MICHELE NORRIS, host:

NASA is getting ready to launch a space shuttle tomorrow. That's always an exciting and nervous time for everyone involved in the space program. Shuttle launches are dramatic, but they're also dangerous. In this time around, many people have special reasons to remember that Challenger disaster, which killed seven people back in 1986, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: If all goes as planned, astronaut Tracy Caldwell will be strapped in tomorrow. She'll be waiting on the launch pad for her first flight into space. At a recent press conference, she said when she was a kid, she never thought she'd go on a spaceship. Then, something happened.

Ms. TRACY CALDWELL (Astronaut): I was 16 years old, a junior high school, when the world was really excited about NASA and it was all because of the Challenger mission.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Challenger was going to take schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe into orbit. This was surprising. Caldwell had thought that astronauts all had to be macho like military test pilots.

Ms. CALDWELL: Before Christa McAuliffe, I never thought about being an astronaut. But once I heard about her, I thought, well, you know, I may not know a test pilot or an astronaut, but I know a teacher, I know a teacher or two.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, Caldwell knows one more teacher. Her name is Barbara Morgan, and she'll be onboard the space shuttle tomorrow, too.

Back in the 1980s, Morgan was an Idaho schoolteacher, who served as Christa McAuliffe's backup. After the Challenger disaster, Morgan kept in touch with NASA for years. She eventually applied to be a full-fledged astronaut. Morgan knows that her close connection with Christa McAuliffe is bringing a lot of attention to her first flight.

Ms. BARBARA MORGAN (Astronaut): This whole mission and many other missions, but in particular this mission, is a tribute to the Challenger crew. And I do know that folks will be thinking about Challenger, and that's a good thing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Even though people will be thinking of Challenger, the work on this mission is different. Education is not the focus. Morgan will talk to some school kids on the ground but most of the time, she'll be operating a robotic arm, helping Caldwell and the other astronauts do construction work on the International Space Station.

Still, many teachers have come to Florida to watch this launch because it represents the continuation of a dream.

Mr. ART KIMURA (State finalist, NASA's Teacher in Space program): Well, for me personally, I think it brings psychological closure.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Art Kimura was a state finalist from Hawaii for NASA's Teacher in Space program back in the '80s. The Challenger accident was difficult for him. There was an astronaut from Hawaii on board, and of course, he knew Christa McAuliffe.

Mr. KIMURA: And I think having Barbara, who was Christa's backup, finally have her unique experience of flying in space for all students, I think it will bring us at least psychologically through a full circle.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Did you think NASA ever would send another teacher into space?

Mr. KIMURA: I believe, personally, I believe they would eventually.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Space shuttle Endeavor is set to lift off tomorrow night at 6:36 p.m. Eastern Time. Kimura says he'll be out by the water watching.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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