Rising Star

By Drew Lindsay — May 01, 1998 23 min read
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Twelve years ago, Christa McAuliffe planned to take the teaching profession to new heights. Now, Barbara Morgan is finishing what Christa started.

At 2 p.m. on April 9, 1959, in the ballroom of the historic Dolley Madison House near the White House, seven military pilots sat at a long, felt-covered table and faced a jostling pack of reporters, photographers, and television camera crews. These men were the first volunteers of the country’s fledgling Mercury space program. They would be the first Americans to escape gravity’s grip, the first to brave the final frontier, and the first in a long line of astronauts who would become household names. The Mercury Seven were not famous—John Glenn enjoyed some celebrity for having made the first non-stop, coast-to-coast supersonic flight—but they left the ballroom that day as national heroes. “It happened just like that,” Tom Wolfe wrote later in his book The Right Stuff “Even though so far they had done nothing but show up for a press conference, they were known as the seven bravest men in America....Even James Reston of the New York Times had been so profoundly moved by the press conference and the sight of the seven brave men that his heart, he confessed, beat a little faster. ‘What made them so exciting,’ he wrote, ‘was not that they said anything new but that they said all the old things with such conviction....they spoke of “duty” and “faith” and “country” like Walt Whitman’s pioneers.’”

Nearly 40 years after Glenn, Alan Shepard, and the other hotshot pilots burst onto the national scene, teacher Barbara Morgan is speeding along in their wake. She, too, will journey into space. Morgan was Christa McAuliffe’s backup on the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, and now, NASA has tapped her for a space shuttle ride of her own early in the next century. But first, like the Mercury Seven, she must face the media so that she, too, can be propelled into the national consciousness, a ready-made, steely-eyed, ice water-in-the-veins hero.

On this sunny winter afternoon, the 46-year-old 3rd grade teacher from the Idaho mountains is huddled with a reporter from People magazine in a windowless room at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Though she’s been in town just over 24 hours, Morgan has managed to sandwich rounds of television and newspaper interviews around a glittery night at the White House, where she rubbed elbows with the president, the first lady, and Tom Hanks for the premiere of a Hanks-produced cable TV miniseries on the Apollo space program. After the interview with People, she will meet with a group of reporters from McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Popular Science, and a few other magazines.

Morgan, understandably, is tired. As she fields questions from the People reporter, she props her head on one hand, her fingers digging a small crater in her cheek. Twice, Beth Schmid, a NASA public-relations official, and Morgan’s husband, Clay, urge her to take a breather before the group interview. Both times, she waves them off. Morgan’s trip to the stars may be two years away, but her mission has already begun. She wants to send a message to the American people, a message that’s as much about teaching and education as it is about space exploration.

“I don’t like being on TV,” she says later, “and I don’t like all the media stuff. But as embarrassing as this all is, it is a way of getting the message out and communicating. It’s an important way, and Christa really understood that.”

Twelve years ago, of course, it was Christa McAuliffe who was the media darling. Columnists and editorial writers snickered when Ronald Reagan first proposed sending a teacher into space, but when the New Hampshire social studies teacher and mother emerged from the pack of 11,000 applicants to claim the coveted seat on the shuttle, she was so fresh and so apple-pie wholesome that their cynicism turned to mush. For the country as a whole, it was love at first sight: We cheered when McAuliffe’s high-wattage earnestness turned the always-prickly Bryant Gumbel into an eager-to-please golden retriever, and we laughed when she plopped onto Johnny Carson’s couch and teased him like a talk-show veteran.

McAuliffe was obviously the main story of the Teacher in Space program, but Barbara Morgan made for an intriguing sidebar. Growing up in the ‘50s in Fresno, California, with four brothers, she complained to her parents when NASA sent a chimp into space instead of her. A high school cheerleader and swimmer, she married her college sweetheart from Stanford University, Clay Morgan, and the two took up residence in Clay’s home of McCall, a picturesque lakeside town in the Idaho mountains. In this small community, the two were something of a Renaissance couple: Clay was a novelist who had once fought forest fires as a smokejumper; Barbara, a flutist, mandolin player, and classical music connoisseur, had spent her rookie teaching year at an elementary school on a Montana Indian reservation and had later taught in Ecuador.

