The Space Ambassadors

By Andrew Trotter — June 03, 1998 10 min read
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When the space shuttle Challenger exploded over the Florida coast on Jan. 28, 1986, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other crew members, few people were affected as deeply as the “Class of 51-L.”

They were the 112 teachers who were also in the running for McAuliffe’s seat on that ill-fated mission—Flight 51-L—as state finalists in NASA’s competition to choose the first teacher in space.

Although they had not been picked, they were fully invested in the endeavor. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had dubbed them “space ambassadors” and charged them with carrying the vision of space discovery back to their home states. The space agency had hired the 10 national finalists to work with its space centers for a year on special projects. And just days before the launch, they all had gathered in Florida for a conference on space education.

Then, shockingly, Christa McAuliffe was dead and the Challenger was reduced to debris on the ocean floor.

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Many of the teachers describe that day and the weeks that followed the accident as one of the hardest, most emotional periods in their lives.

“It was an incredible shock and tragedy—even now I feel it,” says Stephanie M.G. Wright, a Delaware state finalist who witnessed the explosion.

Only much later did most of the teachers realize that the disaster would galvanize a bond between them and send many down paths they had hardly expected when they applied to the teacher-in-space program.

Some would almost singlehandedly take over the cause of space education in their home states. Others made their mark by training teachers, using the experience as a teaching tool, and representing their profession to the space science community and the public at large.

“We saw the potential of space, we knew the potential of that to turn kids on,” recalls Richard Methia, a Massachusetts applicant who was among the final 10. “After the tragedy, we decided it was even more important, with a more somber tone, that this legacy had to be carried on.”

Wright, for example, was teaching music when she applied to the program. She is now the director of aerospace education for Delaware and runs a program to train the state’s teachers.

Challenger returns to Edwards Air Force Base. NASA archive.

She is also working with three other members of the Class of 51-L to write a NASA curriculum about Mars. “I’m not here to teach advanced aeronautics, I’m here to teach the essence of what the U.S. space program embodies,” Wright says.

Another finalist, Freda D. Deskin of Oklahoma, has spent the past five years building a space education program from the ground up at Oklahoma City University.

She says that even before she was selected as a state finalist, she had devised ways to use themes such as space to teach character education, science, and math. But the teacher-in-space program convinced her that the space theme was unmatched for this purpose—and provided her with contacts in aerospace and a flood of NASA publications.

Her facility has a 2-story simulated space shuttle and mission-control center. In addition to supporting a university degree program, it is used to train state teachers and host class programs, summer camps, and mentorships for between 20,000 and 40,000 students a year.

“I use the interest of space as just the tool to motivate kids to realize they don’t have to be born under a special star to understand math and science,” Deskin says.

Other space ambassadors can boast accomplishments of similar magnitude since the Challenger explosion, says Alan M. Ladwig, who in 1985 was the manager of NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program.

“They never faded into the background,” Ladwig says. “A lot of them got very active at the state level.”

The teacher-in-space program began in August 1984, when President Reagan announced that NASA’s experiment to put ordinary citizens on the space shuttle would begin with a teacher.

The agency considered sending a journalist up first—because the person’s role would be to disseminate information—but decided a teacher would benefit the nation in other ways. “We felt it was very important to do something to recognize the teaching profession,” Ladwig explains. “Back then, the teacher profession was not all that appreciated.”

Some 11,000 teachers from across the country sent in applications. The following spring, two finalists were chosen from each state, the U.S. territories, the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and the Department of Defense Dependents Schools; one teacher later dropped out, bringing the total to 113.

NASA brought them all to Washington in June 1985 to compete for the 10 slots from whose ranks would be chosen the first teacher in space and a backup.

Despite the competitive tenor of the weeklong event, many applicants realized they were onto something special.

“I looked at the 113 of us in that room at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. I said, ‘Oh my God, these people could light New York City,’” says Linda J. Preston, a finalist from Utah.

Reading the bios provided by NASA, they saw they were from all manner of districts, and taught at all grade levels, in just about every discipline, including music, literature, social studies, and the sciences. They ranged in age from 27 to 65.

And yet they had many things in common. They were experienced and highly regarded in their fields. Not only were they attracted to space, many had also come up with their own ways of using space exploration and other real-world topics to invigorate their classes and blend material from many disciplines—techniques much less common in 1985 than today.

The participants expected a strenuous interview process, but found instead that “it actually turned out to be a very meaningful and productive workshop” about space education, says Wendell G. Mohling, a state finalist from Kansas who is now an associate executive director at the National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. “In one week’s time, we became a family.”

NASA Administrator James Beggs added a spark to that chemistry when he designated them “space ambassadors.” They hardly needed prompting. Even before the teachers arrived in Washington, NASA estimated they had collectively spoken to more than 1 million people at school and community events and professional conferences since being named state finalists.

Local newspapers and television stations had visited their classes and mapped their daily routines. “It was great publicity for our district and for education,” Mohling recalls.

At the end of the event, NASA asked the 10 national finalists to work on a variety of projects at the 10 NASA space centers. But the agency didn’t forget the larger group of teachers—even after McAuliffe, a high school teacher in Concord, N.H., and her backup, Barbara R. Morgan, an elementary teacher in McCall, Idaho, were chosen and the news media focused almost exclusively on them.

