Teacher reaches to stars, 21 years after Challenger disaster


Washington : Barbara Morgan taught math and reading in the Rocky Mountains, then English and science in the Andes but she wanted to go to even greater heights. The 55-year-old Californian has now taken her classroom to space.

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Morgan took off last week as part of the space shuttle Endeavour’s seven-member crew.

Even before the astronaut has had the chance to teach for students via satellite, she gave a lesson in perseverance.

Morgan waited 22 years to reach space. She was the second teacher chosen to participate in the space programme and watched as the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff in 1986. She trained as the substitute for Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died along with six NASA astronauts.

Morgan was also McAuliffe’s friend and colleague. The two had trained together and pictures show the brown-haired women smiling in their light blue NASA uniforms. They even worked together to prepare the lessons that were to be taught from space aboard the Challenger.

“It still feels like just yesterday,” Morgan said in an interview released by NASA. “Those memories are still there with me.”

A second, horrible memory also stays with Morgan of the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia on re-entry in 2003. She was supposed to travel to the ISS aboard a shuttle flight later that same year, but her ticket to space was once again put on hold.

The heavens have always had an allure for Morgan. As a child, she spent countless hours with a telescope, a Christmas gift from her father.

Later she studied biology and became a teacher, first in Montana and later in Ecuador. In August 1984, NASA started its Teacher in Space project to help attract students to science and space flight.

Morgan, then 33, applied for the programme, writing, “I want to get some stardust on me.”

Of nearly 1,100 applicants, she was number two behind McAuliffe. They trained together in Houston and rented apartments near each other, jogging together each morning and dining together in the evenings.

After the Challenger was lost, Morgan was still to be the next teacher in space, but no date was set. She returned to her teaching career but continued to speak to teachers groups on behalf of the US space agency.

In 1998, NASA again tapped Morgan for a mission. The training was to take two years and she would then work in ground control in Houston. After the Columbia tragedy, shuttle flights were delayed again, but the mother of two boys continued to wait.

Because her tasks are the same as other astronauts, she has little time to work with students from space. Only one hour is set-aside for a question and answer session. Her main teaching sessions will take place once she returns to Earth.

While the Endeavour is docked to the ISS, Morgan will operate the shuttle’s robotic arm during the installation of a solar panel.

Morgan sees no distinction between her roles as astronaut and teacher.

“To me space exploration is all about open-ended, never-ending opportunities for our young people,” she said. “That is what teaching is all about, too. There are no boundaries. The opportunities are there. You have just to wish to seize them.”

She says her friend, McAuliffe, will always be America’s first teacher in space.

Even if she completes the mission that McAuliffe started, Morgan said: “It’s not a kind of closure. It’s a continuation.”