Despite waning public enthusiasm for civilians on board space shuttles, teachers are jumping at the chance to become astronauts.

NASA recently received more than 1,600 applications from educators who wanted to fill a handful of educator-astronaut positions. The agency said it plans to hire three to six teachers who will join NASA’s Astronaut Corps on a permanent basis.

The educator-astronauts will be trained to perform spacewalks, operate the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm, and lead research experiments.

While the public generally supports the space program and shuttle, there are growing doubts about the wisdom of sending civilians like teachers and journalists on shuttle missions, according to an Associated Press poll conducted by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

Just over half (56 percent) of respondents said they believe civilians should be allowed to participate in shuttle missions, while 38 percent said they should not. Right after the Challenger disaster in 1986, which also killed seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, nearly two-thirds of respondents in a similar poll said civilians should be allowed to participate.

NASA restarted the educator-astronaut program to help attract new blood to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics because its work force is rapidly aging.

The educator-astronauts will share their space travel experience with millions of students and teachers through NASA’s Educator Astronaut Earth Crew program.

More than 20,000 people already have joined Educator Astronaut Earth Crew, which is a web-based education program that allows members to participate in NASA’s missions. Through the program, Earth Crew members can partake in national web casts and assist NASA Mission Planners in organizing potential experiments and activities for the educator-astronauts in space.

A nine-member panel, convened by the Space Foundation, developed the criteria NASA will use to choose the final candidates.

NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown dismissed the AP poll results, explaining that once a teacher becomes an educator-astronaut, he or she is no longer a civilian but a full-fledged astronaut.

“You start as a civilian when you apply … then you pack up and move to Houston,” Brown said. “Then you do exhaustive, extensive training for a year or more. That’s the big difference.”

The program has changed, he added.

“Back in the ’80s we sent civilians. They did training but they were not classified as astronauts,” Brown said.

NASA will announce its new educator-astronauts in early 2004, once it has completed a rigorous evaluation of the candidates.

The AP poll of 1,034 adults was taken July 11-15 and has an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points

It also found that two-thirds of respondents said the shuttle should continue to fly despite the accidents, including one early this year. A higher number, nearly three-fourths, said they think the space program is a good investment.

Enthusiasm for space exploration was greater among younger adults, those with more education, and those with higher incomes. Whites were more likely than blacks and men were more likely than women to think the shuttle should continue to fly.

The strong support continues even after the fiery disintegration of Columbia in February and the grounding of the remaining shuttles during an investigation into the cause of the accident that killed seven astronauts.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe says the agency already is addressing issues raised by the accident. In July, he told reporters the agency is looking toward a return to space in six to nine months.

Among the relatively small group of respondents, about one in five, who don’t think the space program is a good investment are those who can’t see the point of spending billions of dollars on space flight–and even some who don’t believe it’s a genuine program.

“I think it’s all bogus,” said Claudette Davidson of Jonesboro, Ga., who does accounting work for physicians. “I just do not believe they’ve gone to the moon.”

See this related link:

Educator Astronaut Program