true by flying aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), NASA’s Boeing 747-SP with equipped with a 2.5 meter-wide telescope. Today I have to report that it did not work out for me. And a tiny $12 electrical spare part bears the blame.

But let me start from the beginning. A few weeks ago, I was offered a chance to fulfill one of my biggest dreams and fly aboard SOFIA, as part of its first observations of extrasolar planets. The offer came with very short notice and, to make it work, I would have to interrupt a vacation I had planned with my family in Germany and fly from Germany to California to make the date. But the opportunity was too big to pass up and I scrambled to make the necessary preparations for a Thursday, May 2 flight.

Once I had booked my flights, got my NASA badge, clearance to enter the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, medical clearance to fly with SOFIA, and an appointment for flight training just a day before the flight date, I could not imagine much that could stand in my way.

The first bad news came in London, as I was waiting for my connecting flight to Los Angeles: an email announced that the previous night’s flight — the flight that would be used to calibrate the instruments I wanted to use during my flight — had been cancelled for mechanical reasons. However, the rest of the email was more reassuring. It sounded as if they could fix the problem in time for my flight.

On  Wednesday May 1, after a 12-hour transatlantic flight and a one-hour drive from the airport, I arrived at the SOFIA hangar, adjacent labs and offices. I walked in looking to find some of my old colleagues, telescope, and flight engineers that I knew from my time at the German SOFIA Institute. I finally found all of them gathered around a small grey box in one of the labs in the basement. One of my old colleagues approached me and, before even saying “hello” he said “it does not look good for your flight tomorrow. Unofficially the flight is already cancelled”.

An official email cancelling the May 2 flight just came in 10 minutes later. The culprit: a burned-out relay caused a power failure to the system that lubricates the telescope rotation mechanism.

I was devastated but still had a little hope because there was a small chance that I could get on another flight, which was scheduled for Monday May 6, and I spent the rest of the day prepping for the backup flight by meeting with the flight and telescope engineers, astronomers, and instrument scientists slated for that flight.

The next day, instead of flying, we ran some tests of the instruments on board of SOFIA in the hangar. Around noon I had my flight training. I spent about an hour learning about security features and emergency procedures on SOFIA. It was basically a long version of the demonstration that flight attendants do on commercial flights. Since we were supposed to fly mostly on the mainland or close to the Pacific Coast, the teacher told us that he skipped the videos on “how to survive on a remote island” and “how to build an igloo,” required viewing for flights over Alaska or the southern Pacific.

At the end of the day the chance of the backup flight going forward was about “50/50” according to one of the engineers. But even though I slept with fingers crossed, the final blow came the next morning: although they were able to get all required spare parts (from Ebay), security protocols required tests and procedures that they were not able to fulfill in time.

Of course, I am very disappointed. But this is something we have to get used to in science and in particular in astronomy: experiments fail, results are inconclusive or the one night that you have on a telescope turns up cloudy. For me this means that I have to hope for the next opportunity in fall, and submit new observing proposals for the next call.

This was my 5th “date” with SOFIA on the ground and I am sure that one day I will also get one night with her in the air.