NASA Launches Educator-Astronaut Program

By Andrew Trotter — January 29, 2003 4 min read

For the second time in its history, America’s space agency will begin recruiting teachers to fly into space and conduct lessons for schoolchildren nationwide.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said last week it plans to select between three and six K-12 teachers next year to begin training to become “educator mission specialists.” NASA officials said those teachers could be the first aboard one of the U.S. space shuttles by late 2005 or early 2006.

“The NASA educator-astronaut program is a natural extension of our long-standing agenda” to advance the nation’s education in mathematics, science, and technology, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said in announcing the long-anticipated recruitment program. He spoke at an Jan. 21 press event at Hardy Middle School in Washington.

Howard E. McCurdy, a professor at American University, also in Washington, and a historian of the space agency, called the move a “new landmark, another chapter in the book on the broadening of [NASA’s] recruitment ... of employees who are representative of the nation at large"— rather than exclusively military men and women, test pilots, scientists, and engineers.

Adena Williams Loston, NASA’s associate administrator for education, said at the press event that the recruitment effort was “an opportunity to identify some of the most outstanding teachers in the world, [and to give them] an opportunity to extend their knowledge beyond their local classrooms into the nation’s classroom.”

Agency officials hope teachers will respond with the same enthusiasm they showed during the 1984 recruitment for NASA’s Teacher-in-Space Project, which received more than 12,000 applications, Ms. Loston said.

This time teachers will have to meet a more rigorous list of criteria than did the first “teacher in space,” Christa McAuliffe, the charismatic New Hampshire social studies teacher who died in the crash of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986.

Barbara R. Morgan, 51, who was the backup to Ms. McAuliffe, is setting the new mold. Beginning in 1998, Ms. Morgan completed almost four years of astronaut training and was named last spring to the crew of the shuttle Columbia for an 11-day mission to the International Space Station scheduled to lift off Nov. 13 of this year. (“Educator-Astronaut Trained for a New Mission,” April 24, 2002.)

Additional teachers will be recruited to each annual “class” of the astronaut corps, NASA officials said.

Putting on lessons from space will be an important, but secondary, role for the new educator mission specialists, who will be fully trained and expected to perform other duties related to the mission, NASA officials said.

What’s the ‘Right Stuff’?

Selected teachers will have to relocate to Houston, the home of the NASA Johnson Space Center, which serves as the headquarters for manned space flight. They will be regular federal employees, with starting pay, depending on individual qualifications, that ranges from $50,974 to $94,448.

Applicants must be U.S. citizens certified to teach in grades K-12 who have had at least three years of classroom experience within the last four years. They must have a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, science, or a science-related discipline, or an education degree with at least 18 credit hours in a mathematics, science, or a technology-related field.

They must be healthy and fit, able to pass the agency’s Class II Space Flight physical, which has standards similar to those for civilian aircraft pilots for vision and blood pressure, and to meet a NASA height requirement of 4 feet 10½ inches to 6 feet 4 inches.

To evaluate their teaching abilities, NASA says it plans to assemble a “blue-ribbon panel” of teaching experts later this year. The agency’s multi-tier selection process should lead to an announcement early in 2004 of the winning candidates, who would report to Houston the following spring or summer, officials said.

The agency has budgeted $2 million in the current fiscal year to support teacher recruitment and selection. Applications, which may be completed online or on paper, must be received at NASA’s Washington headquarters by April 30. The application requires letters of recommendation from one of the teacher’s former or current students, a parent of another student, a supervisor, and a member of the teacher’s community.

It also asks for three essays of up to 300 words in response to questions, such as: “As an educator astronaut and educational spokesperson, what message would you share with educators and students across the country?”

NASA is setting up a network of “Earth Crews,” teams of students, teachers, and others who would support the educator-astronauts and take part in ground-based educational projects.

The first task for the Earth Crews will be to aid in the selection process, by answering the question: “What is the ‘right stuff’ to be an educator-astronaut?”