The Mission Continues
The STS-118 mission may be over, but the mission to inspire students continues for astronaut Barbara Morgan.

Barbara Morgan floating inside the space shuttle

Barbara Morgan spent 13 days in space on the STS-118 space shuttle mission. Image Credit: NASA

Morgan is a teacher who trained to become an astronaut. She spent 13 days in space in August 2007 as a mission specialist on the STS-118 mission to the International Space Station. She worked hard during those two weeks, operating the space shuttle's robotic arm and managing the transfer of supplies between the shuttle and the space station. But her work continues here on Earth, as she uses her experiences as a teacher -- and now as an astronaut who has flown in space -- to inspire educators and students to seek answers to today's questions about space exploration.

The first question Morgan wants students to answer is how to grow plants on the moon. A NASA Engineering Design Challenge asks students to design and build a lunar plant growth chamber. Students will then evaluate their chamber by growing cinnamon basil seeds that traveled to space and back on the STS-118 mission. The challenge supports NASA's goal of attracting and retaining students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

During the challenge, students will learn about the engineering design process involved in building structures and about the scientific methods of conducting an experiment. "We took the seeds up because we want them to do what we get to do," Morgan said. "Rather than read about what scientists do, do what scientists do, and allow our young people to experience the joys of working as a scientist and working as an engineer."

While students will learn about engineering and science, Morgan hopes NASA can learn new ideas from the students' designs about how to grow plants on other planetary surfaces.

"I think we're going to learn from our students," Morgan said. "Some of them will be non-working models, but some of them may be working models and contributions for us going back to the moon."

Two plastic growth chambers attached to a white surface in the space station

Astronaut Clay Anderson grew cinnamon basil and lettuce in small plant growth chambers on the space station as part of an experiment about growing plants in microgravity. Image Credit: Jon Neubauer/JSC

The STS-118 mission also took up two small expandable growth chambers, which Expedition 16 Flight Engineer Clay Anderson used to conduct an in-orbit plant growth investigation. Anderson grew cinnamon basil in one chamber and lettuce in the other. He documented the plants' growth by photographing the plants inside the chambers every other day for nearly three weeks. The objective of the in-orbit experiment was to demonstrate growing plants in microgravity using small plastic chambers. Students can compare the results from their plant growth chamber experiments with Anderson's results.

Morgan also wants students to pose questions of their own. "I want them to look deep in themselves and dig up their curiosities and find out what they want to learn and know about our world and universe and space exploration and ask those questions," she said. "Some of them we can help answer, and most of them we hope they will explore and find their own answers.

"I think space exploration is such a great motivator for kids to ask never-ending, open-ended questions. All good learning starts with curiosity."

NASA has learned much about space exploration in the last 50 years, but there's more information out there just waiting to be discovered. "What we know is so small compared to what is out there to know," Morgan said.

Challenges like the lunar plant growth chamber help students become interested in space exploration and become excited about finding the answers, Morgan said. "It's about getting connected with long-duration human exploration and helping to answer those questions. Long-duration exploration is full of huge questions that have to be answered."

Related Resources
Barbara Morgan Profile  →
Clay Anderson Profile  →
STS-118 Shuttle Mission
NASA Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber
ISS Plant Growth Chamber Experiment
NASA Education Web Site  →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services