Preflight Interview With NASA Educator Astronaut Barbara Morgan

Status Report From: NASA HQ
Posted: Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Q: STS-118 educator astronaut/mission specialist Barbara Morgan. Barbara, STS 118 will mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but probably not more than it will for kids around the world who will be watching you as you fly in space. How would you describe the mission to kids and what your role and duties are on the flight?

A: Well, my first word would be "exciting." Actually, it's more than a word. Exciting, interesting, amazing, and fun. We are going to the International Space Station; we call it an assembly mission. We are going to the International Space Station to help finish building it. In our cargo bay, or in the back end of the shuttle, we're taking up a couple of big pieces that are part of the station. One is part of the support structure that's going to hold more of the solar arrays, and one is the stowage platform that's going to hold a bunch of spare equipment that will be used eventually on station. Those are two of our major things that we're going to be doing. We're also going to take up, it's kind of like a small room that's cram-packed full of stuff, full of equipment and supplies for our crew members who are living and working aboard the International Space Station. We'll be transferring all the things over that they need and bringing the things that they don't need back home with us. I'll have many different duties, so I'll just tell you about a couple of them. I'm excited about all of them, but a couple of them are: I'll be one of the robotic arm operators, so I'll be using the space shuttle arm and the space station arm to help us move some of these pieces of equipment as we attach them onto the station. And I'll be helping on the flight deck, coming home, or during what we call "entry" of the space shuttle back to Earth, and helping with everything we do to make sure we come back home safely.

Q: Kids always love spaceflight. What should they pay particular attention to on your flight? What should they be looking for? And ultimately, what do you think they're going to learn from this mission?

You're going to laugh at this, but what I really want them to do is to pay attention to themselves and to look very deep within themselves and dig up all the questions that they can that they have about our world, our universe, and about space exploration. Because this is all about learning, and we're here to help and we want to know from them -- what is it that they really want to know and learn? Because this is their future and it's open-ended for them. I also hope that they'll see an ordinary person doing the things that they can be doing. It's all about learning and exploring, and we want them to come with us.

Q: The width of your smile shows that you're almost like a kid yourself in, in your own classroom. As the mission nears, after all of these years, after all of the trials, after all of the tribulations, what is it about the mission that you're most excited about now?

I'm actually excited about going up and doing the work. We've been training really hard. There's been so much to learn to be able to do our jobs well. And so, I'm really excited about going up and doing our jobs, and doing them well. And I'm excited about experiencing the whole spaceflight, seeing Earth from space for the very first time and experiencing weightlessness and what that's all about -- seeing what it's like living and working on board the International Space Station.

If you looked up the word "perseverance" in the dictionary, you see a picture of Barbara Morgan next to the word. You truly are a portrait of perseverance. You've stuck with this goal to fly as an educator in space for two decades and through two enormous tragedies that have affected you personally. What is it that motivates you? Why have you stuck with this -- over all of this period of time -- to accomplish this singular goal?

Well, can I go back to the first part of, of your question? And, that's about perseverance. That's what describes teachers. They have patience and they have perseverance. That's what allows them to do their job so well. And that's what teachers have. I can't think of anything more important to all of us than our kids and their future. And to me, space exploration is all about open-ended, never-ending opportunities for our young people. That's what my motivation has been, to help keep the world of opportunities open for our kids.

Is there a difference between "Educator Astronaut" and the "Teacher in Space" -- which was the moniker that was attached to this concept, this program, to begin with?

Both the "Educator Astronaut" and the "Teacher in Space" are teachers. And, they experience space, and then they share that experience through a teacher's perspective and through the eyes, the ears, the hearts, the minds of teachers. The educator astronaut is also a fully trained astronaut who does the jobs, does the duties that an astronaut does.

Q: Let's go back a little bit in history and, and trace the path that took you to this point in your career, from teacher in McCall, Idaho, to astronaut. Why did you sign up to do this in the first place all those many years ago?

Well, when the Teacher in Space program was started, I was sitting at home, it was after school, it was about five o'clock. It was the five o'clock news, and the President came on the news and announced that they were going to send a teacher in space. I shot straight up and said, "Wow!" As you know, teachers all across the country did! What a great opportunity! Because as teachers, we're always looking for opportunities to bring the world to our classroom, to gain more experiences, gain more knowledge about our world so that we can make our classroom a better place for our kids. And, it was a tremendous opportunity. And, as all teachers, we don't pass up those opportunities.

