By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Twin Cities teacher has been chosen to fly on a NASA aircraft that is collecting data from space.

Chelen Johnson is a science teacher at Breck School.

She is one of 26 teachers chosen to fly on SOFIA — a specially retrofitted 747 which flies at 50,000 feet with its door open, exposing its high-powered infrared telescope.

This week, the teacher her kids call “Mrs. J” is in her classroom at Breck School.

But next week she will be 50,000 feet above the Earth on NASA’s SOFIA aircraft.

“I am so excited to be a part of this,” she said. “I am not sure how I am going to be able to contain myself. We will be flying above 99 percent of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere, so we have a very clear image of what’s in space.”

A spokesperson for NASA says the process of choosing which teachers out of more than 500 applicants would get to fly on SOFIA was highly selective.

A key factor — the teacher candidates’ written proposal of how to bring what they find and learn back to their kids in the classroom.

“I am pretty excited because my students will have access to the actual data not just pretty pictures that we made,” Johnson said.

SOFIA’s ability to maneuver gives it an advantage over Earth-based and even satellite-based telescopes.

“That is what is unique about SOFIA, you can make on-the-fly adjustments if you have to,” Johnson said.

NASA says the goal of the teacher program is to broaden the appeal of science in U.S. schools.

“We will be able to make science more accessible to all students,” Johnson said.

Mrs. J says that is always her goal — something her students say has helped shape their lives.

“I wasn’t even sure what astronomy was and I ended up loving the work that we did and this year I ended up pursing an independent study with her in astronomy,” Senior Melissa Clark said.

Johnson leaves Monday for SOFIA’s base in Palmdale, California. She will go through training and then will take part in two 12-hour nighttime flights.

Esme Murphy

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