NASA launches educator-astronaut program to inspire kids in science and math

NASA is putting out a vast help-wanted ad for teachers in space. The program—which is designed to pique students’ interest in science and math—will use satellite video feeds and the internet to connect students on earth with teachers in space to explain the intricacies of space exploration.

The space agency launched the program Jan. 21, via television and the internet, to recruit more teachers as astronauts. The widows of three of the Challenger astronauts took part in the announcement, and the family of Christa McAuliffe offered its support.

“One of the things I’m going to say when I’m in space is what I’m going to say right now to all of you students and teachers,” said educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe’s backup on that frigid, fateful morning of Jan. 28, 1986. “I’m going to say, ‘Come on up. We want you to follow us.'”

Morgan, 51, will fly to the international space station in November aboard Columbia, the shuttle now circling Earth on a 16-day research mission. She quit her Idaho teaching job in 1998 to move to Houston and join NASA’s astronaut corps.

NASA plans to choose three to six teachers for its next astronaut class, the Class of 2004, and launch at least one of them a year beginning in late 2005 or early 2006. The educator-astronauts will be eligible for multiple space shuttle flights, and even long stays aboard the international space station, performing the same experiments and operations as other astronauts.

Educators bring a unique set of skills that will enable them to communicate to students the challenging concepts associated with the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in space, NASA officials explained.

The widows of Challenger’s commander, Dick Scobee, and astronauts Ronald McNair and Gregory Jarvis were in the audience at Hardy Middle School in Washington, D.C., as NASA put out the call for more educator-astronauts.

Adena Loston, NASA’s education chief, said McAuliffe’s husband, Steven, a federal judge, wanted desperately to attend the ceremony but had four cases pending. McAuliffe’s mother, Grace Corrigan, flew to Washington but arrived too late for the event.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said the space agency wants to recruit more teachers like Morgan, who has a biology degree from Stanford University and taught second and third grade.

NASA will accept applications until April 30 from teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade who have bachelor’s degrees in education, math, science, or a science-related discipline, and who have taught for at least three of the past four years. Candidates must be U.S. citizens and must be able to pass NASA medical exams.

The pay is sure to attract the attention of teachers: The starting salary for educator-astronauts is between $51,000 and $95,000 a year.

Neither Morgan nor McAuliffe was a full-fledged astronaut, and they had undergone only minimal training, when Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. McAuliffe, a New Hampshire schoolteacher, was killed along with the six others on board.

O’Keefe said the new educator-astronaut program is a natural extension of NASA’s commitment to education. Besides encouraging students to nominate their favorite teachers as astronauts—and teachers to nominate other teachers and themselves—the space agency is developing classroom materials to be published on the agency’s web site.

To convey the experiences of the educator-astronauts to students and other teachers, NASA will employ a technology known as telepresence, or live, interactive video communication across extremely long distances (such as between students on earth and a teacher in space), as well as online postings through webcasts and chats, live video feeds, and other multimedia tools, the agency said.

“If nothing else, your math and science classes are going to get a lot more fun,” O’Keefe said. He added: “What better way to convey the excitement of space exploration than to entrust the mission to teachers?”


NASA’s Educator Astronaut program

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