Counting Down for ‘The Ultimate Field Trip’

January 29, 1986 5 min read
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They had come to raise a collective cheer as they watched the teaching profession “soar to new heights” with the launch of America’s “Teacher in Space,” Sharon Christa McAuliffe.

But on the day after their arrival, most of the 250 educators assembled here were joining in a collective groan as officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that, once again, the countdown for the space shuttle Challenger’s historic mission would be delayed.

Last Wednesday’s announcement that the launch would be postponed until 9:36 A.M. on Sunday, Jan. 26, touched off a flurry of rescheduling here and across the nation, as teachers and education groups prepared for live classroom lessons from space and a number of other special activities connected with the flight.

For those awaiting a first-hand glimpse of Challenger here, the delay meant choosing between history and the call of ordinary work schedules.

“I just can’t stick around that long,” lamented Robert L. Brunelle, commissioner of education in Ms. McAuliffe’s home state of New Hampshire. With a full slate of meetings on the following Monday, he said he would be forced to miss the long-awaited launch.

Other launch guests tried to enjoy the round of parties and presentations put on by the space agency and such groups as the two major teachers’ unions, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Young Astronauts Council, and World Book Encyclopedia. Most, said Irene Duprey-Gutierrez, a New Bedford, Mass., high-school English teacher, were hoping that the weather and other imponderables would not force another delay.

“I’ve enjoyed the NASA presentations,” said Ms. Duprey-Gutierrez, “but the space shot is really the highlight. I’d hate to have to miss it.”

For Ms. McAuliffe herself, the delay meant another day of quarantine with fellow crew members in special quarters at the Kennedy Space Center—and, perhaps, another day of preparation for the two lessons she will teach from space.

Although the Concord, N.H., social-studies teacher did not take questions from the press when she arrived here last Thursday from Houston’s Johnson Space Flight Center, one NASA official said her primary concern seemed to be the lessons.

“When she arrived here,” said James F. Mizell, a NASA spokesman, “she said she had never worked so hard to prepare two lesson plans in her life.”

The lessons, to be beamed by satellite to cable-television and Public Broadcasting System stations, are now scheduled for the fourth day of the mission, Wednesday, Jan. 29. The exact time for the telecasts, said officials of the space agency, will depend on the actual launch time. They are currently scheduled for 11:21 A.M. and 12:51 P.M. Eastern Standard Time.

One night before the lessons—Tuesday, Jan. 28—homes across the nation will be signaling their support in a “porch light” campaign initiated by the Council of Chief State School Officers and intensively promoted by education groups in the weeks preceding the launch.

Countdown Activities

Meanwhile, the educators and other dignitaries invited to watch the Challenger blast into its 17,500-mile-an-hour orbit spent much of their pre-launch time in darkened rooms, listening to lectures and watching slide presentations.

Space-agency officials held two special conferences here last week, one for officers of the nation’s leading education groups and other invited educators, and one for the agency’s “space ambassadors,” the group of 112 teacher-in-space finalists. Members of the C.C.S.S.O., who coordinated the teacher-in-space selection process, also attended the second conference.

The NASA presentations were planned, said agency officials, to give participants a view of present, past, and future space projects and to promote “networking” and other partnerships between NASA and the nation’s schools.

“We want to provide educators with as much direct information as we can,” said Roscoe Monroe, a NASA education-programs officer and organizer of the conferences. “The hope is that what they’ve learned will be taken back and shared with colleagues and students, having a ripple effect through the whole education system.”

The agency often holds such educators’ conferences on “special occasions,” Mr. Monroe said. “And the teacher-in-space flight certainly makes the occasion special,” he said.

‘Shot in the Arm’

Originally, some 325 educators had planned to attend the NASA conferences, according to Mr. Monroe, but flight delays trimmed the number to 250. All came at their own expense, he said.

The teacher-in-space finalists, however, traveled to Cape Canaveral compliments of United Airlines and received a per diem allowance from NASA for their lodging and meals expenses.

Many of the teachers awaiting the space shot were here as the special guests of teacher-in-space finalists. Each finalist was allowed two invitations to view the launch.

In addition to the conferences, which included presentations on such topics as aerospace medicine and the “space telescope” scheduled to be put into orbit next October, the education delegations were treated to a personalized, day-long tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

But for most, the excitement of the occasion was the occasion itself. There was a easily detected sense of pride among the educators present, especially the classroom teachers.

“I think this program has helped show the nation that teaching is a good profession and that smart people choose to be teachers,” said Patricia Sturges, a 6th-grade language-arts and science teacher in Shepardstown, W. Va.

Roberta A. Barrett, a member of the New Hampshire board of education, said the good publicity generated by the shuttle flight will not only raise the public’s perception of the profession, but also give teachers’ morale “a shot in the arm.”

“That a teacher was chosen to be the first private citizen in space communicates to children that teaching can be an exciting profession,” added Ms. Sturges. “I hope teaching will rise with Christa.”

Whether or not Ms. McAuliffe would actually “rise” into space orbit on Sunday, as scheduled, however, was uncertain at week’s end. Though NASA officials pronounced the weather conditions at Cape Canaveral as perfect for launch, others were quick to note that the latest delay—from Jan. 25 to Jan. 26—had been precipitated by weather several continents away.

A Waiting Game

Weather conditions at the shuttle’s emergency landing site in North Africa, the agency confirmed, had cost the mission a further delay. Challenger’s original launch date, Tuesday, Jan. 22, had previously been pushed back twice because of the 25-day delay in launching the recent ill-fated mission of the space shuttle Columbia.

At week’s end, in fact, the only living creatures on Cape Canaveral not noticeably engaged in the waiting game were those that inhabit this place year round: the alligators, eagles, wild pigs, and armadillos of the cape’s wildlife preserve.

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