Barbara Morgan, Teacher and Astronaut Elementary school teacher Barbara Morgan — who was the backup for Christa McAuliffe on the tragic 1986 Challenger mission — finally made it to space this year on the shuttle Endeavour. Morgan talks about teaching, her preparations for the flight, and her time in space.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.

Back in 1985, a school teacher named Barbara Morgan sent an application to NASA. I want to go on the space shuttle, she wrote. I want to get some stardust on me. At that time, she was picked as a backup to Christa McAuliffe for the Teacher in Space program. After McAuliffe and the rest of the crew died in the 1986 Challenger disaster, Morgan had to wait more than 20 years to become the first teacher in space.

(Soundbite of NASA clip)

Unidentified Man#1: Seven.

Unidentified Man#2: Six. Go for main engine, start. Four, three, two, one, zero, and lift off. The space shuttle Endeavour, expanding the International Space Station - walk regaining our classroom in space.

NEARY: Morgan made the trip as a full-fledged NASA astronaut. She was picked for the program in 1998, one of fewer than 50 women to ever fly in space. We'll talk to her about getting her space legs, teaching from space, and what's it like to realize that dream.

Later in the hour, everything you ever wanted to know about "Rendition" but were afraid to ask, and J.K. Rowling outs Dumbledore.

But first, Barbara Morgan. If you have questions for the first teacher astronaut, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or send an e-mail to, and join the conversation on the blog:

Barbara Morgan is now back on Earth, and she joins us from NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Barbara, welcome to the show.

Ms. BARBARA MORGAN (Teacher; Mission Specialist, STS-118): Good afternoon, Lynn. How are you doing?

NEARY: I'm great.

So just two months ago, you were on the space shuttle orbiting the Earth. Give us a sense of what that was like. Was it unbelievable, especially after you had to wait for so long? Did it meet your expectations?

Ms. MORGAN: Well, actually, a couple of things, if you don't mind. First of all, that was a very lovely introduction. But I really didn't wait. There was a whole team of folks, and we've been working for many years to continue on this mission in the stream. So please know it wasn't a wait and it really didn't seem all that long. In fact, the space flight itself seems like longer ago already.

And, also, I am - Christa was, is, and always will be our first teacher in space. And I want to make sure everybody understands that. I just happen to be one of the next, and there will be more to come.

NEARY: Okay. And, again, when you say it wasn't a wait, you were spending all that time preparing for this is what you're saying. You were getting ready for this.

Ms. MORGAN: That's true. And I was also teaching in my classroom and that's good work.

NEARY: Yeah. Yeah. So, let's talk about what it was like to be up orbiting the Earth, certainly something that you've been wanting to do for a longtime, whether you were waiting or getting ready for it or happily teaching; something that you had yearned for, let's say, for many years. What was it like to finally get there?

Ms. MORGAN: Well, when we were on the launch pad and after we launched - and I know I've been asked before, were you scared or were you going to be scared. And I would always say, no, I won't be scared. I'll be alert. And I was alert on the launch pad as were my crewmates, and you're paying attention to what the ground team is doing to get the vehicle ready just before launch, and you're doing what you need to be doing. And some of that is communication checks and things like that, but you're definitely ready to go.

And I didn't really know exactly what my feeling would be, but when we took off and we jumped off that launch tower and it gets loud and shaky and you really know you're going somewhere because with seven million pounds of thrust, you're really heading out there.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. I can imagine.

Ms. MORGAN: The thought going through my head was - it was just such a wonderful sense of, we are going into the space, we are going and this is great, and in just a couple of days, we're going to be docking to the International Space Station and I can't wait.

NEARY: Do you have any sense - can you see anything going on outside during that initial time of flight at all?

Ms. MORGAN: You can if you were on the flight deck, and I was on the flight deck for entry, for the landing portion of flight. For the abstinent portion or for launch portion, I was down on the mid deck. And as one of my crewmates that I swapped places with for the entry, said, you get a great view of Velcro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: What does that mean exactly?

