Rising Star

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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."

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