Mission Report



Mission Report

"NASA 714 Heavy Jack, you are cleared for take-off on runway 8 south"

by Steve Kliewer


Phase I: KAO

Friday, August 4,1995

My wife, Judy and I arrived at Honolulu International Airport at 11:20 am HST after a 5-1/2 hour flight from San Francisco. The ocean was painted in iridescent shades of blue and green. The sky was a deep blue and everywhere the vegetation was a lush green with liberal splashes of vibrantly colored flowers. It was warm and humid (actually drenching). This was a dramatic change from the morning.

We had left Fresno at 6:00 am PDT on a 30 passenger turboprop airplane for a 35 minute flight to San Francisco. The sunrise over the Sierra was outstanding and the views of the valley were fascinating. However, the entire bay area was blanketed in a uniform fog layer and nothing on the ground could be seen until just before touchdown.

In San Francisco we changed to a Boeing DC-10 wide-body jet holding about 400 passengers. During our acceleration down the runway, I tried to imagine the air racing over the wing faster and faster until there was enough less air pressure on the top that the air on the bottom could lift this massive aircraft off the runway. I could only marvel that airplanes really do fly.

On takeoff, rising through the fog layer again, we quickly lost sight of the ground. A few miles out over the Pacific the fog dissipated and the rest of the flight was over a beautiful blue ocean speckled here and there with whitecaps and coated with small puffs of cumulus clouds arranged neatly in rows far below us. The pilot informed us that our cruising altitude this flight was 34,000 feet.

As we made our final approach for touchdown, I was surprised and excited to see the Kuiper Airborne Observatory parked in front of a hanger in what later turned out to be the military part of the airport, called Hickam Air Force Base.

Once we arrived in Honolulu we checked into the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. This is a superb resort. It is a complete village of shops, services, and entertainment; and is right on Waikiki beach. Paths wind between buildings amongst lush vegetation, waterfalls, palm trees, Koi pools, & even penguins.

During check-in, Judy and I were met by another observer Steve Cox and his wife, Ruth. Steve Cox is the observer from the Rotary Clubs that sponsored a large part of this trip for Jean Roberts and I. Jean Roberts, my partner in this team, was due to arrive later this evening.

Once we had checked in we made contact with the NASA representative, Edna DeVore, and arranged a preliminary visit with the Investigators on the KAO that afternoon. After a beautiful drive through Honolulu on Interstate highway H1 we were admitted through security onto the base. It is a beautiful base with old but well maintained buildings, some of which still show the scars of aircraft gunfire during the Japanese invasion.

When we arrived at hanger 13, only the ground crew was there. They were busy replenishing the on-board liquid helium supply, testing the flight systems, and slowly warming and drying the telescope from that morning's flight. The normal mission schedule allows for a mission every other night.

The crew was most helpful, allowing us to climb all over the aircraft, sit in the pilots seat on the flight deck, look in the telescope compartment and generally make like tourists and take lots of pictures.

Shortly after this the scientists (known as Investigators) arrived and after introductions they were most eager to explain to us what they would be attempting to do on tomorrow night's mission. There were actually two groups of investigators on board, each group with a different but complementary objective. The first group, from the University of Wisconsin, had selected objects in the southern sky, and therefore would observe during the first half of our mission while we flew westward. The second group, from Harvey Mudd University, would then take over during our return (eastward flight) for observing their objects in the northern skies.

Both groups, although differing in specific techniques, and in the details of their expectations were seeking answers to, essentially, the same questions: "How do galaxies form and evolve?" "What is the shape and chemical structure of our own galaxy?" Chemical abundances are the fossil record of the evolution of a galaxy. Studying our own galaxy is like trying to study a whole forest from one location within the forest. "You can't see the forest for the trees." Visible light is absorbed by all the dust here in the plane of the galaxy. The very thing we want to study prevents us from seeing very far. Infra-red light (IR) is not absorbed by the dust and therefore allows us to see much more distant objects as long as they are radiating IR. It turns out that hot new stars forming in the middle of dust clouds cause the dust to radiate IR. The specific wavelengths of IR that are radiated, tell us much about what the dust is made of. However, after making the journey across the galaxy, Infra-red light is strongly absorbed by the water vapor in the earth's atmosphere before we can get a chance of seeing it.

