Teacher in Space: A Strategy to Widen NASA's 'Civilian' Support
Designed as a showcase for the nation’s resurgent space program, the launching of a teacher into space backfired unimaginably for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration last week with the disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger and the fiery death of its crew.
Announced by President Reagan 10 weeks prior to the 1984 Presidential election, NASA’s “Teacher in Space Project” was initially condemned by educators as a “gimmick” that would do nothing to solve the problems of “schools on earth.”
But long before last week’s ill-fated launch, the project had succeeded in capturing the imagination of tens of thousands of teachers and their students, largely due to the participation of Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the high-school teacher from Concord, N.H.
NASA spent more than $1 million to prepare and distribute educational materials to coincide with the launch and to capitalize on the heightened interest in space that Ms. McAuliffe’s participation was expected to spark among the nation’s youth.
As part of that effort, the space agency hired for one year the eight teachers who had been finalists with Ms. McAuliffe and her back-up, Barbara R. Morgan, and put them to work at speaking engagements and on projects at NASA installations around the country.
It also invited the other teacher-in-space semifinalists—two from each state—to become “Space Ambassadors” along with the finalists, and has paid their expenses for speaking engagements and other presentations about the space program.
“There was definitely a planed program in mind, not just a public-relations stunt,” one NASA official insisted last week.
Launched in 1982
According to NASA officials, the idea of sending civilians into space originated within the agency in 1982, when James M. Beggs, the former NASA administrator, decided that “it was time to get a handle on how the agency might include private citizens” in the space-shuttle program.
Until last week, NASA had hoped to send two or three civilians into space each year, officials said. Recently, the agency invited journalists to apply for a space flight, and the announcement of a third flight opportunity was expected in mid-April.
According to Alan Ladwig, the manager of NASA’s space-flight participant program, the rationale for sending nonprofessional astronauts into space rests on the 1958 charter that established NASA, which called for the widest possible dissemination of information about space-flight experiences.
But critics of NASA charge that the agency was under pressure to include civilians in the shuttle operations to offset the commercial and military aspects of the program.
Also, during the mid-1970’s, NASA had come under severe budget pressure, slowing the development of the shuttle program. The inclusion of civilians was seen as one way of building public support for the program.
A task force established by NASA’s citizen-advisory council studied the issue of civilian participation for a year and a half before it agreed with Mr. Beggs that the time had come to send civilians into space. In keeping with NASA’s charter, it recommended that the civilians chosen should be “professional communicators,” who could best disseminate information about the space program.
The council further recommended three categories of communicators from which the space agency should choose: oral communicators, visual communicators, and teachers, Mr. Ladwig said.
Based on the council’s recommendation, NASA formed in 1984 a space-flight participant program as part of its office of space flight, which manages the shuttle program, Mr. Ladwig said. In April of 1984, a committee composed of several senior NASA officials recommended that the agency choose a teacher as its first civilian in space, he said.
Mr. Beggs “concurred” with the committee’s recommendation, Mr. Ladwig said, and because the decision was “historic,” the White House was given the option of announcing it. The President could have vetoed the idea of sending a teacher into space, Mr. Ladwig said, but instead he embraced it.
White House officials stressed last week that the idea of sending a teacher into space was NASA’s, not theirs. “The project was organized by NASA and the final selection was made by Jim Beggs,” said a spokesman for Richard G. Johnson, assistant director for space science and technology at the White House.
On Aug. 27, 1984, as part of a “major education address” in which he called on schools to raise the scores of the nation’s students on standardized tests, reduce the dropout rate, and adopt tougher discipline measures, Mr. Reagan announced that the first civilian to fly on the shuttle would be a teacher.
“When the shuttle lifts off, all of America will be reminded of the crucial role teachers and education play in the life of our nation,” the President said.
The immediate reaction of teachers’ organizations to the President’s address was hostile.
“We don’t need to send one teacher into outer space,” said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. “We need to send all teachers into their classrooms fully equipped and ready to help students learn.”
But later, as the symbolism of Ms. McAuliffe’s role grew, the hope that her flight would somehow increase the prestige of a tarnished profession took hold among many educators.
