Science in Action with Mr. Killebrew on the SOFIA mission

Jeff Killebrew, NMSBVI science teacher and friend, Mike Shinaberry, Education Director at the Space History Museum in Alamogordo, NM, had the incredible honor of being chosen to participate in the SOFIA mission this past September. Each team of two chosen for the SOFIA program includes at least one educator.  The mission of SOFIA since its inception in 2011 has included an outreach to the public through the inclusion of science educators, as well as science museum and planetarium educators.  The goal is that those chosen will reach hundreds of thousands of people across the nation and the world.  I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff about his experience and am confident that the SOFIA mission will excite both you and your students with science in action! In this blog post, I will provide both information about his experience and other space-related resources that will allow your students to experience space in a new way.  

What is SOFIA?

SOFIA stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.  The Boeing 747SP utilized for the mission carries a large telescope, the largest telescope used on an airborne observatory.  The telescope housed on the airplane makes use of infrared technology.  As infrared light is not visible to the human eye, special instruments are necessary to view the data.  Jeff compared these instruments, so vital to the SOFIA mission, to the equipment that students with visual impairment use to observe the world around them.  In the same manner, Jeff contemplated, making science accessible for students with visual impairment requires adaptations to clarify concepts. 
The flying observatory reaches heights of up to 43 km and traveled almost 5,000 miles round trip each evening!  This is like traveling from Los Angeles, CA to NYC and back in one evening.  The flights that Jeff participated on flew from Los Angeles, CA to the Arctic circle and back each evening!
Jeff was honored to have been on the flight with a very special lady, Nichelle Nichols.  She played the role of Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek and played an important role in the tumultuous time of the late 1960's and early 1970's. They even videotaped a "shout out" to students from NMSBVI and all students with visual impairment around the country.   

How can Jeff's experience on the SOFIA mission be used to motivate students and interest them in science at work?

Students will be fascinated by the idea of a telescope on a plane flying in the stratosphere.  The following are some simple ideas of what can be shared with your students.  
  • Make a comparison of the height the plane reached (43 km or 26 miles) to a city about that distance away from your location. Explain that the plane flew to that height in order to reach a height above most of the water vapor surrounding the Earth. This was necessary because water vapor absorbs infrared light and the infrared telescope aboard collects data at infrared wavelengths.  Infrared light has longer wavelengths than visible light.  The astronomers aboard are unable to see light in the infrared spectrum, but view the data using specialized instruments.  
  • Using the APH tactile graphic world map take students on a quick trip from LA to the Arctic Circle and back.  Explain that this was the route that the SOFIA mission flew (in one night!)  
  • Show students the video of the SOFIA mission from YouTube  It is only a little over 6 minutes long.  Jeff recommends a large screen if you have one available.
  • Read Jeff's blog:

  • Some students will be interested in researching protostars and star-forming regions after watching the video.  


orion compared on screen
orion visible tactile imageorion ir tactile image
Diagram of mini-spiral inflow, center cluster and circumnuclear ring

The following are several excellent resources produced by NASA and others.  Develop an awe in your students for the universe by exposing them to it!  

Consider sending your students to Space Camp.  They'll NEVER be the same!  See related blog at

Please note that files to create these tactile graphics are attached below.

space science collage



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