QUEENS — A Jamaica teacher is getting a rare opportunity to fly with NASA and take closer look at space with the world's largest airborne telescope.
Melissa Aguirre, 32, an educator at J.H.S 217 Robert Van Wyck, is one of 28 teachers in the country selected for a prestigious program to travel and work side-by-side with NASA's astronomers this year.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity,” said Aguirre, who holds a master's degree in education from Harvard University and has worked at the Jamaica school for about a year.
Those chosen for the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, which seeks to encourage scientific literacy and STEM education, often come from schools in underserved areas, according to the program's website, and don't need to have scientific backgrounds.
The selected candidates will go on two 10-hour overnight science missions between June and October in Palmdale, CA., on NASA's "Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy," or SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747SP jetliner, the government space agency said.
The "flying observatory" carries a telescope that's one hundred inches in diameter — the largest airborne telescope in the world, according to NASA.
The plane flies at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet within the stratosphere.
Participants will use infrared light "to study the formation of stars and planets; chemistry of interstellar gases; composition of comets, asteroids and planets; and supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies," according to NASA.
Educators will work with NASA's team to follow various stages of scientific research, "from preparations to observations to data analysis and publication," NASA said in a statement.
But before that, the teachers will complete an online 4-month graduate-level astronomy course from Montana State University.
"Not only are these educators witnessing scientific research first-hand, they're seeing the wide range of professional and technical expertise needed to support that research, from engineering to technology to mathematics," said John Gagosian, SOFIA program executive, in a statement.
SOFIA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program was launched in 2010 and has since flown 55 teachers from the U.S. and eight from Germany.
Aguirre, who currently teaches English Language Arts and English as a Second Language, applied for the program with her former colleague, Jacqueline Fernandez-Romero.
The two educators submitted their proposal nearly two years ago when they both worked at the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy in Washington DC, which trains young people to become medical assistants and IT technicians, said Aguirre, who grew up in Kew Gardens and currently lives in Jackson Heights.
After completing the program, she will work on launching a STEM club at her Jamaica school and collaborate with its science teachers to implement her experience into classroom lessons and presentations.
“We were always looking for opportunities to collaborate with the STEM sector,” she said.