Thus the KAO. It flies at an altitude above 98% of all of the earth's water vapor. Even though the telescope is relatively small, and operating expenses are high, it is the best alternative to satellite based IR observations. Compared with satellites it is much cheaper and more easily updated and repaired. Mauna Kea, at 14,000 ft is the next best alternative for ground based IR observations. After the KAO flight I spent an evening observing with an astronomer at the IR observatory, UKIRT, on Mauna Kea.

When I mentioned that I was planning to conduct an experiment to measure the relative Cosmic Ray intensities at various altitudes, the Investigators were quite interested. It turns out that cosmic rays are the main source of background noise in their IR detectors in the telescope. It was their thought that having a simultaneous measurement of this source of interference would allow them to get greater accuracy in their data analysis. I was asked to provide them the results after my analysis. I was tickled pink.

After a long, friendly visit with the Investigators, we went off to dinner with another astronomer whose job this mission was "Tracker". His responsibility was to correctly identify the star-field and make sure that the telescope was properly aimed at the correct objects. He had just returned from an observing run at the Cerro Telolo observatory in the Chilean Andes. Transportation, housing, and weather problems are all "par for the course" with astronomers. I had a fascinating visit with him.

We finished dinner by 11 pm local time. This was a very LONG day. We had gotten up in Fresno at 4:30 am and were now returning to our room at 2 am (Fresno time).

Saturday, August 5, 1995

We returned to the KAO for a 1 pm briefing. This is mandatory for everyone, and is a good chance to meet everyone. The briefing was a quick, no-nonsense meeting where last minute problems are brought up and solved.

Jim McClenahan is the Mission Manager (i.e. Top Dog on this deployment). He is an easygoing friendly type, which is good since I still need clearance to set up my Compact Cosmic Ray Telescope (CCRT). As soon I can I set up the CCRT and show it to Jim. He asked several questions concerning flammability, hazardous chemicals, dangerous gases, and shock resistance. I showed him how I planned to mount it and that I needed access to a 110 VAC outlet for my power supply. I was instructed that all power must be turned off and all loose items must be stowed during take-off and landing. He finds an engineer and we take it out to the plane and find a secure out-of-the-way location and mount it there. I am so relieved. I have spent a great deal of time, money, and emotion on this experiment and it has hinged on this moment.

After the briefing we are fitted for oxygen masks. On aircraft flying up to 41,000 ft oxygen masks must be readily available to all personnel. Above 41,000 ft they must be worn at all times. Each one of us receives a mask that is individually inspected, tested, and adjusted for us. These are full military style oxygen masks and are strange looking devices designed to be worn over the headphones and microphones that we will be wearing.

The navigator has not yet completed the final flight plan. There is a gaggle of pilots and Investigators hovering over him as he works on his notebook computer figuring in the latest wind speed predictions, and tweaking the lengths of flight legs (straight sections of flight paths) to shift observing times for individual Investigators or to maximize observing legs and minimize "dead" legs.

We return to the hotel for dinner and rest. I don't get much of either. I am far too excited.

Take-off is scheduled for 9:20 pm HST and we return to Hickam in time for the regular mandatory pre-flight meeting at 8:00 pm. We are issued copies of the final flight plan, crew manifest, and the Investigators work plan. I start the CCRT to obtain baseline sea-level measurements (about 10 counts per minute).

During the briefing Jean and I are invited to ride during take-off on the flight deck with the pilots. This is extraordinary, beyond my wildest expectations.

Everything is at a feverish pitch. I run out of time to complete my baseline measurements and am quickly ushered forward to the flight deck where we are quickly seated, buckled in and our headphones are adjusted so we can listen to the tower as well as the pilots. The pilots quickly and professionally go through a checklist and start the engines. Everything is done in a relaxed, light manner but without any wasted motion. After checking the control surfaces and getting a go-ahead from the flagman we begin to taxi, and taxi and taxi some more. Finally we turn off the taxiway and stop. After what seemed a long wait I hear the tower "NASA 714 Heavy Jack, you are cleared for take-off on runway 8 south." Soon we pull onto the runway and immediately the engines ramp up to full scream and we are hurtling down the runway. The time is 9:15 pm, 5 minutes ahead of schedule. As we quickly pull up, all of the lights of Honolulu and Waikiki are spread beneath us. We bank right (south, out to sea) and Jean and I are craning our necks to see the cities. Shortly, I look the other way and suddenly notice the full moon above us and it is circled by a delicate pale ice-ring and surrounded by stars. In spite of the moon, the stars are sharper, brighter, and more beautiful than I have ever seen them before. This is understandable but none the less surprising and wonderful.

