Katie Stoops | Student, College of Medicine
“Today I’m directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and to choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program, one of America’s finest—a teacher.”
-Ronald Reagan, April 1984
Have you ever wanted something so badly that you put everything you had into it—your time, your knowledge, your fear, your identity? My name is Barbara Morgan and for the past thirty years I have poured myself into the space program in the pursuit of a dream.
Most people don’t think of me when they think of the Teacher in Space program, but I was there for all of it. I watched President Reagan’s speech, announcing that the first private citizen in space would be a teacher and that was it. I knew I had to do it. So, I submitted my application to a pool of 11,000 and waited. Then when a letter came and called me to D.C. for a week of workshops with NASA officials alongside 113 other finalists, I went.
As you probably know already, Christa McCullagh was selected as the Teacher in Space. What you might not know is that I was selected as the alternate. If, for any reason, Christa was unable to make the trip, I would get to go up in her place. Christa and I joked that we were chosen because NASA had to reimburse our schools for our salaries and being from New Hampshire and Idaho, we were the lowest paid candidates. To this day, I’m not convinced we weren’t right.
The two of us spent the next six months training for our mission. During that time, we bonded over the fact that we had both considered ourselves intelligent before we started working with NASA. Everything was so foreign to us—the new work environment, new co-workers, equipment, standard protocols, media attention, the simulations of every possible worst-case scenario. The whole thing was a major adjustment and we were the only two people in the world who understood what the other was going through. We really had to lean on each other to make it through and, in the end, we did. By then, I think both of us would have told you it was the best thing we ever did.
Now, the next part is the bit everyone remembers. When you were a child, did your history teacher ask you to ask your parents, “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” Or were you there, watching it on television in your classroom? Do you know where I was that morning?
By January, I was as much a part of that flight team as the seven people who would get to go to space. On the morning of the launch, I wished everyone good luck and hugged Christa. She said she had butterflies but insisted that she was more excited than afraid. I believed her because I felt the same way. I left my team to watch the Challenger launch from miles away. In the stands with family and friends I counted down from ten and I watched for one minute and eight seconds as it appeared our hard work was coming to fruition.
Then it happened.
They told us it could happen. A lot of people say “Oh, the teachers didn’t know.” We knew. We signed waivers and stated over and over that we understood it could happen. We knew. I knew. But I didn’t know. Not until I was standing in the January wind, tracing the path of smoke as the Challenger fell out of the stratosphere. There was the reality of science—failure and death as educational stepping stones. I think I learned that alongside the schoolchildren who were watching on television that day.
And what do you do after something like that? Maybe it wasn’t the right thing, but I felt it was important that I do my best to make sure my students and students around the country got something out of the whole thing. I still felt they could learn something from my experience. I wanted to show them that sometimes, horrible things happen and when they do, you have to keep moving forward as best you can. So, I went back to teaching but I kept ties with NASA and made it known that if the opportunity arose I still wanted to go to space. I wasn’t giving up.
Twelve years passed but my goal was the same. It was 1998 when NASA asked me to join their incoming flight class. In 1985 I spent my time in training learning what astronauts do on missions in space and showing them how I could use my expertise as a teacher to share what I learned with students. At that time, I was still primarily a teacher. After the Challenger it was deemed unsafe to send a civilian to space. If I wanted to go, I would have to give up my mainstream teaching career and become what NASA called an “astronaut educator.”
So, I spent the next chapter of my life learning how to become the person I needed to be in order to achieve what I’d set out to do. I picked up my family and we moved from Idaho to Houston, Texas where I trained at the Johnson Space Center. I worked on CAPCOM communicating with astronauts aboard the international space station. I became a mission specialist and learned how to operate the space shuttle’s robotic arm. The years spent waiting to be assigned to a mission weren’t spent waiting at all. Every day I was working toward whatever mission would eventually be mine.
In 2003, I was assigned to a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. However, that shuttle and its flight crew didn’t make it back from the mission that went up in that vessel before our scheduled flight. Once again, I found myself in the midst of national tragedy. And it shook me. Of course, it did. But not in the way you might think. Another failed mission made it clear to me that there was still work to do to make the space shuttle program safe. Over the years my goal had changed and fused with the goal of the space shuttle program. It wasn’t just about going to space anymore. It was about making space travel safe for future exploration. Despite all of our hard work, we weren’t there yet.
Four years later it was my turn to fly. When my assignment came I felt as ready as I’d ever be. In the weeks leading up to my launch on the Space Shuttle Endeavour reporters asked me if I was fearful or emotional about our upcoming mission given my history with the space program. Honestly, I wasn’t. At that point it was just about the work and seeing it through. I used to tell my students “Don’t think about what you want to be when you grow up, think about what you want to do.” This was me taking my own advice.
In a press conference after the official inspection of the Endeavour, the manager of the space program compared it to a new car driving off the show room floor. But I have to tell you the Endeavour was no new shuttle. It was the culmination of all of the shuttles that had gone before it. It was all of the ingenuity and inspiration that birthed the space program. It was all of the tragedies and setbacks that inspired improvement. When the Endeavour launched it was the result of all of the challenges we had faced and overcome. And I was all of those things too.
You know, there’s a great bit of pride in a human endeavor that takes us a little bit farther. When you look down and see our Earth, and you realize what we’re trying to do as a human race, it’s pretty profound.