Both were teachers; both dreamt of flying in space. One was rejected; the other flew – and died – on the space shuttle Challenger. Now her friend is to embark on the same journey. By Andrew Gumbel ++ Nasa’s great white hope
Nasa, the US space agency, has a big problem and it is hoping against hope that a 55-year-old schoolteacher called Barbara Morgan can provide the solution.
The problem is that the agency can’t keep a lid on bad news. Last year, Nasa managers watched in a state of appalled horror as one of their astronauts, Lisa Nowak, embarked on an eccentric, jealousy-crazed journey halfway across the country to try to kidnap a woman she suspected of hitting on the fellow astronaut she loved.
Last week, an independent panel set up to investigate the mental health of Nasa’s entire roster of astronauts in the wake of the Nowak fiasco reported that flight pilots were prone to bouts of heavy drinking, and in at least two instances, astronauts were cleared to fly and allowed to take the controls even though they were clearly inebriated.
Now, with the first space shuttle flight since the doomed 2003 Columbia mission scheduled for take-off next week, Nasa is dealing with reports of a deliberately sabotaged computer, the last-minute discovery of a cabin leak it is scrambling to fix, and a non-functioning thermostat that is supposed to control the shuttle’s hydraulic systems. There is considerable doubt that the new shuttle, called Endeavour, will in fact blast off from Cape Canaveral next Tuesday as planned.
What all this adds up to is a never-ending nightmare for Nasa, the agency that once epit-omised America’s pioneer spirit, heroism and sense of adventure. By now, of course, it has lost not one space shuttle but two – both Columbia, which broke up on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere over eastern Texas four years ago, and Challenger, which erupted in a fireball 76 seconds after blast-off in Cape Canaveral in 1986.
Scientists and astronomers have questioned whether the shuttle programme is worth pursuing at all any more, since it is clearly unsafe and based on outdated technology. But Nasa has forged ahead regardless, spending $5bn to build Endeavour in the hope it can still give this particularly fraught story of space exploration a happy ending.
And that’s where Barbara Morgan comes in. Morgan is essentially the second coming of Christa McAuliffe, the 36-year-old schoolteacher who took off with the doomed Challenger crew in 1986 and perished alongside them before she could fulfil her mission as Nasa’s first Teacher in Space. Morgan will also, with luck, be a teacher in space, although these days the title has been changed to Educator Astronaut, since she has received no fewer than nine years of full astronaut training.
Assuming everything goes according to plan, she’ll beam as much as six hours’ worth of prepared lessons from Endeavour’s flight deck back to planet Earth. As an astronaut, she will also be operating the shuttle’s robot arm and overseeing the transfer of about 5,000lbs of cargo from Endeavour to the International Space Station. Curiously, she will also be charged with carrying 10 million basil seeds into space, to see if the shuttle flight will alter the plants’ growth patterns or the eventual taste of the herb’s leaves.
The entire mission is expected to last two weeks. As a PR hook, it is a potential godsend for Nasa. Just as Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies revisited the Vietnam War and made sure that, this time, the United States emerged victorious, Nasa is hoping that a successful Barbara Morgan mission can erase, or at least compensate for, the lingering memories of Christa McAuliffe’s demise.
No single image of the shuttle programme is more deeply embedded in American minds than the Challenger disaster, and no loss is mourned more keenly than that of McAuliffe, the unwitting civilian (and talented media communicator – she charmed talk-show host after talk-show host in the months before her doomed flight) who died as a result of mistakes made entirely by others.
Already, a considerable PR machine has been rolled out on Morgan’s behalf. We have learned about her years teaching seven and eight-year-olds in a small town in Idaho, as well as a two-year overseas assignment she once held in Ecuador. We know about her training as a classical flautist. Most of all, we have heard all about her lifelong passion for space and her determination to end up on a spacecraft someday. Back in 1985 she applied with great enthusiasm as soon as she heard about the original Teacher in Space programme. “I want to go on the space shuttle,” Morgan, then 33, wrote. “I want to get some stardust on me.”
She was one of almost 11,000 applicants, of whom 114 were chosen as semi-finalists and 10 as finalists. She ended up as McAuliffe’s runner-up, and trained as her understudy. In other words, but for the grace of God – or the muddled wisdom of Nasa’s administrators – it could have been her aboard the Challenger flight.
Just weeks after the disaster, Morgan was offered the position of Teacher in Space Designee. It didn’t mean a whole lot at the time, since the shuttle programme was suspended indefinitely pending a full investigation into the causes of the Challenger explosion. For three months she toured the country on Nasa’s behalf, talking about the space programme and attempting to put a brave face on an effort that was widely interpreted as the biggest rebuff to America’s international prestige since the end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
She never stopped touring and speaking for Nasa, although she returned to her teaching job in Idaho and led the quietest of lives with her husband, Clay, and their two sons. Then, in 1998, she was offered the chance to train as a full astronaut. She spent two years going through her paces at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, then worked in a variety of jobs, most notably as the communication link between Mission Control and space crews in orbit.
In the past few weeks, she’s given a series of interviews in which she has dutifully expressed her excitement about her mission and her commitment to convey the best values of both astronauts and teachers to ordinary Americans back home. “Teachers and astronauts are very much alike and their jobs are very similar,” she told the Discovery channel. “It’s all about exploring and discovering and sharing and I’ve enjoyed being both.”
When asked about the shuttle disasters, she has explained she doesn’t see them entirely in terms of failure but rather as examples of people responding admirably to an unexpected crisis. “We had school kids all over the world looking at adults and watching what adults do in a bad situation,” she said, “and I felt it was really important to show them that adults do the right thing.”
That sentiment is emphatically not shared by Christa McAuliffe’s family, who have blamed Nasa for what they believe was an entirely avoidable death.
McAuliffe’s father, Edward Corrigan, once wrote: “I have been angry since January 28th, 1986... She didn’t die ‘for’ Nasa; she died because of Nasa. I have no allegiance to Nasa.” It wasn’t shared, either, by official investigators who found that project engineers had issued an explicit warning that Challenger’s booster rockets might fail on take-off if the air temperature was below freezing, which it was on the morning of the launch.
Nasa’s whole problem, in fact, has been its apparent disregard – documented in official reports and investigations for more than 20 years – for warnings issued by its underlings on matters of the utmost importance. The investigation into the Columbia disaster found that engineers had similarly issued warnings about the craft’s heat-shield tiles – the part of the craft that failed as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere – but that Nasa administrators, frantic to keep to the prearranged schedule, chose to overlook them.
Last week’s mental-health report was similarly withering. Doctors and colleagues had repeatedly raised red flags about medical or behavioural problems among Nasa’s astronauts, only to have their warnings roundly ignored. The report’s lead author, Richard Bachman, said Nasa employees were so demoralised by the scant attention paid to their warnings that they had become disinclined to report them in the first place.
Both Bachman and the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, Bart Gordon, said sending astronauts into space drunk was just a symptom of a wider malaise.
“Drinking and driving is never a good idea — least of all when the vehicle involved is a multibillion-dollar space shuttle or a high performance jet aircraft,” Gordon said. “But it’s not just alcohol abuse. You only have to read the report to know that something clearly seems to be broken in Nasa’s system of astronaut oversight.”
These are not problems that Barbara Morgan is in any position to fix. But if she does go up into space and – more to the point – comes safely back down again, she will at least be able to smile sweetly and give Nasa a much-needed reason to feel a little better about itself.