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Rising Star

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Morgan, as one of the chief defenders of NASA, began to emerge from McAuliffe's shadow.

In the months after the Challenger accident, NASA sent Morgan and the other state finalists in the teacher program around the country as "space ambassadors." In public appearances and interviews, they preached the need to continue space exploration. NASA at the time was under siege. Christa McAuliffe's brother, Kit, went on television after the accident and accused the agency of using his sister for PR. Ex-astronauts, too, questioned NASA, with some declaring that they wouldn't dare step onto the shuttle. Eventually, a presidential commission investigating the accident fingered the now-infamous O-ring as the cause of the explosion, but it also noted serious errors in judgment by NASA officials.

Despite the firestorm of criticism, NASA announced that the Teacher in Space program would continue with Morgan. In her new role as soon-to-be first civilian in space, the teacher played the good soldier: NASA, she said over and over, had warned the Teacher in Space finalists repeatedly about the dangers of space flight. Whatever problem doomed the Challenger, NASA will fix it, she confidently predicted.

A profile of Morgan in the Los Angeles Times reported that some of her friends watching Morgan deliver her televised defense of NASA "detected an uncharacteristic steeliness." One teaching colleague said, "I get concerned that she will become hardened because she is always having to be 'on' and showing the 'right stuff' and saying the right thing....Barb's always been real positive about NASA, but I think she could be saying, 'Look NASA, you screwed up and seven people died, and I want some explanation.'"

But Dick Methia, one of the 10 finalists for the Teacher in Space program, says heaping blame on NASA would have been uncharacteristic for Morgan or any of the teachers in the program. "We had seen in the course of the project and our training hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the most remarkable people," he explains. "Brilliant scientists and engineers, wonderful people. There was a lot of sympathy between us because we knew that most of them could earn a lot more money on the outside than they could working for a federal agency. And yet they loved what they were doing, they had a passion for space exploration. So to accuse an entire agency—which to us was not an agency, it was the accumulated human beings that we had met—was just fundamentally unfair."

Regardless, Morgan, as one of the chief defenders of NASA, began to emerge from McAuliffe's shadow. As she crisscrossed the country and spoke before teacher conferences and other groups, people sought her autograph and cheered her courage. Reporters emerged from interviews wowed by the strength of her convictions. "Morgan's indomitable optimism and genuine faith in the space program have made her NASA's brightest media star," concluded the Los Angeles Times profile.

'Barb, you better stretch your legs for a minute," Clay Morgan says firmly, finally managing to terminate the People interview. The teacher agrees, but rather than take a break, she does a quick lap around the room, introducing herself to the newly arrived reporters.

"She's had a hard couple of days," NASA's Beth Schmid says of Morgan as she opens the floor to questions, "but she's done great." Indeed, since the January announcement that NASA was fulfilling its promise to send her into space, Morgan has done dozens of interviews. John Glenn has grabbed the lion's share of the headlines—NASA released word of Morgan's shuttle ride the same day it announced that it was sending the U.S. senator and ex-Mercury Seven astronaut back into space—but Morgan has cut an equally impressive figure as the quintessential astronaut hero, exuding confidence, selflessness, and patriotism, saying the right thing and demonstrating the right stuff. "To tell you the truth," she told one reporter, "I don't see this as an opportunity for me. I think it's an opportunity for the whole country, one we are going to seize and do all we can with."

Anyone who faces the media over and over recognizes the value of a good sound bite—Christa McAuliffe called them "sparklers"—and Morgan is no exception. "Right off the bat," she tells Katie Couric on the Today show, "I want to say that Christa McAuliffe was and always will be our teacher in space, for ever and ever"—something she'll repeat again and again in interviews.

NASA astronauts are typically prim and proper in their appearance, and Morgan has dressed the part for the interviews today, wearing blue pants, a white turtleneck, and a blue scarf. Her dark-brown hair is parted in the middle, a style that seems to fit the '80s more than the '90s. As she answers each question, her pale green eyes never waver, never wander.

