‘It just sets off all my nerd bells’: 3 Santa Clarita science teachers chosen for NASA mission flight

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Three science teachers from the William S. Hart Union High School District have been chosen to fly on the world’s largest airborne observatory.

Marisa Heflin, Shelley Turski and Stacy Wade-Robb were selected to board NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Teachers across the country applied for the opportunity in November, and 30 were chosen as a part of a collaboration with the nonprofit SETI Institute.

“To actually be able to see the science we’ve been teaching for years being used in real situations, with real scientists, it just sets off all my nerd bells,” Turski, a teacher at La Mesa Junior High, said. “I go crazy for all that stuff.”

Officially named Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors, the teachers will fly on a converted Boeing 747 sometime in the fall of 2021. 

“They fly up in stratosphere, so up above most of the atmosphere,” Heflin, a teacher at Arroyo Seco Junior High, said. “They use it to study a variety of different things in our universe … the birth and death of stars, for nebulae.”

They’ll spend a week training in Palmdale, working out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

“We, I think, have to go through sleep training because the flights are overnight. They’re 10 hours long,” Heflin said.

The teachers were scheduled to fly on two missions aimed at conducting research submitted several years in advance by scientists representing the world’s leading universities, the school district explained in a news release. Once the missions are complete, the teachers will return to the classroom with curriculum provided by NASA that they will share with students.

“The biggest excitement for me is to just being able to bring it back to my students and share that,” Heflin said.

“I work at a Title I school in Santa Clarita,” Turski said. “These are students that don’t really get much exposure to things beyond your traditional schools. I’m really excited to bring that to them, to encourage their interest in STEM careers.”

About a dozen of their colleagues have gone on the mission before them in previous years.

“One teacher was there when they were first able to verify that there is actually water on the moon,” said Wade-Robb, who teaches at Rio Norte Junior High.

“Others have said that you can look down, out the window, and you’re seeing the aurora borealis from above,” Turski added.

The three say they’re grateful for the opportunity.

“Go STEM! Women in STEM! It’s really cool that we’re three women that got chosen from Santa Clarita,” Wade-Robb said.

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