Teachers Get Ready to Return to Space

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Barbara Morgan is the teacher-astronaut tapped to fly in space in 2004

It was four years ago that teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan reported once again for duty at Houston's Johnson Space Center. The former backup to Christa McAuliffe, tapped to revive a NASA program that still hasn't fully recovered from the Challenger tragedy, was just settling in when a shuttle veteran asked her how her new training compared to her old classroom experience. "It's a lot harder, isn't it?"

Morgan, who has taught elementary school for 20 years, just laughed to herself. "Yes, it did get hard," she says now, recalling the exchange as she prepares to take a seat onboard an upcoming shuttle mission. "And it's hard every day, but it is not harder than teaching."

In 1986, Morgan watched as her friend McAuliffe, the first teacher-in-space, died on the windowless mid-deck of the shuttle Challenger shortly after liftoff on a chilly January morning at Cape Canaveral, Florida. Then in her mid-30s, Morgan was the "substitute teacher" on the high-profile mission that had re-engaged Americans in the fledgling space shuttle program. The cold weather, the shuttle's O-rings and some questionable decisions took the blame for the death of McAuliffe and six others.

The two teachers had grown close in their months of training. Their families were close. McAuliffe had become famous. Even though she wasn't a professional astronaut — the designation was "payload specialist" — she was probably the first astronaut of any kind to become a household name since the early days of moon landings turned Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin into heroes.

McAuliffe, the personable educator plucked from a New Hampshire classroom after some 10,000 teachers applied for the ride, was a big reason Challenger remained so indelible in the public mind for so long. It was like a Cinderella story with a Brothers Grimm ending. After the tragedy, NASA shelved the Teacher-in-Space Program — it was a bad reminder of its darkest hour — and space exploration receded in the public imagination. Shuttle missions have come and gone; a space station has been built — an engineering feat to rival the moon landings — but often it has seemed that no one is paying attention. The agency hopes that Morgan will, like McAuliffe, put a human face on space exploration.

Even after the Teacher In Space program was suspended, Morgan initially kept the post-flight speaking schedule that had been set for McAuliffe. She continued to stress the importance of space and of education. Morgan believed the program had performed an important service in the years following the release, in 1983, of the damning assessment of public education "A Nation at Risk." NASA's program linked her own profession with that of astronaut, a job that everyone acknowledged was veritably Olympian, and she was not going to let that association fade.

"Christa McAuliffe was a fabulous representative of education, and represented what good teaching and good teachers are all about," Morgan said Tuesday, meeting with reporters for the first time since NASA announced she would fly sometime after all the scheduled assembly work is wrapped on the International Space Station in 2004. "By giving Christa that opportunity, and the rest of us teachers that opportunity, people got to see what it was really like in classrooms.

By 1998, when the program was revived and Morgan packed off to astronaut school, NASA had a good reason to revive that association as well. The space agency's work force is graying at an alarming rate. "Our under-30 population at NASA is about a third of that of our over-50 population," says NASA"s new administrator, Sean O'Keefe. "Just looking at the actuary tables tell you we need to think very proactively. We need to recruit, and we need to recruit earnestly." The decline of interest in math and science in grades K-12 has long threatened NASA's long term viability.

In 2004 Morgan will be an exceptionally old rookie at age 52. She may not get many flights, so she wants to make the most out of this opportunity. And that means the flight cannot become a simple memorial to Christa. "I won't be fulfilling Christa's mission, but helping carry it on," she says.

Her job description, though nearly two decades old, is still a bit soft. She will spend much of the next two years working on the curriculum she will develop from the mission, and how best to get related materials into the classroom. There are a lot of tools, from IMAX cameras to the Internet, that were not around when McAuliffe trained. O'Keefe said there will be other educator-astronauts, and everything Morgan does from this point on will be precedent for teachers to come.

After her first tour of NASA ended with the Challenger explosion, Morgan and husband, Clay, a writer, resumed their normal life in McCall, Idaho, where they raised two sons while she continued to teach. But would life ever have been complete for her? Did she spend those years after Challenger wondering what could have been before NASA called her back?

"Teachers are patient and persistent," she says. "I never felt I ever waited. I've worked. That's what you do...When the day finally arrives, it arrives. And it's not something you think about everyday."

She does not know if her flight will be a two-week shuttle flight or a six-month tour on the space station, but "wherever I'm assigned, that's where I'll be." To her, it will be the continued "exploration of the universe" that matters most.

And no, she has not forgotten the danger.

"Yes, it is a risky business, but you do everything you can, in your training and in the design and in the testing and in the multiple reviews that go on to minimize those risks," she says. "Once you make that decision, you do exactly what all the astronauts do — you go forward with a happy heart."

And soon, besides teaching history, she will making it.