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Nichelle Nichols, also known as Uhura from the legendary Star Trek series, is taking on a unique NASA mission. The accomplished actress, who is now 82, confirmed the arrangement on Reddit during an AMA session.

“Due to my unexpected position as a role model on television for minorities in space, I was asked by NASA to help in a highly effective campaign to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency,” said Nichols.

“People I recruited include Sally Ride, the first woman in space, Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, and Charles Bolden, the current NASA administrator.”



Nichols will be a passenger on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a vessel equipped with a powerful telescope that is designed for thorough investigation of the Earth’s atmosphere, comets, shiny stars and outer space. The flight is officially scheduled for September 15, 2015. Unfortunately, the aircraft does not actually go into space. But it does get very close.

“SOFIA does not, sadly, fly into space,” explained Nichols.

“It’s an airborne observatory, a massive telescope mounted inside a 747 flying as high as is possible. I was on a similar flight, the first airborne observatory, back in 1977. It’s an amazing experience, you get a totally different perspective than from Earth. I do hope someone gets some great pictures.”

The 20-year Project

With help from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), NASA hopes to keep operations going on the heavily modified 747SP. Inside the aircraft is a 17-ton telescope that measures eight feet long. It is mounted on a 16-foot sliding door that can be opened during mid-flight, while observing the skies. The plane’s ability to hit the edges of the atmosphere is a huge plus for scientists. When it’s not being used on a mission, the crew can repair, upgrade and clean the telescope.

The Boeing 747SP is nothing like the thousands of commercial 747s flying around the world. It goes faster, higher and can stay in the air much longer (roughly 12 hours). NASA specialists have taken some very intriguing shots from the mobile observatory- images that cannot be replicated using an average telescope. This is because SOFIA flies at around 45,000 feet over a layer in the sky that holds most of the water vapor on Earth. The dense air affects infrared light, which can obscure views from the ground.


What about Satellite Telescopes?

The robust plane also boasts some advantages over space satellites. Such machines are stuck in orbit and lack flexibility to change directions and paths. Having control over the positioning of the hub has let astronomers participate in numerous special events. NASA is pushing the boundaries of space observation with the SOFIA vessel. The project is filled with achievements, milestones and successful experiences for the global aeronautics company.

“A preliminary examination of the first light data shows that the images are in fact sharp enough to enable cutting-edge astronomy,” said Alfred Krabbe, Director and scientific head of DSI in a press release. “Now at last, the fun begins.”

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