April 30, 2008

Astronaut Barbara Morgan Touts Benefits of Teachers in Space

CHICAGO -- One night 24 years ago, Barbara Morgan watched the news and saw an opportunity she said she could not resist, setting in motion two decades of effort, a lot of heartache and a display of "tenacity and perseverance" that the Adler Planetarium will honor Thursday with its 2008 Women in Space Science Award.

She was a second-grade teacher in McCall, Idaho, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced that it was recruiting educators for its Teacher in Space program. One of more than 11,000 applicants, she was chosen a year later as backup to Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire.

But Morgan did not get into space until August, when she flew on the shuttle Endeavour's 12-day mission to the international space station. Morgan served as a full-time astronaut operating the shuttle's robotic arm and as a part-time teacher who brought 10 million basil seeds to be distributed later to schoolchildren.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, Morgan talked about her long journey, which was interrupted by the agonizing Challenger and Columbia shuttle disasters in 1986 and 2003, as well as years of internal NASA debate over its teacher program.

Morgan remains strongly convinced that putting teachers in space is a powerful tool to lure children's interests to science, though she says the bigger lessons for kids may be spiritual and cultural ones.

"NASA is working on the Orion space vehicle to take astronauts back to the moon to establish a permanent station, a step on the way to Mars," she said. "We start with one big question with our basil experiment with the kids: How do you feed moon and Mars explorers for a very long time?

"It seems evident they will have to grow their own food, so we ask each classroom to design its own artificial growth chamber and to try to grow these basil seeds that have been exposed to outer space's micro-gravity."

Soft-spoken, Morgan talks frankly about the loss of the Challenger and Columbia crews, seeing in them a chance to pass on important life lessons.

"Kids learn a lot by watching," she said, "and with Challenger and Columbia, kids were watching to see how adults would react in very bad, difficult situations.

"I thought it was important for kids to see adults doing the right thing after each of these tragedies, to not back away from them, as so many counseled, but to instead ask what we did wrong, then decide how we could fix it and keep the future open for these kids."

Morgan's grief for the two crews is palpable, particularly for McAuliffe, with whom she formed a deep bond as they trained and worked together. But she also speaks with certainty of the worth of their efforts.

"I don't advocate risk for risk's sake," Morgan said. "Kids see people do risky things simply because they are risky, and that is not good. But it is important for them to see adults take risks for important reasons. ... If you don't take a certain amount of risk, you aren't going to learn anything. It's how we learn and grow and expand."

As Morgan grew up in a comfortable, middle-class family in Fresno, Calif., she was interested in space but said she never had dreams of being an astronaut.

She was studying human biology at Stanford University when she became so interested in the human learning process that she decided to become an elementary school teacher.

Her husband Clay Morgan, an author, was with Morgan when she saw the news item on NASA's Teacher in Space Program. Knowing her determination, he said he wasn't entirely surprised when NASA summoned his wife along with McAuliffe to Houston to undergo a compressed, 120-day astronaut training program in August 1985.

"It was apparent from the beginning that she and Christa had really hit it off and were forming a special friendship," said Clay Morgan, who stayed behind in Idaho to work as a parachuting smoke jumper until the end of the forest fire season. "When I finally got to Houston, Christa was baking an apple pie to welcome me."

When the Challenger launched with McAuliffe aboard, he said his wife was on the roof of the Cape Canaveral press center, awaiting interviews, and he was outside with the spectators. After the shuttle exploded, he said, "she ran out to meet me. We both knew something really bad had happened."

As NASA officials gathered relatives of the Challenger crew, the couple joined them.

"Barbara was taking care of the young children, taking phone calls, comforting the adults, working so hard," he said. "After a while, I couldn't stand it anymore, so I went outside to help load the crew and family luggage for the flight back to Houston."

Two important decisions for him and his wife arose from that day, he said.

"I think that is when we decided to have our kids," he said. "We both noticed in the crew quarters with the families that it was the adults who were losing it. It was the littlest children who were keeping the adults sane, and we just decided that we wanted some of that in our life."

Second, he said, his wife soon let him know she felt it was important that she stay with the program until she could get into space.

Last August, Clay Morgan, stood with his sons _ the older in college, the younger still in high school _ during the excruciating last minutes before his wife lifted off on her Endeavour shuttle mission.

"I felt a hand on my shoulder," he said, "and I heard my younger son asking, `Are you doing OK, Dad?' The two of them did better than I did at that moment, for sure."

Morgan remains in the astronaut corps and hopes to return to space, but only nine more shuttle missions are planned before the program is phased out to make way for the Orion spacecraft.

"I'd love to fly again, but there is a long line of people waiting to go," Morgan said.