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Updated: November 02, 2015

David Marasco in front of SOFIA aircraft

Foothill Physics Instructor Flies as NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador

Highly Competitive Program Shares Frontier Science with Educators & Their Students

As a kid, he dreamed of being part of a NASA mission. This summer, Foothill College Physics Instructor David Marasco, Ph.D., donned the iconic blue NASA jumpsuit as his childhood dream became reality.

Three men at tableMarasco is one of only 28 educators in the nation to be selected as a NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador this year. The goal of the one-year ambassador program is to expand professional development opportunities for science educators across the United States.

As an ambassador, Marasco completed a graduate-level course that covered astrophysics and instructional pedagogy then teamed up with professional astronomers conducting science flights aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program.

The flying observatory is a highly modified Boeing 747SP jetliner that carries a 100-inch effective diameter telescope. Fitted with instruments that collect data at infrared wavelengths, SOFIA flies at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet on 10-hour overnight science missions. Marasco, who participated in two flight missions aboard SOFIA in June, will share his observations about the scientific discovery process and its value to society with Foothill College students and community members.

David Marasco in space capsule“It was like Christmas, the Tooth-Fairy and a taco truck all rolled into one! I grew up in the shadow of Apollo and always wanted to be an astronaut. Seven miles up is pretty far from the official definition of outer space, but it’s the closest I'll ever get, and I'm overjoyed to be a part of the program,” he says. “It was amazing to share teaching ideas with instructors who made the cut for this NASA program. You can learn a lot of science from books, but nothing beats sharing with fellow teachers when it comes to new ways of presenting science concepts to students in your classroom.”

The program shows educators the excitement of frontier science, and it shows students of all ages the multitude of career paths within NASA’s programs.

SOFIA aircraft in flight“The program gives science educators a unique opportunity to interact with all facets of a NASA science mission,” says John Gagosian, SOFIA program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “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.”

Positively beaming in photos from his airborne astronomy missions, Marasco is just as excited to share his SOFIA experience with his Foothill students and colleagues. He has also discussed what he learned with high school students who are participating in the college’s summer science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) camps. He’ll share his SOFIA observations with youngsters and their parents at Foothill’s popular Physics Show presentations in January. Tickets for the September 12–13 shows, which are repeats of last January's shows, go on sale in mid-August.

Marasco, who joined the Foothill College faculty in 2004, will teach Foothill physics courses, including PHYS 2A, 2AM and 4B this fall. “Being a physics professor at Foothill is one of the best jobs on the planet,” he says. “I get to work with great students and wonderful faculty!”

3 men at tableMembers of the 14 two-person teams selected for the 2015 program hail from 12 states and the District of Columbia. Marasco, of Redwood City, is one of three California educators selected for this highly competitive program. The 2015 group of Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors joins 55 educators who have participated in the program during the past four years.

A member of the Foothill College Academic Senate, Marasco holds two bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy from UC San Diego, and master’s and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University. His doctoral thesis detailed the use of thin-film X-ray standing waves applied to ferroelectric materials and related surface structures. His research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab and at the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Lab. Since 2011, he has served as president and program chair for the Northern California/Nevada section of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

As for the iconic NASA jumpsuit? Marasco chuckles, “I may never take it off.”

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The observatory is based at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center's facility in Palmdale, California, and NASA's Ames Research Center is home to the SOFIA Science Center, which is managed in cooperation with the Universities Space Research Association headquartered in Columbia, Maryland, and the German SOFIA Institute at the University of Stuttgart. The SETI Institute in Mountain View and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in San Francisco manage SOFIA’s education and public outreach programs.

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