Teachers go from clouds back to classroom

Hockinson pair who took part in NASA project aboard airborne observatory plan on bringing lessons they learned back to their students

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter

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Two Hockinson teachers came down from the clouds and returned to the classroom this week after catching intimate glimpses of space from the world’s largest airborne observatory.

A week ago, Hockinson Middle School teachers Anna-Melissa Lyons, 43, and Kim Abegglen, 42, had just completed two nightlong flights through the stratosphere aboard a 747SP with a crew of NASA astronomers. On Wednesday and Thursday of last week, the pair spent 10 hours flying at about 40,000 feet above the Earth’s surface and gazing out at distant stars, black holes and other celestial objects through a 2.5-meter-long infrared telescope mounted near the back of the fuselage.

Along the way, the two monitored storms sweeping across Jupiter and took a peek at a spiral galaxy similar to the Milky Way more than 60 million light years away from Earth. All night, they watched and helped the crew coordinate viewings, collect data about distant objects and troubleshoot problems with the equipment.

The trip was part of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy program, which takes pairs of teachers up in the air to study the universe with scientists. Many applied to partake in the excursion, but only 24 teachers were chosen this year, and Lyons and Abegglen are the only participants from Washington.

For the teachers, the most striking part of the experience was the teamwork they saw between the flight crew in the cockpit and the scientists in the fuselage. They were also touched by the enthusiasm the astronomers showed for working with them and a pair of teachers from Medford, Ore., who joined them aboard the plane.

“They’re very excited about doing some good science,” Lyons said. “They were always working together, and they weren’t afraid to admit they didn’t have the answers.”

The scene provided an important lesson for the teachers to bring back to their students, Abegglen said.

“That collaborative nature to problem-solve or to be excited about the different pieces of their work, I think is what I’m going to take back,” she said. “It reinforces for me that our work in the classroom is best done when it is collaborative.”

The whole operation ran like an “orchestrated dance,” Lyons said. The plane took off each day at 7 p.m. from a NASA research center in Palmdale, Calif., flying over parts of Canada and reaching a peak altitude of 43,000 feet at one point before returning at 5 a.m.

The crew usually needs to fly at an altitude of 35,000 to 45,000 feet to get above the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere so the telescope can pick up infrared light waves.

Though the flight plans were mapped out well in advance, the crew still managed to come across some surprises. On the first night, they unexpectedly spotted two of Jupiter’s moons, including Io, the most active volcanic body in the solar system.

Back on Hockinson Middle School’s campus Wednesday morning, the two teachers donned brand new blue NASA jackets as they waited for their students to arrive. Since last week, Abegglen’s students have decorated her classroom with green paper alien heads and handmade signs wishing the two teachers a good trip.

Abegglen enjoys looking back on the diverse educational background of those she met in the crew. To her, it’s a chance to teach her students about the wide range of career options they could have as they grow up.

“They have so many different jobs — science, technology, engineering all a part of them, but a huge range of education,” she said. “We want to just make sure that we encourage young people to keep those doors open, that there’s not just one way to pursue an education.”

Now back in their routines, Lyons and Abegglen are planning to share their story with the community in the coming months. A number of assemblies and special presentations are in the works, and they hope to arrange a field trip for their students to visit Goldendale Observatory State Park soon.