Ten years after she was selected as a member of NASA's astronaut corps, Barbara Morgan is leaving the agency. She sees this as the next step in an incredible journey rather than an end to her astronaut career.
Morgan has been an educator since 1974. Her involvement with NASA began in 1985, when she was selected as the back-up candidate to Christa McAuliffe as part of the Teacher in Space project. After the loss of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, Morgan returned to the classroom but continued to work with NASA.
In 1998, Morgan was selected as a mission specialist and was assigned to STS-118. In August 2007, Morgan flew on the space shuttle Endeavour and helped continue the construction of the International Space Station.
A year later, Morgan is leaving NASA to take a position with Boise State University as the Distinguished Educator in Residence, where she will work with educators and students to inspire an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
After Morgan's departure, the education community will continue to be represented in the astronaut corps. Classroom teachers Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger were selected as astronauts in 2004 and are trained as mission specialists. Acaba and Arnold are assigned to the STS-119 space shuttle mission, which is scheduled to fly in early 2009.
NASA has a long tradition of investing in the nation's education programs in order to compete effectively for the minds, imaginations and career ambitions of America's young people, with the goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
Here is an interview done with Morgan about her future plans:
What accomplishment are you most proud of during your time with NASA?
Flying for teachers! You can put a big ol' fat exclamation point on that one.
I'm also very proud of Ricky, Joe and Dottie. They'll be flying soon. And more teachers to come.
I'm also proud of all my teaching colleagues across this country who have helped make a difference in aerospace education.
What do you think the role of astronauts who are educators will be in the future? And why is their involvement important?
Well, their education role will be to help share all of NASA's discoveries, to collaborate with teachers and to work with students on Earth. All of that is important.
The other side of this is that good education is the foundation for space exploration. We can't do any of this fabulous exploration stuff if you don't have highly educated people. So NASA needs students, and it needs teachers. And NASA knows you can reach students best through their teachers.
As an educator, as a teacher, as you're moving to new adventures, what do you think is the most important thing you will take away from your time with NASA?
I would have to say, in one word, awe. Pure awe. Being involved with something very big and important. Seeing the Earth from orbit. Working with tremendous human beings.
One of the things STS-118 taught me -- or reaffirmed for me, I would say -- is that space exploration is absolutely the right thing for human beings to be doing.
Why is that?
Why? Because it just is. It's a challenging environment, but it's also a very natural thing for human beings to be doing. We are explorers.
You mentioned Joe, Ricky and Dottie earlier. What parting thoughts or advice are you leaving them with?
Well, that question makes me laugh. They do not need any parting thoughts from me, and they do not need my advice. They are doing absolutely great, and they are going to love spaceflight. They are representing teachers wonderfully for all of us.
What is your fondest memory of your flight on STS-118?
Oh, gosh, it's hard to come up with one -- the fondest memory -- because I have many memories.
One day, just before going to bed, I was closing the cover on the window on the mid-deck, and looking out. I hung there for a couple of minutes before pushing it closed. We were in orbital dark at the time. I could see thousands of stars. But where I couldn't see stars out that particular window was where the truss system that goes along the top of the station was, with the solar array at the end. It was blocking some of the stars. I could see the outline; I could see where that truss and that solar array were.
I was watching that, and just enjoying it and admiring it. And off in the distance, off on the horizon, a thin blue line appeared. It was becoming day -- daytime -- or orbital morning. And that thin blue line got higher, and another thin blue line popped up underneath it. And then another, and another and another and another. And then these lines, they grew up and got thicker. There ended up being about 20 to 30 layers of blue. And every layer of blue was a different blue. I don't think we have the vocabulary words for that many colors of blue. When you look at the photographs, you can usually see maybe five or six layers. But in space, there really are something like 20 or 30 layers.
And so I was watching all this, and as I was watching, the solar array started to glow. It was an Inca gold, and it got brighter and brighter and brighter. It was very much like the filament in your toaster, the wire, how it gets brighter and brighter and brighter. Only your toaster wire is red, and the solar array glows this brilliant gold. Well, it was just incredible. Then, as the sun got higher, the sky started to light up, and the ocean below that became bright and shiny. It was a beautiful bright blue with bright white clouds over it.
