An Hour With Educator-Astronaut Barbara Morgan

By Keith Cowing
May 18, 2002
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NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe and Educator- Astronaut Barbara Morgan met with reporters last week at NASA headquarters to discuss NASA’s Educator Mission Specialist Program.

In April 2002 O’Keefe revealed details of his policy vision for NASA. Education is front and center in O’Keefe’s vision for the agency. In keeping with this theme, O’Keefe announced that NASA’s first Educator Mission Specialist, Barbara Morgan, would fly into space in 2004. Moreover she would be the first of a steady stream of educators in space.

In making this announcement O’Keefe said “the time has come for NASA to complete the [STS-51L] mission — to send an educator to space to inspire and teach our young people. Working in partnership with Education Secretary Rod Paige, we will make Barbara’s flight the first in a series of missions in the new Educator in Space program.”

Barbara Morgan has had a long wait.

According to Morgan’s official NASA biography: “Morgan was selected as the backup candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space Program on July 19, 1985. From September 1985 to January 1986, Morgan trained with Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas. Following the Challenger accident, Morgan assumed the duties of Teacher in Space Designee. From March 1986 to July 1986, she worked with NASA, speaking to educational organizations throughout the country. In the fall of 1986, Morgan returned to Idaho to resume her teaching career. She taught second and third grades at McCall-Donnelly Elementary and continued to work with NASA’s Education Division, Office of Human Resources and Education. Her duties as Teacher in Space Designee included public speaking, educational consulting, curriculum design, and serving on the National Science Foundation’s Federal Task Force for Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.”

Morgan’s status as a prospective Shuttle crew member stayed in limbo for nearly a decade and a half after the Challenger accident. In 1998, as John Glenn was preparing to make his STS-95 flight, pressure from both inside and outside the agency mounted with regard to Barbara Morgan. While NASA made the case, albeit a weak one, that Glenn was only flying for ‘scientific’ reasons, many people (including myself) saw this as an excuse for a public relations effort by NASA.

Regardless of whether people agreed with flying Glenn, most saw some powerful symbolism in his flight – of equal power to that surrounding Christa McAuliffe’s mission. As such, it was natural for people to start thinking about Barbara Morgan. After waiting 14 years to decide on her status, NASA announced Morgan’s selection as the first Educator Mission Specialist on the very same day that it announced that John Glenn would fly on a Shuttle mission.

But her wait was far from over. She was still not assigned to a mission.

Don’t Touch Anything

As an Astronaut Candidate (“ascan”) Morgan had years of formal astronaut training to undergo – well in excess of what was provided for her and Christa McAullife (and John Glenn). This includes extensive summaries of all Space Shuttle Systems, emergency procedures, and T-38 flight training.

O’Keefe’s announcement did not signal a reinstatement of the original NASA Teacher in Space program. As was the case with a number of guests during the 1980’s Teacher in Space participants were only required to be proficient in basic Shuttle systems and safety procedures. They did not have operational tasks on a par with the professional astronauts.

Instead, the new Educator Mission Specialists will be fully proficient astronauts. According to O’Keefe the Teacher in Space program adopted a proficiency standard wherein the teachers were “to avoid touching anything. Now, they need to know how to touch everything and they will have the full range of responsibilities that any other astronaut has.”

The term “Educator Mission Specialist” was originally used in 1998 to describe the specific circumstances under which Barbara Morgan entered the Astronaut Corps. NASA made some mention of a program to recruit others, but nothing materialized. O’Keefe has now sought to truly implement an “Educator Mission Specialist” program at NASA. “This will be an ongoing program – not a one shot deal. Education has been part of NASA for years. This is a permanent recommitment.” When asked how often an Educator Mission Specialist might fly O’Keefe said “we’d like to have someone on as many flights as we can.”

When asked if there would be a teacher on every flight, O’Keefe did not say yes – but instead suggested that this would all depend on the cadre of Educator Mission Specialists that was eventually recruited. Again, all of these individuals would be fully qualified astronauts. As such, O’Keefe said that they’d be rotated from one mission to the next as are all other astronauts.


Morgan has yet to be assigned to a specific flight. O’Keefe has said that it will the mission will probably be in the 2004 time frame and she might be assigned at some point later this year. Her flight will be either a space station assembly or resupply flight, a research (non-ISS) flight, or a servicing mission (ala the recent Hubble Servicing mission). Once she has been assigned to a flight her specific duties will be much clearer. Again, O’Keefe noted that Morgan – and those who follow – will have all of the same responsibilities during a flight as do the other astronauts.

