In the aftermath of the tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew Feb. 1, NASA officials said their resurrection of a program to send teachers into space would continue—though they are reconsidering the program’s time frame.

“It’s part of NASA’s future, and it will continue forward,” NASA spokeswoman Sonja Alexander told the Dallas Morning News for a Feb. 3 story. “The program timetable is under review. It’s too early to tell what will happen.”

When reached by eSchool News, Alexander explained, “At this time we are still accepting applications at our web site. The April 30 application deadline is going under review, and more details will be [posted] on the web site once they become available.”

The space agency had relaunched its educator-astronaut program Jan. 21 to recruit more teachers as astronauts. Designed to pique students’ interest in science and math, the program was to use satellite video feeds and the internet to connect students on earth with teachers in space to explain the intricacies of space exploration.

Educators bring a unique set of skills that would enable them to communicate to students the challenging concepts associated with the study of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics aboard a space flight, NASA said in announcing the program.

Within the first week of its call for participation, the agency reportedly received more than 1,000 nominations. About 100 more came in on Feb. 1, Alexander said—the day Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members.

The tragedy occurred nearly 17 years to the day after the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. The Challenger mission was the first time NASA tried to send a teacher into space.

“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, 51, who was New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa 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’s remarks came on Jan. 21, as NASA was relaunching its educator-astronaut program. Morgan—who is leading the agency’s teacher recruitment efforts—quit her Idaho teaching job in 1998 to move to Houston and join NASA’s astronaut corps, and she was scheduled to fly to the international space station in November aboard Columbia.

NASA had planned 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 would 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.

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.

At press time, NASA was still accepting applications on its web site 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 risks of space flight notwithstanding, 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.

To convey the experiences of the educator-astronauts to students and other teachers, NASA was expected to 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.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said the educator-astronaut program is a natural extension of NASA’s commitment to education. That commitment was on display aboard Columbia as well, which was carrying science experiments designed by students from nine states and eight countries.

“We felt part of the space program,” said Brad Miller, one of four students from Fowler High School in Syracuse, N.Y., who had an ants-in-space experiment on the shuttle. “We all felt like a little piece of us was gone when the shuttle disappeared.” To design an experiment that would meet NASA standards and have a good chance at success, the students at Fowler worked with world-class scientists, researchers, and engineers. Although they never got to meet the seven astronauts of Columbia, the tragedy hit the students as a personal loss.

“When I heard the news, I was in hysterics. I couldn’t stop crying. I was a mess,” Fowler senior Rachel Poppe said. “They took care of our project. They released the ants for us. They spent so much time learning all about our project.” The students said they planned to finish their experiment, which sought to learn whether the ants would tunnel any differently in minimal gravity, as a tribute to Columbia’s crew and their commitment to scientific discovery.

Data from the doomed flight were saved, because the students were able to download it daily through an internet link. But the information is unavailable to the students for now because it has been impounded by NASA as part of its investigation. “Sometimes it can be dangerous searching for answers. But you can’t stop searching,” Poppe said. “We will finish our work in dedication to the crew.”

Links:

NASA’s Educator Astronaut program
http://edspace.nasa.gov