School teacher astronaut

October 12, 2014
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Teachers in Space began as a government project. On August 27, 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced he was “directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and to choose, as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program, one of America’s finest—a teacher.” In that way, Reagan said, “All of America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can’t think of a better lesson for our children and our country.”

More than 11, 000 teachers answered the call, each of them filling out a 25-page application that took 160 hours to complete. Finalists traveled to Washington DC, then to Houston for a battery of medical tests, briefings, and interviews. Finally, in July of 1985, NASA chose New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe to be the first Teacher in Space and Idaho teacher Barbara Morgan as her backup.

Sadly, Christa McAuliffe was not destined to become the first teacher in space. On January 28, 1986, the Shuttle Challenger experienced the worst disaster in the nation’s space history when a flaw in the Shuttle’s solid rocket booster caused the vehicle to break up just 73 seconds into flight. The seven crew members, including Christa McAuliffe, perished.

Even after the Challenger accident, Reagan’s visionary commitment never wavered. “We’ll continue our quest in space, ” he declared. “There will be more Shuttle flights and more Shuttle crews and yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and journeys continue.”

The Educator Astronaut program

Although denied the chance to be a Teacher in Space after the Challenger accident, Barbara Morgan did not give up her dream of going into space. For more than a decade, she continued to press NASA for the chance to fly. Finally, in 1998, NASA accepted Morgan as the first Educator Astronaut, but the original goal of flying teachers in space and returning them to American classrooms was gone. Instead, the new Educator Astronaut program would take teachers out of American schools to join the NASA astronaut corps.

In August of 2007, twenty-three years after Reagan’s historic announcement, Barbara Morgan finally made it into space. Unfortunately, she had to give up her teaching career to get there, and NASA seemed to go out of its way to emphasize the fact that she was no longer a teacher. Shuttle Commander Scott Kelly told a reporter, “I don’t have a teacher as a crewmember. I have a crewmember who used to be a teacher.” In a post-flight press conference, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said that he did not consider Barbara Morgan an Educator Astronaut but “a regular Mission Specialist who once upon a time was a teacher.”

In 2004, NASA recruited three more Educator Astronauts, Joe Acaba, Richard Arnold, and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger. However, with the Shuttle program coming to an end in 2010, it is doubtful how many of these Educator Astronauts will get the chance to fly. NASA plans to replace the current orbiter with an Apollo-style space capsule called Orion. This capsule will afford fewer flight opportunities. The Shuttle flew as many as nine flights a year, carrying up to 58 astronauts; Orion is expected to fly two or three times per year, carrying just 8 to 12 astronauts. This drastic reduction in flight rate means that many members of the current astronaut corps will never fly.

Teachers in Space reborn

Yet, the future of space travel no longer depends solely on NASA. In June of 2004, SpaceShip One became the first privately built and financed vehicle to carry a human into space. Four months later, it won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize by flying to space twice in less than two weeks. That reusability showed that it was possible to build vehicles that would dramatically reduce the cost of human spaceflight. As a result, several companies are competing to build reusable spacecraft that can carry private citizens into space.

With the dawn of the commercial spaceflight industry, Teachers in Space was reborn. The Shuttle might allow the government to fly one or two teachers in space, but the new commercial vehicles will allow the nonprofit sector to fly an unlimited number of teachers. We decided to create a new, expanded Teachers in Space program, as described in Teachers in Space: The Vision.

We launched the new Teachers in Space program in 2005 with Pam Leestma, second-grade teacher and cousin of NASA astronaut David Leestma, and a training flight in a MiG-21.

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