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Shuttle launch one giant leap for teacherkind

When Endeavor takes off for the International Space Station Wednesday, a teacher-turned-astronaut will have made good on a decades-old dream.

By Caitlin CarpenterContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 8, 2007

They were called "Star Nights." Parents drove their children, bundled against the Idaho chill in scarves, mitts, and coats, to a snow-covered hill. As mothers and fathers waited, cars running and heat cranked, the children trooped up the hill alongside their teacher.

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There, telescopes on loan from locals in the small town of McCall, Idaho, were pointed into the clear, cold night sky. As their teacher taught them how to peer at the rings of Saturn and moons of Jupiter, the children were mesmerized.

After a while, the parents trudged up to meet them, curious what all the fuss was about. It was a long-standing joke among the Star Night regulars that, by night's end, the parents were as eager to use the telescopes as the kids. Bert Kulesza, who attended a Star Night on the school field, was one such parent nearly 30 years ago. "With kids at that age, it's pretty easy to lose their concentration," he says. "But she had all of them looking up and enjoying the wonders of space."

The teacher he's recalling is known throughout McCall as Barb. But to the rest of the country, she's Barbara Morgan, one of seven astronauts scheduled to embark Wednesday on the Endeavor's two-week trip to the International Space Station – and the backup for Christa McAuliffe on the ill-fated 1986 NASA Challenger mission.

Barbara's mission couldn't come at a better time for NASA, which has been addled by high-profile scandals in recent years, from reports of inebriated astronauts and internal sabotage, to love triangles, to infamous problems with foam insulation. Enter Barbara, an astronaut who has dedicated much of her life to passing the dream of space travel on to the next generation – reviving the spirit of an era when families huddled around the TV to watch shuttles launch. Just as his children did two decades ago with the Challenger, Mr. Kulesza's grandchildren will gather around the television to watch Endeavor leave the planet.

Those of a certain age will always think of the Challenger on hearing of a teacher heading into space. "She very much sees herself as continuing Christa's work," her husband, Clay Morgan, says. "She's taking Christa up there in her heart."

• • •

Clay Morgan, Barbara's husband, remembers the August night 23 years ago when Barbara decided to go into space. As they sat in their metal-roofed cabin on Idaho's Payette Lake, watching the news on their grainy, black-and-white TV, President Reagan announced NASA's Teacher in Space program. "She immediately said, 'I'm going to do it!' " Clay says. "It sounded like a huge, interesting adventure to her."

Barbara, who has been in quarantine for her mission and unable to speak with anyone, had always been an "astronomy buff"; she was from the generation that woke at 3 or 4 a.m. to watch a shuttle launch. She would have loved to be an astronaut, but the career wasn't open to women when she was young. Still, she wondered: They're sending chimpanzees into space; why not me?

Clay, a smoke jumper who parachuted into forest fires, wasn't surprised or worried for the voyage that drew 11,000 applicants. It was, in some ways, Barbara's greatest field trip ever – and he was used to those.

That same adventurous spirit made her a magnet for children, Clay says. After earning a degree in human biology from Stanford University and a teaching credential from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., Barbara began her career in 1974 on Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation, teaching remedial reading and math. Four years later, the Morgans were off to Ecuador, where Barbara taught English and science to third graders. On Christmas Day, they took a 100-mile trip through the Amazon in a leaky, dugout canoe – and passed the "School Without a Name."

"That's where I want to teach!" Barbara cried.