NASA's First Educator Astronaut Aims for Space
NASA's first educator astronaut Barbara Morgan trains for an Aug. 7, 2007 launch during NASA's STS-118 mission.
Credit: NASA.

HOUSTON -- After more than two decades of waiting, NASA?s first official educator astronaut is ready to fly.

Barbara Morgan, who first joined NASA?s spaceflyer ranks 22 years ago during the agency?s Teacher in Space program, is due to launch Aug. 7 with six STS-118 crewmates aboard the shuttle Endeavour on a construction mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

?We?re very thrilled that we have a mission specialist who is an experienced educator,? said Joyce Winterton, NASA?s associate administrator for the Office of Education, during a briefing today here at the agency?s Johnson Space Center (JSC). ?Her mission will be an opportunity to engage many educators in their professions and their development, as well as students to understand what it requires to be an astronaut.?

Long path to space

NASA first selected Morgan in 1985, when the agency announced she would serve as the backup spaceflyer to fellow schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe as part of the agency?s Teacher in Space program. McAuliffe and her six shuttle crewmates were tragically killed during the 1986 Challenger accident, after which Morgan performed various activities and tasks in McAuliffe?s stead as her Teacher in Space Designee before returning to teach elementary school in McCall, Idaho.

?Christa was, is, and always will be our ?Teacher in Space,? our first teacher to fly,? Morgan said in a NASA interview, adding that showing schoolchildren how adults recover from tragedies such as the Challenger and Columbia accidents has kept her committed to human spaceflight.

Morgan returned to NASA in 1998, this time as a full-fledged educator astronaut and was assigned to Endeavour?s STS-118 mission in 2002.

?The ?Educator Astronaut? and the ?Teacher in Space? are both teachers,? Morgan said in a NASA interview. ?They experience space, and then they share that experience through a teacher?s perspective and through the eyes, ears, the hearts and minds of teachers.?

Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Scott Kelly, the planned 11-day STS-118 mission will haul more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kilograms) of cargo to the ISS, as well as a new station gyroscope, spare parts platform and starboard-side addition to the orbital laboratory?s main truss. Morgan will serve as Endeavour?s prime shuttle robotic arm operator during the flight?s three planned spacewalks, mission managers said.

A new power transfer system aboard Endeavour, which is designed to allow the orbiter to draw on the space station?s power grid, could extend the STS-118 mission by three days, add an extra spacewalk and extend Morgan?s teaching opportunities, they added.

Educating through ISS assembly

Unlike McAuliffe?s planned flight aboard Challenger, which was completely dedicated to education projects and highlighted by two lessons to be broadcast on television, Morgan?s mission is split between her duties as educator and mission specialist.

All told, under six hours will be reserved solely for education during STS-118, said Cindy McArthur, head of NASA?s Teaching in Space project at JSC. While splitting Morgan?s attention takes time away from education efforts, it also adds to her complete astronaut experience, which should help her better relate the mission to students and teachers on Earth, McArthur added.

Morgan will participate in at least one interactive video broadcast with students on Earth during the mission and record a series of video ?teachable moments? while in orbit, McArthur said. If the mission is extended to 14 days, two additional video broadcasts are planned, she added.

Morgan and her crewmates will also transfer a set of plant growth chambers, as well as basil and lettuce seeds, to the ISS for Expedition 15 astronaut Clayton Anderson to cultivate over 20 days as part of a NASA Engineering Design Challenge. She is flying some 10 million basil seeds that will later be distributed to students across the U.S. to grow in their own home-built growth chambers.

?But the on-orbit activities are only one component in a comprehensive education plan,? McArthur said.

NASA will parlay Morgan?s flight to support an Engineering Design Challenge during the 2007-2008 school year in an effort to challenge students to build their own plant growth chambers for lunar missions. The space agency is also planning a Fit Explorer program to emphasize the importance of physical fitness for students and astronauts in space.

A national pennant design challenge called on students to design their own banner for the STS-118 mission, with online voters choosing the top entry to fly aboard Endeavour during next month?s mission.

Student Tapasya Das, of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, won the contest with her entry ?Education 4 Exploration.?

Other educators await flight

While Morgan is NASA?s first to launch under the title educator astronaut, she is not the only professional teacher to join the agency?s spaceflyer ranks.

Educator astronauts Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, Richard Arnold and Joseph Acaba, all trained schoolteachers selected in 2004, have completed their astronaut training and are currently awaiting their own spaceflight assignments.

?They?re all of course completely trained and ready for a spaceflight whenever they're assigned,? McArthur said. ?Our hope is certainly that, before the end of the shuttle flights and certainly then on the next generation of vehicles, that we?ll continue to have educator astronauts fly.?

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