Space Ace

December 1, 2007 by  
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Teacher continues legacy more than 20 years after tragedy

When Barbara Morgan’s students look up into the starry skies, they see the wonderment of a universe far beyond their dreams or comprehension. But when Morgan, a former elementary school teacher, looks up into those same heavens, she sees the road of an educator’s unfinished legacy.

Many people grow up wanting to be an astronaut. However, Morgan’s path to the heavens came through the classroom. Although Morgan successfully traveled into space aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in August, her 14-day journey began more than 20 years ago.

In 1984, she applied for the Teacher in Space Project and the next year, she was one of two teachers selected by NASA from a nationwide pool to participate in the program. She trained side-by-side with astronauts as well as fellow teacher and astronaut-in-training Christa McAuliffe.

Shattered Dreams
Like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986. Morgan can tell you exactly where she could have been; instead, she had a front-row seat to one of the most horrific disasters in American history. Just months earlier, McAuliffe was selected for Mission STS-51-L and Morgan was her alternate.

That cold January morning, seven astronauts, including McAuliffe, were to lift off aboard the space shuttle Challenger. However, just 73 seconds into its flight, the shuttle exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven people on board.

“I trained with that crew; I trained with Christa,” Morgan says. “They were wonderful people and it was a great mission to be a part of. What happened to them was horrible.”

After watching the work and lives destroyed in front of her, Morgan accepted NASA’s invitation to continue her participation as an educator in the program. She moved back to Idaho and continued her teaching career.

Back for More
Morgan never gave up the dream of going to space. Finally, in 1998, she received a call from NASA, inviting her to rejoin the astronaut program. In August of that year, Morgan became a full-time astronaut and moved to Houston. Before long, the assignment of a lifetime arrived — she would participate in STS-118, accepting the role of a mission specialist.

Finally, on Aug. 8, a team of seven astronauts, including Morgan, launched into space aboard the Endeavor. More than 20 years of training, hard work and heartache finally came down to seconds ticking on the launch pad.

“It was a long time coming,” she says, recalling her experience on the launch pad during the countdown. “During the launch, you are paying more attention to what’s going on around you and making sure everything is working correctly. When we felt the thrust of the solid rocket boosters, that’s when I knew we were finally going somewhere. That’s when I said, ‘Wow, we are really going.'”

Among the objectives for the crew of STS-118 was to dock with the International Space Station and retrieve a module containing more than 800 specimens used to study long-term space habitation.

“My duties were to operate the robotic arms of the shuttle and the International Space Station,” she says. Morgan was also responsible for transferring 5,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS and moving more than 3,000 pounds of cargo to the shuttle.

“It’s not like there’s an empty garage where you can just leave everything,” Morgan laughs. “It was kind of like a shell game.”

Beyond the Earth
Morgan says she had little time to gaze out the window and take in the view of Earth that few have seen with their own eyes. However, the opportunities she had were astounding.

“It was so amazing to see the Earth lighting up below. There was a sunrise every 45 minutes,” she says, describing how quickly the shuttle orbited the Earth. Morgan said she heard other astronauts say they felt a sense of awe when looking at the planet from above. “I had those feelings too, but I was prepared for them. I knew what I would see and how I would feel. Those feelings were wonderful, but not a surprise.”

Instead, Morgan describes a sense of purpose, not only for astronauts but for anyone who dreams of going beyond human boundaries.

“As we flew over the oceans, I felt like we were the explorers who sailed the seas,” she says. “It was calm and quiet in the cabin and all you can really hear are the fans in the shuttle humming. It really felt like this was the right thing for human beings to be doing.

An Unfinished Legacy
After 14 days in space, the shuttle and crew safely returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Following a two-week debriefing with NASA officials, Morgan has been on a whirlwind tour, continuing the education program she helped launch two decades ago. Despite fulfilling the goal of having an educator in space, the work of NASA, teachers and students is far from complete.

“We didn’t finish the work when I came back,” Morgan says. “Christa’s legacy is open-ended. Every teacher’s legacy is open-ended. There is still the legacy of those who worked with the Challenger’s crew. [Education] is a mission that will never end. It’s satisfying to play a small part in that mission.”

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