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Educator Astronaut Barbara Morgan, KD5VNP, Gets Ready to Launch into Space

At the launch pad, the final inspection team -- also known as the "Ice Team" -- is inspecting the space shuttle's exterior, making sure it is in good condition and free of ice and debris. One major launch milestone - "tanking," the filling of Endeavour's orange external tank with 500,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen -- is complete. All systems onboard the space shuttle are functioning normally this morning, and there's only a 20 percent chance of weather prohibiting a liftoff at 6:36 PM (EDT).

Tonight, the space shuttle Endeavour (STS-118) is scheduled to launch yet again on an 11-day mission into the "last frontier." On board, the seven member crew gets ready for the final countdown. One member, Mission Specialist Barbara Morgan, KD5VNP, says she will probably let forth a loud "Woo-hoo!" during the launch. The astronauts assigned to the mission included a Canadian doctor, a chemist who knows sign language and is a former competitive sprinter and long jumper, as well as a commander whose identical twin brother is also a shuttle pilot.

Morgan is the mission's Educator Astronaut. She was selected for the astronaut corps 22 years after first being selected as Christa McAuliffe's backup in the Teacher in Space Project. McAuliffe and the rest of the seven-member crew on board the space shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L) perished on January 28, 1986, a mere 73 seconds after launch.

While in space, Morgan plans to answer questions from schoolchildren. She received her Amateur Radio license in March 2003.

Like all shuttle missions, STS-118 is about the future: putting the International Space Station (ISS) a step closer to completion and gathering experience that will help people return to the moon and go on to Mars. "The mission has lots of angles," Matt Abbott, lead shuttle flight director, said. "There's a little bit of assembly; there's some resupply; there's some repairs. And there are some high-visibility education and public affairs events. It's a little bit of everything."

The little bit of assembly -- as in assembly of the International Space Station -- refers to the next segment that will be attached to the right side of the station's backbone, or truss. The new segment, known as the S5, is relatively small and weighs about 5000 pounds. The piece provides clearance between sets of solar arrays on the truss structure.

That doesn't mean, however, that installing it will be easy. Every crew member will play a part. Pilot Charles Hobaugh and space station Flight Engineer Clay Anderson will operate the station robotic arm that moves the segment into place, while spacewalkers David Williams and Richard Mastracchio, KC5ZTE, provide guidance from the outside and finish the installation. Commander Scott Kelly and mission specialists Tracy Caldwell and Benjamin Alvin Drew will help out inside. Morgan will operate the shuttle robotic arm to provide television views of the operation.

"I'm really excited about going up and doing our jobs and doing them well," Morgan said. "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. I am excited about seeing what it's like living and working onboard the International Space Station."

Morgan trained side by side with McAuliffe and witnessed the 1986 Challenger accident in which McAuliffe and her six fellow crew members died. The Teacher in Space Project was suspended then, but Morgan held on to her NASA ties. In the months following that tragedy, she went on the visits McAuliffe would have made, talking to children and teachers all over the country. When she was selected in 1998 to become a full-fledged astronaut, she jumped at the opportunity.

In reminiscing about McAuliffe, Morgan said, "Christa's legacy was open-ended, and is open-ended. Any teacher's legacy is open-ended. I hope, and I know that people will be thinking about Christa and the Challenger crew and that's a good thing and they'll be thinking about many, many teachers and others who have worked very, very hard for 20 years to continue Christa's and the rest of the Challenger crew's work. I am just the next teacher of many to come, we've got three in training right now, and there will be more in the future, teachers who will fly as astronauts, so just, just one of a long step that will continue well into the future."

In 2002, Morgan was chosen as the first educator to become a mission specialist astronaut. The Educator Astronaut Project evolved from the Teacher in Space Project. Both aimed to engage and attract students to explore the excitement and wonder of spaceflight and to inspire and support educators. Morgan's primary duty is the same as it is for the entire crew - to accomplish the planned objectives of the station assembly mission. But she also will take part in several education-related activities.

She said, "Kids aren't motivated by doing things that the adults have already done and taken care of. They're motivated by doing things that they get to do, that are new for them. So, that's open-ended. What we're taking up, these plant growth chambers, are to get them thinking about one of many, many questions that need to be answered, which is: How do you sustain life for long duration on the moon or on Mars and beyond? So, we would like them to think about what kinds of plants are the best to grow? How are you going to grow them? What are the things that you need to consider to grow them whether you're in the environment of the moon or the environment of Mars, or on a spacecraft that's going to take you there, or on the International Space Station? And, we're going to have an engineering design challenge for them where we would like for them to design and build a model or a working prototype of a plant growth chamber.

"What we're going to do with the little chambers that we take up is just use those as one of many examples that can be built for a, an environment like the International Space Station. But it's really to get them thinking, considering, and brainstorming all the kinds of questions that they'll need to ask and try to find answers to in order to do their own designing. We would love to see their designs. And the seeds that we're taking up we're bringing back down for them. It's both real and metaphorical to get something literally physical into their hands that says, 'Go do the stuff that we get to do.' You know, 'Go do exploring, experimenting, and discovering. We're not going to tell you what to do and how to do it. They're yours to do just like we do.'"

Morgan said, "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. 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." -- Some information from NASA


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