“Both radiated friendliness and enthusiasm,” McAuliffe’s mother wrote about McAuliffe and Morgan. “Both had the ability to put an audience at ease. Both were quick with the quotable phrase.”

After McAuliffe was chosen for the Challenger mission, Morgan settled into her role as backup and sidekick. In public appearances, the two seemed like peas from the same pod: Both were teachers from small towns, they were nearly the same age—McAuliffe was 36, Morgan three years younger—and they both had long, dark hair and warm smiles that undoubtedly made boys hustle for the front row in their classrooms. “Both radiated friendliness and enthusiasm,” McAuliffe’s mother, Grace Corrigan, wrote after the Challenger accident. “Both had the ability to put an audience at ease. Both were quick with the quotable phrase.”

Morgan, however, was more reserved than McAuliffe. “Christa was more outgoing and bubbly,” says Judy Garcia, one of the 10 finalists in the Teacher in Space program. “That’s not to say that Barbara is diminished in any way. Barbara is a quieter person, but deep. When you were with Christa, you were laughing, you were caught up in her smile, her effervescence. With Barbara, you’re struck by her quiet depth. Neither one of them was lacking in charisma. It’s just that they projected it in different ways.”

During their training for the flight, McAuliffe and Morgan lived in close-by apartments and became good friends. Soon after arriving in Houston, they went shopping together for pots, pans, and groceries, and before Morgan had even stowed her purchases, McAuliffe was at her door with a plate heaping full of chocolate chip cookies, a welcoming gesture for her backup. “She lived her life the way she ran her classroom,” Morgan recalls, “and her classroom was based on two things: It was mutual respect and that you be true to yourself. And those were the two models that she lived by.”

In a letter home, McAuliffe wrote of her training, “I’m still enjoying this different life. Thank God for Barbara, though. We both agreed that if we were doing this solo, we wouldn’t last.”

Barbara Morgan was at Cape Canaveral when the Challenger launched on the cold morning of January 28, 1986. The disaster unfolded not in a single, dramatic moment but in a bewildering, piecemeal fashion. Because the shuttle was nine miles high when it detonated, and because light travels faster than sound, the explosion’s blinding flash reached the ground first. But with the sound of the Challenger‘s engines still roaring in their ears, some in the crowd at Canaveral cheered, thinking the shuttle had successfully cleared another stage of the flight.

Then, as the single, steady stream of smoke trailing the rocket divided wildly, the sound of the blast hit the Earth, rattling the grandstands. That was followed by an unsettling quiet, the engines’ roar now silenced, as pieces of the rocket and the spacecraft rained down on the Atlantic. The cabin holding the astronauts took nearly three minutes to drop out of the sky, and it smacked into the ocean at more than 200 miles an hour.

In the 12 years since the accident, Morgan has steadfastly refused to talk much about what she saw and felt that day. Today, the reporter from People is prodding her to relive the moment, but her answers offer only the barest of details.

Where were you that day?, the reporter asks.

“At Cape Canaveral,” Morgan replies.

Where exactly?

“On the top of some building.”

Gently, the reporter probes further, but Morgan balks. “I know it’s going to give you a more positive story, but it’s a painful way to get a more positive story.”

Despite her reluctance to discuss the accident, Morgan was clearly shaken by it. Her husband, Clay, was at Canaveral that day, too. A writer, he had just completed a draft for a novel about 20-year-old Daniel Cooper, a college dropout from Idaho seeking adventure in South America. After the book, Santiago and the Drinking Party, was published in 1992, Clay Morgan told National Public Radio that the Challenger accident deeply affected both him and Barbara and dramatically changed the tone of his original draft. “NASA hurried us and the members of the astronauts’ families into the crew quarters there at the Cape. And, you know, nobody knew what had happened exactly, but everyone knew something bad had happened, and the grief in that room was—was just immense.”

