Conducting classes from space

On August 8, 2007, space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-118 mission was successfully launched. Among the crew members was Barbara Morgan, the first teacher to travel into space. Join A.S.Ganesh as he tells you more about Morgan, a teacher and an astronaut…

August 08, 2022 12:27 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

Astronaut Barbara Morgan, STS-118 mission specialist, smiles for a photo near the aft flight deck of Space Shuttle Endeavour while docked with the International Space Station on August 12, 2007.

Astronaut Barbara Morgan, STS-118 mission specialist, smiles for a photo near the aft flight deck of Space Shuttle Endeavour while docked with the International Space Station on August 12, 2007. | Photo Credit: NASA

Among the many new things during the COVID-19 pandemic was the school classroom, or the lack of it. During the height of the pandemic in the past two years, students were often seen attending virtual classrooms from homes with the teachers conducting the classes from their houses.

A group of students in the U.S. experienced something similar 15 years ago. Only that their teacher, Barbara Morgan, wasn’t teaching virtually from the comfort of her home. Morgan was the first teacher to travel into space and she did do some teaching while in space!

Born in November 1951 in Fresno, California, Morgan obtained a B.A. in human biology from Stanford University in 1973. Having received her teaching credentials by the following year, she began her teaching career in 1974 in Arlee, Montana, teaching remedial reading and maths.

She taught remedial reading, maths and second grade in McCall, Idaho from 1975-78, before heading to Quito in Ecuador to teach English and science to third graders for a year. Following her return to the U.S., she returned to McCall, Idaho, where she taught second through fourth grades at McCall-Donnelly Elementary School until 1998.

Teacher in Space

Morgan’s tryst with space began in July 1985 when she was selected as the backup candidate for NASA’s Teacher in Space programme. As the backup to American teacher Christa McAuliffe, Morgan spent the time from September 1985 to January 1986 attending various training sessions at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. After McAuliffe and the rest of the crew died in the 1986 Challenger disaster, Morgan replaced McAuliffe as the Teacher in Space designee and worked with NASA’s education division.

Morgan reported to the Johnson Space Center in August 1998 after being selected by NASA as a mission specialist and NASA’s first educator astronaut. Even though Morgan didn’t participate in the Educator Astronaut Project, the successor to the Teacher in Space programme, NASA gave her the honour of being its first educator astronaut.

Following two years of training and evaluation, Morgan was assigned technical duties. She worked in mission control as a communicator with in-orbit crews and also served with the robotics branch of the astronaut office.

Further delay

Even though she was assigned as a mission specialist to the crew of STS-118 in 2002 and was expected to fly the next year, it was delayed for a number of years following the 2003 Columbia disaster. It was on August 8, 2007 that Morgan finally flew into space on the space shuttle Endeavour on STS-118.

The STS-118 was primarily an assembly-and-repair trip to the International Space Station (ISS). The crew were successfully able to add a truss segment, a new gyroscope and external spare parts platform to the ISS. Morgan served as loadmaster, shuttle and station robotic arm operator, and also provided support during the spacewalks. All this, in addition to being an educator.

Answers from space

For the first time in human history, school children enjoyed lessons from space, conducted by Morgan. Apart from speaking to the students while in space, she also fielded questions. For one question from a student on how fast a baseball will go in space, she even had another astronaut Clay Anderson throw the ball slowly before floating over to catch it himself. While that opened up the opportunity of playing ball with yourself while in space, she also informed the student that the ball can be thrown fast, but it is avoided in order to not cause any damage to the craft and the equipment on board.

Following the first lessons from space, the Endeavour returned to Earth on August 21 after travelling 5.3 million miles in space. Having carried 5,000 pounds of equipment and supplies to the ISS, it returned with 4,000 pounds worth of scientific materials and used equipment.

As for Morgan, she retired from NASA in 2008 to become the distinguished educator in residence at Boise State University. A post created exclusively for her, it entailed a dual appointment to the colleges of engineering and education. As someone who strongly believes that teachers are learners, she continues to teach and learn, be it from space, or here on Earth.

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