- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

RICHARDSON, Texas (AP) - Richardson High School teacher Diane Watson set down her lunch when the classroom phone rang.

She jumped at the news. Then she took one more swig of iced tea and raced upstairs to George Hademenos‘ classroom.

He saw stars in her eyes.

The Dallas Morning News (https://dallasne.ws/1aGGH57 ) reports Hademenos and Watson are among 12 pairs of educators selected nationwide to participate in NASA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program this spring.

Hademenos is a physics teacher, while Watson’s expertise is in special education. They’re the only ambassadors from Texas.

“When we said we were like thrilled over the moon, we’re not kidding,” Watson said.

The pair are headed skyward, but not in a rocket.

In April or May, the teachers will go on two flights aboard a modified Boeing 747 named SOFIA, short for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The airplane carries a 17-ton telescope and flies at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, just above commercial aircraft and water vapor in the atmosphere.

To prepare, teachers will take an online graduate course in astronomy. As NASA ambassadors, they’ll help scientists with research involving the detection of heat coming from space objects.

Though teachers won’t need a spacesuit for that, they’ll wear NASA’s iconic blue flight jackets embroidered with their names.

“These are cool!” Watson said as she pulled up a photo on her tablet computer.

The jackets serve a practical purpose. Telescope instruments are chilled to 4 degrees Kelvin, Hademenos said. That’s about 450 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

For perspective, zero degrees Kelvin is “absolute zero,” or the temperature at which particles stop moving.

The science teacher’s resume is a constellation of awards and training, including a doctorate in physics and a 2011 NASA workshop. He used what he learned in that workshop to guide students through an experiment.

Students launched a weather balloon with a payload that included a camera and a GPS tracking device. A week later, Hademenos retrieved the balloon from a deer hunter about 76 miles northeast of Richardson.

The camera captured images of the Earth’s curvature, to the delight of Hademenos and his students.

A second attempt was disappointing, as the balloon got lost.

“You know, that’s science,” Hademenos said. “I wish everything worked out the way it originally goes, but it doesn’t. And that’s a lesson that’s more than a science lesson. It’s a life lesson.”

Retired principal Charles Pickitt, who helped the Richardson teachers apply to the NASA program, sees in Hademenos and Watson a visionary and a pragmatist.

“It’s an unlikely team, but the more I listened to them talk in my office to me, they both have the same passion for the same kids,” he said.

Hademenos knows Watson not only as a colleague but also as the mother of a former student, Daniel Gelband. While in college, Gelband had an internship with NASA and now works as an avionics engineer for rocket maker SpaceX, his mother said.

“His level of knowledge, it almost was beyond me,” Hademenos said about an email exchange with Gelband. “And that to me is very pleasing, to know that you sparked something in a student that is now doing incredible things.”

Charles Bruner, the new principal at Richardson High School, knows teachers need a spark, too.

“You always want to allow them to continue to grow,” he said. “Teachers are lifelong learners.”


Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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