There were kids in the room, Morgan continued, running around without a clue as to what had happened. “They kept us all from going crazy, really. And I think it was at that time—definitely for me and I think for Barbara—that we decided to have kids.”

Morgan dedicated Santiago to the crew of the Challenger, “with love and remembrance.” The novel earned lavish reviews; the Washington Post called it “a deeply felt and provocative inquiry into the nature of life and death.” In its opening pages, the protagonist joins a group of locals crossing the Amazon River in a dugout canoe, but the canoe is sucked into a whirlpool, drowning two of the passengers. Afterward, Cooper stands on the river bank, dazed and confused. “I waited around, wanting to do something because two people had drowned. But there were never any sirens, or ambulances, or doctors, or bodies. No heroics, just hysterics, and disappearance and death.”

Morgan, as one of the chief defenders of NASA, began to emerge from McAuliffe’s shadow.

In the months after the Challenger accident, NASA sent Morgan and the other state finalists in the teacher program around the country as “space ambassadors.” In public appearances and interviews, they preached the need to continue space exploration. NASA at the time was under siege. Christa McAuliffe’s brother, Kit, went on television after the accident and accused the agency of using his sister for PR. Ex-astronauts, too, questioned NASA, with some declaring that they wouldn’t dare step onto the shuttle. Eventually, a presidential commission investigating the accident fingered the now-infamous O-ring as the cause of the explosion, but it also noted serious errors in judgment by NASA officials.

Despite the firestorm of criticism, NASA announced that the Teacher in Space program would continue with Morgan. In her new role as soon-to-be first civilian in space, the teacher played the good soldier: NASA, she said over and over, had warned the Teacher in Space finalists repeatedly about the dangers of space flight. Whatever problem doomed the Challenger, NASA will fix it, she confidently predicted.

A profile of Morgan in the Los Angeles Times reported that some of her friends watching Morgan deliver her televised defense of NASA “detected an uncharacteristic steeliness.” One teaching colleague said, “I get concerned that she will become hardened because she is always having to be ‘on’ and showing the ‘right stuff’ and saying the right thing....Barb’s always been real positive about NASA, but I think she could be saying, ‘Look NASA, you screwed up and seven people died, and I want some explanation.’”

But Dick Methia, one of the 10 finalists for the Teacher in Space program, says heaping blame on NASA would have been uncharacteristic for Morgan or any of the teachers in the program. “We had seen in the course of the project and our training hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the most remarkable people,” he explains. “Brilliant scientists and engineers, wonderful people. There was a lot of sympathy between us because we knew that most of them could earn a lot more money on the outside than they could working for a federal agency. And yet they loved what they were doing, they had a passion for space exploration. So to accuse an entire agency—which to us was not an agency, it was the accumulated human beings that we had met—was just fundamentally unfair.”

Regardless, Morgan, as one of the chief defenders of NASA, began to emerge from McAuliffe’s shadow. As she crisscrossed the country and spoke before teacher conferences and other groups, people sought her autograph and cheered her courage. Reporters emerged from interviews wowed by the strength of her convictions. “Morgan’s indomitable optimism and genuine faith in the space program have made her NASA’s brightest media star,” concluded the Los Angeles Times profile.

‘Barb, you better stretch your legs for a minute,” Clay Morgan says firmly, finally managing to terminate the People interview. The teacher agrees, but rather than take a break, she does a quick lap around the room, introducing herself to the newly arrived reporters.

“She’s had a hard couple of days,” NASA’s Beth Schmid says of Morgan as she opens the floor to questions, “but she’s done great.” Indeed, since the January announcement that NASA was fulfilling its promise to send her into space, Morgan has done dozens of interviews. John Glenn has grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines—NASA released word of Morgan’s shuttle ride the same day it announced that it was sending the U.S. senator and ex-Mercury Seven astronaut back into space—but Morgan has cut an equally impressive figure as the quintessential astronaut hero, exuding confidence, selflessness, and patriotism, saying the right thing and demonstrating the right stuff. “To tell you the truth,” she told one reporter, “I don’t see this as an opportunity for me. I think it’s an opportunity for the whole country, one we are going to seize and do all we can with.”

