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Utah teachers selected for NASA flight to the stratosphere

Posted at 11:11 PM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-27 01:11:03-05

MIDVALE, Utah — Two Utah teachers have been selected to board the flight of a lifetime, on a plane that will carry them all the way to the outer edges of Earth.

It's part of a NASA-funded program that aims to increase student interest in STEM, and the teachers beat out educators across the country to secure their spots.

They'll be bringing what they learn in the stratosphere, back to the classroom.

The noises of tinkering tools and chattering students filled Clief Castleton's classroom at Hillcrest High School on Friday afternoon.

With T-minus one day to a big robotics competition, students made last minute tweaks to their moving metal creations.

One team's robot was ready to go. Students fed it soft, foam donuts. The robot then launched the donuts across the room.

But the second team's robot was still very much a work-in-progress.

"Why are we wiring this?" one student asked, with wires of various colors all askew.

Castleton walked over and stood next to the group, as plastic and metal parts lied scattered across the floor.

"Just finish what you're doing," he said. "We'll get there."

Castleton teaches mathematics, robotics, engineering, and a design tech program. He said he enjoys passing his passion on to the kids because he sees it as teaching the future and hope of America.

The room was abuzz with nerves and excitement, not just because of the competition but for something far beyond this weekend's tournament.

Castleton's students just learned that their robotics teacher will be taking a flight that nearly reaches outer space.

Sophomore Brayden Bacigalupo talked about the fun news that came on the heels of the NASA Mars Perseverance Rover successfully landing on the Red Planet.

"Just amazed that we were able to get something from NASA," he said.

It's a dream that Castleton explained he's been working to pursue for eight years.

Castleton and Corner Canyon High teacher Milo Maughan were two of 30 teachers selected from applicants across the country for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program.

Maughan described how, as part of the program, they will spend the summer completing remote trainings and webinars with NASA. Then this fall, they'll immerse themselves at a NASA astronomy research facility for a week.

As part of that trip, they'll fly on a NASA plane called SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). Maughan explained that SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP modified to carry a giant infrared telescope in the back.

It looks at infrared radiation he said, that doesn't make it down to the surface of Earth. That's why the plane has to reach the stratosphere, so it can peer deep into the depths of space at that radiation.

Maughan described the plane as looking like a Star Trek bridge inside-- no traditional seats, but various consoles manned by scientists who are working and typing as the telescope is getting observations.

He said it'll be an amazing and cool experience.

"It's a privilege to be able to represent Utah," he said.

The pair of teachers will also bring equipment and a special curriculum back to their students.

"When I can bring this back, and be like, 'I've been on SOFIA. I've interacted with these scientists and we looked at this information'-- it's going to make it more real for them. And just make that experience more richer," Maughan said.

Maughan and Castleton could end up with front row seats to exciting new discoveries. Castleton talked about how on a past fight, researchers discovered water on the Moon.

He can't wait to see what his flight on SOFIA is like.

"I think when I get up there, and we're so high above any light sources, anything else and we can really see.... ahhhh, it's going to be great," he said. "It's going to be amazing."