16 March 2009
News - Habitat (Good)
Teachers in Space
Making the space grade
by G B Leatherwood
The first Teacher in Space program began in 1984, with teachers Christa McAuliffe and Barbara Morgan chosen from 11,000 applicants as the first to fly. Unfortunately for all concerned, McAuliffe lost her life with other six astronauts when the space shuttle Challenger blew up 74 seconds into its flight. NASA shelved the program, and for the next twenty years no teacher/educator has made it across the threshold of the next frontier until Barbara Morgan finally flew in 2007.

But on Sunday, March 15, 2009, space shuttle Discovery lifted off into a gorgeous Florida sunset carrying two former teachers: Mission Specialists Richard Arnold and Joseph Acaba.

Acaba carried with him, among many other accomplishments, one year of high school teaching at Melbourne High School, in Melbourne, Florida, and four years of middle school experience as a math and science teacher at Dunnellon Middle School, Dunnellon, Florida. Arnold taught middle and high school science and mathematics at a number of schools in locations as diverse as West Papua, Indonesia and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Only one Educator Astronaut has not flown: Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, who is scheduled to fly as Mission Specialist on STS-131, targeted for launch in February 2010. With only seven or eight flights remaining before the US space shuttle program is planned to shut down, there seems little opportunity for her--or anyone else for that matter--to fulfill the hope for the future of space education in Earth classrooms.

Interestingly, NASA has consistently stated that astronauts Morgan, and now Acaba and Arnold, are not Educator Astronauts but simply astronauts who were once teachers. The problem is that in order to become astronauts, candidates had to give up their teaching jobs and join NASA as full-time employees. This defeats the purpose of teachers bringing their experience of space back to the classroom, to inspire the next generation.

With the death of McAuliffe and the endless redirection and reduction in funding for NASA education programs, Teachers in Space project manager Edward Wright said in a press release, “For 40 years, we’ve held forth the false promise that if students studied math and science, they would have a chance to go into space. A student still has a better chance of playing professional basketball than flying as a NASA astronaut.”

Teachers in Space, a non-profit civilian organization co-sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation and the United Space Academy, intends to change all that.

Instead of flying to the International Space Station one at a time after years of training and interminable waiting, and having to quit teaching to fly, candidates will receive three weeks of training on week-ends and during summers to prepare for suborbital flights during the summer, then return to their classrooms in the fall to share their experiences and instill their dreams in the minds and hearts of their students. They will also be expected to train the next generation of teachers.

Teachers in Space plans to raise funds to send one thousand teachers into suborbital space and back over the next ten years, with generous donations already having been made by several companies making rapid progress toward regular suborbital flights. Teachers in Space is working closely with these companies as reliable, low-cost, reusable vehicles are being built and tested, and seats have already been donated for astronaut teachers. As project manager Wright says, “When they’re ready to fly, we will have teachers who are trained and ready to go.”

For more information about Teachers in Space, including downloadable application forms, go to www.TeachersinSpace.org.
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G B Leatherwood 16 March 2009
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