NASA researchers say goodbye to ‘flying laboratory’ at the Ames Research Center

Chris Scofield and Mike Gaance of Ames Research Center say goodbye to NASA’s venerable DC-8 Flying Laboratory as it makes one final flight at Moffett Field, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, in Mountain View, California. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

For many NASA scientists, flying aboard a decked-out Douglas DC-8 aircraft gave them a unique view of Earth: Easter Island’s Moai, New York’s Central Park and Italy’s Mount Vesuvius.

On Wednesday, some of the same scientists who worked on that “flying laboratory” watched as it made one last flight over the Ames Research Center in Mountain View before its retirement.

Reem Hannun, an atmospheric science researcher, attended the flyover with her two children before taking them to school. As the twins played around the trees and commented on the big plane flying so close to the ground they could see it, she remembered how she started at NASA doing science and reading field measurements in the plane.

“It’s just cool to see all these different measurements of the composition of the atmosphere, and it’s a great community to be a part of, and you get to travel around the world doing science,” Hannun said.

The aircraft, owned by NASA, was one of seven DC-8 aircraft still in service internationally. Thomas Matthews, chief operating engineer for the aircraft and chief mission director, said NASA operated the aircraft for 37 years, but the aging aircraft had to be replaced as it became increasingly difficult to maintain. A new Boeing-777 will replace the DC-8, which is being retired at Idaho State University’s aircraft maintenance school in Pocatello.

Jhony Zavaleta, a project manager at the Earth Science Project Office, said he doesn’t normally have to fly the plane on missions, but he took every opportunity he could to climb aboard. He recalled one of the plane’s many flights over Antarctica between 2011 and 2017, calling it the “most amazing landscape you could see.”

The flight was part of Operation IceBridge, which aimed to continue collecting polar ice data while NASA switched satellites. Zavaleta recalled seeing mountain ranges and glaciers as far as the eye could see.

“I have never seen something so beautiful, (and) so inhospitable at the same time,” Zavaleta said. “It was quite fun, it was like being on another planet.”

The plane was originally a passenger plane for Alitalia, Italy’s former national airline, and changed hands to Braniff International Airways before eventually being sold to NASA for use at the Ames Research Center in 1986, Matthews said.

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