It is not uncommon for a NASA astronaut to wait years – sometimes even as long as a decade – before getting assigned to a mission. It also is routine to see that flight opportunity, once it is formalized, delayed repeatedly by any number of factors. And without question, the roster of NASA astronauts is filled with brave people who are not just willing, but eager, to go into space even after watching too many of their colleagues die in the line of duty.
All of that said, there is still something very special about Barbara Morgan.
When Morgan returned to Earth aboard the shuttle Endeavor Aug. 21 it was the culmination of a dream that began more than two decades ago and one that could easily have ended that horrible day in January 1986 when the crew of the shuttle Challenger perished in a launch accident that will never be forgotten by those who saw it live or watched any of the endless
replays on television.
As the backup to New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s first teacher-in-space who died that day alongside her crewmates, Morgan had to confront a sea of emotions that must have included imponderable grief at the loss of so many friends, and grave uncertainty about her chances of fulfilling a dream that was just within her grasp.
She continued working at NASA through July 1986, speaking to educational organizations across the country, then returned to Idaho to resume her teaching career. While teaching second and third grades at McCall-Donnelly Elementary, she continued to work with NASA’s education programs as the Teacher in Space designee making public appearances, working as an educational consultant and serving on the National Science Foundation’s Federal Task Force for Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.
Despite occasional public calls for a revival of the teacher-in-space program, NASA resisted, consistently taking the view that the shuttle system was not operational and should only be used to transport professional astronauts into space and back.
Then in January 1998, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin found a way to give Morgan a chance, announcing that she had been selected for training as a mission specialist, giving her the chance to become a full-fledged astronaut. She began the two-year training and evaluation process that August, and two years later was assigned to a job in the astronaut office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Like so many other astronauts waiting for a specific flight assignment she worked in Mission Control as prime communicator with on-orbit crews and other jobs at places like the Robotics Branch of the Astronaut Office. Then Dec. 11, 2002 – more than 17 years after her selection as McAuliffe’s backup – Morgan was assigned to STS-118, a space station assembly mission scheduled to launch in November 2003. Less than two months later the crew of the shuttle Columbia died when their spacecraft broke up during re-entry.
She has said little publicly about Columbia other than “it was horrible.” But like so many of her colleagues she persevered.
Sadly, the timing of Endeavour’s flight in the middle of the summer vacation for most North American students – a lot of Canadians were also attuned to the flight because of the presence of Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams in the crew – denied her the opportunity to conduct live classroom sessions from orbit. But that will not impact her effectiveness or her legacy.
She is scheduled in the months ahead to make dozens of public appearances, particularly at schools. NASA should take full advantage. It is unfortunate that budget pressure has forced NASA in recent years to cut back spending on education programs. While it is not the agency’s primary mission, there is nonetheless an important role for NASA to play in education and Congress and the White House should make certain that there is enough money to accomplish that mission. Study after study has shown that space does more than any other topic to get students interested in math and science careers. With so many of its employees ready to retire, the only way NASA will fulfill its destiny to send astronauts back to the moon and then beyond, will be to convince a whole new generation to take up the challenge.
The lessons Morgan in particular can teach go far beyond math and science and straight to the heart of that challenge.
Her story is a triumph of perseverance, determination and courage. Like most of her colleagues she understood the considerable risk, confronted the fears and put her all into accomplishing the mission despite 20 years of setbacks.
What better lesson could she take to American classrooms?