Tauranga-based House of Science chief executive Chris Duggan will never forget flying 13km above planet Earth watching enthralled as an international team of astronomers gathered data from distant suns.

She and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges were among nine VIPs on the joint venture Boeing 747 that deployed an infrared sensitive telescope once it reached the Earth's stratosphere.

The jet took off from Christchurch Airport at 5pm on Friday, crossed into a time zone that put them into Thursday and then landed 10 hours later at 3am on Saturday.

"We time travelled," she quipped.


The former chemistry teacher was in her element on the converted commercial airliner, which was mothballed in an American desert until Nasa gave it a second life.

"It was very complicated stuff. It was mostly people sitting behind screens gathering data from the far reaches of our galaxy and beyond."

The aircraft flew above the infrared-blocking water vapour that enveloped Earth. Mrs Duggan had been concerned that 10 hours in the air could become a bit tedious but instead the time flew by and she really loved it.

"There was so much going on and I had so many questions to ask that I did not even think of going to sleep. It was so cool."

The flight completed 10 tasks lasting from 30 to 90 minutes. Using the science of spectroscopy, the telescope picked up different wave lengths of light which told scientists about the chemistry of particles that surrounded stars.

"It was fascinating - the educators were constantly talking about what was going on."

Without naming names, Mrs Duggan said there was a range of different backgrounds among the guests so not everyone managed to stay awake.

The plane flew south in a huge arc until it was closer to Antarctica than New Zealand and then returned to Christchurch.

The only discomfort was that the interior of the aircraft had to be kept at a chilly 10C to 12C for the instruments to operate successfully. There was also very little moisture at that altitude so they "worked hard" to stay hydrated.

"It wasn't so bad for an hour or two, but it gets to you after a while."

The branch of Nasa is based in Christchurch for two of the winter months each year so scientists can collect data from stars observable in the Southern Hemisphere.

The thing that impressed Mrs Duggan most was realising how much chemistry was involved in astronomy.

"I was blown away by how this was a working model of chemistry in action."

She took videos of astronomers answering questions submitted by the Gate Pa and Te Puke primary schools that she would be playing to the classes.

Mrs Duggan said the invitation from Nasa came out of the blue and made her daughter, an air crash investigation student in the United States, very jealous.

Only a couple of flights took VIPs during its two months of studying the heavens above the Southern Hemisphere. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)
- Uses a converted 40-year-old Boeing 747 owned by Nasa
- All astronomical instruments owned by a German scientific team
- Flies up to 4km higher than commercial flights
- Fitted with gyro-stabilised 2.7 diameter telescope
- Four data-gathering flights a week
- Only one of its kind in the world