NASA Suspends Education Activities
By J.R. Sirkin
All educational activities associated with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s ill-fated teacher-in-space project were placed on hold last week, while the space agency attempted to come to grips with the shuttle Challenger disaster.
The activities that were delayed include a proposed nationwide NASA telecast to schools this week, which officials of the Public Broadcasting Service said NASA had “agreed to do in principle.”
The delay comes at a time when school officials across the country are expressing intense interest in some kind of follow-up to the shuttle launch, as a way to help turn the disaster into a positive learning experience for children.
The director of NASA’s educational-affairs division insisted last week that the space agency would eventually continue with the educational aspects of the shuttle mission, but he would not say when or how.
“The goals upon which the teacher-in-space project are based are just as valid now as they were then,” Robert W. Brown said. “Right now I can’t say with any precision in terms of the timing, but there will be some expression from the agency of what our efforts will be in that area.”
He said NASA’s response was “under discussion within the highest ranks of the agency.”
Those familiar with NASA say its education office wanted to respond quickly to educators’ information needs, but it could not get clearance from top agency officials.
Instead, they say, NASA’s educational activities have taken a back seat to a larger debate within the agency about the future of its teacher-in-space project and civilian flights in general.
That debate could have serious consequences for the entire space program, observers say, because of the central role that the spaceflight-participant program plays in NASA’s shuttle plans.
“NASA at this point is very concerned about not creating more problems for itself than necessary,” one observer with ties to the agency said. “At this point, they’re being very careful to keep only one voice out to the public. They’re just very nervous. They do want to talk to teachers and students. The question is when and in what format.”
Mr. Brown last week appeared to confirm the linkage between his office’s programs and the agency’s internal gropings, saying, “In my mind, there is a link between the review process and where the programs associated with the shuttle go.”
But according to agency officials, the civilian-flight issue may not be resolved for months, until a recently-named special commission completes its investigation into the cause of the shuttle explosion. The 12-member commission, appointed by the President, was given 120 days to file a report.
According to Alan Ladwig, the manager of NASA’s spaceflight-participant program, which includes the teacher-in-space project, the civilian-participation issue is “not a high priority within NASA at this point.”
He said the agency’s spaceflight-evaluation committee, composed of seven senior NASA officials, would eventually debate the issue, but not until it completes work on the crash investigation.
While others waited in frustration last week for NASA to follow up on the teacher-in-space project, at least one television special related to the incident and designed for children was made available to PBS affiliated this week.
The Children’s Television Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” put together a half-hour telecast based on the lives of the four astronauts, including Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and “packaged them around” references to the shuttle accident, a C.T.W. spokesman said.
The biographical sketches originally aired two years ago, as part of a special series on the space program.
The C.T.W. broadcast, “3-2-1 Contact: Being an Astronaut,” was scheduled to be fed to PBS affiliates around the country this past Sunday. Most affiliated carry the “3-2-1 Contact” series, a producer said.
PBS officials, who had expected to air a nationwide telecast for schoolchildren this week featuring several astronauts and Barbara R. Morgan, the runner up to Sharon Christa McAuliffe in the race to be the first teacher in space, said they were still waiting for NASA’s go ahead.
“At this point we’re really just waiting for NASA,” said John L. Meek, a producer for PBS affiliate KUHT in Houston, which had been scheduled to produce the broadcast of Ms. McAuliffe’s lessons from space and was also expected to produce the follow-up NASA telecast.
“So much is hinging on how NASA is going to proceed with public comment,” Mr. Meek said. “Basically, they’re locking this broadcast into that.”
“It’s frustrating,” he added. “We both agree that we need to do something and need to do it quickly.” But he said PBS had no plans to put together a show without the space agency, noting that “without their involvement and cooperation, it would be very difficult.”
Mr. Meek said it would probably take several weeks before a broadcast could be put together.
Other Activities Affected
Aside from the educational activities directly associated with the Challenger flight, the shuttle disaster has apparently also thrown into question future educational enterprises that NASA was considering.
“We were talking about a series of other things down the road,” said Walter J. Westrum, the executive director of Classroom Earth, a non-profit educational organization hired by NASA to coordinate the satellite transmission to school of Ms. McAuliffe’s lessons from space.
Mr. Westrum said the loss of Challenger also “for all intents and purposes means there will be no Halley’s comet stuff [telecast to classrooms] from the U.S.,” because a high-powered telescope for viewing the comet was lost with the shuttle.
He said that since the shuttle explosion, schools that were prepared to carry the transmission of Ms. McAul-life’s activities from space have expressed keen interest in follow-up activities.
“Absolutely,” he said. “You better believe it. They’re saying: ‘We wanted to take part in this thing.’”
Vol. 5, Issue 22, Page 16