How does the universe work?
That’s what one Fairview Heights man is helping to discover.
As one of 12 NASA research pilots for the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, Craig O’Mara has a pretty unique job. He flies a 747SP, named SOFIA, on 10-hour missions to help scientists study the universe above the atmosphere.
SOFIA is the largest flying observatory in the world, and scientists aboard study chemical composition of the universe, the birth and death of stars and the inner workings of the Milky Way galaxy.
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“We’re adding to the knowledge of the universe, and that’s kind of neat,” said O’Mara, 63. “These are not engineering missions — they’re pure science research missions.”
An Air Force veteran, O’Mara’s day job is as a captain for United Airlines. He and his wife, Susan O’Mara, estimate that he’s spent four or five years of his life in flight.
But he says he wouldn’t do anything else with his life; he loves flying too much. O’Mara has wanted to be a pilot since he was 10, and he learned to fly when he was 16.
He flies two or three missions a month with NASA, and works at United the rest of the time. In between, he teaches at a flight school.
He’s worked with NASA for about a year and a half, traveling around the world on different missions. His last mission was to New Zealand, where scientists learned about a distant object in space that NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft will pass in 2019.
“This research isn’t going to be used to build a better mousetrap,” O’Mara said. “It’s research for the purpose of gaining knowledge ... and learning information about how the universe works.”
SOFIA’s mission is to fly higher than 99 percent of the water vapor, giving scientists clearer photos of space with their telescope, which is 100 inches across. The side of the plane opens, almost like a garage door, to allow scientists a better view.
Most objects the scientists study give off most of their energy in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, according to NASA. Ground-based telescopes detect limited amounts of infrared because the atmosphere blocks it. Getting up above the atmosphere, as SOFIA can do, allows scientists to make observations that are impossible to make from the ground.
As a research pilot, O’Mara’s job is rarer than an astronaut. There are only 12 of them, compared to the 80 or so astronauts employed by NASA. Of those who applied for the position four years ago, he was one of the few pilots with enough flight time.
“People have never heard of us, but there’s seven or so times more astronauts than SOFIA research pilots,” O’Mara said. “So we’re a pretty rare breed.”