When NASA's shuttle Endeavour launched into space late Wednesday with teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan and her crewmates aboard, you can be sure three spaceflyers on Earth were watching carefully.
NASA's three space teachers yet to fly, known as educator astronauts, were either supporting Endeavour's evening liftoff or on missions of their own when Morgan and her STS-118 crewmates left Earth to continue construction of the international space station.
"It's very exciting to see her fly because it means that STS-118 is getting off the ground so quickly after the success of STS-117," educator astronaut Richard Arnold told Space.com before Morgan's launch, referring to NASA's June shuttle flight. "We have a lot to get done on the international space station, so that part is very exciting for me."
Arnold, a former science teacher, was NASA's only teacher-astronaut absent from Florida's Kennedy Space Center when Endeavour blasted off at 6:36:42 p.m. EDT Wednesday. At launch time, he was working on the Atlantic Ocean floor for NASA's Extreme Environment Operations 13 mission to the Aquarius undersea laboratory.
But Arnold's fellow educator astronauts, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger and Joseph Acaba, were performing technical duties at KSC to support Endeavour's launch, NASA officials said. The space agency selected Arnold, Acaba and Metcalf-Lindenburger as educator astronauts in 2004. They completed their training and began their first assignments last year.
Morgan, a former McCall, Idaho, schoolteacher, launched spaceward 22 years after first joining NASA as the backup to the agency's first Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe in 1985. McAuliffe and six fellow astronauts were aboard NASA doomed Challenger space shuttle when it broke apart just after liftoff in January 1986.
NASA recalled Morgan to its astronaut corps in 1998, training her as a full-fledged mission specialist before assigning her to Endeavour's STS-118 flight in 2002. She waited along with the rest of NASA as the agency recovered from the 2003 Columbia accident for her chance to fly.
"I think her flight is going to mean different things to different people," Arnold said of Morgan's successful launch. "I think there's a group of folks who've been following her since the Teacher in Space program and it's going to be exciting for them."
NASA spokesperson Debbie Nguyen told Space.com Wednesday that about 60 of the 114 Teacher in Space nominees were among those who watched Morgan launch aboard Endeavour from KSC.
Morgan spent part of today, her first full day in space, wielding Endeavour's robotic arm and inspection boom to scan the shuttle's wing edges and nose cap to ensure the health of its heat shield after launch. The inspection is now standard for every shuttle flight following NASA's 2003 Columbia accident.
Endeavour's STS-118 mission is hauling about 5,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS along with a loaded spare parts platform and a new starboard-side piece of the station's main truss. The planned 11-day mission could be extended three extra days and allow Morgan up to three opportunities to discuss her spaceflight with students on Earth.
"Everyone has had a relationship or a close relationship with a particular teacher," Arnold said. "And to be able to look at a teacher and say, 'Hey, you're capable of doing that really complicated job that she's doing,' I think that's a great thing."
NASA is broadcasting Endeavour's STS-118 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for mission updates and Space.com's NASA TV feed.