Anyone who faces the media over and over recognizes the value of a good sound bite—Christa McAuliffe called them “sparklers"—and Morgan is no exception. “Right off the bat,” she tells Katie Couric on the Today show, “I want to say that Christa McAuliffe was and always will be our teacher in space, for ever and ever"—something she’ll repeat again and again in interviews.

NASA astronauts are typically prim and proper in their appearance, and Morgan has dressed the part for the interviews today, wearing blue pants, a white turtleneck, and a blue scarf. Her dark-brown hair is parted in the middle, a style that seems to fit the ‘80s more than the ‘90s. As she answers each question, her pale green eyes never waver, never wander.

The Mercury Seven astronauts viewed the reporters covering space exploration as obsessed with its risks. According to Moon Shot, the memoir of Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, Shepard’s wife, Louise, was asked so many times whether she feared for her husband’s life that the question was like “some kind of angry bug she wanted to grind into the earth with her heel.”

The reporters meeting with Morgan today ask a few questions about her teaching, but they never stray too far from the Challenger accident, the new mission, and its risks. Despite Morgan’s diverse background and interests, they seem intent mostly on establishing her bona fides as an astronaut hero. At one point, describing her training in 1985, Morgan notes the awkwardness she felt manipulating a simulator with her left arm. “There’s not much I do with my left hand other than play my flute,” she says, “and this is totally different than holding my flute.” It’s the first time in the interview that Morgan has mentioned her flute, and, indeed, the first time the discussion has detoured to her personal life. But the reporters ignore this tantalizing detail and hustle back to their original line of questioning. Her life, it seems, does not hold as much interest as the potential of her death.

“Barb’s not doing this because of some romantic quirkiness. She feels in her bones that this is something really important.”

Dick Methia, finalist, Teacher in Space program

If the media’s questions about an astronaut’s mortality bugged Louise Shepard, Morgan swats them away effortlessly. One reporter asks if the two children she has had since the Challenger accident—Adam, 10, and Ryan, 8—changed her thinking about a space flight. The question virtually begs Morgan to acknowledge some hesitation to fly, some natural fear of dying, some humanness behind her gung-ho, I’m-ready-to-go responses; surely having children made you less eager to fly, it implies. But with the deftness of a veteran politician, Morgan pivots on the question and delivers an upbeat answer brimming with confidence: Having kids, she assures the reporter, only made her more eager to take the mission. “It’s important for children growing up to see adults doing this kind of thing, living life to the fullest, learning all that they can, and taking risks....We should not be afraid of being human, and we should not be afraid of living life to the fullest. I can’t imagine living life any other way.”

Later, one reporter flatly asks if she is scared about the launch. Morgan answers, “No,” and says nothing more, letting the single word hang in the air. Then, as if realizing the incredulity of such a statement, she adds, “That’s not to say that I won’t be nervous, or alert, as I sit on the launch pad.”

Such a matter-of-fact dismissal is expected of astronauts. It is a sign of their incredible bravery, and we take them at their word even though we know it can’t possibly be true. Morgan has to be scared, for herself, for her husband, and her two children. Any astronaut who denies it is being less than candid, says Teacher in Space finalist Judy Garcia. “And if you’re not scared, you shouldn’t go. An intelligent person has to be aware of the complexity of the shuttle, and how really experimental it is. It’s still pretty primitive in many ways.”

Still, Garcia adds, the risks of space flight have been exaggerated. A shuttle flight is probably no more dangerous than parasailing or bungee jumping, and the payoff is much more than cheap thrills. Barbara Morgan has assessed the danger of the mission, Garcia contends, and she has decided the benefits of putting a teacher in space warrant the risk.

Dick Methia agrees: “I know Barb real well. It’s not something that she dismisses lightly. She’s not doing this because of some romantic quirkiness. She feels in her bones that this is something really important.”