Soon we run out of lights and I am feeling the need to start taking data so Jean and I return to the main cabin with the Investigators. I quickly set up the CCRT and begin to take data. Wow! I am overwhelmed by the rate at which the counter is saturated. Immediately I suspect damage or misadjustment. I recheck all connections and voltages, and observe the instrument's operation. It becomes clear that the equipment is operating perfectly. It is just that the intensity is much higher than I expected. My heart falls back out of my throat and I quickly rethink my data collection plans. Instead of integrating and counting for 30 minutes, I decide to simply measure the time needed to fill the counter (256 counts).

Meanwhile, the Investigators are also having problems. They aren't getting the signal they expected. First, there is still a little high level water vapor above us at 37000 ft that is probably absorbing much of the signal. Second, they are unsure that the telescope is tracking on the correct object. Third, the detectors are undergoing some sort of unexpected oscillation and may not be calibrated properly.

After carefully eliminating each factor, performing a myriad of tests, the investigators become convinced that the expected signatures of ionized oxygen and carbon are either not present or are much weaker than expected. Only later analysis will tell for sure. This may have direct consequences on current theories of stellar and galactic evolution. In any case it will strongly affect one researcher's doctoral thesis and he is quite sober and thoughtful after this.

Most of the mission their data collection is a repeating series of: acquire new object, select filter and wavelength, integrate (while chopping), nod, store data, and repeat. Since the signal is always so weak compared to the background the optics are set up such that the Infra-red detectors are rapidly "chopped" back and forth between receiving light from the object and a patch of empty sky next to it. This allows the tiny signal to be distinguished accurately from the overwhelming noise or background. However, because the background at the nearby patch is not necessarily exactly the same as at the object itself, the whole telescope is "nodded" over so that the chopping is now done between the object and a patch of empty sky on the opposite side of the object. The assumption is that as long as the background varies linearly, then this will most accurately eliminate it.

Sunday, August 6, 1995

The night quickly settles into a pattern, shifting between my data collection and watching theirs. With 8 investigators on board, the chatter over the intercom is hard to follow. Since the noise level of the aircraft is extremely high, it was necessary that each of us wear headphones to block out the noise and to allow us to listen to the intercom system. Each of us has a microphone. But since there was only one intercom channel, I leave my mic off most of the time so that I don't interfere with the investigators.

As the investigators settle into a routine they invite Jean and I to participate in their data collection. We are assigned the duty of monitoring the strip chart recorder and making notations upon it. This provides a sort of log of what was done throughout the mission and is the key to identifying the appropriate data that is being recorded simultaneously on mag tape. At this time we get the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about the meaning of all the displays, how the equipment works, and what the results probably mean.

The intercom system is disconcerting to use since there is no clue to who is talking. Someone could be at my shoulder, talking directly at me and he would sound just like someone in the rear of the plane talking to someone completely different.

The crew this mission consists of: a pilot, co-pilot, & flight engineer on the flight deck. A mission director, telescope operator, tracker, computer operator, 8 investigators, 4 observers from FOSTER, and one equipment engineer. Twenty people in total. A full house.

The 8 investigators consisted of two teams plus NASA co-investigators. The first team was made up of Ed Churchwell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and his grad. student, Andrew Afflerback, who's doctoral thesis is based on this research. The second team consists of Alex Rudolf, a professor at Harvey Mudd College; and his under-grad students, Travis Norsen and Nemo Nicholas. Both teams are supported by NASA scientists, Ed Erickson, Mike Haas, & Sean Colgan.

The FOSTER team consists of Edna DeVore, a teacher employed by the SETI institute to coordinate this project; Steve Cox, an observer from Rotary, our sponsor; Jean Roberts & I.

