Astronauts, teachers share dream

In January 1986 as a third year teacher I listened with pride as our nation’s first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, blasted off in the space shuttle Challenger. I was due at a meeting, I turned the radio off before the explosion. And in the time that it took me to walk to the office of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, seven astronauts were dead, eulogized by President Reagan that evening as having “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to ”touch the face of God.”

Christa’s backup was Barbara Morgan, an Idaho third grade schoolteacher, who at age 55 last year completed Christa’s journey by rocketing into space on the space shuttle Endeavor in the middle seat of the cabin’s lower compartment, the same seat that had been occupied by Christa twenty-one years ago.

Barbara sloughed off time, doubt, the vagaries of politics and funding, and a second shuttle disaster, never wavering in her steadfast determination to teach science from space, to captivate the interest of children—the next generation of explorers, and in so doing to become a positive symbol of public education.

Her perseverance paid off. Here’s what she said when she was in orbit: “You know, there’s a great sense of pride to be able to be involved in a human endeavor that takes us all a little bit farther. When you look down and see our Earth, and you realize what we are trying to do as a human race, it’s pretty profound.”

As a mission specialist, Barbara operated the shuttle’s robotic arm and coordinated the transfer of cargo to the International Space Station. As only a teacher would do, she brought 10 million basil seeds into space so that other teachers can use them for lessons with their students. And she talked to hundreds of kids at the Discovery Center of Idaho, the first public school teacher to speak to public school students from space.

What kinds of questions? What do stars look like from space? How did your body feel during the launch? Is it hard to eat in microgravity? Is there anything that looks like it’s moving on Earth? How do you sleep in space? What protects the space station from asteroids? And, if you had to choose one, would you be an astronaut or a teacher?

To which, Barbara replied, “Well, both you’re exploring, you’re learning, you’re discovering and you’re sharing. And the only difference really to me is that as an astronaut you do that in space and as a teacher you get to do that with students. And they’re both wonderful jobs. I highly recommend both.”

Barbara Morgan isn’t the only teacher astronaut. In fact, there are 114 teacher-in-space nominees, with NASA and the U.S. Education Department actively recruiting teachers for future space missions—the goal being to have at least one educator in each new astronaut class. Maybe that one will be from Oak Harbor one day.

When President Reagan eulogized Christa McAuliffe, he quoted from a poem written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, a British-American fighter pilot. At age 19, three months before he was to die in a plane crash, he wrote “High Flight” which is now required to be recited from memory by first year cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, a poem narrowly about the thrill of flight but more generally about the rewards of challenge and risk. If you go online, you can hear Magee’s mother in 1969 read her son’s poem in its entirety, which begins with:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence.

And so as we complete our celebration of Teacher Appreciation Week, May 4–10, we can be proud in what Barbara Morgan has done, proud of all of our public educators for helping children to do a hundred things that they’ve not yet dreamed of.

Peter Szalai is president of the Oak Harbor Education Association.

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