After Long Wait, Barbara Morgan Is on the Verge of Space

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NEW YORK Twenty-two years after she first answered NASA’s call to send a teacher into space, Barbara Morgan is finally on the verge of Earth orbit.

Despite that wait, Morgan says there is a familiar lesson behind her long path to the launch pad.

“That’s what defines teachers, is perseverance and patience,” she told reporters in a preflight briefing. “So I am just doing the job of a teacher.”

Morgan, 55, and six crewmates are slated to launch spaceward Aug. 8 aboard NASA’s revamped shuttle Endeavour to continue assembly of the international space station (ISS). The spaceflight will mark Morgan’s first foray into orbit since NASA selected her in 1985 as the backup to New Hampshire high school teacher Christa McAuliffe on what was intended to be the inaugural flight of the civilian Teacher in Space program.

McAuliffe and six NASA astronauts were killed aboard Space Shuttle Challenger when it broke apart just after launch Jan. 28, 1986. As McAuliffe’s backup, Morgan served as NASA’s Teacher in Space Designee for formal activities before returning to her classroom in McCall, Idaho.

But in 1998, NASA named Morgan the agency’s first professional educator astronaut, blending the duties of a space shuttle mission specialist with those of a teacher to reach out to students and the public. But her mission, Morgan said, does not bring McAuliffe’s unfinished flight to a close.

“Christa’s legacy is open-ended,” Morgan said in an interview, adding that she felt it was important to pursue a spaceflight after the tragedy to show students how adults responded to bad situations. “She was, is and always will be our teacher in space.”

Teaching from Space

By the time she applied to NASA’s Teacher in Space program, Morgan — at 33 — was an accomplished educator.

The Fresno, Calif., native began teaching math and reading in 1974 on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee, Mont., then later moved on to McCall-Donnelly Elementary School in Idaho. She applied to NASA after a year teaching English to students in Quito, Ecuador, but she says education will always be her passion.

“It was something I wanted to do when I was little because I loved learning and I had great teachers growing up,” Morgan said in a NASA interview. “I think they had a lot of influence on me.”

After completing her educator astronaut training, Morgan served as a spacecraft communicator, or Capcom, acting as the voice of Mission Control to astronaut crews in space. NASA named her to the STS-118 crew in 2002, but the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew a year later put her flight on hold.

She has relied on the support of her husband Clay and two sons throughout her training, she said.

“They are very proud of the program,” Morgan said, adding that she believes space exploration is vital to spur students onward in their education. “They know it’s important and they’re glad that we get to have a chance to be part of it.”

Morgan has dedicated only about six hours for purely educational tasks during the STS-118 mission, part of which she’ll be using to help demonstrate how plants grow in space. She is scheduled to conduct one interactive video event with students on Earth, but if time permits could do as many as three.

Morgan’s primary duties will involve the busy job of hauling some 2,267 kilograms of cargo from Endeavour to the ISS and wielding the shuttle’s robotic arm to install new station hardware. “I don’t look at Barb as a teacher flying on this flight,” Endeavour’s STS-118 mission commander Scott Kelly said of Morgan in an interview. “I look at her as one of my crewmembers who used to be a teacher.”

Mission specialist Tracy Caldwell, who also is making her first spaceflight during STS-118, said Morgan is well-suited to her role as both space educator and professional spaceflyer. Caldwell also credited her own teachers for laying the foundation of her astronaut career.

“She’s a tough cookie and I don’t think anything is going to stand in the way of her doing the job that she’s been asked to do and that she’s been well trained to do,” Caldwell said of Morgan.

But the former Idaho schoolteacher said she hopes her flight is only the first of many for NASA’s educator astronauts. Since her selection, NASA has trained three new teachers to fly in space, and Morgan plans to eventually come full circle and return to classroom.

“I do look forward to going back in the future,” she said. “I taught for 24 years before taking this lateral move to do this job. And I loved every minute of it.”