Educator-Astronaut Trained for a New Mission

By Andrew Trotter — April 24, 2002 4 min read

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is reviving its long-stalled ambition to put a teacher in space. But this time, the space agency will launch a new type of astronaut, “the educator mission specialist,” who has completed the same rigorous training as astronauts with specialties in engineering, physics, or medicine.

Barbara R. Morgan is the first in the new mold, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe announced this month. He said the former elementary school teacher from Boise, Idaho—who was the backup in 1986 for pioneering “Teacher in Space” Christa McAuliffe—would be placed on the roster of a space shuttle crew and scheduled for a flight, probably in 2004.

For the past 3½ years, Ms. Morgan, 50, has undergone NASA’s rigorous astronaut-candidate training at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston. The training includes scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training, and water and wilderness survival.

“My first goal is to be a good crew member, part of a team, and help assure it leads to success,” Ms. Morgan said at a press briefing last week. “My other goal is to learn as much as I can and to bring that learning to students and teachers.”

Ms. Morgan became well-known to the public as the understudy to Ms. McAuliffe, a Concord, N.H., high school social studies teacher in NASA’s Teacher-in-Space Project in the mid-1980s. She trained alongside Ms. McAuliffe and the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which blew up shortly after launch on Jan. 28, 1986.

The Teacher-in-Space Project was shelved after that disaster, but Ms. Morgan was accepted into NASA’s training program in 1998. (“Idaho Teacher to Train for Space Flight,” Jan. 28, 1998.) This month, she has been working shifts as “the communications interface,” relaying messages between NASA’s mission control and the crew of the shuttle Atlantis on a construction mission to the orbiting International Space Station.

Ms. Morgan probably will be assigned to a flight scheduled to take place in 2004, after the space station’s basic elements are completed, Mr. O’Keefe said. She faces at least 18 months of further training for that mission.

‘Not a One-Shot Deal’

Ms. Morgan, the first educator mission specialist, will be followed by many teachers in that job, said Mr. O’Keefe, who was appointed by President Bush in November to lead the federal space agency.

The agency will work with the Department of Education to set up a national program to recruit teachers to become educator mission specialists, he said at a press briefing.

An Education Department spokesman said officials there were scheduled to have their first substantive meeting with the space agency this week and would not comment before then.

The program is part of a plan to “reinvigorate the agency,” said Mr. O’Keefe, a former secretary of the Navy.

NASA is making education a priority in part because of the graying of its own personnel, he said in an April 12 speech at Syracuse University, in Syracuse, N.Y. “We need to prepare the next generation of astronauts,” he said, by developing the skills of young Americans in mathematics and science. He hopes that putting Ms. Morgan in space will help accomplish that goal.

The agency has offered a myriad of programs and resources to educators and students throughout its 44- year history. But Mr. O’Keefe underscored the differences between the education mission specialist program and the original Teacher-in-Space Project, an initiative of the Reagan administration that required minimal training of the teachers involved.

“This is not a one-shot deal,” Mr. O’Keefe said.

Ms. Morgan will be assigned to the space shuttle, not to the International Space Station, Mr. O’Keefe said at the press conference. But he said educational activities could be conducted on both facilities.

Risks Are Real

Asked whether she was worried about the risks of flying in the space shuttle, Ms. Morgan said she was not, because “NASA is very concerned about safety.”

But the risks are real, said Howard E. McCurdy, a professor of public affairs at American University in Washington. Improvements to the shuttle fleet since 1986 have made it “safer, but only marginally safer,” he said. In fact, the risk of death from taking a shuttle flight is comparable to the risk from undergoing major surgery, said Mr. McCurdy, who has written several books about the U.S. space program and NASA.

Despite those safety concerns, several educators welcomed the NASA announcement, expressing happiness for Ms. Morgan and support for the prospect of an unusual career path for teachers.

“I think teachers will be very enthusiastic,” said Gerry F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va., which represents 53,000 science teachers.

Wendell G. Mohling, the NSTA’s assistant director of professional programs, echoed those sentiments. In 1985, he was a high school biology and environmental sciences teacher who was one of the 113 finalists to be the first teacher in space. About 11,000 teachers had applied for the slot.

“I think the interest and motivation for the educators to be involved in NASA’s mission is just as exciting today as 16 years ago,” Mr. Mohling said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as Educator-Astronaut Trained For a New Mission