Ms. MORGAN: Well, because when you're on the mid deck, you don't have a view out the…

NEARY: Oh, okay.

Ms. MORGAN: …window. You're looking at a bank of lockers in front of you, and there's Velcro all over.

NEARY: Very exciting. All right, so when the get a view - so you got a view of coming back in, you're saying?

Ms. MORGAN: Yes. And of course, as soon as you're - you know, as soon as you have reached orbit and you are, you know, after main engine cut off and you are weightless and you unstrap from your seat, even then we were so busy on the mid deck getting everything ready for becoming an orbiter and getting everything ready for getting our crewmates on, you know, out of their suits and into their orbit clothes and getting the mid deck set up, and also the - getting everything set up by the time we got to where we could get a view of the Earth. That was just a little bit later in the flight.

And that first view out is - it is breathtaking. I think the immediate reaction I had - and this happened many, many times during the flight when I had a chance to peak out the window - was I've never seen a black like the black of space anywhere on Earth, and I wish I could find the find the words to describe it. It was similar to the black of obsidian. It was as - it was that kind of black, but it wasn't shiny. And even that wasn't the black. It's just a different black that I've ever seen. And it was also a very - and this is a odd word to use because when you think of the word creamy, you think of kind of a light color. But it was a very, very black color but it had a very creamy look to it.

NEARY: What else can you see? Can you see any - I mean, you say - you talk about seeing Earth. I mean, can you - what else do you see when you're looking out into that black space?

Ms. MORGAN: Oh, gosh. When - well, at - when you're on the - you know, you travel around the Earth every - you're going 17,500 miles an hour, so you're traveling around the Earth every 90 minutes, and that gives you - on the sunny side, you know, you get 45 minutes of day and then you're back on the dark side of the Earth, so you get 45 minutes of night. And when you're on the dark side of the Earth and you're looking - if you're looking out towards, you know, towards the space part, you see so many, so many stars. Of course, you're outside the Earth's atmosphere so you're going to see a lot more stars than you see on Earth.

However, you got to have the lights off. So if you've got the lights on in the shuttle or when we were docked to the International Space Station, if we had the lights on there, it's just like what - the difference between looking at the stars from Washington, D.C., compared to looking at the stars from the top of a, you know, a mountain in Vermont or something like - or out in the West.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. MORGAN: So you do get the light pollution, and that cuts away from seeing some of the stars. But if you can - and we did - if you turn off all the lights on your space vehicles and look out there - the stars are just hung there. They almost look like they each hung on their own invisible little string out there out in the universe.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. That's amazing. So - and - but in the meantime, as you were saying, you're very busy inside the shuttle with your work - I guess most of the time - and you were making the robot arm work, as I understand it, which I think would be hard anywhere much less in space.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: It is hard. It's challenging and it's also a lot of fun. We had several arm operators, and I was the one of the lucky robotic arm operators for the - both the arm on the shuttle and a bigger arm - we call it the big arm -on the International Space Station. And it is quite a challenge. I love it especially as a teacher because it is real-life geometry in action. And I wish every one of our students could have a chance to do that, and I don't think anybody would ever ask now why are we learning this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: This math? Because it is, it's fun and it's challenging. And - well, go ahead. I'm sorry.

NEARY: I was just going to say you started training fulltime as an astronaut in 1999, but you continued teaching as well, and that was part of your mission. And we had a clip from the shuttle mission in August that shows you in kind in both of those roles. We're going to play that clip of tape now.

(Soundbite of NASA clip)

Ms. MORGAN: And good morning, Discovery Center. Good afternoon. We're happy to be here with you. This is Al Drew, Clay Anderson, Dave Williams, and I'm Barb Morgan, and we are ready for your first question. Welcome aboard the International Space Station.

Ms. SARAH ABRY (Student): Hi. I'm Sarah Abry. If you threw a baseball in space, how fast did it go?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And that was you, fielding questions in space from students. How did you answer that question, first of all?

