Idaho Teacher to Train for Space Flight

By Andrew Trotter — January 28, 1998 4 min read
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In tapping Idaho schoolteacher Barbara R. Morgan last week to become a full-fledged astronaut, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration opened the space-faring profession to educators to a degree never before seen.

After two years of training, Ms. Morgan will be the first of a new class of NASA mission specialists who have education and teaching backgrounds in science, mathematics, and technology. The agency said it will invite other educators to apply.

“Knowing that this is available provides a new goal, perhaps for many, many young educators,” said Wendell Mohling, an associate executive director of the National Science Teachers Association and a semifinalist in the 1980s to be the first teacher in space. “If they’re skillful as an educator, those talents and skills will be recognized in many ways, including the space program.”

Some educators also hope the new program could inspire students to pursue subjects related to space flight.

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Teachers in Space: A Chronology

“If this happens, all over America there is going to be a renewed interest in science and math, and you will see schools placing a new emphasis on those [subjects],” said Mary Hatwood Futrell, the dean of the graduate school of education at George Washington University and a former president of the National Education Association.

In announcing its plans for Ms. Morgan, the space agency also closed the book on its teacher-in-space project, which was suspended in 1986 after the shuttle Challenger blew up on liftoff, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe. Jan. 28 marks the 12th anniversary of that disaster.

Ms. Morgan was the backup teacher for that flight and had been Ms. McAuliffe’s colleague and friend through six months of training.

Payoff for Education

In a telephone interview from Boise last week, Ms. Morgan said she expects her shuttle duties to include scientific work—she has a science degree—as well as teaching activities.

After she finishes teaching 21 3rd graders at McCall Elementary School in McCall, Idaho, in June, she will move to Houston and join the other astronaut candidates at the NASA Johnson Space Center.

The first year of training will be general, she said. The second year will be geared to a specific shuttle mission.

The earliest she might go into space is 2000.

“By requiring Barbara to have this full-fledged training, there’s a real intention to make [teaching] a serious part of our program,” Beth Schmid, a NASA public-affairs officer, said.

Ms. Morgan, 46, said her selection fulfills a commitment that she made with NASA and that the agency made with the nation. But it is also significant to education as a whole, she argued.

“What NASA’s decision does is reinforce its strong commitment to education, and it broadens the reach of education within the highly visible astronaut program,” Ms. Morgan said.

“Knowing a teacher is participating in the nation’s space program puts a real emphasis on the importance of educators,” Ms. Schmid added. “It also equates them with the best of the scientists, mathematicians, and doctors that we send up to be scientific mission specialists.”

James M. Rubillo, the interim executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said Ms. Morgan’s future mission will help classroom teachers make space-related subjects more vivid to students. “It enlivens the story, makes the telling so real,” Mr. Rubillo said.

He added that Ms. Morgan can also help make the space program real for a new generation of students. “Kids in school now have no memory of the space program and the disaster 12 years ago.”

Mr. Rubillo also said students can learn that “it’s one of America’s best attributes to say, ‘Yes, there are risks, but we are willing to face them.’”

Ms. Morgan said she understood from her training in 1985 that shuttle flights involve risk, but added that some risks are worth taking.

“Certainly astronauts are aware of the risk and are trained for all contingencies and are willing to take this risk,” Ms. Schmid said.

Just a Stunt?

Not everyone believes the potential gains of sending a teacher into space are worth the risk.

Kerry M. Joels, a former education chief at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, said that while he admires Ms. Morgan personally, “I don’t see the flight having extraordinary value for education.”

Mr. Joels, who now heads the Total Learning Research Institute, a nonprofit group that develops aeronautics education programs, said that one reason the educational impact will be small is that only 10 percent of high school students study physics, compared with 50 percent who study chemistry and 90 percent who study biology.

More effective, he argued, would be a sustained ground-based program that would give classrooms and teachers more access to space-related materials, complemented by live lessons from the space station currently on NASA’s drawing board.

Without such a sustained effort, Mr. Joels said, teachers on the shuttle will take a small but real risk for benefits that will be “a short blip” on schools’ radar screens. “Barbara’s flight becomes a stunt,” he said.

Ms. Morgan doesn’t deny the symbolic aspects of her role. “We teachers teach in symbols,” she said, noting that teaching language and math involves using “systems of symbols.”

“I think this is partially window dressing and publicity, but why not?” Ms. Futrell of George Washington University said. “Why not renew this emphasis on our space program?”

Ms. Futrell, who was the president of the NEA at the time of the Challenger explosion, said the return of a teacher to space was overdue.

Howard E. McCurdy, a political science professor at American University who has written several books on the space program, said that adding teachers to the roster of astronauts has less to do with education than with NASA’s long-held dream of putting civilians in space.

“It resurrects the old idea that anybody could fly in space,” he said. “That’s a core belief among people who pursue space exploration.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 1998 edition of Education Week as Idaho Teacher To Train for Space Flight


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