CANAVERAL, FL - The teacher who will fly into space in 2004 got her
start in a schoolhouse on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Barbara Morgan was the backup teacher
to Christa McAuliffe, one of the seven astronauts who died in the
Challenger disaster in 1986. NASA recently announced that she would
take part in a mission to the International Space Station in 2004.
On that flight Morgan will serve as a fully functioning member of
the crew as well as preparing lessons from space.
Morgans teaching career began over
a quarter century ago on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee,
Mont. "What stands out to me more than anything is what an
incredible learning experience it was," she said in a recent
interview. "It was my first teaching job. I was definitely
fresh and green, raring to go and jump right in to it. I learned
much, much more from my students and their families than I ever
taught. Its an experience I was truly grateful for.
"I wish I were in touch with [my
former students] now, that was a fantastic learning experience for
me. I had students whose names were Cheryl Weaselhead and Shelley
Two-teeth. These people were absolutely incredible.
"I was signed up to teach remedial
reading and mathematics. But there was no special ed program at
the school at the time. I had a whole gamut of students. I worked
with about 50 students at the time. These children were all incredible
men and women.
"We had all different challenges
to work with, not just kids who needed help with reading and math.
I had one student with a hearing disorder and other students with
language problems. I had to really scramble to learn as much as
I could from people who were true experts, in how to work with students
with different kinds of learning challenges," she said.
"The other thing that stands out
in my mind was how open the families were. These were busy working
parents. It was a very small community with the school right there,
and we would often times just go to the home and knock on the door
and ask if we could have a conference with parents about their children.
The parents were like parents all over the country, caring about
how their children and their education. I felt very welcome with
"It was really tough to leave. I
wanted to stay there but at the time my husband was finishing graduate
school and wanted to get back to Idaho for his writing and his career.
I was glad to move to Idaho but it was with a very sad heart that
I had to leave the Arlee school, I really liked what I was doing
there and I loved the students and their families," she continued.
"I have to say I learned much more
from those students [at Flathead] and their families and the teachers
there than I ever taught them."
Morgan moved to McCall, Idaho in 1975
where she taught elementary school at McCall-Donnelly Elementary
In the early 1980s NASA flew many passengers
on the shuttle in addition to the career astronauts. Some were scientists
flying to operate the experiments they spent their entire careers
developing. Others were foreign passengers or high-level members
of Congress flying for political purposes. In several cases NASA
flew representatives from companies or countries who purchased rides
for their satellites on the shuttle.
A new program, the "Spaceflight Participant
Program" was announced to broaden the opportunity to fly in
space to average Americans. Some of the possibilities included journalists,
artists and teachers. In 1984 President Reagan announced that the
first category for a spaceflight participant was going to be a teacher.
Over 15,000 teachers nationwide applied
for the "Teacher in Space" program, including Morgan.
She won her regional and state competitions and then became one
of ten nationwide finalists. In 1985 Morgan made the final two,
becoming the backup for Christa McAuliffe.
McAuliffe was assigned to the 51-L crew.
The primary purpose for that mission was to launch a large government
communications satellite and launch and retrieve a small astronomical
satellite designed to observe Halleys Comet. That would be
the responsibilities for the career NASA astronauts - Dick Scobee,
Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, and Judy Resnik. The crew
also featured another passenger, Greg Jarvis -- a Hughes engineer
flying to perform some simple experiments. The teacher would not
participate in any of those activities, but would do several televised
lessons from space.
Challenger launched with McAuliffe aboard
on the 51-L mission on Jan. 28, 1986. Seventy-three seconds later,
the failure of the solid rocket booster caused the shuttle to break
up. The failure investigation board noted that the reason for the
failure was the extreme cold the night before the launch, causing
O-ring seals to become brittle. But more important was the root
cause -- a failure of the management system to recognize the problems.
Since the shuttles return to flight
in 1988, major safety improvements have been implemented decreasing
the chances for a catastrophic failure to about one in four hundred
flights. One of the key recommendations of the oversight committees
was to only fly non-astronauts when their specific skills were absolutely
After the Challenger accident NASA asked
Morgan to remain available as a "good will ambassador"
in addition to her teaching. NASAs safety panels recommended
that if Morgan were to fly in space she should receive the same
training as the full-time NASA astronauts and Morgan was offered
a slot in the 1998 astronaut class.
Unlike the 1986 Teacher in Space program,
which only included several months of minimal training as a passenger,
Morgan will be a full-fledged shuttle crewmember. As a "Teacher
Mission Specialist," Morgan has the same responsibilities as
other astronauts and may be called upon to do a spacewalk, operate
the shuttles robot arm, or serve as the flight engineer. A
specific flight has not been selected yet, but it is expected that
Morgan will make her spaceflight shortly after the current construction
phase on the International Space Station is completed.
Chief astronaut Charlie Precourt said
"[Morgan has] done really well [with her training]. Shes
learned a lot about operations. She didnt bring experience
in operations. I feel very confident shell be able to pull
her weight on the crew and then some doing operational things -
running the robot arm, working transfer operations, things of that
nature are certainly within her grasp. Were really excited
about her. The fact that she can carry an education mission with
her and still be a full mission specialist on the crew is a real
bonus. In a general sense shes done extremely well learning
operations. She is certainly not showing she has any difficulty
learning new things."