IT'S time to fish or cut bait with the teacher-in-space program.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration asked Barbara Morgan - Christa McAuliffe's backup - to stay with the program when Ms. McAuliffe was lost in the Challenger explosion in 1986. Since then, Ms. Morgan has represented NASA at educational events and awaited a possible shuttle flight. She deserves to know if she will ever make it into orbit.
NASA recognizes this. A panel now is considering whether or not to restart the teacher-in-space program. The agency should do it.
Spaceflight is as risky as ever. But more shuttle missions have been safely conducted since the Challenger accident than prior to it. Furthermore, as Morgan points out, many teachers face more day-to-day risks than do astronauts. Meanwhile, the United States -
as part of a larger global spacefaring community - is preparing for a 21st century in which space activity will be an important part of the human enterprise. Many people who will conduct that enterprise and the citizens who will support it are in school now. They need an education in which space activity is a living reality. The teacher-in-space program would provide that spice of realism.
The payoff from such an investment would derive from the inspiration and perspective students gain. Some undoubtedly would become the engineers, managers, and scientists who shape 21st-century space activity. Many others would become part of a citizenry better informed about space. Whether this would make it any easier for future NASA officials to sell their projects is uncertain. But one can note that, had McAuliffe been able to carry out her mission, many of the students she would have worked with would now be old enough to vote and run for Congress.