Teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan received a welcome call of support from first lady Laura Bush on Tuesday, one day before she and six crewmates launch into orbit aboard NASA's space shuttle Endeavour.
"Mrs. Bush expressed congratulations from one schoolteacher to another and noted that she and the President appreciate Ms. Morgan's commitment to America's space program, to teaching, and to students," White House officials said of the first lady's call.
Morgan and her six STS-118 crewmates are set to launch Wednesday at 6:36 p.m. ET from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin Endeavour's construction mission to the international space station.
During the Endeavour's STS-118 mission, Morgan will oversee the transfer of 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) of cargo between the shuttle and the space station. She will also help control Endeavour's robotic arm during orbiter heat shield inspections, as well as during the spacewalks to install spare parts and a new starboard piece of the space station's main truss.
She also plans to hold at least one, and possibly as many as three, interactive educational events with schools on Earth via a video link, and is toting millions of basil seeds and a plant growth chamber to space with her in hopes of encouraging students to think about how future astronauts will grow food on missions to the moon and Mars.
Morgan's planned launch comes 22 years after she was first selected by NASA to serve as the backup "Teacher in Space" to New Hampshire high-school teacher Christa McAuliffe in 1985. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush announced the selection of McAuliffe and Morgan after a nationwide search among U.S. educators.
"Being able to train with Christa and the Challenger crew was such a lucky, wonderful thing to get to do," Morgan said in a NASA interview. "I learned so much from them."
But McAuliffe's spaceflight ended in tragedy on Jan. 28, 1986: The New Hampshire teacher and six NASA astronauts were killed just after launch when their space shuttle Challenger broke apart. Morgan, a schoolteacher from McCall, Idaho, served as NASA's Teacher in Space Designee following the Challenger accident, and later returned to her classroom. She also worked alongside NASA's Education Office and served on the National Science Foundation's Federal Task Force for Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.
"Helping with that was a big eye-opener for me," Morgan said, adding that the task force highlighted the need to spur students to pursue the science and engineering fields. "Serving on that task force, I think, was one of the highlights."
Video: Teacher in space In 1998, NASA named Morgan as its first professional educator astronaut, a designation that melds the capabilities of a teacher with the spaceflight training of a mission specialist. Morgan later trained to serve as a spacecraft communicator, or CAPCOM, to speak with astronauts in orbit, and learned to wield the space shuttle's robotic arm before receiving her STS-118 assignment in 2002.
Morgan was due to fly in the fall of 2003, but that February, the Columbia tragedy grounded the fleet and forced a delay for STS-118.
In her phone call to Morgan on Tuesday morning, the first lady noted that "Americans — and lots of excited teachers and students — will be watching the mission with a lot of pride," White House officials said.
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