Morgan, former Flathead teacher, to fly in space

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan has been assigned to her first spaceflight, the STS-118 mission scheduled for launch on Nov. 13, 2003.

Morgan started her teaching career on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee, Mont. in 1974. She said "I wish I were in touch with [my former students] now, that was a fantastic learning experience for me. I had students whose names were Cheryl Weaselhead and Shelley Two-teeth. These people were absolutely incredible." Morgan and her husband moved to McCall, Idaho where she taught at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School. She said "Fortunately I moved to McCall, Idaho, but I really did not want to leave my teaching in Arlee, Mont.

In 1984, President Reagan announced that the first civilian to fly in space would be a teacher and Morgan applied. She beat out 15,000 other applicants to become one of ten finalists. Sharon Christa McAuliffe, was selected to be the first teacher in space with Morgan as her backup. But 73 seconds after the space shuttle Challenger was launched on Jan. 28, 1986 it was destroyed due to a faulty solid rocket booster seal. Morgan was watching the launch from the rooftop of a nearby building.

Morgan was promised that when shuttle flights resumed and it was safe enough to fly civilians she would fly as the first spaceflight participant, fulfilling her role as the backup. But NASA officials avoided making any decision about flying civilian participants on the shuttle. After her contract with NASA expired in the fall of 1986 she returned to her teaching duties but remained available to NASA as a consultant and speaker.

The issue came to a head in January 1998 when NASA administrator Dan Goldin announced that Senator John Glenn would fly on the shuttle as a test subject. Goldin explained that the NASA advisory panels recommended that if Morgan was to get a spaceflight she should be trained as completely as any other astronaut and be given full responsibilities - effectively becoming a career astronaut. So instead of a couple of weeks of training Morgan would get two years of training as a member of the astronaut class of 1998, plus additional ground support roles before flying in space.

Morgan has not taught any regular classes since she became a full-time astronaut. The teacher went back to "school" as a member of the Astronaut Class of 1998.

Chief astronaut Charlie Precourt said "[Morgan has] done really well [with her training]. She's learned a lot about operations. I feel very confident she'll be able to pull her weight on the crew and then doing some operational things - running the robot arm, working transfer operations, things of that nature are certainly within her grasp. We're really excited about her. The fact that she can carry an education mission with her and still be a full mission specialist on the crew is a real bonus. In a general sense she's done extremely well learning operations. She is certainly not showing she has any difficulty learning new things."

Morgan's flight will deliver a portion of the International Space Station's power system and cargo. The S5 Truss will be on the opposite side of the space station from the P1 Truss installed by John Herrington's crew. The STS-118 mission will mark the first time the space shuttle Columbia, NASA's original space shuttle, visits the space station. Morgan will be one of the oldest rookies to fly in space, just a couple of weeks before her 52nd birthday.

Morgan will become the first mission specialist in her astronaut class to fly on the space shuttle. Depending on your perspective she's been assigned to an early flight, ahead of other astronauts in her class, because of her high visibility, or she's already spent more time waiting for her first flight than almost any other astronaut.

When it was announced the Morgan would be assigned to an upcoming space station mission she said "I don't feel special and I hope I don't get any preferential treatment. It's a great class, everybody's totally supportive of each other. They've been great helping me along with the tasks which I don't have the skills for."

The other members of her class include test pilots, engineers, and scientists. The youngest is 18 years younger than Morgan. Also in the class are several international astronauts from Europe, Canada and Brazil, including some who have already flown in space as guest passengers on the shuttle or Russian spacecraft.

Morgan's key task during the mission will be to work with the two spacewalkers, Scott Parazynski and Dafydd Williams. Morgan will assist the two into their spacesuits and act as the choreographer during the pair's three spacewalks to keep them on the timeline. In addition to her standard mission specialist tasks it's expected that she'll teach from space.

Most recently Morgan has served in mission control as the 'capcom', the astronaut who talks directly to the astronauts in space. Morgan was a capcom during all three of John Herrington's spacewalks on his just completed shuttle mission.