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Lindbergh Legacy: NASA 747SP Honors Aviator's Feat
Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh, unveils a plaque rededicating NASA's SOFIA aircraft as Image above: Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh, unveils a plaque rededicating NASA's SOFIA aircraft as "Clipper Lindbergh." The May 21 event, held in Waco, Texas, marked the 80th anniversary of his grandfather's historic transatlantic flight. The SOFIA will be based at Dryden and will be used for groundbreaking astronomical research. (NASA photo by Tom Tschida)

Excitement is a cure for apathy and that's what Erik Lindbergh, grandson of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, believes NASA's new airborne observatory will bring to the world.

NASA's new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, is a highly modified 747 airliner that carries a 17-metric-ton infrared telescope system. The SOFIA holds great promise as a desperately needed path to awakening an apathetic public and "lighting them up" with awe-inspiring science, Lindbergh said in remarks at a recent ceremony held at Dryden Flight Research Center.

Lindbergh handled the duties of rededicating the Boeing 747SP SOFIA aircraft as "Clipper Lindbergh," first dedicated 30 years ago when it was a Pan American airliner. Lindbergh's grandmother - Anne Morrow Lindbergh, an accomplished aviatrix in her own right - presided over the original dedication.

Lindbergh rededicated the aircraft at L-3 Communications Integrated Systems in Waco, Texas, on May 21, when a plaque was unveiled commemorating the 80th anniversary of his grandfather's historic transatlantic flight, and then again at the June 27 Dryden event. Modifications made to the plane to ready it as a flying observatory were made at the L-3 Waco facility prior to its flight to Dryden.

While at Dryden, the NASA 747SP will undergo continued flight and systems testing for about two years while observatory systems hardware and software are integrated. Program officials expect to conduct the first science missions with the telescope as early as 2009.

Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight inspired people everywhere and helped fuel a new perspective on aviation, his grandson said in remarks at the June 27 event. Leaving behind a view of those who flew as daredevils and barnstormers, pilots who would carry passengers came to be seen with awe and respect. Simultaneously, the possibilities commercial aviation held began to emerge.

"What's outstanding about this aircraft, and that connection to the Pan Am naming of Clipper Lindbergh and my grandmother dedicating it, is that it represents that man in most of his life," Lindbergh said.

Erik Lindbergh has inspired many with his own adventure reenacting his grandfather's historic transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. His reenactment flight was made in 2002, 75 years after his grandfather's original journey in 1927.

As the crowd at Dryden counted down from 10, Lindbergh climbed stairs leading to the aircraft's fuselage and pulled a red, white and blue banner off to reveal the name "Clipper Lindbergh."

His grandfather had been a thinker, Lindbergh noted, a man who in addition to his flying achievements tried to "solve the great riddles of his time" and considered not merely emerging technologies but the ramifications inherent in them. The inspiration created by the 1927 flight, Lindbergh said, is mirrored in the SOFIA 747SP aircraft.

Outreach elements planned as part of the SOFIA program, including the possibility of educators traveling with program scientists, serve as examples of what is needed to inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, he said.

"This is an age of tremendous apathy, when we have all kinds of threats facing us. Not just wars, but global warming and environmental threats," Lindbergh said. "We don't feel like we can affect the outcome. We can switch bulbs, or buy a hybrid [vehicle], but will that really do anything?"

Answers, he emphasized, lie in education and renewed commitment to discovery.

"The only way that is going to change is through education." Gesturing toward the SOFIA, he said, "This is going to be an extraordinary platform for that education, one that will hopefully ignite one of those people who is touched by this program that will enable the breakthroughs we need - that our children need, that out children's children need to thrive and survive into the future. I truly believe that we are but in our infancy in terms of expanding and exploring human potential.

"[The SOFIA] represents a fantastic step, one that I hope will bring us to that future."

Flown at altitudes above 40,000 feet, the SOFIA's infrared telescope will be above nearly 99 percent of the Earth's atmospheric water vapor, greatly enhancing existing capabilities for studying the cosmos. The state-of-the-art telescope also will allow greater flexibility and ease of instrumentation upgrade than are possible with satellite-borne observatories.

NASA's partner in the SOFIA program is the German Aerospace Center, which provided the telescope. A 16-foot-high opening cut into the plane's aft fuselage will allow observations with the telescope to be made at altitude.

Jay Levine
X-Press Editor