She’s Gonna Need a Sub
NEA member Barbara Morgan spent years teaching students to reach for the stars. This summer, she’ll orbit them.
By Cynthia Kopkowski
Barbara Morgan’s name looms large, nearly a story tall on the IMAX screen behind her at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. In front of her on this January morning are 150 students and fellow teachers whose eyes widen when she talks about her job.
This summer, that job will entail operating a robotic arm to attach a large piece of equipment to the International Space Station while orbiting Earth with five fellow astronauts. For 14 days aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, she’ll dine on such delicacies as freeze-dried shrimp cocktail and twirling, airborne M&Ms. The view from her bedroom window will be the brilliant blue and white of Earth against the inky black of space.
To say it’s shaping up to be an interesting summer for Barbara Morgan is an understatement. The former Idaho elementary school teacher, who got her start at an American Indian reservation school in the 1970s, is poised to become the second teacher launched into space since the first headed there in 1986.
Want to make space pesto? Learn how!
1986. It is a year that haunts in the NASA halls and laboratories and in the minds of many educators, who remember watching as NEA member Christa McAuliffe’s flight to become the first teacher in space ended in a flash of light and arc of smoke across a cloudless sky. As a charter member of NASA’s Teacher in Space Program, Morgan had been McAuliffe’s backup for the doomed Challenger mission.
Morgan had answered a NASA ad soliciting applicants in a professional journal shortly after President Reagan announced plans to send a teacher to space. Several months later, she found herself at Johnson Space Center, working alongside the cheery and hard-working colleague from New Hampshire. McAuliffe will be with her still when she lifts off from Cape Canaveral this summer, Morgan says. “Teachers all over the world carry her with them. Christa was and always will be our teacher in space.”
After the Challenger accident, Morgan returned to the classroom in Idaho, finding comfort in the daily challenge of engaging and guiding students as she had done throughout her career as an elementary reading, remedial math, and science teacher. But she says she never really left NASA in spirit or in practice. While in Idaho, she continued to lecture, consult, and design curriculum for the agency.
In 1998, the call came from Houston asking if she wanted to return to the space flight queue, this time as the first Educator Astronaut. The title was new, as was the job. In a significant twist on her previous role, she would become a fully trained astronaut first and an education advocate second. Morgan didn’t hesitate. Even as Challenger’s loss remained at the forefront of her mind, “my decision was quick,” she says. “I weighed the risks.” To back away from the challenge would have meant not being part of the effort to “figure out what went wrong and fix it.”
Barbara Morgan was headed back to space.
Risk, and how to minimize it, was on the day’s lesson plan as Morgan and her crewmates sat in a classroom of their own at Johnson Space Center one afternoon in January. Their instructor was teaching them how to read data accumulated by new sensors installed along the front edge of the space shuttle’s wings—a step taken following another shuttle disaster, the 2003 Columbia explosion. That accident was attributed to foam striking a wing edge undetected by the astronauts until it was too late. As the instructor talks, Morgan is intent, jotting notes and taking in everything that is explained. The stakes are too high not to.
“She is very attentive,” says trainer Robert Tomaro, reflecting on how her teaching background shapes Morgan the student. He’s one of a cadre of instructors teaching her everything from moving efficiently through the shuttle to how to brush her teeth in a zero-gravity environment. “She has a tendency to pay more attention to what the [instructors are] saying with their body language, to really read them,” Tomaro says. When NEA Today asked Morgan last year what she was reading for a feature on summer reading, she replied, only half-joking, “flight training manuals.” And a few nights before that January class on sensors, fellow astronaut Dafydd Williams said Morgan had e-mailed him about some work they’d done in the week’s training. The e-mail had come past midnight. “I expect a lot out of her on the flight,” says Scott Kelly, who will helm Morgan’s mission. “She’s one of the crew.”
Being a teacher will never leave her though, says Morgan, a longtime NEA member. Part of her role as an Educator Astronaut is inspiring students to take an interest in math and science and to elevate teaching as a profession. (See “Want To Make Space Pesto?”) Even the mission patch she wears on her flight suit attests to her passion for advancing public education—her contribution is a torch representing the flame of knowledge. Morgan asked for it to be added to the patch to honor students and teachers. “It’s a huge responsibility, but I hope I will do a good job representing my [teaching] colleagues,” she says. “Hopefully this will be a great opportunity to remind everyone what teachers are all about.”
Wrapping up her conversation with the students gathered at NASA on that January morning, Morgan is emphatic about the importance of the work she’s doing. “It’s the best job in the world,” she tells them, her face breaking into a wide smile. Only this time, she’s not talking about being an astronaut. She’s telling them about being a teacher.
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Want To Make Space Pesto?
Only one NEA member will be aboard the Endeavour when it blasts off this summer, but NASA definitely wants you involved in the mission! This fall, the agency will roll out activities for educators eager to offer students a firsthand look at aeronautics work.
“It’s all about learning and exploring, and we want them to come with us,” Educator-Astronaut Barbara Morgan says. Although her primary role in space is as an astronaut, the former Idaho elementary school teacher is capitalizing on the mission to stress to students the importance of considering a career in space (be it travel or ground support.) “That’s what this work is all about,” she says. “You see the math, the science, communications—every curriculum area is involved.”
The centerpiece of NASA’s education push this fall is the Engineering Design Challenge. This summer, Endeavour will tote 75 pounds of basil seeds (that’s 6 million seeds for those keeping track) into orbit. This fall, students can design a plant growing system capable of being delivered to or built on the surface of the moon. NASA will make the basil seeds available to 100,000 educators on a first-come, first-served basis, so students can test their designs. They’ll offer grade-appropriate lesson guides, assessment tools, background materials, and tips for your budding researchers and engineers.
Soon, educators can begin registering for NASA's Plant Growth Chamber Engineering Design Challenge. Lesson plans and materials will be available online for teachers to download for use in the Challenge. Learn more today by signing up for the NASA Education Express mailing list to receive announcements and updates related to the STS-118 mission and related educational activities. Access the list at .
PHOTOS: TOP LEFT: NASA; TOP RIGHT: TIM JOHNSON/AP IMAGES