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The City Journals

Science teacher to share his dream flight on NASA trip with his students

Apr 01, 2021 02:21PM ● By Julie Slama

Hillcrest High science teacher and robotics coach Clief Castleton, who has been selected to fly on NASA’s SOFIA this fall, discusses with robotics mentors about the robotics team. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

When Hillcrest High science teacher Clief Castleton boards a flight into the stratosphere, he won’t be alone. 

While he will be with NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) scientists and 29 other educators, he hopes to be joined by hundreds of students he has taught in his science and math classes and advised on his robotics teams and in the Technology Student Association.

“I want to bring every student’s name with me on a flash drive so they can be part of this extraordinary opportunity,” he said. “They’re why I’m a part of this.”

This means boarding a flight on SOFIA, a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 106-inch diameter telescope, which is the world’s largest flying observatory. There, Castleton, as an Airborne Astronomy Ambassador, will be able to observe and interact with scientists and mission crew members. 

The 10-hour flight is dependent upon COVID-19 restrictions, but it is tentatively scheduled for fall 2021.

While the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador application process began this past winter when Canyons School District’s Instructional Supports Teacher Specialist Leslie Allen let all middle and high school science teachers know about this program through their AAA partnership with the SETI Institute, for Castleton it began years earlier.

In a 2013 career and technical education conference, he heard a keynote speaker talk about his experience on SOFIA and “I knew at that moment, I had to get on that airplane,” Castleton recalled. 

As the keynote continued to talk about the requirements, Castleton kept checking off the list and noted skills he had in sync with the program—he teaches astronomy, math, engineering, robotics and physics, he speaks German, and he has a desire and passion for astronomy. However, the speaker didn’t have a connection for Castleton to board the plane immediately, but he kept in touch with him about the project’s funding.

That led to an eventual meeting between Canyons School District and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, which houses the NASA-funded ambassador program that was created to bolster U.S. student interest and achievement in STEM, about an AAA partnership. The partnership also is required for the program. 

One of the main questions was about the costs involved. “They said the only cost to the school district is for a substitute for teachers who would be gone a week in the fall,” Castleton said.

While Castleton’s connection helped pave the way for the opportunity, “it didn’t help me be the one selected to go; it was independent of it.”

Castleton took his time on the application, which included essay questions explaining why he would be a good choice to be part of the program, detailing his teaching strategies, how this would benefit his teaching, how this would be incorporated into his curriculum as well as his personal and professional astronomy interests. He submitted his application in late January and was told he would know by Feb. 12.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, I’ve waited eight years so I can wait a bit longer,’” he said, but he didn’t have to wait that long. “On Feb. 4, I saw an email that said, ‘Congratulations’ and I just started jumping; I was ecstatic. Until they released the information (on Feb. 25), I couldn’t tell anyone —well, I told my wife. I was just on cloud nine, and I still am.”

Castleton’s passion for astronomy began in his teenage years on a Boy Scout camping trip in Southern California where he learned to recognize the constellation Orion.

“I learned to pick it out and then, I started asking, ‘What’s up there?’ I’m a scientist, but a romantic at heart. I’m fascinated with space. I’ve always wanted to go into space the more I learned about astronomy from the Egyptians, Chinese, Mayan, Aborigines, Greeks, Romans and everyone who has studied it. It’s an innate human question to ask, ‘What’s up there?’ It spans history, cultures, geographers and it draws humanity upward,” he said.

Castleton wasn’t the only Canyons School District teacher selected. Corner Canyon High science teacher Milo Maughan also will join Castleton as well as educators from middle and high schools and community colleges from across the United States.

In the fall, the two will travel to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center Hangar 703 in Palmdale, California, where ambassadors will go through their intense week-long on-site training before their trip on SOFIA. Once aboard SOFIA, they will be able to see images from the massive reflecting telescope used to detect light sources from the depths of space.  

SOFIA, a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center, is maintained and operated from NASA’s fight center in California. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley manages the program, science and mission operations in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Maryland.

Their first experience with the program began with a March 11 webinar. 

Through monthly webinars, asynchronous content learning and hands-on curriculum workshops, Castleton will learn curriculum and gain equipment that he can incorporate into his classes.

“As part of the Ambassador program, I am enthused and engaged in what STEM can bring to students and I can bring them the perspective I gain,” adding that he hopes the connections he makes will help his students in their goals. “What I can bring to kids is the experience. It may be that spark of interest for our kids that may result in one day, one of them will go reach the stars or walk on the moon someday. That would be so rewarding to me—to see one of my students go on and be a part of something in this direction. For me, I already touch the future when I teach. It’s more of a legacy than if I were an astronomer.”