Fate of Teacher-in-Space Program Remains A Question Mark

By Peter West — February 03, 1993 8 min read
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When the space shuttle Endeavour lifted off from Cape Canaveral last month for a weeklong orbital mission, it carried not only its crew and scientific instruments, but also balloon helicopters, a miniature race car, and several other toys.

Although a lengthy space walk was the most highly visible aspect of the mission, a less publicized task was to provide elementary and middle school students with a lesson in the physical properties of playthings.

Students in four schools across the country watched the “Physics of Toys’’ lesson via satellite link. The astronaut-instructors tested the students’ predictions about how the toys might operate in zero gravity and answered questions about the experiments.

For students at Sacred Heart School, a Roman Catholic parochial school serving a largely disadvantaged student body in New York City, the mission also offered hope that they, like Mario Runco, an astronaut on the flight and a Sacred Heart alumnus, could overcome the poverty and difficulties of their daily lives to pursue professional careers.

“Quite a few of [my students] said they would like to be doctors when they get older,’' said Joy-Ann Morgan, a 4th-grade teacher at the school in the Bronx. “And when they say that, they think in terms of when Mario Runco was a student here.’'

Since shuttle flights resumed in 1988 after the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger, astronauts frequently have taught lessons or performed other educational projects during flights in sciences ranging from biology to astronomy, although none were professional classroom teachers.

But today, seven years after the Challenger disaster, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration continues to face the difficult political question of whether it will—or even should—honor its commitment to again fly a professional educator aboard the orbiter.

A Question of Safety

The teacher-in-space program has been on hiatus since Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire middle school teacher, died along with her fellow crew members seconds after the Challenger lifted off on Jan. 28, 1986.

Ms. McAuliffe was the first civilian to win a place on a shuttle mission as part of a program under which civilians from various walks of life would fly aboard the orbiter to make the public more aware of their role in society.

Concerns over safety in the wake of the Challenger disaster effectively stalled the program.

But as the political guard changed in Washington last month, many science and space educators said they saw an opportunity to revive the initiative.

And they suggested that NASA should take its lead from its former administrator, Adm. Richard H. Truly. Shortly before he resigned last April, the admiral pronounced the shuttle safe enough to schedule a flight with a teacher aboard.

But others within the aerospace community and at the highest levels of NASA, reportedly including its current administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, still question whether, despite the safety record of the nation’s shuttle fleet, such a mission is still too dangerous for a civilian.

For now, however, NASA’s official position is that unless the decision is made to end the program, Barbara R. Morgan, a classroom teacher from McCall, Idaho, and Ms. McAuliffe’s backup, will be scheduled to join a shuttle crew at some future date.

Ms. Morgan, who receives annual flight physicals and continues to visit schools in her capacity as the teacher-in-space designee, says she remains willing, because the flight is “just so important to teachers and students.’'

She also discounts the danger inherent in a space flight.

“This idea of risk comes up quite often, and it’s something that people feel very afraid of,’' she said. “But we send our students into much more dangerous situations every day and we just don’t hear [much] debate about that.’'

Officials of the Challenger Foundation, which was formed after the accident by the state finalists in the national competiton for the teacher-in-space program, say that Ms. Morgan should be allowed to fly when conditions are deemed appropriate.

“We think that it’s a highly valuable program,’' said Pam Peterson, a foundation spokeswoman.

Other Education Activities

Ms. McAuliffe’s lessons, “The Ultimate Field Trip’’ and “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going,’' were to have been the highlights of the Challenger mission. For many outside NASA, the lessons would have been the apogee of the agency’s educational mission.

“Even my principal today said, ‘Gee, you just don’t see anything teacher-in-space anymore,’ '' Ms. Morgan said last week.

But the agency’s educational outreach did not end with the Challenger accident. In fact, it currently conducts or endorses 160 educational programs, often in conjunction with such organizations as the National Science Teachers Association.

The programs are supported by the agency’s space-science, manned-flight, and aerospace divisions, and range from running a national computer network called Spacelink for classroom educators to conducting internship programs at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

“The culture within NASA is such that everyone feels a commitment to education,’' said Frank C. Owens, the director of the education division at NASA’s Washington headquarters. “It follows that the orbiter is only one part of NASA’s educational mission.’'