Q: That summer day in 1985 when you and your fellow candidates were at the White House and Christa McAuliffe was announced as the Teacher in Space, you were announced as her backup, what feelings did you have? What was going through your mind as you represented educators around the world?

We were all really excited and really thrilled to be doing what we were doing. Christa was, is, and always will be our "Teacher in Space," our first teacher to fly. She truly knew what this was all about -- not just bringing the world to her classroom -- but also helping ... helping to show the world what teachers do and what all the good teachers do across our country day in and day out.

Q: In the months that you were training here at the Johnson Space Center and down at the Kennedy Space Center for the flight, what did you learn from her? What did Christa learn from you that you both mutually benefited from as the launch approached?

Well, as teachers we do a lot of teaming in our classrooms and in our grade levels and in our discipline levels. So, at least from my perspective, it was very much like being in our class, being back in our classrooms and being able to share the experience with each other to get the most out of it. I learned a tremendous amount from Christa. She was a great representative of the teaching profession. Of the many things I learned, I learned how to pay attention. It's a lesson that I still need to keep reminding myself of -- how to pay attention to the things that are really important and to let the other things that aren't so important go. What was most important to Christa were her students and people and their integrity and much, much more.

Q: That was a long time ago, Barbara, but as you head into these final months of training for your flight now some of the same things about training were ... are ... are occurring that occurred before 51L. Do you think of those days very much? Do you think of the training days back in 1985 leading up to January of '86 in a fond way? Are the memories still strong after all this time?

You know, it hasn't been a long time. It was just yesterday. It still feels like just yesterday. As we go through training now, those memories still are there with me. For example, when we go flying in the T-38s (and we do that every week), it's a wonderful, wonderful experience and it's a great part of training as we fly those aircraft. I always remember the very first flight I had with Mike Smith and how he showed me what it's like to do barrel rolls and how to fly lazy eights and how to fly in formation with another plane and how, at that time, I knew absolutely nothing about flying. And I'll never forget after Mike showed me a few of these things and he said, "OK, Barb, it's your turn, push the stick." You can fly the jet from either the front cockpit or the rear cockpit. And, I said, "Which way?" And, he said, "Any way you want. It's your plane. Take it." And I was shocked by that, and flew some barrel rolls and, you know, realized that Mike had just opened up a whole new world of opportunities for me. Those were opportunities that have carried into today, as we learn as crewmates to fly and communicate with each other and to communicate with our air traffic control and to do everything that we need to do both in the T-38s and in spaceflight.

Q: Isn't that really the whole point of you flying in space as an Educator Astronaut, to show that there are no boundaries to kids, that there are no limitations, that the opportunities are there if they would just wish to seize them?


Q: We talked about the trials and the tribulations. Certainly the tribulations have been well documented over the past two decades, most recently the Columbia accident. After that, after all of this, and after reliving the Columbia accident and all of the memories and the shadows of Challenger all over again, did it cause you at all to rethink your goal to fly in space, and to fly as an educator to carry out this long-standing dream of yours, of Christa, of your fellow educators?

I'm going to answer that in a couple of ways because both Challenger and the Columbia have caused me to think, and it caused all of NASA to think. First of all, it caused us to think about what are we doing wrong, and how can we make it better. How can we make spaceflight safer? Because it is risky business, but we want to make it as safe as we can. All the astronauts, all of NASA, have been working really hard and will continue to work hard to try to make spaceflight as safe as we can possibly make it. It also caused me to really think, both Challenger and Columbia, about what's really important. In both situations, we had kids watching adults, and they watch adults. Kids learn a lot from watching adults. It's not just what we say, but it's what we do. And, kids were watching to see what the adults do in a terrible, terrible situation. What I thought was really important for kids to see is that we figure out what's wrong, we fix it, and we move on, and we keep the future open for our young people. And I just thought that that was really important, and feel that's really important today. I'll feel that's important forever.