When President Reagan announced the Teacher in Space program in 1984, the New York Times’ Russell Baker derided it, claiming “the media malarkey...would turn a good schoolteacher into another useless celebrity, adept at breakfast-time chatter with [talk-show hosts] but too world-weary to pound the desk effectively at a slovenly student’s misreading of Caesar.”

Baker’s words proved prophetic—the Teacher in Space publicity razzle-dazzle included putting actress Pam Dawber of the TV show Mork and Mindy on the panel that named the finalists. But McAuliffe proved that a teacher celebrity would hardly be, as Baker suggested, useless. Teachers and the teaching profession were at a nadir in the mid-1980s. In 1983, A Nation At Risk declared public education a failure, and the reports that followed pointed an accusing finger at teachers, saying they weren’t academically prepared and they weren’t invested in improving schools. Eager to fix the “teacher problem,” legislators responded with attacks on tenure, schemes for merit pay, and, in a few states, laws to require teachers to pass basic-skills tests. “Teachers were in the forefront of the firestorm and were constantly being bashed,” says Mary Hatwood Futrell, dean of the graduate school of education at George Washington University, who was then president of the National Education Association.

In McAuliffe, the public found good cause to doubt the bleak reports about teachers.

In McAuliffe, though, teachers found a champion. During her months in the limelight, McAuliffe never missed a chance to talk up the profession. Teachers are smart people, she said over and over again; they work hard, and they care deeply about kids. That was a vital message, but the messenger carried the day. In McAuliffe, the public found good cause to doubt the bleak reports about teachers. Virtually overnight, she was hit by fame, stinging criticism, and the risk of riding a rocket to space, yet she handled it all with grace and style. Becoming a national icon would be a piece of cake for any teacher, she seemed to say. When asked if she was nervous appearing on the Tonight Show, McAuliffe laughed and said, “I’ve handled children in the classroom for 15 years; I can manage 15 minutes with Johnny Carson.”

McAuliffe’s impact can’t be measured exactly, but it’s certainly no coincidence that in the years following her time in the limelight, both policymakers and the public expressed more faith in the profession. The problems in the schools, people realized, were not all a manifestation of bad teachers; parents, administrators, and even students had to assume a share of the blame.

At the same time, teachers began to take more pride in their profession. A 1981 NEA survey of its members showed that 46 percent would become teachers again if given the choice. Five years later, a few months after McAuliffe’s death, that figure nosed upward for the first time since 1966; by 1996, it reached 63 percent.

If nothing else, McAuliffe made teaching a more popular career choice. Each fall, UCLA researchers poll college freshmen nationwide about their plans for after graduation. Those surveys indicate that between the fall of 1984, a few months after the Teacher in Space program was launched, and the fall of 1987, roughly nine months after the Challenger explosion, the number of freshmen who planned to teach climbed by nearly 50 percent. The popularity of a career in the classroom has grown even more since; today, the UCLA survey reports that nearly one in 10 freshmen hopes to teach.

McAuliffe has a lot to do with those numbers, argues Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College, Columbia University. College students that Levine surveyed in 1993 pointed to the Challenger accident as a seminal event in their lives. Like John F. Kennedy, Levine argues, McAuliffe became larger in death than in life and inspired young people to choose careers where they could do good. “No other event shaped their lives more,” he says. “There was nothing so powerful. Christa McAuliffe was real to these kids. They really thought she was going to come into their rooms and teach from space.”

Can Morgan have a similar impact? It’s clear she’s going to try. “There were three goals of the Teacher in Space program,” she says, “and the very first one was to raise the prestige of the teaching profession. This is a continuation of that.”

In the interviews she’s given since January, Morgan has never missed a chance to draw parallels between astronauts and teachers, to paint them both as explorers and leaders whose job it is to educate and inspire. And like McAuliffe did, she has stated emphatically that once her NASA stint is done, she will return to the classroom because there’s nothing more exciting than teaching. “I am a teacher,” she told a January gathering of reporters. “Those of us who love teaching, who stay with it, see it as a kind of calling. Being a teacher is in my heart.”

