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Program Aims To Put American Teacher In Orbit Aboard Soviet Space Station

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An American aerospace educator has launched a nationwide competition to choose a teacher to become the first American to orbit Earth aboard the Soviet space station Mir.

The contest was first announced to a national audience in an advertisement that appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of Education Week. It was also highlighted during a news conference last week in Huntsville.

Some observers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and in the aerospace industry, however, question the feasibility of such an undertaking in light of the ongoing breakup of the Soviet Union and the possible splintering of its space program.

And two members of NASA'S teacher-astronaut corps whose names have been linked with the project say their involvement has been overstated.

In Search of Sponsors

Last spring, Wayne R. Matson, president of a Huntsville, Ala.based group called Aerospace Ambassadors, announced during a conference in New Orleans that his organization had signed a contract with the Soviet rocket-manufacturing firm NPO Energia to put an American teacher aboard Mir sometime in 1993.

The cost of the project would be underwritten, Mr. Matson said, by corporate sponsors who would pay the Soviets to have science experiments flown aboard the mission.

As of last week, Mr. Matson said, no contracts had been signed, but his organization has had "in depth" discussions with more than 30 potential underwriters and that more than 100 parties had inquired about the flight.

He said he could not name potential sponsors because "the majority are commercial interests and don't wish to let anyone else know that they are interested."

Mr. Matson said the process to select the teacher-cosmonaut, which began earlier this fall, will end next April, after which a "blue ribbon" panel headed by Abigail L. McKinnon, 1 of 10 finalists in NASA's Teacher in Space Program, will whittle down the field of applicants.

The actual number and names of the applicants will remain confidential until then, he said.

The NASA competition drew about 40,000 applicants, agency officials say.

The names of the 10 finalists will be announced at a conference in Huntsville next summer. The Soviets will then pick 2 of those 10 as candidates for the flight, Mr. Matson said, while his organization will choose the finalist.

After language and safety training in the Soviet Union, the teacher-cosmonaut will journey to the space station on a Soviet rocket and remain there for a period of between 8 and 14 days.

Mr. Matson said that after some initial uncertainty, the organization decided to levy a nonrefundable $100 filing fee--which is not mentioned in the advertisement--to cover administrative overhead and the cost of sending the finalists for training in the Soviet Union.

The fee also includes membership in his group, he added.

He said that if a sponsor can be found to underwrite the costs of the program, the fees may eventually be waived and the money returned.

Official Skepticism

A NASA spokesman declined to comment on the program except to deny the agency's involvement.

Agency officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fate of any agreement with the Soviet Union is, at best, uncertain. "Everything within the Soviet government is in turmoil, including their space program," one official said.

Mr. Matson, however, discounted such fears.

The NASA official also noted that the Soviets have flown non-cosmonauts to Mir, provided that they paid the $10 million to $12 million launch fee.

"They're trying to get hard currency into their space program," the official noted.

Recent visitors to Mir include a Japanese television reporter, whose network underwrote the costs of the mission, and a British woman who won her visit in a sweepstakes.

Vladimir Belyakov, a spokesman for the Soviet Embassy in Washington, was supplied by Education Week earlier this year with a series of written questions about the project. While Mr. Belyakov initially was willing to comment on the
proposal, he later agreed to discuss it only if the newspaper would pay for the information.

Endorsements Questioned

The advertisement announcing the contest quotes Niki Wenger and Barbara R. Morgan, two other finalists in the NASA program, voicing Support for the Aerospace Ambassadors effort.

Both teachers, however, have questioned Mr. Matson's use of their names in endorsing the effort.

"I really don't know anything about the program," Ms. Morgan said last week in an interview from her home in McCall, Idaho.

Her quoted remarks in the advertisement were taken verbatim from an article published in the April 4 edition of USA Today.

Ms. Morgan said she had made rather generic comments spontaneously in response to a reporter's question that "took me totally by surprise" about Mr. Matson's April news conference.

She said Mr. Matson did not obtain her consent to use her comment and added that she is somewhat annoyed by the implied endorsement of a program with which she has no connection.

"It doesn't bother me that much," she said. "But it's not right. It still comes off as an endorsement."

Mr. Matson responded that he considered the advertisement "a paid editorial, not as an advertisement," and therefore did not seek Ms. Morgan's approval.

Ms. Wenger said that while she initially supported the idea, she long ago withdrew from the program in part because of "philosophical differences" she had with Mr. Matson.

Ms. Wenger declined to elaborate on those differences.

Mr. Matson acknowledged that Ms. Wenger has withdrawn, but said that "the only reason she has given to us is that she wanted to apply'' to fly to Mir.

Ms. Wenger also denied published reports that she had conceived the idea of sending a teacher to Mir.

Meanwhile, the Parkersburg, W.Va. teacher has left the classroom and is working independently with the Soviets to conduct teleconferences between Mir and her school district.

She said she still wishes Mr. Matson luck in his endeavor.

"I think it could be a wonderful opportunity," she said.

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