Q: Those accidents were very difficult for everybody, of course a very sobering reminder of the environment that we operate in, in the world of human spaceflight. But, aside from that, the past two decades you've steadfastly maintained this goal through trials and tribulations, through thick and thin. What's been the biggest challenge in the sustenance of the single-minded purpose of what you're here for, what you knew you wanted to do from the very beginning, from that very day that you watched the president on TV offer the opportunity?

You know, in the way that, you asked the question, there really hasn't been a big challenge. I sense that the question's getting at "What keeps you going?" The reason for doing it is what keeps me going, so it's not something that I've had to think about a lot. Our kids and our future -- there's nothing more important than that and keeping their future open-ended. That's something that's just part of us. But that's what being a teacher is all about; it's the same thing that keeps you going in the classroom. The classroom is a really challenging environment. If you think about it, you've got up to 30 individuals that you're building a team with, but each of those individuals comes with different motivations, different learning styles, different backgrounds, different personalities. Your job as a teacher is to help create an environment and work with each one of those young people so that they can reach their full potential. There's nothing more challenging than that. It's something you do day after day after day. You look to the end result, but you work at it every day. You get so involved in the everyday activity that you don't think about how long it's going to take. That's exactly what it's been like training for space and training for these missions as well.

Q: In this long journey of yours the range of human emotions (obviously it's like peaks and valleys in anything in life), what do you think, for you personally, has been the hardest moment; and what, outside of your solid rocket booster ignition later on, will be the best moment that you will relive?

There have been lots and lots of challenges and hard moments. They started right from the very beginning. I could give you lots of anecdotes, but one would be when... Before we started flying in the T-38s, which are very fast flying machines, high-performance jets, I came with absolutely no flying background. And so, before we jumped into the T-38s, NASA had a few of us that had not had any kind of flying experience at all other than commercial airlines gave us some flying lessons in Cessnas. And, I'll never forget: My instructor took me out; we walked around the plane and talked about the different parts. And, I knew a little bit about how planes fly but, again, not how to fly them. We got in the plane and he was explaining to me to listen to ADIS. I didn't know what ADIS was. It turns out (that) it's pilot information; it's the local information about the airfield and the weather and the conditions that you need to know to be able to fly. He told me how to adjust to change the channel on the radio. And, he said, "OK, listen to ADIS." All I could hear was "hrghraaagh" [static]. There were some words there, but they all sounded like gobbledygook to me. Then, he said, "OK, now change to this frequency, and tell the ground that you're ready to 'taxi with delta'." And, I was looking around thinking, "Delta, hmm. You know, I know there's Delta airlines, but I know there's no Delta airlines here at Ellington Field. And I know a Delta is a change, and does this mean that I'm supposed to tell him that we're making a change? We're moving from where we're parked to where we're going?" I really had no idea. We took off flying. I asked some questions. I got a little smarter about it. That was my first understanding that there's this whole language -- a pilot's language and an air traffic controller's language -- that I was clueless about. So, I went down to Radio Shack with my husband and we got a special radio so that I could spend some time listening to air traffic control and got a book and learned the language of the special pilots alphabet. It turns out Delta is just a letter, the letter "D." At that particular time, every hour that pilot information changes and they call first it's the "A" hour, then the "B" hour, then the "C" hour. We happened to be on the "D" hour, the Delta hour. Probably one of my first biggest challenges was learning the language. And really, in many of our classes in learning about the systems of the shuttle and the systems of the space station, I'm learning about the robotics and the spacewalking and everything else; some of the language has actually been the biggest challenge. And it helped remind me, as a teacher, that that's pretty much oftentimes what the challenge is for, for our students, too. Once they get the language down, you're way over the top of the hump and the learning becomes a lot easier. So I just worked hard to try to understand and learn the language, and things got a little easier.

Q: One of the things I'm struck by is that the roles are reversed: the teacher is being taught how to fly in space here, and has been over the course of all these years. Is Barbara Morgan a good student?

I hope I'm a good student. One thing is, like anything else, the more you put into it, the more you're going to get out of it. Actually, yes, I've been a student here at NASA. But, teachers are also students in their own classroom. That's one of the challenges and one of the rewards of being a classroom teacher is that you're there helping other people learn, and every day you're learning yourself.