As time passes, the plane uses enough fuel that we can change our flight level in steps from 37,000 ft to 39,000 ft and finally to 41,000 ft. This gives me the opportunity to get good data at three different altitudes. This leaves me nothing, however, for intermediate altitudes. Near the end of the mission, I prepare to take continuous measurements during our descent for as long as I can. However, the investigators need every last second they can get on the last calibration leg and when the pilots start our descent it is sudden and steep. They immediately require me to shutdown and buckle in. Oh well!

Fifteen minutes later (4:50 am) we are on the ground, parked, power off, and unloading. I intended to take some more baseline measurements, but normal procedures have turned off all power and everyone is speedily packing up and leaving. The 7-1/2 hour flight throughout the night has been exciting and has gone fast. But, I am quickly coming down and feeling fatigue overwhelm me also.

We quickly return to the hotel, I barely take a shower and quickly fall asleep and sleep till noon. My internal clock is thoroughly confused by the time zone change as well as my odd hours of late.

After I recover a little, Judy and I have a day to be tourists and take in a polynesian magic show, an excellent dinner and the polynesian cultural center. Wonderful choices, it was marvelous.

Phase II: Mauna Kea

Tuesday, August 8, 1995

After taking monday to sightsee, Judy & I flew to the Big Island. It was a beautiful day to fly and Moloka'i, Maui, & Lana'i were beautiful. However, as we landed at Keahole Airport near Kailua-Kona, I was fascinated yet disappointed by the desolate moonscape appearance. This area was covered by a'a lava flows. Nothing green, no lush plants, or flowers were to be seen.

I wanted to see volcanoes but not everywhere, all the time.

As we drove south into Kailua it started to become more lush. It turned out that farther south and on the east side of the island, especially near the current active volcanic vents it is an extremely lush rain forest, at least where the lava hasn't covered it yet.

We checked into the Royal Kona Resort, a beautiful hotel right on the beach-- correction: rocky shoreline. I set up the CCRT and took baseline readings in the hotel. The readings were somewhat low. I wonder if that could be due to shielding from the floors above me? I will research that later.

Tomorrow: Mauna Kea

Wednesday, August 9, 1995

First thing, I rented a 4-wheel drive Isuzu Trooper from Harper's, a company that advertises as "The only way to the top." Apparently this is due to the fact that all other rental companies specifically prohibit driving on the "Saddle Road" which is the "only way to the top."

The Big Island of Hawai'i is the top portion of an immense shield volcano. This means that it doesn't have steep sides but that it rises at a gradual but steady rate up to two separate peaks. Mauna Loa, the lower (13,677 ft) and southernmost of the two, is currently inactive but expected to erupt again soon. Low on its southern flank is the currently active vent named Pu'u O'o near the immense caldera of Kilauea. Mauna Kea, the highest peak at 13,796 ft, is considered extinct and is the site of a collection of the world's premier observatories. The Keck I and II are the world's largest optical telescopes.

The United Kingdom Infra-red Telescope (UKIRT) is housed here and tonight we are scheduled to observe with John Davies, an astronomer from England during the first part of his observing run.

I loaded the equipment in the rear cargo area of the vehicle and strapped it down so that I could readily access it from the tail gate without having to reset it each time.

We began driving inland up highway 180. It rose rapidly though lush vegetation, into the clouds and a light misting rain. Thirty-five miles later we turned onto the saddle road and have risen to an altitude of 2800 ft. We stopped and took measurements for about 30 minutes and enjoyed the peaceful, rolling, green, & grassy countryside.

We drove another 19 miles to an elevation of 6600 ft and stopped in the middle of an immense dark reddish-brown a'a lava flow that was overlain in places by a grayish pahoehoe lava flow. Both, obviously had originated from Mauna Loa far to the south.

We were now above the clouds, the rain had stopped but it was quite windy. Again we took about 30 minutes of data, enjoyed the wide view, and then continued. Soon we turned left onto "Burns Way" and after driving 9 miles we arrived at Hale Pahaku at an elevation of 9500 ft.

Hale Pahaku is the astronomer's mid level base camp. It is like a hotel, except that the guests sleep during the day instead of at night. All astronomers using telescopes on top of Mauna Kea are required to spend one full day at Hale Pahaku, acclimating to the extreme altitude, before doing an all-night tour of duty at the top. In our case we would only spend part of the night at the top and were required to acclimate at Hale Pahaku for at least one hour.

