Next Wednesday, if everything goes according to plan, NASA will launch a teacher into space. Not just any teacher: the woman who was the backup for Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher headed for space, who was killed in the Challenger disaster in January 1986.
Yes, 21 years later, McAuliffe’s understudy Barbara Morgan will rocket into orbit aboard space shuttle Endeavour, which is scheduled to blast off next Wednesday.
You probably haven’t heard about NASA finally getting a teacher into space. The agency has been pretty quiet about it, the news media has been even quieter, and of course, Barbara Morgan is going to the International Space Station in the somnolent second week of August. Not that many schools are even in session.
But something else has changed. NASA figured out how to make itself comfortable trying again to send a teacher into space: Barbara Morgan isn’t a teacher anymore. She joined the astronaut corps in 1998, and her main job aboard the two-week flight of Endeavour will be operating the robotic arms of both the shuttle and the space station as a mission specialist. (In a bittersweet touch, Endeavour is the newest space shuttle, built to replace the Challenger on which McAuliffe died.)
There’s a lot going on in space these days, although we don’t pay that much attention.
Tomorrow — Saturday — NASA is scheduled to launch a fascinating robotic probe called Phoenix to Mars, also from Cape Canaveral. Phoenix is headed for the north pole of Mars, where it will look for signs of liquid water and the organic molecules that might signal evidence of life. Phoenix cost just $420 million — just launching the space shuttle costs $1 billion. But space travel remains more complicated than we appreciate. Phoenix has just a 22-day launch window — after that, Earth and Mars won’t be in the proper alignment again for the trip to Mars for 26 months.
Barbara Morgan will do some formal educator-in-space sessions during her 14-day mission, and anyone who’s curious about Endeavour’s space-station construction mission or Morgan’s efforts will find a wealth of information on NASA’s website, including two long interviews with Morgan. Both USAToday and the Miami Herald have done good stories about Morgan’s journey.
Morgan — who wrote in her teacher-in-space application 23 years ago that she wanted to “get some stardust on me” — is now 55 years old, the oldest of this mission’s 7-member crew. Endeavor’s launch is the 119th space shuttle mission in the space ship’s 26-year-history. Morgan was not only at the Cape, watching, when Challenger broke apart; she was the capsule communicator (capcomm) for Columbia, which broke apart on re-entry five years ago. If anyone appreciates in her gut how dangerous space travel is, Morgan does.
Among the things now available on the web is what each astronaut has requested for each meal of the two-week flight — their personalized menus (scroll down to the crew section of the mission page and click “view menu” for a PDF). Morgan has chosen meatloaf for her first space meal (a dinner), and grits with butter for the breakfast she gets just before returning to Earth.
Yes, the food has gotten better in the 20 years since Challenger.