NASA Head Says 'Teacher in Space' Program a Low Priority
In a clear reversal of a longstanding policy, the head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has said that flying a teacher on the space shuttle is a low priority for the agency and that it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.
While emphasizing that the "teacher in space'' program "has not been canceled,'' NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin said in an interview that, contrary to previous public statements, a decision to include Barbara R. Morgan, NASA's teacher-in-space designee, on a mission is unlikely to be made any time soon, if ever.
Mr. Goldin, who appears to be concerned about the safety of the shuttle program for non-astronauts, also said it is possible that other civilians may fly before Ms. Morgan.
Mr. Goldin discussed the teacher-in-space program in response to a question after giving a speech on the role of NASA in education here at the 42nd annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association.
Launched with great fanfare by the Reagan Administration, the teacher-in-space program was marred by tragedy on Jan. 28, 1986, when the shuttle Challenger exploded above Cape Kennedy only seconds into its flight. Among the seven crew members who died in the accident was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire middle school teacher.
One major purpose of the program--which was to have been the first of a series of initiatives in which "ordinary Americans'' were to ride aboard the orbiter--was to demonstrate that the shuttle is a safe, work-a-day vehicle.
Mr. Goldin, however, referred more than once to the shuttle program as an "experimental'' one and to the "risk'' involved in having civilians aboard.
The NASA administrator added that he had made his feelings known to Ms. Morgan, who attended the meeting here.
If Ms. Morgan were to be considered for a mission slot, Mr. Goldin added in an interview, then "other civilians'' should be given equal consideration.
In proceeding with plans to overhaul the beleaguered space agency, he said NASA would not make the teacher-in-space program a focus of its educational outreach.
"I wouldn't invest a whole lot of time in it,'' he said.
"I don't want to divert the focus and the attention of the educational community by grabbing onto that one issue ... when we have so much to do together,'' Mr. Goldin added.
He noted proudly in his speech that NASA occupied 10 percent of the exhibit space at the cavernous Anaheim convention center, the site of the N.S.T.A. meeting.
N.S.T.A. officials said they were aware of Mr. Goldin's concerns about safety and had been asked to discuss alternatives to including Ms. Morgan on a mission, such as staging a sophisticated simulation for a national audience.
Although NASA apparently does not intend to provoke adverse publicity by officially scrapping the teacher-in-space initiative, Mr. Goldin's remarks stand in marked contrast to upbeat assessments previously offered of the program.
When Adm. Richard H. Truly, Mr. Goldin's immediate predecessor, left the space agency in 1992, he pronounced the shuttle safe for civilian flight and said NASA should follow through in relatively short order on its commitment to include Ms. Morgan, who was Ms. McAuliffe's back-up, on a mission. (See Education Week, Sept. 23, 1992.)
And shortly after Mr. Goldin was confirmed, he stated publicly that he expected to decide quickly whether to follow through on that commitment. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1993.)
But Mr. Goldin told Education Week that, in the interim, he has learned more about the shuttle program and is reconsidering the question of allowing another civilian to participate.
"I am considering [the question] in a very different light,'' Mr. Goldin said.
"In the end, this is a decision I have to make,'' he added. "I can't put it off on anyone else.''