Teacher Will Be Shuttle’s Next Civilian Passenger
Idaho’s Morgan gets nod; other finalists insist they knew of the risks.
By J.R. Sirkin
While investigations of the space shuttle Challenger disaster intensified last week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that Idaho teacher Barbara R. Morgan had been invited to follow in Sharon Christa McAuliffe’s footsteps and become the first U.S. civilian in space.
Later that day, at a press conference in Boise, Idaho, Ms. Morgan, the runner-up to Ms. McAuliffe in last year’s nationwide search for the first teacher in space, appeared to accept NASA’s offer to fly on the shuttle.
“We have an opportunity to teach an entire generation a very important lesson,” said Ms. Morgan, who teaches at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School in McCall, Idaho.
“The Challenger mission was a schoolchildren’s mission. They’re waiting to see what adults will do in a situation like this. I’m ready to be their partner.”
A Teacher Goes Next
At a press conference NASA called last Thursday to affirm that it would press ahead with the educational aspects of the shuttle program, William R. Graham, the space agency’s acting administrator, said that NASA would continue to send civilians into space, and that a teacher would be the first civilian to fly on the shuttle when—and if—the embattled program resumes.
“We certainly don’t intend to have the citizen space-flight program end with any one space flight or with one person,” Mr. Graham said. “The President said that a teacher should be the first private citizen in space, and we’re going to continue with that commitment.”
A journalist had previously been scheduled for the next civilian space flight.
Flanked by Mary Hatwood Futrell, the president of the National Education Association, representatives of the American Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Education Department, and two of the 10 teacher-in-space finalists, Mr. Graham also said that Ms. Morgan would be given first choice for a seat on the shuttle.
“It’s the consensus of the finalists that in fact Barbara should be offered the first opportunity when we resume space flight, and she will be offered that opportunity,” he said.
Mr. Graham also announced that Ms. Morgan, who is married but has no children, was being reassigned to NASA headquarters here and would undertake various speaking engagements and other activities.
He said the other eight teacher-in-space finalists would also continue working for NASA, at least until August, when their one-year contracts expire.
But Mr. Graham did not say when the shuttle program would resume, or which shuttle launch would include a teacher. He said NASA had not yet selected a back-up for Ms. Morgan, although speculation centered on the eight finalists.
The entire shuttle program is currently on hold while a Presidential commission investigates the cause of last month’s explosion.
Ms. Morgan in Idaho
Ms. Morgan, who did not attend the press conference, had been in Washington for several days of lengthy briefings prior to Thursday’s announcement. The eight other finalists were also involved, and all but one attended the press conference here.
The two finalists who spoke from the dais were Judith M. Garcia, of Alexandria, Va., and Michael Metcalf, of Hardwick, Vt.
Ms. Morgan left here on Wednesday and gave an impromptu news conference later that day in Boise, which is a three-hour drive from her home in McCall.
She had made no public comments since the Challenger explosion more than two weeks ago.
Ed Campion, a NASA spokesman, said Ms. Morgan did not attend the press conference here “because she’s back in Idaho, resting.”
Mr. Graham explained Ms. Morgan’s absence by saying, “Barbara is pretty well known” to the public.
Mr. Graham said the decision to announce that NASA had offered Ms. Morgan a seat on the shuttle certainly has Barbara’s concurrence and blessing.” He added that she “very much appreciated being offered the first opportunity” to fly on the shuttle, but that her decision would “depend on circumstances at the time.”
In her remarks at the Boise airport, Ms. Morgan reportedly said, “I’d like to fly just as much as anyone who was selected [as a finalist] would.”
Susan Anderson, a friend and colleague at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School, said Ms. Morgan had told her the previous week that she would “fly in a minute” if given the chance.
Questioning at the press conference here focused on whether NASA had adequately warned Ms. McAuliffe and the other finalists of the risks involved in the shuttle flight.
