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Pressing On in the Face of Tragedy

She was Christa McAuliffe’s backup. Now elementary teacher Barbara Morgan is bound for outer space

It was on Feb. 1, 2003, when Barbara Morgan, teacher-turned astronaut, lost some of her own.

As the nation watched news reports of what was supposed to be the homecoming of the Columbia space shuttle, Morgan was in a shuttle training aircraft to learn about shuttle landing operations at Kennedy Space Center. Morgan was scheduled to fly on the Columbia in November to the International Space Station and she needed training.

And then the Columbia appeared, but only as streaks and fragments of flames over the bright Texas sky, and the seven-person Columbia crew was lost.

It had been 17 years since NASA lost its first shuttle, Challenger, in an explosion 73 seconds after liftoff. And the same torment washed over Morgan, who was then backup astronaut for Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who was chosen as the nation’s first Teacher in Space. McAuliffe was chosen from a field of more than 11,000 applicants and was to give lectures from orbit to students nationwide.

“It was difficult for everyone,” Morgan says, not wanting to divulge too many details about the day the Columbia shattered upon entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. “We all know them and worked very closely. It’s like a family. ? It’s not just terrible for NASA. It’s terrible for the whole country.”

“My feelings weren’t different from the Challenger. In both situations it was really sad and really terrible. I wouldn’t say [I’m] fearless, but as far as resolve, it’s very important that we find out what happened and fix it and go fly again and I really strongly believe that. I think for our country, for the world, for our children, it’s really important we keep the future open.”

Morgan, who last taught at McCall Donnelly Elementary School in McCall, Idaho, is still supposed to fly to the International Space Station, but it’s uncertain when because flights have been on hold since the Columbia disaster. After the Columbia Accident Investigation Board learns what really happened, which should be revealed some time this summer, then they can work to correct the problem and start rescheduling flights. The shuttle fleet still includes Atlantis, Endeavor and Discovery.

“We’re still working. For example, this week we were working on laying out the three space walks,” Morgan says.

Morgan’s flight was an assembly mission to the International Space Station, carrying one of the truss pieces that goes along the top of the space station. It holds all the electrical power equipment. “Everyone is marching forward but we’re really focusing on determining what happened and how we’re going to fix it,” she says.


Despite the two tragedies, more and more teachers are lining up to shoot off into space. As of late May, nearly 9,000 educators were nominated to take part in NASA’s Educator in Space program, in which educators become astronauts and are eligible for multiple space flights during their service to NASA, which differs from the Teacher in Space program’s onetime space flight. NASA expects even more nominations as they continue to sift through all the mail.

In early 2004, NASA will chose three to six educators to be Educator Astronauts. The chosen educators will start training in Houston in the summer of 2004 for a year or more before a mission.

More than 91 percent of science teachers who responded to an email-based survey conducted by the National Science Teachers Association said they believe educators belong on future shuttle missions. When asked how having a teacher in space would affect the classroom, the top three responses from teachers were: it generates interest in science and math among students; it instills in students a better understanding of how science and math apply in the real world; and it inspires students to pursue careers in science and math fields.

“NSTA couldn’t be more pleased that NASA will continue the dream of the Educator Astronaut program,” says Gerry Wheeler, NSTA executive director. “There is so much that can be gained from this endeavor, such as generating interest and enthusiasm for science and mathematics among teachers, students and the general public. What’s more, we’re hearing loudly from science teachers that this is the right thing to do. They are ready and willing to take on this challenge.”

Dwayne Brown, a NASA spokesman, says educators’ enthusiasm is proof that most people realize the importance of space exploration and how risky it is. “We’ve never said space flight isn’t risky,” Brown says. “The motto is, ‘Inspiring the Next Generation of Explorers.’ That resonates everywhere. This is an exciting time for us. Obviously, we’ve been focused on the Columbia tragedy and on the independent investigation,” he says.

The ongoing support from the NSTA, National Education Association, and U.S. Department of Education is comforting, Brown says. “We will overcome our challenges and get back to flight.”


Morgan, a 51-year-old mother of two children, has determination and perseverance that go beyond faith. She has discussed the pros and cons with her family, who understands her passion and the reasons for her unwavering dedication to her students, colleagues and country. She mentions the military people in the Middle East and how many “folks” have given their lives to make the world a better place “for all of us.”

“As a teacher, we have all kinds of challenges in our classroom and the reason we’re able to do our job well with the students is that we keep the faith in them and we work hard with them to overcome the challenges that come their way and that come our way,” Morgan says.

“I think there are great parallels between what we do in our classrooms with students and what we do when we try to do something as extremely challenging as exploring space. You decide if what you’re doing is important and the reasons for doing it and then you press on. Space flight is risky business and it doesn’t mean we just go out and take risks. You try to minimize the risks as best you can. The way I look at it, with the Challenger, too, is we could sit back and hide our head in the sand and wait for someone else to do these things that are part of human nature, which is to explore and learn, or we can—our country—can be part of it in leading that.”

Seemingly modest and fearless, kind and smart, Morgan shrugs off suggestions she is a hero or pioneer in her field. “I feel very lucky to be able to be a part of this and represent teachers and education of our students,” she says. “More than anything I’m really, really happy it’s opening up and more and more people will have the opportunities. I’m looking forward to all the things they will do and bring back and help provide for our students in the classrooms.”

Angela Pascopella, apascopella@, is features editor.,