The spreading national enthusiasm for the project seemed, in fact, to energize the work of states and special commissions around the nation that were exploring ways to upgrade the status of teachers.
And despite their unions’ criticism, individual teachers quickly to the notion of being the first civilian in space.
Within weeks of the President’s announcement, NASA reported that it was receiving some 400 inquiries a day about the teacher-in-space project.
According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, which NASA engaged to coordinate the search for the teacher to ride the shuttle, some 100,000 inquiries poured in.
Chiefs Go Along
According to Mr. Ladwig, NASA asked the C.C.S.S.O. to coordinate the search because “we needed an organization that had a network in place” that reached into schools in all of the states.
Although among its members were outspoken critics of the Administration’s education policies, the group agreed to help “based on the fact that it seemed appropriate to us to have a teacher to be the first civilian in space,” said George Rush, the director of technology projects for the C.C.S.S.O.
Aided by representatives from six state education agencies, the chiefs developed and distributed application materials for the project. NASA retained veto rights over the materials.
The 17-page application form included essay questions that asked the applicants why they wanted to participate and what projects they would undertake as part of the flight. Such questions were designed to “get a sense of the applicants’ creativity and their ability to communicate,” Mr. Rush said.
“We wanted an effective spokesman for education, and NASA obviously wanted someone who could speak well of their program,” he added.
The lengthy forms, developed in the winter of 1984 and made available to teachers on Dec. 1, were also credited with dissuading all but the most interested teachers from applying.
From the more than 11,000 teachers who had applied by Feb. 1, 1985, each of the 50 states, overseas territories, agency schools, and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools chose two nominees, for a total of 114.
Under the guidance of the chiefs, each of the states and the other entities established procedures for selecting their two semifinalists. Some, like Massachusetts, set up a civilian commission that recommended a half-dozen or so teachers, from whom the state education commissioner chose the final two.
In other states, a civilian commission chose the two semifinalists; in Ms. McAuliffe’s home state of New Hampshire, the commission made its selections from among 74 applicants.
“In our state, we made a definite commitment that whomever we picked had to be an outstanding teacher and also be able to project herself, realizing what they were going to have to do,” said Robert L. Brunelle, the state’s education commissioner.
The week of June 22, 1985, the 114 semifinalists gathered in Washington, D.C., where they were informed of current developments in the space program and met with a national review panel, which chose the 10 finalists.
The 20-member panel was chosen by NASA and the C.C.S.S.O.
Initially, NASA had intended only to select a flight candidate and a back-up. But during the June ceremonies, it dubbed the 114 semifinalists “space ambassadors,” creating a nationwide network of teachers who could promote the goals of the space program.
“That kind of developed afterward, when we realized that we had all of these excellent teachers from all of the states,” Mr. Ladwig said.
Similarly, the agency decided that the eight finalists not chosen for the mission could be useful working at NASA centers around the country. “That also evolved as we proceeded,” Mr. Ladwig said.
Mr. Beggs announced the 10 finalists on July 1, and six days later, they traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a week of medical examinations and briefings about space flight.
Later that month, the finalists visited several other NASA installations.
From July 15-18, the space-flight participation committee interviewed the 10 finalists. It submitted recommendations to Mr. Beggs, who selected Ms. McAuliffe as the flight candidate and Ms. Morgan as her alternate.
On July 19, Vice President George Bush announced their selection at a White House ceremony attended by Mr. Beggs, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, and the 10 finalists.
In August, the 10 finalists reviewed the proposed lesson plans that the 114 semifinalists had submitted for use on the shuttle, and decided on the ones that Ms. McAuliffe would present, according to Doris K. Grigsby of NASA’s educational-affairs division.
The agency hired consultants to help Ms. McAuliffe and Ms. Morgan write the lesson plans and prepare the teacher guidebooks that it distributed to schools across the country.
Ms. McAuliffe and Ms. Morgan began their flight training on Sept. 9 at the Johnson Space Center, where they spent some 100 hours learning about life on the shuttle.
“They require some special attention that you don’t need to pay to professional astronauts,” said John Lawrence, a spokesman for the Johnson Space Center.
Vol. 5, Issue 21, Pages 9-10