SOFIA Astronomy Jet Makes First Flight
International astronomers are a major step closer to unlocking secrets of the cosmos. A modified 747 airliner mounting a huge infrared telescope took to the skies for the first time on April 26, 2007 as a NASA flight crew put the big jet through the first of several shakedown flights since the airplane underwent major modifications at L-3 Communications in Waco, Texas. NASA research pilot and astronaut Gordon Fullerton led the crew making the historic first flight.
Image above: The NASA and German Aerospace Center SOFIA airborne infrared observatory lifts off for its first check flight from its modification center in Waco, Texas on April 26, 2007. (NASA Dryden photo by Tony Landis)
To enable the 45,000-pound infrared telescope to scan the skies, the 747 was modified by cutting a 16-foot tall opening in the aft fuselage, and fairing it with a sliding door. By flying at altitudes above 40,000 feet, this special 747SP will rise above most atmospheric water vapor to give the 98.4-inch diameter infrared telescope clear access to collect infrared images from space. The huge telescope can be positioned anywhere in the skies, unlike ground-based telescopes, and between science missions it can be serviced and reconfigured as needed to accomplish world class astronomy.
After a few shakedown flights over Texas, SOFIA will fly to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in California’s Mojave Desert for flight tests combined with integration of its sophisticated astronomy hardware. SOFIA project manager Bob Meyer said the integrated approach will enable scientists to begin making infrared images even before the modified jetliner has completed its flight testing program.
Image right: Christened "Clipper Lindbergh" when it flew for Pan American Airways in the 1970s, the SOFIA 747SP shows evidence of modification to its aft fuselage contours to accommodate a 16-foot-tall opening for a 45,000-pound infrared telescope. This inflight photo was taken on SOFIA's first flight since its modification to become an airborne observatory. (NASA Dryden photo by Carla Thomas)
Pilot Gordon Fullerton's NASA crew for the first flight of SOFIA included copilot Bill Brockett, flight engineer Larry LaRose, and flight test engineer Marty Trout. L-3's flight test analyst Don Stonebrook was also a crewmember.
SOFIA is a joint international effort by NASA and DLR, the German Aerospace Center. In addition to Dryden, NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California's San Francisco Bay area is deeply involved in the science of SOFIA. The entire effort is supported by Universities Space Research Association (USRA), a non-profit group of universities created in 1969 by the National Academy of Sciences.
Additional SOFIA photos can be seen at http://www1.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Photo/SOFIA/index.html
Frederick A. Johnsen
NASA Public Affairs