RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Sixty teachers are in Florida today waiting for the launch of the space shuttle Endeavor. Two decades ago, all of these teachers competed for a seat on a space shuttle mission. In the end NASA picked Christa McAuliffe. She died in the Challenger accident in 1986.
Today, if all goes as planned, a second teacher from that group is finally going up in space. And the teachers have all returned to Florida to see Barbara Morgan take off.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: On Monday evening, the ballroom at the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn was filled with people with gray hair. They looked much older than their pictures on the wall from the 1980s. It felt like a high school reunion. And it was a reunion of the teachers who longed to go into space.
Ms. PAT PALAZOLLO(ph) (Teacher): What a chance for an ultimate field trip. Who wouldn't apply for that?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Pat Palazollo was a teacher in Clairton, Pennsylvania back in 1984 when NASA announced it would send a teacher into orbit.
Ms. PALAZOLLO: When we got the applications, however, and they were something like 15 pages long, all essay questions, I put mine aside and I kept waiting and waiting until one of my seventh graders at the time said, Mrs. P, you really want this, don't you?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She really did want it. So did more than 10,000 other teachers who wrote all those essays. NASA picked 114 people, two from each state in various territories. These teachers were all brought to a big meeting in Washington, D.C. Robert Forrester, a teacher from West Lafayette, Indiana, says it was an amazing experience.
Mr. ROBERT FORRESTER (Teacher): I've kidded with some people that maybe that was on the first reality show they could have put on TV. We were competing for a very high profile prize of getting a chance to ride on the space shuttle.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But it was a friendly competition. After all, the teachers had so much in common. They were crazy about space and kids. Everyone became close. And Forrester says that friendship has lasted.
Mr. FORRESTER: One of the bigger surprises is just how familiar we are with each other after 20 years. When we got together as a group, it was as if we had just last met last weekend. And so it's been exciting to know that that many people felt that strongly and emotionally about it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One reason, of course, is that the group shared a tragedy. Many of these teachers came here in 1986 to watch their friend Christa McAuliffe take off in Challenger. Kathleen Beers(ph) says they sat in the VIP stands close to the launch pad. She had been talking to McAuliffe's parents just before the launch. She says there are no words to describe seeing the explosion.
Ms. KATHLEEN BEERS (Teacher): But at the end of the day I would have been ready to go fly on the shuttle the next day. I think we just, I think it was all of us would've shared that sentiment.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now one of the teachers is getting her chance. Barbara Morgan was NASA's number two choice, Christa McAuliffe's backup. Morgan worked as a schoolteacher in Idaho, but in 1998, she became a full-time astronaut. This afternoon she's scheduled to blast off in Endeavor. She's going on a mission to the International Space Station. For the teachers it will be an enormous moment.
Ms. JUDITH GARCIA (Teacher): We were fearful that the teacher would never fly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Judith Garcia was one of NASA's 10 finalists, so she got to know Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan well. She says she once stayed with them at this very same beachside hotel.
Ms. GARCIA: And Christa wanted me to help her find a little shelf that had the little holes that were already in the tips of the shelves because their daughter Carolyn, who was at the time five years old, loved to make shell necklaces.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's a lot of memories like that now as she waits for Barbara Morgan's launch. Garcia says she's excited but also has this kind of queasy feeling. She thinks it won't go away until the shuttle's mission is over and the astronauts are home.
Ms. GARCIA: But I just keep my positive thoughts going and when I see that shuttle go up, no one's voice will be louder than mine saying godspeed, Barbara.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Endeavor is scheduled to launch today at 6:36 p.m. Eastern. The teachers will watch together by the water, where they'll have a clear view of the sky.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News, Cocoa Beach, Florida.