Q: Why is it worth the risk for humans to fly in space? And, what is really the benefit of the risk of putting an educator in space?

The risks are the same for an educator or a physician or an engineer or a pilot or a chemist, anyone else who flies in space. We're doing it to learn. We're doing it to explore. We're doing it to discover. We're doing it to help make this world a better place. And we're doing it to help keep those doors open for our young people so that they can, they can do it, too.

Q: As you head down the home stretch of this long journey of yours, how does your family feel about what you've done, how you've stuck with it, why you've stuck with it? What kind of a support system is in place in your family to go through two decades of this singular goal of yours?

Well, my family knows that space exploration is really important. My husband and both our boys would love to fly, too.

Q: So, full support never wavered throughout all these years?

No. Our kids are concerned about the risk of course, as is my husband, as anyone would be. But, they know this is important. And, like I said, they want to fly too!

Q: Do you think that after it's all said and done, you'll look back at this in a quieter moment at home and know that you will have derived something, as a teacher, by actually living and working in space that will be something above and beyond what the training has brought to you at this point?

I think and know I'm going to get a lot out of it. But, I'll tell you what: If you'll hold that question and ask me when I get back, I'll be able to answer it much better. I look forward to telling you, and to sharing with you what it is that, that we will have learned from it.

Q: What do you see as the similarities between what astronauts and teachers do, and how will your mission be perceived as a benefit for the education process in schools do you think?

Astronauts and teachers learn and share; they explore; they discover; and then they go learn and share some more. And that's what this is all about.

Q: Do you think you'd want to fly a second time if you had the opportunity?

Absolutely! And I hope I have the opportunity! I'd love to fly again, and hope to fly again, and I'll be here ready to contribute again.

Q: How do you think you'll do up in space with just the "art of living in space"? A lot of astronauts say that it takes some days to get acclimated to weightlessness and these types of things. But you've seen a lot of astronauts come and go. Some astronauts are born to live in space; some struggle a little bit. How do you think you'll do?

I hope I'll do fine. I expect to. Again, I'll be able to answer that better after I get back but I've every expectation that it's just like other things that you do. I have every expectation that it'll take some getting used to, and that'll be a good thing. And, it'll be a great experience.

Q: Your title, "Educator Astronaut-slash-Mission Specialist" is for the flight itself. You are still a teacher. After all these years, do you still consider yourself a teacher who could walk back in the classroom tomorrow and pick up where you left off?

You know that question always kind of makes me laugh! People don't ask the physician astronauts or the engineer astronauts or the chemists: "Are you still a chemist? Are you still a physician" or "Are you still an engineer?" Yes, I'm still a teacher and look forward to eventually going back in the classroom. I do know teaching is tough and challenging. And there's a skill to it, just like everything else. You have to keep up with that. I'm going to need to sharpen my skills again, take some classes, and go observe a lot of my colleagues and work hard to get back into it to be able to do as good a job as I can.

Q: Your crew patch has a lot of symbolism affixed to it. One of the things that I noticed almost immediately was an object that looks very much like an Olympic torch next to your name. What is it? What does it represent?

I'm really glad you asked about our patch, because it's something I'm very proud of. I think we all are. That is the flame of knowledge, that torch that carries the flame of knowledge. If you look closely at the patch, you'll see the trajectory or the orbit that the shuttle is taking as it circles around the astronaut symbol that's going up to the International Space Station and beyond. That orbit emanates from that flame of knowledge. It's education, it's great education, that propels all of what we're doing in space exploration and as we learn more about our universe. That's so important because to us one of the primary purposes of all these missions is gaining knowledge, and it's gaining knowledge through exploration. The other thing that's near and dear to our hearts is that flame of knowledge really is there to honor teachers and students everywhere.

Q: Teachers are not exactly the best-paid people in the world. It's not a profession that people go into thinking they're going to walk away wealthy. What is it that draws somebody like you to teaching? What is the benefit that you derive from teaching?

Teaching is its own reward. People who go into teaching and stay with it, go into it and stay with it because it is its own reward. It's challenging. It's inspiring. It's invigorating. And, it's rewarding to create an environment where you are trying to help every single individual in that environment come together as a family and also reach his or her best, greatest potential. It's an enormous responsibility, it's an enormous challenge and it's enormously rewarding.