Ms. MORGAN: Well, we said that that was a great question. It actually put a question in our mind, which is just how slow can you throw a ball in space. And so we had Clay Anderson, who is a baseball aficionado and had a baseball on orbit throw the ball as slowly as he could and then float it over to catch it. So we showed that you can both throw and catch. You can play ball with yourself up on the space station. And then we, of course, talked about how - you could throw it very fast, but you wouldn't want to because you don't want to damage any of the equipment on board.

NEARY: We're talking with Barbara Morgan, NASA astronaut and also a teacher. And if you would like to join our discussion, if you have any questions for her, the number is 800-989-8255. Or send us an e-mail to

How did being a teacher help you prepare for becoming an astronaut?

Ms. MORGAN: That's also an excellent question. Teachers have the right skills to do the job of an astronaut. They work with complex people in a very complex environment and with some knowns and a lot of unknowns as well. And so - and they are used to working hard and used to thinking on their feet and really used to learning and lots of learning, life-long learning. And so they really do come with the skills that they need.

NEARY: Yeah. What is it like - you know, I saw a video of you sort of floating around in the shuttle, and I have to say your hair was waving above your head and I thought, gosh, it must be really hard on the hair. I know this is kind of a girly question, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: If you want a bad-hair day every day, get a haircut just like mine. It's good on Earth, I think - I hope, anyway. But in space, it was kind of a challenge because it wasn't quite, you know, it just wasn't quite right for - I wasn't quite able to pin it back like my crewmate, Tracy, was. Her hair was much longer and she was able to pin it back.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. MORGAN: Or pull it into a pony tail.

NEARY: Well, what does it feel like? I mean, I know you spend a lot of time preparing for that first feeling of weightlessness, but can anybody really prepare you for it or is it just like nothing else?

Ms. MORGAN: Well, you know, you do prepare for it. But it is like nothing else also. To prepare for it, one of the things we do, we've got - you can fly in an aircraft through a series of, like, you know, up and down like a roller coaster…

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MORGAN: …parabolas. And as you go over the top of that hump, you'll experience weightlessness. So - and we do have an aircraft here at the Johnson Space Center that's hallowed out on the inside. It's well-padded, so when you come down from the hump and you get g-forces, you don't hurt yourself. But that - you experience periods of weightlessness and that's about 30 seconds worth. Well, what you don't prepare for…

NEAR: You're going to have to save us for that. You have to save what you're not prepared for…

Ms. MORGAN: Okay.

NEARY: …because we're going to take a short break and we're going to hear that when we come back.

We're talking with NASA astronaut Barbara Morgan. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255.

I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Tomorrow, NASA plans to launch space shuttle Discovery on a two-week mission. Today, we're talking with one of the crew members from the last mission. In August, Barbara Morgan realized a goal she's had for 20 years - to orbit the Earth.

Now that she's back on the ground, she's been nice enough to join us today and take your calls. If you have questions about weightlessness, astronaut training and living aboard the shuttle, give us a call. If you're a student or a teacher, are you inspired by her trip? 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is, and check out our blog at

And, Barbara, before we took that short break, you were about to tell us what you really can't, I guess, be trained for when it comes to real weightlessness in space.

Ms. MORGAN: Okay. Thanks. Thanks, Lynn. So, I think the biggest surprise for me - because when we do the training, you get only about 30 seconds at a time of weightlessness. What happened when we got on orbit - at the first day, you want to make sure that you minimize your head motions and keep your orientation the way you're used to so that the ceiling is on the ceiling and the floor is on the floor. And so I was making sure that I was doing that. And that helps you from getting what we call space adaptation syndrome, which is a fancy word for space sickness.

And so I was being very careful to keep, you know, the ceiling of the shuttle above my head and the floor of the shuttle below my feet. And I knew that I was right side up according to, you know, the way my eyes were showing me I should be. But it was very interesting, that whole first day, my body felt like it was 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MORGAN: So I felt like I was upside-down, and that was a surprise. Also, things really do kind of get away from you, and that was something that was a bit of a challenge. Actually, doing the work in - it's a lot of fun floating and being weightless, but also actually trying to accomplish things and do the work is a bit of a challenge.