And here we were. It was just amazing, because I could hear the quiet humming and whirring of the fans and the equipment on board the station and shuttle. And everything felt really, really smooth. And here we were.
And that solar panel looked like a sail, out there. And I got this sense that we were sailing -- really smoothly sailing -- over the top of the ocean. It was so smooth. But the ocean below -- that bright, bright, bright blue ocean -- it looked rough. I started thinking about the early explorers and how rough the seas were for them. But here we were, smoothly sailing over the top.
Then I happened to glance up. Up above the horizon, there hung a crescent moon in broad daylight. It was off to the right. And I know that this is impossible to do, but it just seemed like we could yank on the tiller, take a sharp right turn, and head straight for the moon.
I think I just caught a little bit of that awe you were talking about in that description.
The other thing, too -- another story that is a really fond one -- was when we rendezvoused and docked with the station and opened up the hatch for the first time. That whole time with our station crewmates, with Clay Anderson and Oleg (Kotov) and Fyodor (Yurchikhin), was truly remarkable. We were all working really, really hard. And it is great work. And it's fun work.
I had seen the United States (Destiny) laboratory at Kennedy Space Center before we launched it. It was when we were doing final testing on it, with the computer testing and things. It was fascinating; it looked like a really well-built laboratory. But I couldn't visualize spending a long time in it.
But when we opened that hatch, when we docked with the station and opened up that hatch, and here was this laboratory that I'd seen on the ground, well, it was ... boy, I wish I could come up with the right words ... it was just amazing. And it was home. It really was home. So not only was it a laboratory, it was home.
It was full of life, and I could, in spending the time I spent up there, I could definitely get a feeling for living and working there for a long time. Oleg and Fyodor and Clay were so excited and happy to show us their home. There was stuff everywhere. It was full of life.
Looking back on your time with NASA, as the back-up to the Teacher in Space and as an astronaut, what are your thoughts about the journey?
Well, that opportunity came along, and people have asked, "Why did you do it?" All of us who applied did it because we are teachers. We're always looking for opportunities to learn more, to experience more so we can do a better job in our classroom, to knock those four walls down, to bring the world to our students, and to bring our students out to the world. So I knew what I was getting into. It was a great opportunity for learning to bring to my students.
What I didn't realize at the time was that this was much bigger than all of us put together. And how satisfying and wonderful it is to be a part of something -- a big team with big goals -- that is much bigger than any one classroom or one school. So that's part of it.
Now, as far as what my thoughts are about the whole journey, now that I'm looking back on it -- Well, I want to share the journey. It really seems like just yesterday that Christa (McAuliffe) and I got involved in Teacher In Space. At that time, the idea of a space station was just a drawing. Christa was going to take up a little model of it; at that time it was called Space Station Freedom. She was going to teach a lesson on where we've been, where we're going and why; and she was going to show everyone that model. But the space station itself was just a drawing.
And now, our space station is almost finished, and it's absolutely marvelous. And it's international. It's international now and it wasn't then. Not only that, but now we're going to go back to the moon and on to Mars and all of that is just fantastic. That makes it really hard to leave this great job.
What in your background as an educator helped you the most in your career as an astronaut?
Everything about being an educator helps in being an astronaut. Everything. I'll name a few things -- loving learning, working hard, working with complex people in complex environments, serving our country, and having very high and very challenging goals. Teachers and astronauts do many of the same things, in the same ways.
What are you going to be doing at Boise State, and what are you most looking forward to in your new job?
I love everything about Boise State University. I'm most looking forward to doing education full-time. I'm looking forward to helping teachers and students have more opportunities to get involved in exploration, and in the exciting world of science and engineering and math.
What message would you like to share with students that are going to be reading this story?
I want all our students to know that for them, the sky is no limit. Look deep inside yourselves. What is it that you want to know? What is it you want to do?
Barbara Morgan →
Teaching From Space
NASA Education Web Site →
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services