“It wasn’t just one teacher flying,” says Ladwig, now the associate administrator for policy at NASA’s Washington headquarters. “We always planned to have [them all] come to the launch to carry on with the whole space-ambassadors concept, to make them feel they were part of it.”

Only about 30 space ambassadors were still present at Cape Canaveral when the Challenger blew up just after liftoff. The rest had returned home after a week of technical glitches and bad weather delayed the launch.

When Jo Anne A. Reid learned of the accident, she and the other Mississippi finalist were about to address the state House—they had spoken to the Senate the night before—to tell the lawmakers of a campaign to get homes across the nation to turn on their porch lights during an expected nighttime flyby of the shuttle.

At first, she thought the report of an explosion was a cruel joke. She somehow got through the speech, to a standing ovation by the tearful legislators.

Then she went home, feeling devastated, and played the video of the accident “over and over again till midnight, and my husband came in and said, ‘You’ve got to stop.’”

Challenger in Orbit. NASA

Reid says she was touched by the small gestures of others--the school secretary gave her red, white, and blue carnations; the students in her chemistry class lined up to shake her hand and say, “Glad it wasn’t you.”

People at church the following Sunday said the same thing, which struck her as odd. “I never thought about me,” Reid says.

Still, it was three months before she felt back to normal.

All of the state finalists were besieged by reporters after the explosion—the obvious local angle. Many remember that attention with bitterness.

Roger Rea, a finalist and chemistry teacher from Nebraska, recalls hearing of the accident at his high school in Omaha.

“That day was extremely difficult,” Rea says. “I had feelings but no knowledge [about the accident]. They smacked me with the information and put a microphone in my face.”

The Challenger accident was a public relations disaster for the space agency, resulting in the grounding of the shuttle program for 32 months.

After the accident, NASA sent the nine remaining finalists on nationwide tours, to reach out to the public with a message of hope.

To NASA’s surprise, the other state finalists, though unpaid, also pitched in.

“Just on their own, not through anything we planned, these teachers went back with fire in their belly,” Ladwig of NASA says.

Susan Darnell Ellis, a Kentucky state finalist, took a leave of absence from school and drove 25,000 miles across the state over the next two years, giving presentations and teacher workshops. Oklahoma’s Deskin put 50,000 miles on her family car doing the same thing.

The agency’s education program benefited in other ways from this diverse pool of teachers.

“We had a great education program, but they brought it visibility and outside blood and contacts with certain folks outside our world that helped strengthen it,” says Frank C. Owens, the director of NASA’s education division in Washington. “We all learned a great deal.”

Specifically, says Ladwig, NASA learned that the appreciation for space as a learning tool extended beyond science and math. For example, the agency’s Shuttle Student Involvement Program, which gives scholarships and other awards to high school students for their ideas on experiments to be conducted in space, was extended beyond science and math to include journalism and the arts.

The teachers say they gained immeasurably from the teacher-in-space program, taking away friendships and professional relationships that are still going strong.

Although a few have pulled back from the group over the years, more than 50 are on the same e-mail listserv, and they get together whenever they attend functions like the recent National Science Teachers Association meeting in Las Vegas.

“I spend more time talking to my teacher-in-space friends than I do with some of my cousins,” Mohling says.

Mississippi’s Reid says, “It is a great family, and I wouldn’t trade one of them.”

Another link is through the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a memorial created by the families of the crew of Flight 51-L.

The center, based in Alexandria, Va., invited all of the space ambassadors to serve as its faculty and began holding annual conferences on space education in 1987. It also sponsors 30 futuristic technology laboratories in the guise of a spacecraft and mission control at schools in the United States and Canada.

Three of the original members of the Class of 51-L have died since 1986. One teacher was elected to his state legislature, one became an aerospace executive, one a weatherman. One has crossed the Atlantic in a dinghy. Many have earned their doctorates, and a few are entering retirement.

And one is going into space.

ASA announced in January that Idaho’s Barbara Morgan will fly on an as-yet-unspecified shuttle mission as a full-fledged astronaut. She will be the first of a new class of NASA mission specialists who have education and teaching backgrounds in science, mathematics, and technology.

Her fellow space ambassadors can’t conceal their delight, especially because Morgan has been active in the group while continuing to teach at McCall Elementary School.

“Barbara’s been our mainstay, waiting for this opportunity,” says Mohling, the Kansas state finalist.

Many of them are hoping to be at Cape Canaveral at the launch of the mission. “And we know how to party pretty well,” says Linda Preston, the Utah finalist.

For many of the ambassadors, Morgan’s expected foray into space—which NASA says will occur no sooner than 2000—gives them a chance to reflect on their journeys since the Challenger accident.

Preston, who now trains teachers in the Jefferson County, Colo., schools on how to teach with technology, was recently invited to speak about the Challenger accident to two 5th grade classes there.

“I got a lot of questions about how it felt, what did I remember, how it happened,” she recalls.

“Funniest thing was walking out of the room and realizing I was old enough to be part of history.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1998 edition of Education Week as The Space Ambassadors


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