We took another half hour of data, met John Davies, our host for the evening, made plans to continue to the top in order to see the summit while it was still sunlit, return to Hale Pahaku to meet with John again and then return to the summit at sunset.

Immediately above Hale Pahaku, the good highway that we had followed so far suddenly becomes a dusty, unpaved, windy, extremely steep route up the face of the mountain. I quickly had to put the vehicle into 4WD-Lo in order to negotiate this road.

At this elevation there is little or no vegetation anywhere to be seen. The landscape is steep and desolate; a uniform reddish-brown, jagged moonscape. Six miles of this and we reach an intermediate level where the road changes anomolously to a superhighway and proceeds another 4 miles to the very top of the mountain where sparkling observatory domes ring the crater.

We drove directly to the Keck observatory. At this point I was so excited that I forgot I was on top of MK. I jumped out of the 4WD and started to run over to see if the visitor center was open. I quickly realized that was not a good idea as I began to feel lightheaded and decided to stop and take time to just breath. The view was superb. We were literally "on top of the world."

After quickly touring the Keck gallery, and slowly walking around taking pictures I moved the 4WD into the sun and began taking data again. The temperature at this elevation at 4 pm was near zero Celsius. We both were having second thoughts about tonight's observing run.

Time quickly ran out and we laboriously returned down the road, back to Hale Pahaku. It turned out that through a misunderstanding we had missed John and he had already left for the top. We turned around and arrived at the top again near sunset. John gave us a quick tour of the telescope and the control room.

Apparently a ritual, everyone steps outside just as the sun sets to watch the outstanding show and hopefully to catch sight of the "Green Flash". It was a beautiful sunset, but just a hint of green was visible this time. While waiting for the sun to set, I looked the opposite direction and saw Mauna Kea's strangely triangular shadow stretched across the world below with a full moon boldly shining above Mauna Loa in the distance. It was a marvelous sight!

We quickly returned to the warm control room as the evening wind picked up and began this night's observations. Normally, John shares the dome with but one other person, the telescope operator, who's job it is to aim the telescope, make sure it is pointing at the correct object and that it tracks that object smoothly. Initially, there is a flurry of activity as the team hurries to test the system on a few known objects for calibration and verification and then to start the observation of their first new object.

Initially the incoming data must be compared to what is expected, tested, and parameters changed in order to be sure that the data is real, and relevant. After this period of confidence building, the astronomer settles into a routine, letting the equipment collect ample data before changing filters or moving on to a new object. Although the pace slows, the astronomer is constantly watching the data, and rechecking to make sure that the data is still good. The night passes quickly.

Judy & I have a long drive ahead of us and by 10:00 pm we excuse ourselves and start down the mountain. We are cautioned to use parking lights only until we are out of sight over the edge of the crater. It is a beautiful moonlit evening. The stars are so sharp and close and it is frigid! We don't tarry long.

Thursday thru Saturday, August 10-12, 1995

The next three days we explore the island. We take a "Circle Island Deluxe", 1-1/2 hour helicopter tour. This is in a 6 passenger ASTAR touring helicopter. The tour is superb, originating at Keahole airport, flying over the northern slope of Mauna Loa (at 10,000 ft) dropping down for extraordinary views of Kilauea caldera and then the currently active Pu'u O'o vent. We saw a "skylight" where the roof of the main lava tube had collapsed allowing us to see the red-hot lava flowing beneath the expanse of recently cooled lava crust on its way to the ocean. Farther down the slope we could see the surface flow slowly but inexorably overrunning the rainforest. Individual trees being bulldozed down and burning as they are slowly covered. While circling for a better view, I saw a brilliantly colored rainbow corona formed tightly about our shadow in a cloud beneath us.

The tour continued, flying north along the lush eastern coast, over Hilo, and along the gorgeous Hamakua coast. Near the northern tip of the Island, we crossed the primitive Waipio valley and then explored an even more remote valley called Waimanu valley. This is a steeply-sided flat-bottomed valley carved into the abruptly cliff-edged side of the island. Several streams make sheer drops of 300 to 400 ft into this valley. We flew alongside one of these majestic waterfalls. We then proceeded up the Waipio valley over Waimea and back to Keahole airport. We were speechless! This was the best!