Educator takes steps into the final frontier

After 22 years, two disasters and friend's death, teacher gets to travel into space

August 07, 2007|By Jim Stratton | Jim Stratton,Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. -- When space shuttle Challenger blew up, Barbara Morgan watched from a NASA viewing area as seven friends and colleagues - including fellow teacher Christa McAuliffe - plunged to their deaths.

Seventeen years later, when Columbia disintegrated over Texas, Morgan was in a NASA plane waiting to escort the ship home. She had been scheduled to fly on its next mission.

Now it's Morgan's turn to board a shuttle, and she is unfazed by past tragedies. When Endeavour lifts off - the launch is set for tomorrow - the teacher-turned-astronaut will be strapped into the orbiter and hurled skyward by almost 7 million pounds of thrust.

For NASA, the launch will cap its campaign to put a teacher in space. For Morgan, 55, it will complete a journey 22 years in the making.

"We're looking forward to a great flight," she said recently. "We're really looking forward to coming back and telling you all about it."

Morgan has been looking forward since 1985, the year she was runner-up to McAuliffe in NASA's Teacher in Space program. She trained with McAuliffe and would have been on Challenger had her friend been unable to fly.

Instead, Morgan was on the ground when Challenger broke apart. As she consoled those around her, she had no clue that her NASA profile was about to change.

Morgan would become one of NASA's chief ambassadors - the teacher and dreamer who supported the agency even as its fatal missteps became a matter of public record.

She ultimately joined the astronaut corps, becoming a mission specialist and enduring another shuttle disaster, in 2003. Whenever she was asked about her commitment to the program, Morgan talked about her students.

"Kids were watching to see what the adults do in a terrible, terrible situation," she said in a NASA preflight interview. It was "important for kids to see ... that we figure out what's wrong, we fix it, and we move on, and we keep the future open for our young people."

After studying human biology at Stanford University, Morgan took a job at an elementary school and earned a reputation as a gifted and dedicated teacher.

She rarely lectured, choosing instead to give students hands-on experiences.

"You can't really learn about something until you get a little bit on you," she'd say.

When President Ronald Reagan announced the Teacher in Space program in 1984, Morgan was watching the news.

"I shot straight up and said, `Wow!'" she said. "What a great opportunity."

More than 11,000 other teachers did the same thing, but eventually NASA settled on McAuliffe and Morgan.

After Challenger, Morgan traveled the country speaking to teachers and students about the space program. She then returned to her classroom but continued to work with NASA.

Morgan worked with NASA for the next 12 years, and in 1998, her commitment paid off. The agency again wanted to put a teacher in space, but this time, it wanted that teacher to be a trained astronaut. Morgan was NASA's choice.

Once in orbit, Endeavour will link up with the international space station, and Morgan will oversee the unloading of 5,000 pounds of equipment.

She'll also teach. On the mission's seventh day, Morgan is scheduled to do a live 20-minute lesson with students at a science museum in Boise, Idaho.

Jim Stratton writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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