Seeing the Big Picture

From earliest times, human beings have pondered their place in the universe. They have wondered whether they are in some sense connected with the awesome and immense cosmos in which the Earth is imbedded....

Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection


Our voyages are made on a photon's back. Before us lies the cosmic landscape, and our goal is nothing less than the origin of life, earth, sun, stars, galaxies, universe.

Michael Rowan-Robinson, Our Universe: an Armchair Guide


I must up in the skies again, for the call
of the Stratosphere,
Is a wild call and a clear call that I
shall always hear;
And all I ask is a jet stream with low
water vapor,
And a bright source with some broad lines
for a grad student's paper
Jim Cockrell, Kuiper Airborne Observatory crew member


Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him, and calls the adventure science.

Edwin Hubble (thanks to Roger Stryker and Dan Lester)


Earth's atmosphere is essential to life. This ocean of fluids and suspended particles surrounds Earth and protects it from the hazards of outer space. It insulates the inhabitants of Earth from the extreme temperatures of space and stops all but the largest meteoroids from reaching the surface. Furthermore, it filters out most radiation dangerous to life. Without the atmosphere, life would not be possible on Earth. The atmosphere contains the oxygen we breathe. It also has enough pressure so that water remains liquid at moderate temperatures.

Yet the same atmosphere that makes life possible hinders our understanding of Earth's place in the universe. Virtually our only means for investigating distant stars, nebulae, and galaxies is to collect and analyze the electromagnetic radiation these objects emit into space. But most of this radiation is absorbed or distorted by the atmosphere before it can reach a ground-based telescope. Only visible light, some radio waves, and limited amounts of infrared and ultraviolet light survive the passage from space to the ground. That limited amount of radiation has given astronomers enough information to estimate the general shape and size of the universe and categorize its basic components, but there is much left to learn. It is essential to study the entire spectrum rather than just limited regions of it.

Relying on the radiation that reaches Earth's surface is like listening to a piano recital with only a few of the piano's keys working. Although many things can be learned about our universe by studying it from the surface of Earth, the story is incomplete. To view celestial objects over the whole range of the electromagnetic spectrum it is essential to climb above the atmosphere into outer space.

NASA Space Based Astronomy

These words introduce the motivation and the methodology for the research done aboard NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO). Operating the KAO requires a dedicated team of researchers, astronomers, computer and telecommunications experts, pilots and aircrew, electrical engineers, navigators, ground crew and many more. For 20 years, the KAO has made breakthrough discoveries concerning planets, comets, stars and galaxies. Now, for the first time, you and your students have the opportunity to take an electronic field trip aboard the KAO via interactive video and computer networks.

This Teacher's Guide is designed to offer you a secure place from which to take off and land. And--in between--to offer you wings to fly your own course, providing a wide menu of possibilities which you can customize for your specific circumstances--the subjects you teach, the students you work with, the technology to which you have access.

The KAO is a noisy environment, but its headsets are designed so those onboard can communicate clearly. Throughout this Guide, you'll find sidebars full of the voices of the men and women who articulate the Kuiper spirit: enthusiastically exploring scientific frontiers, using state-of-the-art technology to help answer some of the grandest questions to confront humans.

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