NASA relaunches teacher-in-space program

Posted: April 12, 2002

NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe announced Friday that the space agency was restarting efforts to send educators into space, starting with the runner-up to Christa McAuliffe in the original Teacher in Space competition.

He made the announcement Friday afternoon during a speech at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. The address was billed as a major policy address, but the announcement about flying teachers on the shuttle emerged as the major news from the hour-long speech.

O'Keefe said that Barbara Morgan, a former Idaho elementary school teacher who has trained to be a NASA astronaut, will fly on a shuttle mission after the "core complete" portion of the International Space Station's assembly phase is completed in 2004. An exact date for the flight was not announced.

Morgan had been selected in 1985 as the backup to Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher selected by NASA to fly on the shuttle as part of the agency's new Teacher in Space program. However, the program was canceled after the Challenger was lost in a January 1986 accident, claiming the lives of McAuliffe and the other six members of the crew.

In 1998, when NASA announced that it would fly then-Senator John Glenn on a shuttle mission later that year, the agency also said that Morgan would be selected to become a full-time member of the astronaut corps as a payload specialist, provided she passed the training process. She completed astronaut training and is currently a member of the astronaut corps, but without a flight assignment.

"For the past 16 years, Barbara has worked with NASA and countless science organizations, keeping alive Christa McAuliffe's inspiration. She is uniquely qualified to take our students on a journey of education that only NASA could make possible," O'Keefe said. "The time has come for NASA to complete the mission to send an educator to space to inspire and teach our young people."

O'Keefe said that Morgan will be the first person to fly under a new Educator in Space program that the agency is developing to allow additional teachers to fly on future missions. He said NASA is working in cooperation with the Department of Education to develop a national recruitment program for future participants.

Education emerged as one of three major tenets of NASA's new mission, as outlined by O'Keefe during his talk. The full mission as described by O'Keefe was the following:

  • To understand and protect our home planet
  • To explore the Universe and search for life
  • To inspire the next generation of only NASA can

That mission statement had its roots in a separate haiku-like vision statement, which O'Keefe also announced in the speech:

  • To improve life here,
  • To extend life to there,
  • To find life beyond

O'Keefe said the space agency had a number of major roles it can play, from doing its share to enhance national security to searching for evidence for life beyond the Earth. "I believe we are at the crossroads of NASA's history," he said, with an opportunity to "reinvigorate" the space agency.

Other than the release of the agency's new vision and mission statements, O'Keefe's talk provided few new details on NASA's policy. Many of the points he made in his speech he had made in earlier addresses, such as a talk last month before a Washington aerospace group where he said the agency's two major current technical challenges were developing new propulsion technologies and new ways to protect humans from the radiation exposure during long-duration spaceflight.

O'Keefe reiterated previous statements where he refused to choose a particular destination for the space agency, like the Moon or Mars. "NASA's missions will be driven by the science, not a particular destination," he said. He also added that future missions will be "fiscally responsible", a key point by O'Keefe, who was previously the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. In that same vein, he said that any proposals to enhance the International Space Station with new habitation modules or crew return vehicles were "flights of fancy" until the core complete portions of the station assembly process were completed.

However, he said that the agency would not shy away from challenges and "stretch goals" that have no guarantee of success. "If everything moved along without a hitch," he said, "I'd be suspicious that we were not doing enough."