NEARY: Okay. All right. Let's take a call now. We're going to go to Garry(ph) and he's calling from California.

Hi, Garry.

GARRY (Caller): Hi. Barbara, I just wanted to let you know that you are a delight for just millions of people. And my wife and I had the joy of watching the space shuttle and the International Space Station go by (unintelligible) bright lights in the sky and stars, you know, appearing as stars, and knowing you're onboard was wonderful.

But, anyway, my question for you is about dreams - whether or not your dreams were altered, if you remembered any dreams. And also, what was the experience of falling asleep weightless and, similarly, what was the experience not in that state?

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Garry.

Ms. MORGAN: Thank you, Garry. And thanks for your very kind words. It was very interesting. I did not remember any dreams in space - and I do dream on Earth. But, you know, when I wake up in the morning, I know I had to have dreamed because that's what you do. But I woke up - when I woke up every morning, I never did remember any dream, and I have a feeling that's because I slept so well. So I never woke up during that period when, you know, just after you've been dreaming.

And to - we do have, you can wear little, you know, like one of those little Hollywood masks, those little kind of eyepieces, you know, just a little mask that goes over your eyes. And you can put earphones - earplugs in. I decided to try the first night without that and just took the strap from our - we have - you crawl into a flimsy, little sleeping bag and there is a couple of straps on it, and there's a strap near the pillow part of it.

So I would just kind of wrap that strap across the front of my eyes to just block out a little bit of the whatever ambient light was left, because we do put covers over the windows to block out the light. And I'll tell you, and I think it's just (unintelligible) in working so hard, when I closed my eyes, I went to sleep pretty much immediately and I didn't wake up until the alarm woke us up in the morning.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Diane(ph). Diane is calling from Manorville, New York.

Hi, Diane.

DIANE (Caller): Yes. Hi. How are you? This is Diane. I am so happy to be able to talk on the show. Thank you for the opportunity. I used to be one of the students of Ms. Barbara Morgan when she went down to Ecuador.


DIANE: I was in your third grade class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: Oh, my goodness. Hi, Diane.

DIANE: Hi. How are you?

Ms. MORGAN: I'm doing good.

DIANE: I have to tell you we were so happy at school. We were - we always had almost like a poster of you when you were floating, you know, practicing inside the shuttle. And the day that you went, just last time, through e-mail, we all got connected. And we said, were you at one of her classes. Were you, you know, one of her students? And we pray for you. We wish you the best, you know? It was really nice.

One of the things that we were talking about is that down here in Ecuador, there are many people - there are many students who have photos, either, you know, what is that you have to join. What is that you have to do to be able, you know, to one day be part of NASA. And in other countries, there's no such thing. I don't know, maybe NASA has some kind of program now that would allow students who excel in, you know, back at specific country to join this. And - because you were part - is like an inspiration to many students here in the American School of Quito.

NEARY: So you're wondering how people other than Americans could possibly get into a space program. Is that what you're saying?


NEARY: Yeah.

DIANE: Yes, because there are many of them, you know?

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

DIANE: And very bright people out there, they just don't have the opportunity.

NEARY: Yeah. Barbara, do you have an answer to that question? I don't know.

Ms. MORGAN: Well, first of all, I agree with Diane. There are very bright people and I had that great fortune of teaching those bright people in Quito, and I had learned so much from that. We - this is an International Space Station that involves 16 nations. It will be wonderful when we can expand that and have more nations involved as well. We do have astronauts that come from other countries that are not part of the International Space Station countries but they have become U.S. citizens.

And so right now, for example, Franklin Chang-Diaz, who was born and raised in Costa Rica and wanted to become an astronaut, he learned about that early on. He ended up coming to this country and becoming a citizen. So there are different ways of doing that, but hopefully we'll get to the point with our space exploration where it truly becomes completely international, where all countries get to participate.

