Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)



SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) Education and Public Outreach emphasis on the AAA (Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) program

The Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program is a professional development program for formal and informal educators involving partnerships with scientists & engineers, astronomy content training, SOFIA research flight experience & subsequent E/PO “ambassadorships” for NASA.

Overarching goals:

  • Enhance STEM education in communities across the U.S.
  • Support NASA’s goal of inspiring the next generation of explorers.
  • Contribute to public understanding of the value of scientific research.

Planned outcomes:

  • Educators achieve better understanding of the scientific research process.
  • Educators convey this understanding to students, colleagues, and fellow citizens.

Program design:

  • Ambassador teams consisting of two educators each are selected to fly on SOFIA via annual national calls.
  • Applications are peer-reviewed, judged on basis of the Ambassadors’ plans for post-flight education and public outreach efforts in their home communities.
  • Ambassador educator teams are partnered with science teams and trained to understand astrophysics research projects conducted using SOFIA.
  • Ambassador teams are supported for 2 years post-flight by SOFIA Outreach to fulfill plans described in their applications.
  • Ambassadors will become a growing on-line support community, accumulating and sharing best practices for implementing NASA-inspired E/PO.

Lead Organizations

SETI Institute




The SOFIA E/PO program is a subcontract from USRA (Universities Space Research Association) to the SETI Institute and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Both institutions have long histories of astronomy education and public outreach work. Their respective subprograms with which SOFIA E/PO has interacted and worked most closely:

SETI Institute:

  • Kepler mission E/PO program: joint presentations of NASA science with SOFIA E/PO at national science teacher meetings.
  • ASSET astrobiology summer teacher workshop: source of teachers trained in “origins” science who are especially well prepared to apply to the AAA program.
  • “Big Picture Science” weekly radio show: broadcast of SOFIA mission achievements and discoveries.
  • Explorer magazine (quarterly) for educators and Institute supporters: publication of feature stories regarding SOFIA mission achievements and discoveries.

Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP):

  • Project ASTRO (scientist / teacher / classroom mentoring): model for the “Earth Partners” (AAA alternative; astronomer – educator local pairings).
  • Universe In The Classroom: developing astronomy curricular materials incorporating SOFIA science results.
  • Night Sky Network: developing astronomy club public outreach materials incorporating SOFIA science results.
  • Astronomy From The Ground Up: developing informal education materials incorporating SOFIA science results.
  • “Mercury” magazine and “Astronomy Beat” on-line newsletter: publication of feature stories regarding SOFIA mission achievements and discoveries.




SOFIA did not fly during all of FY12 to allow completion of observatory (aircraft and mission systems) development. The AAA program was therefore inactive between the end of the “Cycle 0” pilot program and the start of Cycle 1. SOFIA’s level-of-effort (non-AAA) work continued and was recorded in OEPM.

Beyond the interactions cited above, the AAA “SOFIA 6” pilot participants carried out additional 49 E/PO activities reaching 1787 students and 1452 adults. Of adult participants, 524 are teachers. The “SOFIA 6” activities were fostered by NASA via SOFIA. These activities reflect additional leveraging of the original NASA funds.



Effectiveness and Impact

The pilot AAA program met or exceeded most expectations for all six teachers as well as staff of the E/PO program and the broader SOFIA team. Evaluation findings from the “Cycle 0” AAA pilot program are used to inform subsequent Cycle AAA programs.

  • While little time has passed for there to have been impacts on teachers’ career trajectories, there have been small signals of possible impacts, and one major change in a teacher’s career already has occurred. The media attention has garnered higher respect and greater attention from administrators, colleagues and students. Further, one teacher’s role was changed, providing a release period to make SOFIA-related presentations across the school district and to develop STEM career awareness materials for students.
  • As anticipated, teachers encountered important science content knowledge from the experience, as well as witnessing seminal moments for understanding frontier scientific investigation. Teachers valued their first-hand content with astronomy content for their own enrichment but predicted that they will more likely be able to incorporate broader SOFIA-related STEM content in the student instruction (STEM = science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
  • Teachers were quite surprised by and very appreciative of the opportunity to better understand the reality that a very diverse range of personnel are involved in big astronomy, and the varied and sometimes unexpected career paths that lead to various roles. Teachers were struck by the receptivity and helpfulness of the flight personnel, from the more obviously relevant engineers, technicians and flight directors, but additionally from such less-expected conversations such as discussions with the pilots. The ambassadors would appreciate further assistance from the E/PO program in documenting flight team members’ roles and their career and educational backgrounds, for use in student instruction.
  • Astronomers and the broader SOFIA flight teams generally had clearly positive views of the teachers’ participation; none of the flight team survey respondents or scientist interviewees expressed any views of the ambassador program that could be construed as negative. About three-fourths of respondents to the flight team survey were personnel who had interacted with teachers 3-5 or more times during the night, with each person talking to teachers for a total of either 5-10 or more than 10 minutes.
  • All 12 flight respondents (of 28 flight personnel invited to comment) reported being supportive of the idea of having teachers on flights in advance of the pilot, and their view became even more positive after interacting with the teachers on the flight. None of the respondents felt that having teachers on board impeded them from carrying out their functions successfully.
  • The level and quality of most Ambassadors’ outreach activities in the first few months has surpassed the advance expectations of E/PO staff and the broader SOFIA team. Separate from the evaluation report, the E/PO staff can provide documentation that participants actively sought and obtained strong local media attention to their role. Further, three ambassadors have played visible and effective outreach roles in one or two events with the SOFIA platform when the events were located near the ambassadors, at Dryden, Ames and Andrews Air Force Base. Finally, the teacher component of the program was an effective ‘hook’ for gaining national media attention.

For more detail please refer to the attached document:
March, 2012 summative evaluation of the AAA “pilot” program (Word docx) 

Learn more about the history of formative evaluations of the SOFIA mission’s flagship E/PO program, the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors (AAA) : AAA_Evaluation_History.docx

Read sections from the February 2012 SOFIA PM09 E/PO Program Management Plan regarding goals, desired outcomes, performance criteria & evaluations: SOFIA_EPO_goals+criteria.docx 

Summary of the AAA 2011 “pilot” cohort participants and activities: 2013May_AAA_summary (PDF)




NASA-Ames group achievement award for the successful 2011 AAA pilot program.