Q: What is it about your background, as a kid that drew you to want to or even consider doing this? What's your education background that might have drawn you into this?

I was a kid just like every other kid, and all kids are natural explorers. From the time you're a little tiny tot, you're exploring. Whether it's sticking your hands in your mouth and then when you finally find your feet and sticking those in your mouth, and when you're out digging in the yard and picking up pieces of sand, when you're out at the beach, all those things. I was just a typical kid, interested in exploring and learning. And, it's truly that which led me into teaching. I was a human biology major in college. Let me back up a little bit. All through growing up, because I've loved learning and because I think I really respected and loved my teachers, I had always thought I would probably be a teacher. But by the time I got to high school, I realized that -- at least at that time for young women -- pretty much what seemed open to us was to either be a nurse or a teacher. It was something I fought very, very hard. I also really loved the sciences and was interested in that. Through college I was a human biology major. But one of my very favorite classes was the physiology of the brain. Doing that, and taking some psychology classes and learning about learning. Learning how people learn and long-term memory, short-term memory, things like that all kind of led back to learning and teaching. And I thought, "If I'm really interested in this, where is a better place to learn about learning and help with learning, and help do something for other people, which was something that I had hoped to do, than being in a classroom?" So, it kind of went full circle. I thought, "This is probably where I belong." And that's how I ended up there. And, it was the right choice.

Q: Did you have a just an inherent interest in space at all? Did you follow the Neil Armstrong thing that so many astronauts say propelled them to want to specifically become an astronaut?

Absolutely. I was always interested in looking up at the stars when we'd go camping and as a Girl Scout. My folks, when we were very young, got us a little telescope for Christmas, and we had that out and would look up at the stars. I was always interested in what's out there. And then, yes as the space program was being born, we were glued to the TV when we first landed on the moon and the flights leading up to that. And yes, that was very much a part of my growing up. I didn't even consider that that would be something that I could do, so that wasn't part of what I thought I would be doing. Part of that, too, was because the opportunities then for women. I'm so glad now that's not the case anymore.

Q: Do you stay in touch very much with friends, coworkers, colleagues that you worked with in Idaho when you were a teacher back there? Do you talk to them at all? Do you keep them up to date on the progress of your training and things of that nature?

We get back home to Idaho once a year. It's not enough. I wish we could all keep in touch with each other much more often. Training is so busy, and everybody's so busy, as I know you and everybody else is who works, whether you're teaching, or working at NASA. So of course we never get to spend time with our friends and family as much as we would like to. But probably more important than them keeping up with me: I want to know what they're doing! And I want to know how things are going in the classroom and in the schools.

Q: You're sort of a recruiting poster for education. But for people who are either about to go off to college or are in college or are not quite certain about what they want to do for a profession, why would somebody want to be a teacher? What is the lure for somebody who might consider education as a profession?

We depend on the future, and the future is those kids who go to school every day. We need teachers. We need folks who want to and are motivated and inspired to go in and do the challenging, hard work and rewarding work of helping people reach their full potential. So I would say, "Go for it! You'll love it!"

Q: Do you get letters from kids and from other teachers around the nation? If so, what are the kinds of things that they ask you about?

I get lots of letters and they ask about everything under the sun. All the questions are there, and they're always good questions. In addition to those questions, what I love about them is they all include very, very kind words of support.

Q: How about former students who obviously are now in the workplace themselves as young adults? What do they say to you when they correspond with you?

When they're young kids in your classroom, we tell them that, as we're working with them, we're not looking at them just as 9 or 10 years old or third graders; we're looking at them as 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds and 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds and on up, 110-year-olds -- we hope they'll live long healthy lives. We're very interested in them and where they're going into their future. What's most rewarding to me are those letters that we get from our students that are telling us what they're doing now in their lives. They're excited about it and they're happy to share with us. That's one of the most rewarding things that happens as a teacher.

Q: What messages about STS-118, about the International Space Station, about working with international partners, do you want to bring out of this flight -- aside from the construction piece of it? What do you think those messages are?

