Feature

An Educator and an Astronaut
08.21.07
When Space Shuttle Endeavour launched on Aug. 8, 2007, it carried NASA's first Educator Astronaut into space.

Astronaut Barbara Morgan wearing an orange shuttle launch and entry suit

Mission specialist Barbara Morgan is the first Educator Astronaut to make a spaceflight. Image Credit: NASA

Despite her historically unique status, Morgan is much like her crewmates on the STS-118 mission as she is a fully trained and certified astronaut.

The differences that do exist between Morgan and her crewmembers are notable, but do not set her significantly apart. It is true that Morgan was the first Educator Astronaut to board the International Space Station and her wait to fly was longer than most. Teaching is her passion and she has spent the majority of her lifetime in the classroom, but at this point the fine line between Morgan as a teacher and an astronaut blurs.

In fact, Morgan hopes that when today's youth watched her, "an ordinary person," perform duties as an STS-118 mission specialist, they realized that their futures are open-ended, and limitless opportunities are available to them. She wishes to inspire kids, through her story, to seek knowledge, learn all they can, and explore their own lives, just as NASA astronauts do in space.

Morgan began her journey to become an astronaut as an inquisitive child growing up during the "Space Race" of the 1960s. Like many of her generation, she was enthralled with the events of the Apollo missions, but never considered space travel as a realistic goal or career path. So, she pursued other interests, earning a degree in human biology from Stanford University in 1973 and obtaining her teaching credential at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, Calif., in 1974, beginning a career of inspiring the next generation.

"People go into teaching and stay with it because it is its own reward," said Morgan. "It's challenging. It's inspiring. It's invigorating. ... It's an enormous responsibility. It's an enormous challenge, and it's enormously rewarding."

Astronaut Barbara Morgan speaks with students

Before becoming an astronaut, Barbara Morgan was an elementary teacher. Image Credit: NASA

A passionate educator, Morgan constantly pursued additional opportunities to enhance the classroom. In 1985, when President Ronald Reagan announced the inception of NASA's Teacher in Space program, Morgan saw this as an opportunity to inspire students and to fulfill a dream. She never imagined it as an opportunity to change professions.

"I was sitting at home, it was after school, it was five o'clock ... the president came on the news and announced that they were going to send a teacher in space," recounts Morgan. "I shot straight up and said, 'Wow!' ... Because as teachers, we're always looking for opportunities to bring the world to our classroom, to gain more experiences, gain more knowledge about our world so that we can make our classroom a better place for our kids."

Morgan applied to the Teacher in Space program and was selected on July 19, 1985, as backup for the late Christa McAuliffe. From September 1985 to January 1986, she trained with McAuliffe and the STS-51L crew, scheduled to launch on the Space Shuttle Challenger. They trained at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"We were all really excited and thrilled to be doing what we are doing," recalls Morgan.

Tragically, shortly after Challenger launched on Jan. 28, 1986, the STS-51L crew, including McAuliffe, were lost. In the wake of the accident, Morgan became a NASA ambassador to the nation's education community, assuming the duties of Teacher in Space Designee and working with educational organizations throughout the country.

In the fall, Morgan returned to formal education, teaching second and third grades while maintaining a working relationship with NASA's Education Division.

Twelve years went by, but in 1998 her dream of space travel was again within reach when she was selected to become an astronaut. The teacher in Morgan viewed the selection an opportunity to show the next generation how to overcome challenges.

"I thought it was really important for kids to see that we figure out what's wrong, fix it and move on, and we keep the future open for our young people," Morgan said. "And I just thought that was really important, and feel that's really important today. I'll feel that's important forever."

While some thought the inherit risks of space might deter Morgan, she quickly saw past those dangers. "The risks are the same for an educator, physician, engineer, pilot, chemist or anyone else who flies in space," Morgan said when asked if she ever rethought her goal to fly in space. "We're doing it to learn. We're doing it to explore. We're doing it to discover. We're doing it to help make the world a better place. And we're doing it to help keep those doors open so that they (the next generation) can too."

Mission specialist Barbara Morgan's spaceflight on STS-118 is viewed as significant by many because she is an educator. At the same time, however, she is just like the other crewmembers onboard. She is a fully trained member of the crew and performed important tasks such as operating the robotic arm, overseeing transfer of equipment and supplies to ISS, and assisting on the flight deck. She worked right alongside the others to continue the assembly of the International Space Station.

Morgan is also like her crewmates in her yearning to explore, to learn and then to share her experience with others. These are characteristics of an explorer, of an astronaut and of Barbara Morgan, mission specialist and Educator Astronaut.

Amy Pruett/GSFC