Teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan transformed the space shuttle and space station into a classroom Tuesday for her first education session from orbit, fulfilling the legacy of Christa McAuliffe with joy and also some sadness.
“I’ve thought about Christa and the Challenger crew just about every day since 20-plus years ago,” Morgan said in a series of interviews right before class got under way. “I hope that they know that they are here with us in our hearts.”
Morgan, 55, who was McAuliffe’s backup for the doomed 1986 flight, got her first opportunity to talk with schoolchildren late Tuesday afternoon, almost halfway through her two-week mission.
The youngsters were assembled at the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise, less than 100 miles from the elementary school where Morgan taught before becoming an astronaut. Morgan’s two sons, now teenagers, attended inventors’ camp there years ago.
The question-and-answer session was a welcome diversion for NASA officials, who were debating whether to send astronauts out to fix a gouge in the tiles on the shuttle Endeavour's belly. The damage was done by a piece of foam insulation flying off Endeavour's fuel tank during launch — and although it's not thought to pose a threat to the crew, the gouge might be filled in space anyway to avoid time-consuming post-flight repairs.
A decision on the repair plan is expected Wednesday or Thursday, after NASA completes a round of testing and analysis.
A long workday
Morgan's 25-minute teach-in came toward the end of a long workday on the international space station, during which she used a robotic arm to help move a storage platform from Endeavour's cargo bay onto the station.
The controls for the arm came in handy as a prop for Morgan's lesson: She demonstrated how trying to manipulate the controls would send her floating in a different direction, unless she anchored herself using foot restraints.
"As you probably know from Newton's Laws, every action has an equal and opposite reaction," she said.
Morgan's teaching assistants for the lesson included Canadian physician-spacewalker Dave Williams, Endeavour mission specialist Alvin Drew Jr. and space station crew member Clay Anderson. The four astronauts took turns answering questions — and occasionally demonstrating the curiosities of life under weightless conditions.
One child wanted to know about exercising in space. In response, Morgan lifted Williams with one hand and Drew with the other — and pretended to be straining, even though they were all in freefall.
Another youngster wanted to see a demonstration of drinking in space. Morgan and Williams obliged by squeezing bubbles from a straw in a drink pouch and swallowing the red blobs, which floated everywhere.
Other props included pingpong balls and a softball, used to demonstrate how objects move differently in zero-gravity.
On a more serious note, Morgan was asked how being a teacher compared to being an astronaut.
“Astronauts and teachers actually do the same thing,” she answered. “We explore, we discover and we share. And the great thing about being a teacher is you get to do that with students, and the great thing about being an astronaut is you get to do it in space, and those are absolutely wonderful jobs.”
Twelve-year-old Paige Dashiell asked what stars look like from space. The answer: Stars shine steadily and don’t twinkle, because there’s no atmosphere to distort the light. When the lesson was over, Dashiell came away starry-eyed.
“It’s not every day you talk to someone in space,” she said.
Education in space
Although Endeavour's primary mission is space station construction and resupply, Morgan's presence has added a strong educational flavor to the flight.
Morgan is scheduled to participate in two more classroom Q&As during Endeavour's mission. One involves the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday. The other will put Morgan in touch with Robert L. Ford NASA Explorer School in Lynn, Mass., on Sunday. NASA Television plans to air both events.
In addition, Morgan is recording several video "teachable moments" while she's in orbit, said Cindy McArthur, who heads NASA's Teaching in Space project at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
After the flight, 10 million basil seeds carried into space and back by Endeavour are to be distributed to students around the country, as part of an educational project called the Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Challenge. Basil and lettuce will be grown in two chambers left behind on the space station.
"I'm going to have a little bit of salad sometime down the line," Anderson joked.
Meanwhile, the students will be asked to design their own chambers that could be used for growing crops on the moon.
"We need to figure out how to feed our long-term explorers on the moon and on Mars, and so NASA has a design challenge for you," Morgan told the Idaho students. "We would love for you to help us figure this out."
This report includes information from MSNBC.com and The Associated Press.