Local educators return to Earth after incredible NASA voyage

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GLENDALE/MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Imagine an English teacher getting the opportunity to chat with Shakespeare. That's sort of like what two Milwaukee science teachers got to experience when they jetted off on a NASA flight! Nicolet High School teacher Kathy Gustavson and UW-Milwaukee Planetarium Director Jean Creighton are back on Earth -- and they're talking about their experience.

Gustavson and Creighton were selected to travel on the NASA SOFIA Flight. SOFIA stands for "stratospheric observatory for infrared astronomy" -- 45,000 feet up, with a huge infrared telescope.

"When I looked out the window it was like, oh my gosh! Look at these stars. They are amazing!" Gustavson said.

Gustavson has been teaching students about star formation and infrared light for years.

Now, she has actually experienced the cosmos.

"Looking out the window and seeing some of the constellations I'm familiar with, it's like oh my gosh! You could just jump right in it. They were beautiful," Gustavson said.

"It was an awesome experience. Truly awesome. When you look out the window at 45,000 feet, you're above most of the atmospheric moisture which absorbs some of the infrared we're trying to capture so everything in the sky looks crisper," Creighton said.

Gustavson and Creighton were part of a 24-person crew that went up with NASA scientists to look at star formation. They helped gather data to see if there are molecular structures that one day may produce other Earth-like planets.

A bonus: seeing the Northern Lights like few people ever see.

"It was awesome. I had seen Northern Lights twice before when they're kind of like a little glow on the horizon. Nice, but you think, 'okay that's Northern Lights, fine' -- nothing like what you see in the movies or on the web. In this case, we saw these beautiful ribbons of color and it's close and I couldn't believe how bright they were," Creighton said.

Gustavson and Creighton will bring their cosmic experience back to Earth to teach others, with presentations at Nicolet and at the UWM Planetarium -- trying to put into words something out of this world.

The SOFIA Flight took off from California and the teachers spent about a week with NASA scientists. They took part in two 12-hour missions with the infrared telescope.