Shuttle Crash Fails To Deter NASA Interest

By Andrew Trotter — February 12, 2003 6 min read
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The crash of the space shuttle Columbia has not blunted the determination of teachers who want to fly into space, and NASA said last week it is still committed to making education part of the shuttle program’s mission.

Indeed, hundreds of teachers applied for the new “educator mission specialist” program even after the Feb. 1 catastrophe blanketed the news.

“If anything, [the accident] has made me want to accomplish this even more,” said Robyn Whitton Meckel, an 8th grade teacher at the 1,000-student Fairgrounds Junior High School in Nashua, N.H., as she prepared to meet with parents who would recommend her to NASA.

NASA still plans to add from three to six teachers to the astronaut corps, to follow the first educator mission specialist, Barbara R. Morgan, 51. (“NASA Launches Educator-Astronaut Program,” Jan. 29, 2003.)

That former Idaho elementary school teacher’s mission, which had been scheduled for November of this year, crumbled with the Columbia that was supposed to carry her into space.

But officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration declared that the educator mission specialist program would go on.

“We look forward to Barbara’s mission when we are able to return to flight,” Frederick Gregory, NASA’s deputy administrator, said at a U.S. Department of Education meeting on math education last Thursday.

Still, he conceded that the timetable for expanding educator participation was uncertain.

As of last week, 2,000 educators had applied to the program—and 700 of those applications were filed after the accident, according to NASA officials. The agency began taking applications Jan. 21.

Safety in Space

Despite the determination of teachers who want to be astronauts, a critic of the educator program said NASA needs to re-examine whether the safety risks outweigh the educational benefits.

“I don’t see the message to kids: ‘Study science and die in explosions,’ ” said Gregg Easterbrook, a science writer for The New Republic and a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mr. Easterbrook, who has long attacked the shuttle program as misguided and exorbitantly expensive, said that the 1986 explosion of the shuttle Challenger, which claimed the life of “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe, should have been the beginning and the end of NASA’s fling with the idea.

“Obviously, it has to end again,” he contended. “Space travel isn’t safe yet.”

He scoffed at NASA’s arguments that the space shuttle conducts true exploration and that teacher-led lessons from space would be superior to demonstrations by robots on unmanned missions, or to lessons simply conducted on Earth.

But Michael H. Farmer, a physics teacher in Greenville, S.C., argued that putting a teacher in space was a rational risk.

“I’m a realist and a scientist and a teacher—and throughout history, any time we do exploration we have tragedy,” he said. “We can start with Lewis and Clark, and Magellan, and anyone you want to—when you venture into the unknown, you’re going to have casualties.”

‘We Are Pretty Tenacious’

Mr. Farmer, 60, is preparing his own educator mission specialist application, which must be filed with NASA by April 30.

Though his age might make him an unlikely astronaut candidate to some people, Mr. Farmer was one of the 112 semifinalists in 1985 for the original Reagan-era program, and time has not cooled his passion for space.

Now teaching science to gifted and talented students at South Carolina’s 250-student Governor’s School for the Arts, he said teaching from space would forge new connections between science and the arts.

He said he tells his students now, “If you experience the universe using only your five senses, you’re going to miss most of it.”

In fact, several other “space ambassadors,” as the semifinalists and finalists from the original Teacher-in-Space project became known, are also applying, even though the requirements are much stiffer this go-round.

“We are pretty tenacious—and we all see the value in having an educator trying to translate the good science going on there [at NASA],” said Myra J. Halpin, 57, a teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham.

She is applying to the educator-astronaut program “for the same reason I applied 17 years ago ... to be able to teach science from a microgravity environment.”

At a much earlier career point, Ms. Meckel, the Nashua teacher is 25, newly married, and just four years into teaching. She said she started dreaming of being astronaut at age 5, and she attended and then worked at space camps because the sacrifice made by Ms. McAuliffe—another New Hampshire educator—"pushed me to what I wanted to do.”

A calling to “inspire people” later steered her into teaching, but Ms. Meckel said the NASA program represented a chance to reconnect her passions.

“We have to go out and venture into new opportunities,” she said. “Space is the new opportunity we have.”

Despite the Columbia tragedy, she said she remains undaunted by the risks of space flight.

Comfort and Science

Many teachers and school officials, meanwhile, spent time last week comforting and reassuring their students and one another, with degrees of response that often seemed to depend on whether the schools had special ties to the Columbia mission.

Among the schools feeling a sharper blow were those with students who were taking part in the six student-created science experiments that flew aboard the Columbia.

Four students at the 1,200-student Fowler High School in Syracuse, N.Y., for example, had traveled to Florida two days before the Jan. 16 launch of the Columbia to prepare their experiment—on the tunneling behavior of ants in weightlessness—before it was loaded on to the shuttle.

The day the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, school officials arranged for their teacher, Charlotte Archabald, and a school psychologist to call them at home; they met with Ms. Archabald at her home the next day.

“I advised them to take their phone off the hook,” she said.

One of the students, Somalia-born Liban Mohamed, 15, a sophomore, described watching the news coverage on Saturday, Feb. 1.

“It was horrifying, disbelief,” he said, and the loss of his experiment, which took more than a year of work, was disappointing.

But even after the accident, Mr. Mohamed concluded, “there’s risk involved in everything we do—to study more, we should continue on. We could not have gone this far in life without taking chances.”

At the 1,000-student Avondale Elementary School near Phoenix, students grieved with a teacher’s aide at the school, a sister of mission specialist Michael P. Anderson, who himself had attended the school. He had taken a shirt from Avondale’s school uniform aboard the Columbia, to return to the school after it had flown in space.

The pupils, who are in preschool through 2nd grade, were also concerned about the safety of their principal, Janet Beason, who had traveled to Florida to watch the launch.

“I had to go around and show them I was OK,” Ms. Beason said.

Meanwhile, in Lubbock, Texas, the 1,650-student Coronado High School posted on its Web site the yearbook photo of William C. McCool, the pilot of Columbia who graduated from the school in 1979.

“Gone but not forgotten,” the caption read.

He had carried aloft a “ratty rag,” a towel waved at the school’s football games that was stamped with the school’s mustang logo.

On the day of the accident, Principal Jack Booe said one of Mr. McCool’s former teachers, now retired, had called him to initiate a scholarship to honor the former student.

Marking the Debris

In East Texas, the site of the main debris field from the breakup of the shuttle, some schools were closed Feb. 3 until safety officials could assess whether debris contained contamination that posed a health risk.

The 340-student Douglass County district’s only school closed for one day after Superintendent Lowell McCuistion found about 25 pieces of debris, including insulation and metal tiles, scattered over the 12-acre campus. A 2-foot-long piece of metal resembling a car muffler caused a 6-inch gash in the school roof, he said.

He said that after he had marked all the fragments with little flags, “it just hit home that this tragedy happened.”

Assistant Editor David J. Hoff and Editorial Intern Hattie Brown contributed to this report.


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