CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – It took 21 years, but NASA finally redeemed the promise of shuttle Challenger and its lost crew Wednesday evening.
Teacher Barbara Morgan accompanied six astronauts on a field trip that took them 140 miles from home – straight up. They soared into orbit aboard shuttle Endeavour, relaunching the nation’s educator-in-space program.
“Morgan racing toward space on the wings of a legacy,” NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said as Endeavour, built 16 years ago to replace Challenger, sliced straight and true through a steamy, hazy mid-summer sky.
Less than nine minutes later, to the relief of all, the shuttle safely carried Morgan and her colleagues into orbit.
Said Navias: “Class is in session.”
Morgan, an elementary school teacher from McCall, Idaho, has been training and waiting for space flight since 1985.
“That’s the first valuable lesson: Persistence pays off,” said Gayle Moore, a former teacher who now works for the Idaho Education Association and watched the launch from the space center. “Stick with your dream and don’t give up.”
This mission was special to Moore and to anyone who remembered that awful day, Jan. 28, 1986, when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and the six other astronauts aboard.
“It certainly does bring back memories of Challenger,” said Mike Griffin, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “That was a very tough day.”
Now, the teacher-in-space program is back in business. Three other “educator astronauts” are awaiting liftoff on shuttle missions.
Morgan, 55, and the rest of Endeavour’s crew are scheduled to spend 14 days in space, delivering supplies to the International Space Station and conducting three spacewalks to attach a new component to the orbiting laboratory.
In addition, Morgan is expected to conduct three lessons from space that NASA will beam over the Internet to students around the world.
“What space offers is a never-ending, open-ended land of opportunity,” Morgan said before the launch. “There is just so much to learn out there.”
She was a close friend with – and NASA’s backup for – McAuliffe. She is married and has two children.
“I know people are going to think about Challenger, and they should,” Morgan said.
“And I want people to remember what great folks they were and that what happened with Challenger was wrong, but what the crew and what NASA was trying to do was absolutely right and I am grateful that we are continuing that on,” she said.
This is the first flight in nearly five years for Endeavour, which underwent an extensive refurbishment that included new filters and seals, window replacements and thorough inspections.
“It’s like a new space shuttle,” said Wayne Hale, NASA’s shuttle program manager. “It’s like driving a new car off the showroom floor.”
In addition to Morgan, also aboard Endeavour are commander Scott Kelly, 43; pilot Charles Hobaugh, 46; mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, 37; Benjamin Drew Jr., 44; Rick Mastracchio, 47; and Canadian astronaut Dave Rhys Williams, 53.
But most of the spotlight fell on Morgan.
When all is said and done, she said, she hoped her mission would help inspire young people.
“What we would really like to have them do is look deep inside themselves and dig up their curiosities,” Morgan said. “Kids are naturally very, very curious, and we would love for them to know what they are interested in about our world, about our universe, about space exploration.”
It already seemed to be working. A huge crowd of students, teachers and others gathered at the space center and along nearby beaches and riverbanks.
If all goes according to plan, Endeavour and its astronauts will land at the space center Aug. 22 at 12:49 p.m. – with many lessons learned.