Mr. Killebrew standing in front of the SOFIA aircraft.

Science in Action with Mr. Killebrew on the SOFIA mission

Overview of the SOFIA space mission and making astronomy more accessible to students who are blind or visually impaired

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.   

Using the SOFIA mission 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.  

orion compared on screen
Orion image comparing constellation with infrared view
orion visible tactile image
Embossed image of Orion
orion ir tactile image
Embossed image of infrared view of Orion
Diagram of mini-spiral inflow, center cluster and circumnuclear ring
Left: SOFIA/FORCAST mid-infrared image of the Milky Way Galaxy’s nucleus showing the Circumnuclear Ring (CNR) of gas and dust clouds orbiting a central supermassive black hole. The bright Y-shaped feature is believed to be material falling from the ring toward the black hole that is located where the arms of the “Y” intersect. Right: HST/NICMOS near-infrared image showing the same field of view with the same scale and orientation as the left figure. At this wavelength, opaque dust in the plane of the Milky Way hides features that are seen in the SOFIA image. In contrast, the stars in the HST image emit mostly visible and near-infrared light and so are not seen in the SOFIA mid-infrared image. Extra opacity due to especially dense concentrations of dust in the CNR produces patches of apparently lower star density in the near-infrared image.


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.

Download files below to emboss on Tiger embosser.

By Laura Hospitál

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