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Published in Print: February 5, 1986, as Finalists Knew of Risks on 'the Frontier'

Finalists Knew of Risks on 'the Frontier'

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“This is still the frontier,” says Michael W. Metcalf, one of 10 finalists in the competition to become the first teacher in space. “Pioneers have always taken risks, and all of us reached for those risks gladly.”

“I’d go tomorrow if they’d let me,” adds Niki Mason Wenger, another finalist whose support for NASA’s teacher-in-space project remains unshaken despite the worst disaster in the history of the space program. “Especially now since the accident, it’s more important than ever that we [continue efforts] to explain aerospace as our future.”

Mr. Metcalf, a government and geography instructor from Hardwick, Vt., and Ms. Wenger, who teaches gifted and talented students in Parkersburg, W.Va., are among eight finalists who took this year off from teaching to work for NASA in promoting links between education and space exploration.

Both teachers expressed personal grief at the loss of Sharon Christa McAuliffe and the six other crew members of the space shuttle Challenger. Last summer, before Ms. McAuliffe was chosen for the mission and Barbara R. Morgan was designated as her back-up, the 10 candidates had trained together at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Since then, the group has kept in close touch, writing a curriculum together and coordinating the lesson plans that Ms. McAuliffe was to teach from space.

Based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, Mr. Metcalf has spent most of this school year addressing groups of educators on what he calls “a three-fold agenda”: the need not only for improved mathematics and science education, but for a “holistic approach” in applying other disciplines to the problems of space, and for an international perspective.

“Some of the kids in our classrooms today will be the first Martians,” he explains. “They’ll need to know how to problem-solve and answer questions in … space law, space economics.”

The everyday problems of social interactions will be of as much concern in space as on earth, he predicts, adding that Ms. McAuliffe, also a social-studies teacher, shared this view.

“I agree very much with Christa’s philosophy that history should be taught as a chronicle of the people, not of battlefields or political campaigns,” Mr. Metcalf says, citing her emphasis on the experiences of women pioneers crossing the plains in Conestoga wagons.

Ms. Wenger has also traveled widely to speak on behalf of the space program. Until the shuttle accident put the manned space program on hold, she was working on plans to link experiments on future missions to classroom instruction, via public television and computers. One example was a planned observation of Halley’s Comet next month.

As a teacher with a special interest in gifted and talented students, Ms. Wenger has been investigating ways to channel their abilities into space-related activities. “These skills need to be recognized and nurtured rather than squelched,” as often happens, she says. One potential project would involve “mentorships” with space scientists.

Mr. Metcalf and Ms. Wenger maintain that all participants in the teacher-in-space project were conscious of the considerable risks of space flight, even though they were seldom discussed.

Exhilaration and Risks

During the project, Ms. Wenger says, “Christa was exhilarated and happier than she’d ever been. She achieved her dream and she died accomplishing it.”

In interviews since last summer, Ms. McAuliffe frequently minimized the dangers of her upcoming mission, on one occasion describing it as safer than “driving around the New York streets.” But her life-insurance company apparently disagreed, canceling her policy after she was selected for the flight.

A week before the accident, Corroon & Black Inspace, a Washington firm that specializes in insuring space equipment and astronauts, gave Ms. McAuliffe a $1-million personal-accident policy.

“We donated it as an act of goodwill, to show our appreciation for her and our support of the teacher-in-space idea,” said Gail Granato, an assistant vice president of the company.

Other Finalists

Following is a list of the eight teacher finalists and a description of their work at NASA facilities:

Kathleen Anne Beres of Baltimore, Md., is working at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., producing video tapes of research processes at NASA laboratories.

Robert S. Foerster of West Lafayette, Ind., is assigned to the Lewis Research Center in Cleveland, where he is helping NASA distribute materials through the National Diffusion Network.

Judith Marie Garcia of Alexandria, Va., has worked at NASA headquarters in Washington and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., producing materials on the work of space scientists, engineers, and technicians and coordinating launch conference support.

Peggy J. Lathlaen of Friendswood, Tex., is based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where she is involved in curriculum development and setting up a mentor program.

David M. Marquart of Boise, Idaho, has been working at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., on an electronic networking system and has edited a newsletter for the 114 state finalists in the teacher-astronaut competition.

Michael W. Metcalf of Hardwick, Vt., is assigned to the Goddard Space Flight Center, Md., and is developing a teacher resource center in Vermont.

Richard W. Methia of New Bedford, Mass., serves as a liaison at NASA headquarters with the Young Astronaut Organization.

Niki Mason Wenger of Parkersburg, W.Va., is based at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where she serves as a link to organizations devoted to educational programs for gifted and talented students.

Vol. 5, Issue 21, Page 11

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