A few NASA observers and newspaper columnists have already criticized her trip to space as a frivolous—and dangerous—exercise in PR. But Morgan rejects the notion that sending a teacher into space is “just” symbolism. “Get the ‘just’ out of there. It is symbolic. And that’s probably the most important reason for doing it. That’s how we teach. It’s how we communicate. Math is a symbolic language; literature is symbolism.”

For teachers, Morgan’s journey may come at a crucial time. Certainly, teachers have more respect and power than they did in the mid-1980s; they regularly sit on the panels that write the hefty white papers assessing education’s failures. Various surveys also suggest that teachers are more satisfied with their jobs than they were a decade ago. But the health of the profession is hardly robust. Teacher-bashing is still a favorite sport among legislators, and both policymakers and the public regard teachers with palpable condescension. And while interest in teaching as measured by the UCLA survey has grown, it is still less than half of what it was in the late 1960s when more than 20 percent of college freshmen aimed for a career in the classroom.

What teaching needs now is a hero as defined by today’s media-obsessed culture: someone attractive and someone glib enough to banter with Katie Couric.

Indeed, the need for a powerful symbol, a teacher hero, may be greater now than it was in 1986. With enrollments booming and retirement looming for large numbers of educators, schools will have to hire some 2 million new teachers in the next decade. Yet many improvements in the teaching profession are taking place out of the public eye. Groups like the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are raising the prestige and quality of teachers, but their work—grubby jargon-loaded stuff—doesn’t grab headlines.

Education does not lack for heroes—plenty of the people working in the classrooms are models of courage, integrity, and I’m-going-to-beat-the-odds determination. But what teaching may need now is a hero as defined by today’s media-obsessed culture: someone attractive, someone perceived as glamorous, and someone glib enough to banter with Katie Couric.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, for one, embraces the notion that the teacher in space has to be a media personality. Futrell is a Johnny-come-lately to the idea of putting a teacher in space. In 1984, she branded Reagan’s program a “gimmick” intended to steal teachers’ votes from the NEA-backed Walter Mondale. “Sending one teacher into outer space won’t solve the problems of schools on Earth,” she proclaimed then.

These days, Futrell sees things differently. “When I look over the past decade, we’ve come a long way,” she says. “But we’re not there yet. Barbara’s coming along at a pivotal point. She is going to become a beacon of light and hope for teachers and the profession.”

Whereas Futrell once blasted the Teacher in Space program’s gimmickry, she now embraces it. To be a beacon of light and hope in the modern age, she argues, you’ve got to play the media game and do the talk shows and the interviews. “Why not? If this is an opportunity to enhance the profession, why not? We need 2 million new teachers in the next decade. What better way to highlight the profession and attract good people.

“And even if all the interviews she does change the life of only a single child and make that child stay in school and study harder and work more on his math and science, then her mission will be a success.”

Late this summer, Barbara Morgan and her husband will pack up their boys and their belongings and move to Houston. Training for the Challenger flight lasted only a few months—the teacher in space needed only to know what buttons not to push, Morgan jokes. This time around, she will spend two years training to become what NASA calls an “educator mission specialist.” At the end of the training, NASA promises, Morgan will be a full-fledged astronaut.

Long before then, however, the media will have anointed Morgan a hero. In mid-May, she’s scheduled for another cattle-call session with reporters out West. NASA officials say they will limit her interviews so as not to interfere with her training, but undoubtedly, by the time she goes into space, there won’t be many people in America who don’t know that Barbara Morgan has the right stuff.

Several months before the Challenger launch, CNN named Christa McAuliffe one of its three heroes of 1985. McAuliffe was puzzled by her selection. “A hero?” she said. “A hero is someone who has defied the odds by breaking a stereotype and endured the challenge of being first at something.... My gosh, I haven’t done anything. Ask me after I’ve flown.”

Now, we’ll have to ask Barbara Morgan.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Rising Star

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