When asked if there would be only one flight – or if she’d like to fly again Morgan said “Yes, I would love to fly again.” She continued “Christa truly understood the impact of education on all of us and that this was a grand opportunity to bring this experience to the classroom.” When asked for her own personal feelings she said ” Personally, this is a very big thing that I had not really perceived. Space exploration is an incredible thing to do – it is overwhelming and really exciting.”

When asked how she had been treated by the Astronaut Corps Morgan said “when Christa and I showed up on the first day at JSC the door was wide open. We felt very welcome. I feel the same way this time and have gotten no special treatment.”

In crafting her activities in space, Morgan said “we want to work with the education community. This will not be my mission – or NASA’s – but the educational community’s mission” Morgan said. “We want an active – not a passive role – for students and teachers in this mission.”

Target Audience

O’Keefe and Morgan were asked if they felt that there had been a change in children – an their perceptions – such that they were harder to impress today than in the past. Morgan replied “space is a natural motivator. Kids are explorers – and they start at a very early age. The are naturally taken to space. When you go into a classroom on the first day of school and hand out the text books, if there is a picture of space, it gets their attention.”

O’Keefe added “if you don’t motivate kids at this age [K-12] – you loose their interest. We need to exploit this natural curiosity”. When asked if this was the only age range he was going to focus on O’Keefe said no. He noted that “the focus of current NASA programs is in the area of scholarships and grants to graduate and undergraduate students. Our deficiency is one of focus – not the absence of grants. It is that we have done a half-baked job to recruit people involved in the grants after they are done.”


The exact details as to how the program will be run and how participants will be selected is still in the planning stages. O’Keefe said that the Educator Mission Specialist program will be “nationally competitive”. While the exact mechanism is not yet in place O’Keefe said “we will develop the procedures in the next couple of months. The process has to be consistent with the current astronaut selection process.” This would likely include a preselection committee as is the case with the current process.”

When asked what the qualifications would be for selection, O’Keefe didn’t have specifics other than to say that the selectees will be “enthusiastic and well-qualified.” When pressed to be more specific i.e. would English teachers be solicited O’Keefe focused in a bit and said that the “motivation” for this effort was targeted at “math and science.” When asked what the age range would be he said that he was “not sure” that there was an age limit for astronaut selection. Barbara Morgan said that typically the teacher population that would be interested would be in the ’32-42′ year old range. According to NASA’s Astronaut Application webpage “There are no age restrictions for the program. Astronaut candidates selected in the past have ranged between the ages of 26 and 46, with the average age being 35.”


NASA won’t be mounting the Educator Mission specialist program on its own. According to O’Keefe “I have met with Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Deputy Secretary of Education William Hansen as well as special counselor Susan Sclafani so as to be sure that what we do is in synch with national efforts.”

In addition to the organizational framework, O’Keefe mentioned NASA’s current educational programs. “We are looking at everything we do on education. Every NASA Center has an effort – this is very decentralized. We need to put a clear focus on this.” He added that NASA is looking at programs so as to “channel” the Department of Education and existing NASA educational activities.

As for the focal point for these efforts at NASA O’Keefe said that he is looking at the possibility of a Deputy Administrator for Education. I asked him where general counsel (and long time personal friend) Paul Pastorek fits into all of this – and if he were a candidate for this new position. Pastorek has been telling people that he intends to spend a substantial fraction of his time on education. O’Keefe replied that this was not his plan but that Pastorek was to focal point for all current planning for NASA’s educational activities – present and future.

Only Pros Will Fly

At the time the original Teacher in Space program was instituted NASA also sought applicants for its “Journalist in Space” program. O’Keefe’s core rationale for the Educator Mission Specialist program is to reach out and communicate the space experience to students. Some would say that communicating novel experiences to a wider audience is also part of what a journalist.

When asked if he had any interest in reviving this program as well, O’Keefe answered indirectly saying that anyone who meets all the Astronaut Selection criteria – and who undergo all of the training an astronaut has to go through are welcome. It is clear that O’Keefe is not interested in any program that would fly people on the Space Shuttle who are not fully proficient astronauts. “People who are not fully trained give me some concern.” He said “there is a big difference between being proficient and fully trained to make a big contribution. We are looking for a full contribution.”

One would assume that this also applies to the prospect of paying customers aboard the Space Shuttle. As such, it would seem that there won’t be any space tourists on the Space Shuttle any time soon – unless they plan on undergoing years of formal astronaut training.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.