NEARY: All right. Diane, thanks so much for calling. That was…

DIANE: So long. Thank you.

NEARY: …great that you could make contact with Barbara, who is your former teacher. And, of course, she mentioned that you taught in Ecuador. You've done a lot of adventurous things in your life. This is not - this is kind of a part of your personality, I think, to being adventurous or do you - and you'd have to be an adventurous person, I think, or certainly willing to take risks I would think to become an astronaut.

Ms. MORGAN: Well - and just a reminder that teachers are learners, and I think that's one of the reasons besides their love of children and people and wanting to help make a difference for the future. They are learners. And that's part of - adventurous part of learning.

NEARY: There's an interesting e-mail here from Sarah(ph) in Athens, Ohio. She writes: Visiting outer space has given you a unique perspective that most people have not had the privilege of experiencing. Has this new perspective changed your previously held beliefs in any way or the way you live your life on Earth, for example, your daily habits?

Ms. MORGAN: That's a heavy-duty question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Has it?

Ms. MORGAN: Actually, what I wish is you could just float…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: …like you can in space, because we could make much more use of all the space that we have here on Earth if you can - and in our homes, and in our places of work - if you could just get to all those other corners that you can't get to because you're stuck on the floor. That's kind of a jokey, funny answer, but there are some truths to that. I think what space fight - what this mission really did for me more than anything was affirm for me that it is - that for the human species to be exploring space and go farther beyond our planet Earth is a very natural, right thing to do.

And one of my very favorite things to do when we had a little bit of time on orbit would be to look out at the Earth and at space out one of our window views, where you could see the thrust of the International Space Station - we were attached to the station. And you could see the thrust and you could see the solar - one of the solar rays pointing towards the Earth. And what it look like was a wing with a sail on it.

And then you'd looked down, especially when you're traveling over the light side of Earth, and you'd look down, and if you're traveling over the ocean or over land over this beautiful, beautiful planet of amazing colors. And it was quiet, and it was - except for the humming sound of our fans and motors, so you knew you were in, you know, in a manmade object, a manmade facility. And it was very smoothly sailing over the top of the ocean and, you know, over the top of the Earth, and it reminded me of the explorers in the, you know, early going ships of exploration in the ocean. And here we were sailing out over - above the Earth, and it just felt natural and real.

And at one time, when I was doing this, looked out, and off from the horizon was the crescent moon. And I know, by laws of physics, you can't just take a right turn and go off to the moon. You can't do that. It takes a lot more than that to get there. But at sea, it was, it's in such close reach and it seemed like such - like the right thing to be doing.

NEARY: So did it change you, would you say, in any way or did it just really kind of, I guess, reinforce who you are and the kinds of things you want to do and what's important to you?

Ms. MORGAN: I think it reinforced that for me that this grand human endeavor called space exploration for all of us is the right thing to be doing.

NEARY: All right. Let's take another call. Let's go to Leslie(ph) and she is calling from Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Leslie.

LESLIE (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead. What does space smell like?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: That's a great - these are wonderful questions, by the way. Part - you know, when you go out on a spacewalk, which I did not do, and then you come back into the airlock, what I've been told by our spacewalking space crew members is that there is a smell of space, and I have not smelled that myself. What - and by the way, Lynn, there's kind of echo on the - here on the radio, so if I'm stuttering, I'm having trouble with the echo.

NEARY: Oh, okay. We'll see…

Ms. MORGAN: But I'll keep, I'll keep…

NEARY: Thank you for telling us that. Our engineers will see if they can fix that for you, well…

Ms. MORGAN: Okay. Thanks.

NEARY: …go ahead.

Ms. MORGAN: So meanwhile, I'll try to talk through it.

NEARY: Okay.

Ms. MORGAN: But I think the most amazing thing smell-wise that happened to us, we took up - and I'm delighted to talk about this anyway because its our students and their teachers and across this country and beyond, but we took up 10 million basil seeds with us. And we took them up to be able to bring back and distribute across the country and beyond to our students to allow - to put something physical in their hands to let them do the kinds of things that we get to do, which is experiment and explore and discover.