In recent days, the space agency has been rocked by revelations that it proceeded with the Challenger launch even though it knew of defects in the shuttle’s solid rocket-fuel boosters, which have become a focus of inquiries into the cause of the disaster.
Some Congressmen—notably Senator John Glenn, the former astronaut—have also questioned the wisdom of sending civilians aboard the shuttle because of the risks involved.
But Ms. Garcia, Mr. Metcalf, and the other finalists, all of whom have been on the NASA payroll for six months, insisted during the press conference and in separate interviews that they were well aware of the risks involved in the shuttle flight, as was Ms. McAuliffe.
“A lot of people are saying this was unfair to Christa because she was not an astronaut and didn’t understand the risks,” Kathleen A. Beres, one of the finalists, said in an interview. “She knew what the risks were. We all did.”
Peggy J. Lathlaen, another of the finalists, said that Francis R. Scobee, the commander of the Challenger mission, had warned the teacher finalists that the shuttle “could explode at any time.”
“We knew there were risks,” Ms. Morgan said in Boise.
‘Every Nook and Cranny’
Ms. Garcia said that NASA had allowed them to poke into “every nook and cranny” of the shuttle operations, and that she had concluded that safety was the space agency’s “top priority.”
“The orbiter is a miracle of modern technology,” she said, although she added that it may have “some problems that have yet to be solved.”
Mr. Metcalf drew cheers from NASA officials in the back of the room when he said of Ms. McAuliffe and her crew, “If they had known then what they know now, NASA would have known and no one would have gone up.”
Mr. Graham added that he had not learned of defects in the shuttle boosters until after the launch.
The teacher finalists, all of whom appeared upbeat, also said that the disaster had not shaken their confidence in NASA, and that they would leap at the opportunity to fly on the shuttle.
“I’d go tomorrow,” said Niki M. Wenger, another of the finalists.
“When they deemed the flight was ready, I would be confident it was ready and I’d be willing to go,” Ms. Garcia added.
“I really have confidence that NASA will fix things up,” Ms. Morgan said in Boise. “People at NASA don’t see problems as problems, they see them as challenges,” she said.
“I’m confident that Barbara or anyone at NASA would not climb into that thing unless they’re sure it works,” Ms. Morgan’s husband, Clayton, added.
But the teacher finalists were much less specific about when they were informed of the risks associated with space flight and how specifically NASA spelled out those risks.
Because of NASA’s almost spotless safety record, many observers that any such warning, unless presented in graphic detail, would not have deterred the teachers from participating.
Ms. Wenger said the finalists were informed of the risks “at all points in the selection process.”
She said they were told, “Here’s the system we have, here’s how it works, and here are the risks.”
“I don’t remember if we were given the odds,” on a possible explosion, she said. But she insisted “the numbers were not important.”
“You don’t have to be a teacher to understand that when liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen get together, there is a risk,” she said.
Ms. Garcia said the teachers “were not informed specifically” about recently reported problems with the O-rings that seal the seams where sections of the shuttle boosters are joined, but she added that Ms. McAuliffe and Ms. Morgan “probably got more information than we did.”
“You’d have to ask Barbara what detail they went into,” she said.
Ms. Futrell, an early critic of the teacher-in-space project, who later came to support it, called on NASA to “tolerate no retreat from its commitment to America’s students.”
“We admit, as does NASA, that it was symbolic to send a teacher into space,” Ms, Futrell said after the press conference. The teacher-in-space project is “partly” a public-relations effort, she said, “but it’s also partly a realistic program to take our children into the 21st century.”
She said the N.E.A. had urged NASA to “continue with the program, involve teachers, and make it relevant to children.”
Scott Widmeyer, a spokesman for the A.F.T., which has also initially been critical of the teacher-in-space project, said, “We still have a ways to go in improving science education in the country, and we need the support of NASA. We still have science textbooks in classrooms that say someday we may go to the moon.”
Vol. 23, Issue 5, Pages 1, 20-21