WASHINGTON — The last time Barbara Morgan geared up for a shuttle flight, she was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space participant. The two women had six months of training, including 20 hours of required reading, fittings for their space suits, and selection of menus for the mission.
This time, she's not just training to be a "citizen passenger." She's going as a full-fledged astronaut, NASA's first mission specialist in education.
The training, which begins in August, is at least 18 months longer and light years more rigorous. The tone of the assignment has also changed.
The original goal of launching an ordinary citizen into space - first a teacher, then a journalist - was to demonstrate that space travel was safe. Some 73 seconds into the 1986 Challenger launch, that objective shattered: The shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members including teacher McAuliffe.
As many called for scrapping future launches, Mrs. Morgan emerged as one of the space program's strongest defenders. The No. 2 teacher carried out the tour that had been planned for McAuliffe, and assured the public that NASA would figure out what went wrong. She was dubbed the "person taking up the challenge."
Then she returned to her third-grade classroom in McCall, Idaho, and waited for NASA to call. It took 12 years.
In January, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin invited her to join the astronaut class of 1998.
Her enthusiasm for space fires as brightly as ever: "It's an opportunity for unlimited learning, and an opportunity for all of us, and especially our students," she says. "We've got a huge neighborhood out there called the universe and it's constantly expanding."
She's also got her eye on the international space station. "We're building a space station, and I plan to help build it."
But her students are never far from her comments about this mission. She worries that she's not spending enough time with her third-graders "who need to graduate and get on to the fourth grade."
She also worries that there is a crisis in math and science learning, evident most recently in the low performances by US high school seniors on the leading test, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.
"It's causing us to take a hard look at what we're doing. The problem is not a quick fix. There are workshops all over the country to improve math and science teaching," she says.
NASA has a special role to play on this issue, because if kids get excited about space, they will see more value in hunkering down in math and science, she adds.
"Today, if you're teaching a class of 21, you are teaching very different individuals. Each is complex, with lots of different styles of learning.... In the good old days, you could count on two of three kids who would come to school with challenges that made it difficult to focus on learning. Now, it's often one-third of the class," she says.
She credits NASA training with helping her in her own classroom work. "If you have difficulty learning one system, they figure out a different way to learn."
Meanwhile, her own family is preparing for a long-term move to Houston.
Her husband, Clay, is a writer who is working on a novel on fighting forest fires. "There are lots of similarities between astronauts and smokejumpers," he says. "You have to learn a technical job, deal with danger suddenly, and totally trust the people you are working with."
Her response to a query she's heard many times before - "Have you every considered the possibility that the mission might fail?" - is quick and to the point: "No." But she adds: "There are no guarantees in life. I want my students to know that," says Morgan. "I don't want them to take foolish risks, but to figure out what's important in life. If it's important, go for it. There is nothing more important than education. If we don't take any risks at all, we're risking our children's lives and future."
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