Teacher eager to fly in space
Posted: April 16, 2002

Barbara Morgan. Photo: NASA
Teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan does not view her role on a shuttle flight in 2004 as the fulfillment of Christa McAuliffe's legacy. Instead, McAuliffe's backup said today, the flight will mark the first step in an ongoing education initiative to attract more students to math, science and engineering.

"I have been asked that question before, 'this will finally fulfill Christa's mission.' And I have to disagree with that because the job of education is never fulfilled," Morgan said. "Every year you have a new group of students, a new generation coming and there's no end point to education. Just like there's no end point to the universe or the kinds of things NASA's doing to explore that universe."

McAuliffe was selected as the first "Teacher in Space" in 1985, selected from more than 10,000 applicants. Morgan was named McAuliffe's backup and the two went through payload specialist training with the crew of mission 51L, the ill-fated final flight of the shuttle Challenger.

Following the Jan. 28, 1986, disaster that killed McAuliffe and her six crewmates, Morgan returned to her elementary school classroom in McCall, Idaho. But she never gave up her dream of flying in space and in 1998, former NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin announced that Morgan had been accepted as a full-time astronaut candidate.

She then went through a year of training and is now a flight-qualified, full-time astronaut.

But Goldin never named her to a specific mission. Then, on April 12, new NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe gave a speech at Syracuse University announcing a new initiative to recruit educator-astronauts and naming Morgan to a still-unspecified mission in 2004.

Unlike the one-shot Teacher in Space program of the Reagan administration, O'Keefe said the new initiative is "a long-term" program in which educator-astronauts will work to excite "this next generation of Americans toward the exploration, missions and tasks that we believe are so important to what NASA does."

"Fortunately we have among our important astronaut ranks someone who has worked her way through all of the initial training requirements and is immensely well qualified to take on the task of the first educator-mission specialist," he said.

"Barbara Morgan was an astronaut candidate in 1998, has worked her way through that successfully, is now in the advanced training efforts and we're looking forward to her first flight shortly after the completion of the core elements of the international space station."

Morgan thanked O'Keefe and said she was excited about finally getting her chance to fly in space. She said McAuliffe's mother, Grace Corrigan, also is "excited and happy and I'm glad for that."

"I know she's calling my mom and saying, 'don't let her do it,'" Morgan joked.

McAuliffe planned to teach two lessons from space aboard Challenger. Morgan's agenda is not yet set, but she said today lessons from space may not necessarily be part of her mission.

"My very first goal is to be a good crew member, part of a team and to help ensure the team meets the mission success," she said. "I have no idea what flight I'll be assigned to, but there will be particular objectives for that mission and my goal is to do the best job I can to be a member of the team to make sure that happens.

"My other goal is to learn as much as I can so I can bring that learning to students and teachers. And of course we'd like to involve as many students and teachers as we can."

Any potential lesson plans will depend on the mission "because it's the goals of the mission that are the most important and I don't particularly see a mission for education," Morgan said. "I see a mission that education is a very important part of.

"It may not be a lesson from space," she continued. "But it will definitely be something where teachers and students are connected and it will tie in with whatever's going on, the primary goals of the mission. One thing that I'm really excited about is ... what happens afterwards. That's what I'm looking forward to the most."

The space shuttle is a much safer spacecraft than it was at the time of the Challenger disaster. But the risks are still relatively high, with a 1-in-483 chance of a catastrophic failure during ascent. Morgan said today she's aware of the risk, but doesn't dwell on it.

"NASA is very concerned about safety and it's No. 1 in everything we do," she said. "And yes, it is risky business. But you do everything you can in your training, in the design, in the testing and in the multiple reviews that go on to minimize those risks.

"My personal feeling about risks is that as teachers, we encourage students to take risks in our classroom. If you don't risk a little bit, you're not going anywhere. ... What we want them to see is people taking justified risks and not risk for risk's sake.

"When you decide to come do something like this, you look at the pros, you look at the cons, you decide is what you're doing important and if it's important, it's worth doing. And I can't think of anything more important than our children and their future and the exploration of the universe. Once you make that decision, you do exactly what all the astronauts do, go forward with a happy heart and you don't dwell on risk. You train for it, you prepare for it but you don't dwell on it."

And with that, Morgan went to work, walking over to the space station mission control center for her shift as a CAPCOM, relaying instructions and comments to the astronauts aboard the international space station. She gave O'Keefe a bit of on-the-job training at her console before settling in for another long day.