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And I'm Robert Siegel.
More than 20 years ago, NASA tried to inspire the nation by sending a schoolteacher into space. It ended in tragedy. After the Challenger accident, it seemed possible that NASA would never send another teacher into space, but next month, a space shuttle will blast off with Barbara Morgan on board. She is a teacher who has spent more than two decades waiting for her shot at going into orbit.
NPR's Nell Boyce reports.
(Soundbite of people talking)
NELL BOYCE: At an IMAX theater in Houston is Meet an Astronaut Day, and Barbara Morgan is surrounded by kids - something that doesn't happen that often anymore.
Unidentified Child: Are you still a teacher?
Ms. BARBARA MORGAN (Teacher; Astronaut): I still am a teacher and when I'm all done doing the astronaut stuff, I'm going to go back to the classrooms because I really, really miss it.
BOYCE: None of these kids remember the Challenger accident. They weren't even born, neither were Barbara Morgan's two sons. One of them is in college. She's 55 years old now. She spent nearly half her life waiting for next month's launch.
Ms. MORGAN: And yes, I'm excited but I still can't quite picture that we're there, and I'm not sure that I will until we are strapped in, ready to go. And that's when I think I'll be saying, oh, yeah, we're here. Where did all that time go?
BOYCE: Back in 1985, Barbara Morgan was a grade school teacher in the small town of McCall, Idaho. Her husband, Clay, was a novelist and a firefighter. They lived in a cabin by a lake. One day, she was watching the 5 o'clock news and President Ronald Reagan came on. He said that NASA was going to send a teacher into space. Over 10,000 teachers applied.
In her application, Barbara Morgan wrote about earlier adventures like teaching on an Indian reservation and in Ecuador. She also had to answer the question, why do you want to be the first U.S. private citizen in space? Morgan wrote: Being is not important, doing is. I don't ask my students, what do you want to be when you grow up; I ask them, what do you want to do.
NASA picked 10 finalists including Barbara Morgan. They spent two weeks together at Johnson Space Center. In the end, NASA chose Christa McAuliffe. In a cheerful speech, she said she wouldn't really be the only teacher on her flight.
Ms. CHRISTA McAULIFFE (Teacher; Astronaut, Challenger Shuttle Mission): I've made nine wonderful friends over the last two weeks, and when that shuttle goes I might be one body, but there's going to be 10 souls that I'm taking with me. Thank you.
(Soundbite of applause)
Unidentified Man #1: That's right.
BOYCE: And she formed an even closer bond with Barbara Morgan who was selected to be her backup. The two young women trained together for months. In one video from those days, you can see them goofing off inside a NASA airplane.
(Soundbite of women giggling)
BOYCE: It flies like a roller coaster to create bursts of zero gravity.
(Soundbite of women giggling)
BOYCE: The teachers float in the air, grabbing each other and doing summersaults.
Unidentified Man #2: Engines throttling up, three engines are now at 104 percent.
Unidentified Man #3: Challenger, go at throttle up.
Captain MICHAEL SMITH (U.S. Navy; Pilot, Challenger Shuttle Mission) Roger, go at throttle up.
BOYCE: On January 28th 1986, Barbara Morgan watched as the Challenger took off and then exploded. Her guest at the launch site that day was an old friend, Kathy Phelan.
Ms. KATHY PHELAN (Barbara Morgan's Friend): There was, for a very long period of time, the cameras just looking at pieces of the Challenger falling into the ocean. And she was standing in front of a monitor just shaking her head saying, those poor families, those poor families.
BOYCE: She says her friend went to the crew quarters to try to comfort them.
Barbara Morgan went back to Idaho and resumed teaching kids, but she never gave up on the idea of going into space.
Mr. ALAN LADWIG (Manager, Teacher in Space Program): She did whatever NASA asked her to do. She traveled on behalf of the agency and kept hanging in there with no guarantee that she'd ever get to fly.
BOYCE: Alan Ladwig managed NASA's Teacher in Space Program. He says the agency's top officials were reluctant to send another teacher up.
Mr. LADWIG: Each administrator would kind of kick it down the road to the next administrator. I remember Admiral Richard Truly on his last day in office said, well, I think it's time to fly the teacher, and then he was gone the next day. And of course, everybody was scared as could be, that, well, what if there's another accident with another teacher.
BOYCE: But NASA couldn't quite ax the program either. Then somebody had an idea. It's okay for astronauts to take risks. What if Barbara Morgan wasn't just a schoolteacher who was going along for the ride? What if she was a real astronaut?
So in 1998, Barbara Morgan left Idaho and her teaching job. Her family moved to hot suburban Houston for astronaut training. The teacher became a full time student. Lots of things were totally new, even the language. In a preflight interview released by the space agency, she recalled a lesson with a pilot in a small plane.
Ms. MORGAN: He told me how to change the channel on the radio and all I could hear was...
(Soundbite of making garbled sound)
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MORGAN: So there were some words there but they all sounded like gobbledygook to me.
BOYCE: She said she went to RadioShack to get a special radio so she could listen in on air traffic control. She had to learn all about orbital mechanics and hydraulic hoses. During next month's mission, she'll be operating a robotic arm.
Now, Barbara Morgan was actually scheduled to fly in space three years ago in Space Shuttle Columbia. But nine months before her scheduled mission, Columbia burned up as it returned to earth. All seven astronauts died.
Unidentified Woman: Get up, fellas. Keep on moving...
BOYCE: At Meet an Astronaut Day, one teenager asked her how she goes on. Why didn't she just quit after Challenger?
Ms. MORGAN: I gave it a lot of consideration, but my decision was quick and easy. We have kids all over the country looking at what do adults do in a bad situation. And I know you guys know we adults talk, talk, talk and you don't listen to us but you do watch, and I know you learn a lot from watching.
So do we quit, do we give up and quit on your guys' future? I can't think of anything more important to all of us than our kids - you guys - and our future, so that decision to do that was really easy. And once you make that decision, you just keep pressing forward with a happy heart.
BOYCE: Barbara Morgan's mission is targeted for August 7th. She'll be blasting off in Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
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