Well, to me it's all about learning, and exploring, and discovering, and again, keeping the future open-ended, keeping doors open. It's an exciting, interesting, fascinating world we live in that we know this much [so little] about. And we've got a long ways to go to learn a whole lot more.

Q: If you could sit around with a bunch of kids right now and start teaching them about the mission, about NASA, about human spaceflight, would it be a fun lesson? How much fun is human spaceflight from the perspective that you intend to impart your knowledge to the mission and beyond?

It is really fun, and we'd have a lot of fun. But it wouldn't be me talking. I would share a little bit. I would love to answer questions so that what I'm saying is what the kids are most interested in learning about. But what we'd really be doing is doing the kind of education -- just like learning for spaceflight -- which is very hands-on and very active. So we'd be actually doing and building just like we're doing here at NASA.

Q: When you return to the classroom, how do you think you'll be perceived by students? Is it going to be Barbara, is it going to be Mrs. Morgan? Or, is it going to be something different that you will have inherited? Some sort of an icon status?

Well, that makes me laugh! I will be Mrs. Morgan, their teacher. What I really hope to do is continue and expand on my commitment to do even more to help students and teachers get even more opportunities.

Q: I want to go back to the mission itself. Looking at the roles and responsibilities of you and your crewmates, you've been handed a pretty big load on this flight. It's a lot of work and it's a complex mission. How complicated is this whole thing about building a space station?

It is really complicated. That's one of the real joys, seeing how it's all put together. It's not just when we talk about space missions, it's not just the crew that's going up. I wish we could put everybody who has everything to do with this mission, and anything to do with putting this mission together -- it's been worked on for several years now -- if we could maybe take them all outside here by the pond at the Johnson Space Center, and we would have to have so many wide-angled lenses to do a panorama to show all the people that have everything to do with this mission. Every one of those people is really key to making it all work. At the end we get to kind of do the finishing touches. But all they're doing is just helping get ready for the next step, and the next step, and the next step. What I am most excited about is those next steps that will get us back to the moon and to learn how we can really live and, for a longer term than just a short little trip, to really work and live for a long duration and then go on to Mars. I hope I live long enough to go beyond Earth as to watch well beyond Mars.

Q: In that sense, is education very much like space itself limitless? No boundaries?


Q: If you were teaching that concept, how would you explain that?

I think ... my colleagues and I would come up with: What are the best activities? What are the little seeds that we can provide for our students if they're not already thinking and doing things themselves (which a lot of them are). A lot of times it's just us helping them bring that out so that they can share it with the rest of us and propel themselves on to that next step that goes on and on and on. The other part to that is us finding the things, the keys that interest the kids the most that maybe they haven't thought of. Not telling them but providing opportunities for them to get their hands in it, get their minds in it, get their bodies into it and experience those things themselves so that they can ask the questions that will help propel them on. The other part of it is showing, and that's part of what we do every day, both as parents and as teachers because kids don't just listen to what people say, but they watch, too, what we do.

Q: What kind of a mark do you think you will have left on education when this is all said and done? Is it going to be a lasting mark, or is this just a momentary blip on the radar screen in history? How can you make your flight an impact flight that will have sustenance for years to come with the lessons that you will have provided from the mission itself and what you're going to be doing up on orbit?

NASA's been doing excellent education, both on the ground and from orbit. By "education" I mean providing opportunities for students and teachers to get involved and to both experience and to contribute to space exploration goals. This is just one of many, many steps along the way. I really look forward to coming back and helping with what comes next, and what comes next, and what comes next. Education is never-ending. It can get better and better and better.

Q: Let me ask you a final question. You can't look at the future without remembering the past. Do you feel as if your mission will be the punctuation mark that will close the story of the Challenger accident and, in turn, bring closure to you personally and to a lot of people who are looking to see Christa McAuliffe's legacy finally fulfilled?

Christa McAuliffe's legacy is open-ended. Every teacher's legacy is open-ended. I know people will be looking at this and remembering Challenger, and that's a good thing. They will also be thinking about all the people -- teachers and other people -- who have been working really hard and will continue working really hard to carry on the work that Christa was doing. I'm happy about that.

Q: Barbara Morgan, educator astronaut, mission specialist, shuttle Endeavour, STS-118, thank you so much.

Thank you.

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