And I could talk to you a little bit more about that because it's tied into a design challenge to design growth chambers for the moon, for Mars, for your own backyard. But when we pulled - so we pulled out one of the packages of these seeds so that we could do some filming with it to - for part of the information to give to students. When we pulled that package of seeds, we pulled out a package of one million seeds where it was stowed, so we could take the picture. When we pulled that out, that whole module had the most wonderful smell, basil smell, and I never knew that basil seeds smelled. I've grown basil and I know that the leaves and the plants smell. But when I planted them, I've never smelled the seeds.

NEARY: So, would you mean…

Ms. MORGAN: Well.

NEARY: …being up in space intensified the smell, do you think?

Ms. MORGAN: It's just when we pulled out this package of 10 million basil seeds - and they were well packed, I mean, they were triple sealed - when we pulled that out, that aroma of basil filled that shuttle volume.

NEARY: Wow. Thanks. That's amazing. And Leslie, I just want to thank you for the call. We got some very interesting information there based on that one simple question. Thanks so much for calling, Leslie.

LESLIE: Thank you.

NEARY: And I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

All right, Barbara. We're going to see if we can get another call in here because we have so many people interested in this space flight, of course. Kenny(ph) calling from Louisiana. Hi, Kenny.

KENNY (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi. Go ahead.

KENNY: Hi. How are you all?

NEARY: Good. Thanks.

KENNY: Thank you for taking my call. One thing I was curious about was from a standpoint of you being a teacher, what would you say is the most important thing or are the most important things that you learned during your journey in the space that you would example to bring back and pass on to your students to help enrich their lives or, you know, or even help your ability as a teacher?

Ms. MORGAN: Oh, gosh, that's another big question. You know, what I've - what we've really wanted students to do before this flight, during the flight and now after the flight, is to really dig deep in themselves. And kids are very, very curious about the world and about everything, and we want them to dig deep into themselves and dig up those curiosities, and find out what it is that they really want to know and learn about our world and about our universe and about exploration.

And we'd love to share what we have learned that might help answer those questions, but they're going to be the ones to answer a lot of those questions because there is so much to know about our universe. And, you know, in the 50 years of space exploration, we've learned a lot but we know, you know, I'm holding up my fingers and I'm putting up, you know, I'm holding my fingers so close together that just the pinhead shows.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: We know that little. And as far as we do know that the universe is constantly expanding, so there is so much that we don't know about and so much to learn. And it provides an open-ended, never-ending world of opportunities for them, for their future to do and to do whatever it is they would like to do in their future, to learn whatever it is. It's all out there for them.

NEARY: And what are your plans now? Are you going to continue to work in the astronaut program or are you going to go back to teaching or combination? What are your plans?

Ms. MORGAN: I'd like to do both. I haven't figured out how to do both at the same time…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: …but those are all part of what I would like to do.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. MORGAN: And I'd want to work with our team, too, to help us do the best job we can, meeting the needs of our students and teachers and what they need that provides them a way to not just be passive receivers of this wonderful knowledge that is gained through space exploration, but really to be active participants and contributors.

NEARY: Are you scheduled for another flight again yet or?

Ms. MORGAN: Oh, no. And there's quite a long line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MORGAN: I'm really excited - I don't know - I hope everybody knows we have a flight that's going up tomorrow. We've got a mission tomorrow. In fact, you've mentioned it, Lynn.

NEARY: Yeah.

Ms. MORGAN: And we're really excited about that. That's the next step. Our mission - a few weeks ago with our mission, we completed about 60 percent of the space situation. And it sounds like music is coming on.

NEARY: Yeah. So we're running out of time, Barbara. You're very astute. Thank you so much for joining us today, Barbara. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Ms. MORGAN: Thanks, Lynn. Great questions.

NEARY: Barbara Morgan is a NASA astronaut. She flew on the shuttle Endeavour in August.

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