- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - A projected map cuts through the semidarkness of North Medford High School’s planetarium and shimmers into focus on the dome’s curved ceiling.

It’s a flight path, showing planned liftoffs from Palmdale, Calif., on Wednesday and Thursday that will soar over Oregon, Washington, parts of Canada, Iowa and Idaho before returning to base; two 10-hour jaunts with no planned landings.

“Sunset to sunrise, we’ll fly all night,” says Robert Black, North Medford’s astronomy teacher and planetarium director.

But the route isn’t for a typical airplane flight, the kind with a cramped seat and a bag of stale crackers.

Black, 50, along with friend and fellow amateur astronomer Dave Bloomsness, 61, of Southern Oregon Skywatchers, will fly aboard SOFIA - NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy - the world’s largest flying telescope. They are among 24 educators who were selected from across the country for SOFIA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program.

Working alongside astronomers and other scientists, they will collect infrared images and data pertaining to the study of interstellar gases, star formation and destruction, and black holes - all at 45,000 feet in the Earth’s stratosphere, about twice the height for a domestic plane flight. When they return, they will implement classroom lessons and public outreach events based on their experiences.

“It’s a huge opportunity. I’m really excited,” Bloomsness says.

Educators have been taking similar flights since the Ambassadors program began in 2010.

Black says his mentor, Gary Sprague, took a flight in the 1980s aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, a modified C141A military cargo plane that ran research and observation flights from 1975 until its retirement in the 1990s. SOFIA took over in 2010.

“That’s one of the high points of his career,” Black says of Sprague’s flight. “He volunteered to fly. Somebody got sick. It was an accident for him, serendipity.”

The opportunity for Black and Bloomsness did not come by accident, however. It took work and a meticulous application process, combined with weeks of advanced astronomy study.

Black first heard about plans for the Ambassadors program in 1999 while attending a workshop at the NASA Ames Research Center near Palo Alto, Calif.

“They said, ‘Our plan is to allow astronomy teachers and amateur astronomers to fly in a competitive process,’ ” Black says. “You have to apply and get letters of recommendation.”

He listened for information about the program for years and stayed up to date on the construction of SOFIA’s 2.5-meter diameter telescope. In 2010, it was ready. When he heard the program sought pairs of applicants, Black thought first of Bloomsness.

“There’s nobody else. We already worked together. His knowledge of telescopes is vast,” Black says.

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