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The Pre-Flight Briefing

Activity 2B: Inside the KAO


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To construct a 1/80th scale model of the interior of the KAO, or lay out a full-scale mock-up in your classroom or auditorium.

Ask if any students have flown in an airplane or seen the passenger section of an airplane in a movie. Give students time to describe how it looked. Then ask how how that kind of airplane would have to be modified to hold a large telescope.

Explain that this activity introduces the interior of the KAO. The "electronic field trip" will be linking students on the ground to astronomers and aircrew, and to a teacher and a high school student, working in this area.


  • copy of activity 2B, page 35
  • ruler
  • measuring tape
  • large area at least 50 feet by 8 feet
  • chairs and tables

Procedure Distribute the activity sheet to students. Ask them to look over the floor plan and imagine how big the inside of the airplane really is. Then tell them that the class is going to make a full-size mock-up to see just how crowded conditions are for the astronomers and aircrew up there in the KAO. If your room is too short for the whole cabin, create just the mid-section, where the astronomers operate their equipment and the Mission Director and Telescope Operator sit--the area shown in the photograph on this page.

Assign different students or groups to calculate the sizes of different sections of the cabin. Each area or item should be measured with a tape-measure or ruler. The size is multiplied by 80 to calculate the real size. Once all the dimensions are known, students can create the full-scale mock-up using classroom furniture.

Explain to students that designers make scale models to show how a new aircraft or building will look. Assign students to read the sidebars from Telescope Operator Juan Rivera on-line or in this Guide, or the comments from Mission Director Wendy Whiting about what it's like to fly on the KAO.

videoonline NASA is currently planing the follow-on aircraft to the KAO, known as SOFIA, for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Students will see graphics and wind-tunnel tests in the videos. There's additional background in this Guide and on-line. Have them research what will be the same and different between the KAO and SOFIA, and explain.

Interdisciplinary Connectionvideosocial studieslanguage arts symbol

Scale modeling is a fundamental skill in science, mathematics, and engineering. Encourage students to make either the 1/80th scale model or collaborate in the full-size mock-up.

If you have built the mock-up, you may find it interesting to have students break into groups, study specific short sections of the videos (such as when the KAO team "uncage" the telescope and begin observation, or move from one astronomical target to another), and write their own scripts for a re-enactment of the activity in the mock-up. If they've seen Apollo 13, they might enjoy being part of a science and technology team, consciously striving to work together towards a goal. Have them check out the Mission Glossary for some of the terms they might need to use. If there's a Challenger Center close-by, consider a trip: many stage simulations of missions to Comet Halley, which was also studied by the KAO.

KAO Connection

Discuss with students what they think it would be like to do astronomy inside the KAO. Do they think it would be crowded? From the photo on the page, what else is it? (It's very noisy--notice everyone wearing head sets!) They should pick up a lot more anecdotal information from the videos, and on-line from the Field Journals to be found there.


QUESTION: What are the washrooms like on KAO? Is it just like going to the washroom on a regular plane?

ANSWER: from Jesse Bregman, Astrophysicist, NASA Ames

There is one washroom on the KAO which is similar to the ones on a regular airplane. It is not quite as fancy as on a commercial plane, but it is just as small.

Inside the KAO

map of the interior of the KAO
The diagram shows the interior of the Kuiper Airborne Observatory. Note the telescope mounted between the cockpit area and the astronomer P.I. (principal investigator) areas.

In this floor plan,

  • 1 inch = 80 inches or 1 cm = 80 cm.
  • The 36 inch wide telescope mirror is 0.45 inch wide in the drawing.
  • To make a full-scale mock-up of the KAO cabin, measure all of the areas in the floor plan. Multiply each area by 80. Then layout the full-scale version in a large open area.
  • You can use real chairs for cabin furniture in your mock-up.
  • For a three-dimensional model, cut out this floor plan and place it inside a paper towel tube. Cut a hole for the telescope in the side of the tube. Mark the locations of doors on the outside of the tube.

the crew

These researchers are working at the telescope controls. The photograph is looking back from the telescope area toward the rear of the plane.


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