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NASA teacher started at reservation school

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? The teacher who will fly into space in 2004 got her start in a schoolhouse on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Barbara Morgan was the backup teacher to Christa McAuliffe, one of the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster in 1986. NASA recently announced that she would take part in a mission to the International Space Station in 2004. On that flight Morgan will serve as a fully functioning member of the crew as well as preparing lessons from space.

Morgan's teaching career began over a quarter century ago on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Arlee, Mont. "What stands out to me more than anything is what an incredible learning experience it was," she said in a recent interview. "It was my first teaching job. I was definitely fresh and green, raring to go and jump right in to it. I learned much, much more from my students and their families than I ever taught. It's an experience I was truly grateful for.

"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.

"I was signed up to teach remedial reading and mathematics. But there was no special ed program at the school at the time. I had a whole gamut of students. I worked with about 50 students at the time. These children were all incredible men and women.

"We had all different challenges to work with, not just kids who needed help with reading and math. I had one student with a hearing disorder and other students with language problems. I had to really scramble to learn as much as I could from people who were true experts, in how to work with students with different kinds of learning challenges," she said.

"The other thing that stands out in my mind was how open the families were. These were busy working parents. It was a very small community with the school right there, and we would often times just go to the home and knock on the door and ask if we could have a conference with parents about their children. The parents were like parents all over the country, caring about how their children and their education. I felt very welcome with open arms.

"It was really tough to leave. I wanted to stay there but at the time my husband was finishing graduate school and wanted to get back to Idaho for his writing and his career. I was glad to move to Idaho but it was with a very sad heart that I had to leave the Arlee school, I really liked what I was doing there and I loved the students and their families," she continued.

"I have to say I learned much more from those students [at Flathead] and their families and the teachers there than I ever taught them."

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Morgan moved to McCall, Idaho in 1975 where she taught elementary school at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School.

In the early 1980s NASA flew many passengers on the shuttle in addition to the career astronauts. Some were scientists flying to operate the experiments they spent their entire careers developing. Others were foreign passengers or high-level members of Congress flying for political purposes. In several cases NASA flew representatives from companies or countries who purchased rides for their satellites on the shuttle.

A new program, the "Spaceflight Participant Program" was announced to broaden the opportunity to fly in space to average Americans. Some of the possibilities included journalists, artists and teachers. In 1984 President Reagan announced that the first category for a spaceflight participant was going to be a teacher.

Over 15,000 teachers nationwide applied for the "Teacher in Space" program, including Morgan. She won her regional and state competitions and then became one of ten nationwide finalists. In 1985 Morgan made the final two, becoming the backup for Christa McAuliffe.

McAuliffe was assigned to the 51-L crew. The primary purpose for that mission was to launch a large government communications satellite and launch and retrieve a small astronomical satellite designed to observe Halley's Comet. That would be the responsibilities for the career NASA astronauts - Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, and Judy Resnik. The crew also featured another passenger, Greg Jarvis ? a Hughes engineer flying to perform some simple experiments. The teacher would not participate in any of those activities, but would do several televised lessons from space.

Challenger launched with McAuliffe aboard on the 51-L mission on Jan. 28, 1986. Seventy-three seconds later, the failure of the solid rocket booster caused the shuttle to break up. The failure investigation board noted that the reason for the failure was the extreme cold the night before the launch, causing O-ring seals to become brittle. But more important was the root cause ? a failure of the management system to recognize the problems.

Since the shuttle's return to flight in 1988, major safety improvements have been implemented decreasing the chances for a catastrophic failure to about one in four hundred flights. One of the key recommendations of the oversight committees was to only fly non-astronauts when their specific skills were absolutely necessary.

After the Challenger accident NASA asked Morgan to remain available as a "good will ambassador" in addition to her teaching. NASA's safety panels recommended that if Morgan were to fly in space she should receive the same training as the full-time NASA astronauts and Morgan was offered a slot in the 1998 astronaut class.

Unlike the 1986 Teacher in Space program, which only included several months of minimal training as a passenger, Morgan will be a full-fledged shuttle crewmember. As a "Teacher Mission Specialist," Morgan has the same responsibilities as other astronauts and may be called upon to do a spacewalk, operate the shuttle's robot arm, or serve as the flight engineer. A specific flight has not been selected yet, but it is expected that Morgan will make her spaceflight shortly after the current construction phase on the International Space Station is completed.

Chief astronaut Charlie Precourt said "[Morgan has] done really well [with her training]. She's learned a lot about operations. She didn't bring experience in operations. I feel very confident she'll be able to pull her weight on the crew and then some doing 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."