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.
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."
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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.
"She just loved ... the challenge of teaching in an exotic and wonderful place," Clay says.
But it was in McCall, the former logging town of 2,500, that she would spend most of her teaching years. Friends and colleagues there describe Barbara's teaching style and rapport.
"She was like the pied-piper," says Peter Johnson, a friend of the Morgans for 20 years.
Fellow teacher Kathy Phelan describes a classic Barbara technique: When a child acted up, she made it a lesson in classroom citizenship. "She realized you can't really teach until you have all the students working together," Ms. Phelan says.
Barbara created the same adventures for her students that she'd later carve out for herself. After a fire consumed a chunk of nearby forest, she sectioned off an acre for her class to study, teaching the signs of ecological recovery.
Amy Kulesza, Mr. Kulesza's daughter, was in Barbara's classes from 1980 to 1982. "You didn't just learn; you experienced things," she says – whether that was making sweaters with a spindle, painting a mural on the wall that faced the classroom windows, or sipping hot chocolate at Star Nights. "To this day, I can point out constellations to my friends' kids," she says.
But no field trip or lesson plan could prepare the Morgans for Jan. 28, 1986, when they watched the Challenger take off. "She knew something was really, really wrong right away," says Clay.
Barbara went straight into crew quarters where the Challenger astronauts' families were, Clay says; she was especially concerned with helping their children. Eventually, the Morgans flew home to Houston. At 3 a.m., they stepped off a NASA jet – and found hundreds of NASA workers waiting. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," says Clay. All night, a NASA employee sat outside their apartment in case they needed support.
This comforting of crew members' grieving families was something Barbara would do years later, after the Columbia shuttle accident in 2003. In fact, Barbara had been scheduled to go up in that very shuttle on its next mission.
Setting an example for children dealing with tragedy was vital to Barbara. For months after the Challenger explosion, in which Ms. McAuliffe perished, she traveled the country, talking with children about the accident, which many of them had watched on live television. She also picked up McAuliffe's speaking engagements. The call of teaching brought her back to McCall within the year, and the Morgans soon had two sons. Clay calls their time in crew quarters the "tipping point" in their decision to have kids: "We saw how important children were to the adults; it was so obvious and profound."
But Barbara had not given up on space, not even when NASA barred civilians from the shuttle. In 1998, the four Morgans pulled up their roots and moved to Houston so she could continue her training – this time, as a full-fledged astronaut. She went to work early, came home late, and studied training manuals until after midnight. Fellow astronaut Ellen Baker, who worked with Barbara in the 1980s and again when Barbara returned to NASA in 1998, noticed Barbara's passion and commitment. Barbara was invited to join the Endeavor crew.
The Challenger incident had changed her perspective on her dream, Clay says. Barbara would "show kids that are watching us, what adults do after bad times." She's also hoping to provide an example of teachers as explorers.
Once the shuttle reaches the space station, Barbara will operate the robot arm to attach a new piece of the solar-power system. She will also use downlinks to answer questions from kids at three US locations. Back on Earth, Barbara will travel and give talks, many at schools.
Whatever her next life venture is, her friend, Mr. Johnson predicts, "I don't think we've seen Barb make her full mark on the world yet."