Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Teacher in Space

What a sad week. More than usual I've been thinking about, and grateful for, teachers. Looking for a distraction from the news out of Connecticut, I read about the role teachers have played in space exploration. So, if you're looking for a distraction too, that's what this post is about. 

Teachers in Space: Barbara Morgan and Christa McAuliffe.
Source: Wikipedia

Neil Armstrong returned home from the moon to teach at the University of Cincinnati, and there are many other examples of college professor astronauts in the years since he walked on the moon. But, today's post explores the history of primary school teachers in space ... aside from their obvious, fundamental role: laying the foundation of math and science education necessary to become a rocket scientist or astronomer or an astronaut!

NASA announced its first Teacher in Space project in 1984, to build enthusiasm for space exploration, math, and science among U.S. students. Over 11,400(!) teachers applied to be picked as citizen astronauts in NASA's Teacher in Space program, and two women were chosen. Christa McAuliffe, who launched and died aboard Challenger's last mission, and her backup, Barbara Morgan.

The NASA Teacher in Space Project Logo
Source: Wikipedia.

In pretty much every single photo of Christa McAuliffe I came across while researching this post, she's got a huge grin on her face. It's obvious how excited she was to be picked for the Challenger mission. Christa was a high school history teacher when she was selected in 1985. It's interesting that she wasn't a math or science teacher, isn't it? It sounds like she was picked based on her character more than her background. According to NASA administrators and her former students, Christa's enthusiasm for learning rubbed off on everyone she encountered.

Barbara and Christa, aboard a KC-135
Source: NASA.

As a history teacher, Christa had a unique view of space exploration: "I think just opening up the door, having this ordinary person fly, says a lot for the future ... you can always equate astronauts with explorers who were subsidized. Now you are getting someone going just to observe. And then you'll have the settlers, the space station is not too far down the road."

Christa with her son and daughter, July 1985.
Source: MSNBC.

As the first private citizen in space, Christa planned to document her trip aboard Challenger with daily journal entries, so that "like a woman on the Conestoga wagon pioneering west, I too would be able to bring back my thoughts and my journal to make that a part of history." And, if she had lived to make it into orbit, the plan was for Christa to teach classes of school kids live via TV from outer space. 

Christa McAuliffe in an astronaut jet trainer.
Source: NASA.

Christa believed that her space flight would be safe. She told a reporter in 1985 that the "space shuttle isn't the type of thing, I think, that anybody really looks at with fear that there's going to be an accident ... I feel, probably, safer doing something like that than driving around the New York streets." Christa's life insurance company had some doubts, though. It cancelled her policy after she was selected to fly. She was only insured when she died because a private aerospace company donated a $1 million dollar policy before her flight.

Others at NASA shared Christa's belief that space travel had become routine and safe. History of course tells a different story: that sense of complacency, along with bureaucratic bungling and a bad decision to launch, killed all seven Challenger astronauts on January 28, 1986.

Christa McAuliffe training for microgravity in a KC-135.

What became of the other NASA Teacher in Space participant, Barbara Morgan? Barbara left NASA a few months after Christa died, returning home to teach second and third grade in Idaho. But, she was not done with outer space! Over a decade after the Challenger tragedy, Barbara was selected to serve as a NASA Mission Specialist. She began training for a space mission, just like any other astronaut candidate. For several years, she served as CAPCOM, communicating with space crews from Mission Control in Houston. 

Barbara flew in space once, on a mission to the International Space Station in 2007. Her primary tasks were operating the shuttle's robotic arm, and overseeing the transfer of supplies between the shuttle and the ISS. In orbit, she also took questions from students in Idaho and at the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

Barbara Morgan, a teacher in space.
Source: Collect Space.

The Teacher in Space program was cancelled a few years after Christa died, but other primary school teachers have flown as educators in space in the years since, as part of subsequent NASA Educator in Space initiatives. These include Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, who was a Washington science teacher when she was selected as an astronaut candidate in 2004. In 2010, she became the first Space Camp alumna to fly in space. :-) Other teacher astronauts include Richard Arnold, a high school science teacher who flew to the International Space Station in 2009, and Joe Acaba, the first Puerto Rican astronaut and the first middle school teacher in space. He has flown several missions to the ISS, including one this year.

One of Joe Acaba's mission photographs (Expedition 31).
Source: Wikipedia.

So in a way, Christa was right after all. She was a pioneer. Others followed after her, and they traveled to a space station. It just didn't work out quite the way I wish it had. 

Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan watch the Space Shuttle Challenger launch in October 1985.
Source: NASA.

So, that's the story of the first American teachers in space. Writing it was a nice break from the sad reality I've been thinking about all weekend. And speaking of Sandy Hook Elementary, if you're looking for a way to help out, here are a few ideas:
Sources: NASA; New York Times; Los Angeles Times; Washington Post; Wikipedia;; Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars.


  1. Great story! I'm a big fan of teachers (particularly of the high school history variety...)!

    1. :-) Thanks Boy. You're my favorite teacher!!!! I owe you and your blog a shout-out, it's coming in my next post.

  2. I discovered your blog quite by accident, and I immediately put it in my favorites!

    I really appreciate your heartfelt enthousiasm for space exploration and the space program in general. And your post about Christa McAuliffe was really moving. I don't think the memories of that fateful day and the pain of loss will ever go away...