Two suburban women to work with NASA on astronomy program

Teacher and former teacher hope to encourage exploration

Going where few have gone before, two Northwest suburban women will spend a week working with NASA on scientific missions this spring.

Mundelein's Marcella Linahan and Long Grove's Lynne Zielinski will participate in the space agency's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program. They'll comprise one of 12 two-person teams from 10 states.

After training in California, they'll fly high-altitude missions on NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Called SOFIA for short, it's a modified Boeing 747 jet that's equipped with a large telescope to study objects in space that are visible in infrared light.

The program is scheduled for April and will last one week.

“Excited” doesn't begin to describe how Linahan and Zielinski feel about the opportunity.

“Being selected for this flight is an honor,” said Zielinski, 57, a retired science teacher at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook. “(It) means an opportunity to work directly with astronomers in the field on real-world data.”

Linahan, 50, a Carmel Catholic High School science teacher, is similarly thrilled to be working with NASA.

“Who doesn't want to be an astronaut when they are a kid?” she said. “I am passionate about bringing authentic science experiences to my students.”

Zielinski and Linahan talked to the Daily Herald about the upcoming experience in separate email interviews.

They know each other through volunteer work at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., and applied for the program as a duo.

It's not either woman's first interaction with NASA.

Linahan and her students worked on a project for NASA involving data from a space telescope.

Zielinski was involved in the original Teacher in Space Project in the 1980s and was one of Illinois' finalists. Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire was the first teacher selected to fly in space. She was among seven crew members who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.

Zielinski eventually applied for astronaut candidacy and worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston in the early 1990s. An airplane accident that impaired her vision ended her astronaut hopes.

“This opportunity allows me to get closer to becoming (an astronaut),” said Zielinski, who also sits on the board of directors for the National Space Society.

Both women are enrolled in a 10-week online course to prepare for the program. They'll be assigned a partner astronomer and a mission objective within a couple months.

On their SOFIA flights, they'll gather data at altitudes ranging from 39,000 feet to 45,000 feet, according to a Carmel High news release. That's above the water vapor in the Earth's atmosphere.

“I hope to gain real insight on how authentic science research is conducted by professionals,” Linahan said.

Zielinski is eager to share her experiences with students and teachers through outreach programs offered by the Yerkes Observatory and the National Space Society.

“I want to bring that sense of exploration and the adventure of it to students to help them to do challenging things,” she said.

Since the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program launched a few years ago, 31 educators have flown missions aboard SOFIA, according to Carmel's news release.

Both women see their participation in the NASA program as an opportunity to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics — often abbreviated as STEM by educators — as career choices. They also realize some young women interested in scientific careers might see them as role models because of their participation.

“I hope this experience inspires all students to pursue careers in STEM and (to) participate in projects that promote STEM careers,” Linahan said.

Marcella Linahan
Lynne Zielinski
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