But the shuttle program remains perhaps the agency’s most visible initiative and, within the astronaut corps, an education working group has been formed to better coordinate the scientific and educational aspects of shuttle missions.

“We’ve done a surprising numbers of activities with the astronauts teaching from space,’' said Greg Vogt, a NASA education specialist.

Pam Bacon, a NASA spokeswoman, said it is difficult to determine how many shuttle missions since the Challenger have included a formal or informal educational component at either the precollegiate or college level.

But a short list of programs would include the following:

• In 1990, the shuttle Discovery recovered tomato seeds from a satellite. The seeds were sent to schools around the country, where children sprouted them and kept track of the growth patterns of the plants to determine if the seeds had been affected by radiation in space.

• Several experiments that had been devised by students before the Challenger accident have flown on later missions. Students and teachers in the Charleston County, S.C., schools, for example, are scheduled to send their experiments into orbit in April.

• During a 1991 flight of the shuttle Columbia, astronauts taught lessons in astronomy over a television link. The transmissions from the shuttle were complemented by a series of separate, televised lessons that originated from a NASA facility.

• Several shuttle crews also have taken part in the Shuttle Amateur Radio Experiment, an ongoing program that allows students to speak with astronauts in orbit.

• The “Physics of Toys’’ lesson on the most recent mission, which was devised by a faculty member at the Challenger Foundation, was videotaped for educational use and will be available to schools in the fall.

A similar tape was produced on a shuttle mission in 1985 as part of a series of programs for classroom use.

“The follow-up [question] is, if you’re doing all this, then what’s unique about flying a teacher,’' said Mr. Owens, the NASA education officer. “Well, what’s unique is that Barbara is a professional classroom educator.’'

If undertaken as originally envisioned, he noted, the teacher-in-space mission would reach a far larger target audience with a more rigorous educational program than existing missions.

Good Public Relations

Supporters of the move to send another educator aloft say that doing so would likely have equally important public-relations benefits, both for NASA and for the teaching profession.

“I think it can offer inspiration to students, but, maybe more important, to teachers,’' said Barbara Sprungman, a space-science-education writer who has helped devise articles on space-related educational programs for USA Today and other national publications.

"[Teachers] need to be inspired, especially now with the reform movement, because they feel they’re being blamed [for education’s ills],’' she said.

Leonard David, the director of Space Data Resources, a Washington-based consulting group, pointed to the unique role of teachers in society.

“Because everybody has had a teacher ... the loss [of the Challenger] was even greater,’' he said. “Had the flight gone well, [Ms. McAuliffe] certainly would have been a spokesperson for teaching.’'

Yet little formal attention was paid to the teacher-in-space program during the Bush Administration until last March, when Admiral Truly said in an address that “the time has come to begin a formal program of teaching in space.’'

Mr. Goldin, a California aerospace executive who suceeded Admiral Truly, announced last fall that he hoped to decide “soon’’ whether to resume the teacher-in-space program. (“NASA Head Hints at a Decision On Teacher-in-Space Program”, Sept. 23, 1992.)

But as yet, no announcement has been made, possibly because of safety concerns, some observers suggest.

Changes in Washington

Many science educators and others, however, remain hopeful that President Clinton, who may replace Mr. Goldin with a nominee of his own, will take a fresh look at the program.

They also note that Vice President Gore is to become the head of the National Space Council, a long-range policy-setting body that, during the Bush Administration, favored unmanned exploration of the solar system over near-earth missions. They hope a change in leadership on the council will mean renewed interest in adding civilians to shuttle crews.

Meanwhile, for the students at Sacred Heart--most of whom are too young to have any memory of the Challenger disaster--the recent Endeavour mission was an effective means of teaching the values of personal effort and scientific literacy, said Anna Occicone, a Sacred Heart middle school teacher.

“The launch ... was their launch,’' she said, noting that two students traveled to Florida to witness the event. “Not just as students who are watching from a historical perspective, but from a very personal and scientific perspective.’'


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