The Mercury Seven astronauts viewed the reporters covering space exploration as obsessed with its risks. According to Moon Shot, the memoir of Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, Shepard's wife, Louise, was asked so many times whether she feared for her husband's life that the question was like "some kind of angry bug she wanted to grind into the earth with her heel."

The reporters meeting with Morgan today ask a few questions about her teaching, but they never stray too far from the Challenger accident, the new mission, and its risks. Despite Morgan's diverse background and interests, they seem intent mostly on establishing her bona fides as an astronaut hero. At one point, describing her training in 1985, Morgan notes the awkwardness she felt manipulating a simulator with her left arm. "There's not much I do with my left hand other than play my flute," she says, "and this is totally different than holding my flute." It's the first time in the interview that Morgan has mentioned her flute, and, indeed, the first time the discussion has detoured to her personal life. But the reporters ignore this tantalizing detail and hustle back to their original line of questioning. Her life, it seems, does not hold as much interest as the potential of her death.

"Barb's not doing this because of some romantic quirkiness. She feels in her bones that this is something really important."

Dick Methia,
finalist,
Teacher in Space program

If the media's questions about an astronaut's mortality bugged Louise Shepard, Morgan swats them away effortlessly. One reporter asks if the two children she has had since the Challenger accident—Adam, 10, and Ryan, 8—changed her thinking about a space flight. The question virtually begs Morgan to acknowledge some hesitation to fly, some natural fear of dying, some humanness behind her gung-ho, I'm-ready-to-go responses; surely having children made you less eager to fly, it implies. But with the deftness of a veteran politician, Morgan pivots on the question and delivers an upbeat answer brimming with confidence: Having kids, she assures the reporter, only made her more eager to take the mission. "It's important for children growing up to see adults doing this kind of thing, living life to the fullest, learning all that they can, and taking risks....We should not be afraid of being human, and we should not be afraid of living life to the fullest. I can't imagine living life any other way."

Later, one reporter flatly asks if she is scared about the launch. Morgan answers, "No," and says nothing more, letting the single word hang in the air. Then, as if realizing the incredulity of such a statement, she adds, "That's not to say that I won't be nervous, or alert, as I sit on the launch pad."

Such a matter-of-fact dismissal is expected of astronauts. It is a sign of their incredible bravery, and we take them at their word even though we know it can't possibly be true. Morgan has to be scared, for herself, for her husband, and her two children. Any astronaut who denies it is being less than candid, says Teacher in Space finalist Judy Garcia. "And if you're not scared, you shouldn't go. An intelligent person has to be aware of the complexity of the shuttle, and how really experimental it is. It's still pretty primitive in many ways."

Still, Garcia adds, the risks of space flight have been exaggerated. A shuttle flight is probably no more dangerous than parasailing or bungee jumping, and the payoff is much more than cheap thrills. Barbara Morgan has assessed the danger of the mission, Garcia contends, and she has decided the benefits of putting a teacher in space warrant the risk.

Dick Methia agrees: "I know Barb real well. It's not something that she dismisses lightly. She's not doing this because of some romantic quirkiness. She feels in her bones that this is something really important."

When President Reagan announced the Teacher in Space program in 1984, the New York Times' Russell Baker derided it, claiming "the media malarkey...would turn a good schoolteacher into another useless celebrity, adept at breakfast-time chatter with [talk-show hosts] but too world-weary to pound the desk effectively at a slovenly student's misreading of Caesar."

Baker's words proved prophetic—the Teacher in Space publicity razzle-dazzle included putting actress Pam Dawber of the TV show Mork and Mindy on the panel that named the finalists. But McAuliffe proved that a teacher celebrity would hardly be, as Baker suggested, useless. Teachers and the teaching profession were at a nadir in the mid-1980s. In 1983, A Nation At Risk declared public education a failure, and the reports that followed pointed an accusing finger at teachers, saying they weren't academically prepared and they weren't invested in improving schools. Eager to fix the "teacher problem," legislators responded with attacks on tenure, schemes for merit pay, and, in a few states, laws to require teachers to pass basic-skills tests. "Teachers were in the forefront of the firestorm and were constantly being bashed," says Mary Hatwood Futrell, dean of the graduate school of education at George Washington University, who was then president of the National Education Association.


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