The big day finally came: Twenty-two years after Barbara Morgan began astronaut training, the 55-year-old past and future schoolteacher rose into orbit Wednesday aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.
Morgan started on the road to outer space in 1985, as a backup trainee for NASA's first space teacher, Christa McAuliffe. Morgan was watching from the press site when the shuttle Challenger exploded just after liftoff in 1986, killing McAuliffe and six other astronauts. Now Morgan is literally taking McAuliffe's place — in the middle seat on the lower deck, on the shuttle that was built to replace Challenger.
During a pre-launch interview with NBC News, Morgan embraced the symbolism behind her flight.
“This is symbolic, and I know that people will be thinking about Challenger, and that's a good thing,” she said. “And I know that they will also be thinking about all the people … family, first and foremost, friends, colleagues and people that the Challenger crew never even knew who have been working so hard for so many years to continue the work of the Challenger and to provide opportunities for students and teachers.”
Morgan has been working as hard as anyone: After the Challenger explosion, NASA named Morgan its “teacher in space designee,” giving her an extra educational role even as she returned to her teaching job at an elementary school in McCall, Idaho.
A decade later, NASA followed through on its promise to put Morgan back in line for spaceflight: She was selected to become a full-time astronaut in 1998 — at the same time that Sen. John Glenn was named to his own space shuttle flight.
From Idaho to Houston
Morgan and her husband, writer Clay Morgan, packed up and moved with their two young sons from Idaho to Houston. The astronaut trainee took on an assortment of mission support tasks, including a stint as a spacecraft communicator, or capcom. In 2002, she was assigned to the STS-118 mission to the international space station — a mission that was set for the fall of 2003.
Slideshow: Endeavour’s space odyssey Once more, tragedy struck: On Feb. 1, 2003, Morgan was aboard an aircraft flying over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, watching for the return of Columbia’s crew, when she heard that the shuttle she was due to ride only a few months later was lost.
Once more, Morgan persevered through years of investigation and preparation. And on Wednesday, the big day finally came.
During Endeavour’s mission to the international space station, Morgan’s main jobs are to help operate the shuttle's robotic arm and help transfer thousands of pounds of supplies to the station. She’s scheduled to conduct at least one educational event from orbit via a video link, and participate in a school project that won't take root until after the flight.
“We are taking up about 10 million basil seeds with us … and then we’ll bring them back, and we’ll want to get them to classrooms all over the country,” she said. NASA will send the seeds to tens of thousands of students as part of an educational challenge to design plant-growth chambers that could someday be used on the moon. With any luck, the cinnamon basil seeds will be bearing scientific fruit long after Morgan returns to Earth.
Morgan has spent the past nine years working full-time as an astronaut, and after Wednesday's launch, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin argued that Morgan should no longer be considered a space teacher, or even an educator-astronaut. “Barbara is an astronaut who used to be a teacher,” he told journalists.
But Morgan has made it clear that she considers herself an educator first and foremost — and that someday she'll make the switch back from full-time astronaut to full-time teacher. “If they’ll take me back in the classroom, eventually, I plan on going back,” she said. “I miss my teaching very much.”
In NBC’s pre-launch interview, Morgan talked about her role as an educator-astronaut as well as the risks of spaceflight and how she feels about her “long wait” to fly into orbit. Here are selected questions and answers:
Morgan: It’s been long, but it’s not been a wait. It’s been long work, and good work. Most things in life don’t come easy. Most things in life take a lot of effort, and take some patience and some perseverance. … That’s what defines classroom teachers. That’s why classroom teachers can do their jobs so well. You don’t get instant gratification in the classroom.
Slideshow: Cosmic Sightings
Q: Why do we need a teacher in space?
Q: Why do we need a teacher in space?
A: Education is important to NASA. We can’t do space exploration without good education, and you have to have well-educated people who can figure this stuff out. So education is key to the future and to space exploration. Education and exploration are really very much the same. It’s all about discovering, it’s all about experimenting. And it’s all about taking what you discover and what you experiment with, and what you learn, and sharing that with others.
Q: You were scheduled on a flight after the Columbia tragedy. As you go into space, how do you feel?
Space exploration is risky. … You can try your hardest, there will be a risk. It's a hostile environment. The technology is very complex, the machinery is all very complex. … After both situations [Challenger and Columbia] and into the future, you stop and pause to think, what is it that we can do to try to make this better? To try to make it safer? …
Along with the hard work it takes to accomplish things, and good learning, it takes some risk, too. Risk is part of what we teach our students in the classroom. We don't want them taking foolish risks. … We want them to risk trying new things that they've never done before. They come to us and they say, "I can't do this." Yes, you can. You just haven't learned how to yet.
Q: You'd like to return to teaching?
A: There is no work that's more important than teaching and what teachers do. And I do look forward to eventually getting back in the classroom. There are a lot of things that I want to do – but teaching, it's an important part, and I know that it's something I am going to want.
This report incorporates information from The Associated Press.
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