Just a few days shy of the 32nd anniversary of the loss of Challenger, NASA astronauts Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold announced they would memorialize fallen schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe by carrying out several of the lesson plans that she planned to perform on-orbit. Acaba, who launched to the International Space Station (ISS) last September, and Arnold, who will fly to the multi-national orbital outpost in March, are both former high school math and science teachers, having been selected as NASA Educator Astronauts in May 2004.
“Thirty-two years after the Challenger disaster, @AstroAcaba & @astro_ricky will honor Christa McAuliffe by carrying out the lesson plans she intended to do on her mission,” NASA Education tweeted. “Details coming soon.” But what were those lessons and how relevant were they to NASA’s current program of exploration aboard the ISS and beyond low-Earth orbit, into deep space, over the coming years and decades?
Video Credit: NASA
McAuliffe, a social studies educator from Concord, N.H., applied in August 1984 for NASA’s Teacher in Space Program (TISP). She was one of over 11,000 applicants, which were gradually winnowed down to 114 semi-finalists by state, territorial and agency review panels and McAuliffe was one of only two high school teachers nominated in New Hampshire. This group was narrowed even further and in June 1985, at the White House, President Ronald Reagan presented the ten finalists, including McAuliffe. “Whichever one of you is chosen might also want to take under consideration the opinion of another expert,” the president joked. “The acceleration which must result from the use of rockets inevitably would damage the brain. So consider yourself forewarned!” It was typical of Reagan’s lighthearted, self-deprecating humor, but little could he have known that such a dire prediction would come dreadfully to pass.
Finally, on 18 July, Vice President George H.W. Bush announced McAuliffe as the prime candidate for the TISP mission, backed up by McCall, Idaho, teacher Barbara Morgan. Alongside Mission 51L crewmates Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik and Ron McNair—and later joined by Hughes Aircraft engineer Greg Jarvis—she pressed into an intensive training regime, with launch of the six-day flight planned for late December 1985. However, delays to the preceding mission pushed 51L into the second half of January 1986 and after several aborted launch attempts Challenger finally set off on the frigid morning of the 28th. Seventy-three seconds after liftoff, the shuttle was lost in one of the most public disasters ever witnessed.
Had Challenger achieved orbit and completed her mission, 51L would have been a “moderately complex” flight, involving the deployment of a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) and the release and subsequent capture of the Spartan free-flying platform, devoted to observations of Halley’s Comet, which entered the inner Solar System in the early part of 1986. But from the perspective of the public at large, the focus was upon McAuliffe herself, who would have performed a pair of 15-minute lessons from orbit, as well as eight shorter demonstrations of the effects of microgravity.
The first lesson, entitled “The Ultimate Field Trip”, she would have provided a tour of the shuttle’s flight deck and middeck to familiarize students with on-board living and working conditions. In a pre-flight demonstration, McAuliffe explained that she would firstly have identified the controls on the flight deck, including the Shuttle Portable On-orbit Computer (SPOC)—assisted by Scobee and Smith—before venturing into the middeck to describe the Waste Collection System (WCS) and sleeping bags to be used by the crew, as well as the functionality of the galley. The second lesson, “Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going”, would have seen McAuliffe focusing on America’s past accomplishments, from the Wright Brothers’ first heavier-than-air flight to future plans for the Space Station.
Both lessons would have been aired by PBS on 2 February 1986, the day before Challenger was scheduled to return to Earth. “I think it’s going to be very exciting for kids to be able to turn on the TV and see the teacher teaching from space,” McAuliffe said in one of her last interviews. “I’m hoping that this is going to elevate the teaching profession in the eyes of the public and of those potential teachers out there. Hopefully, one of the secondary objectives of this is students are going to be looking at me and perhaps thinking of going into teaching as professionals.” In the meantime, on the ground, Barbara Morgan would have moderated “Mission Watch”, whereby classrooms with satellite or cable network access could participate in the coverage of the entire six-day flight.
After Challenger’s loss, efforts to send another teacher into space never disappeared. In April 1991, NASA Administrator Dick Truly deferred a decision, citing the need for the shuttle program to clear a backlog of high-priority missions, but in January 1998 Morgan was selected, not as a civilian observer, but for training as a fully fledged Mission Specialist candidate. Her name was formally announced the following June, as she joined the 17th class of astronaut candidates. Following training and evaluation, in April 2002 she and NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe held a press conference, to outline her impending assignment to a future shuttle crew. That assignment came in December 2002, when Morgan was named as a Mission Specialist on STS-118, slated for November 2003.
Seven weeks later, on 1 February 2003, shuttle Columbia was lost during re-entry, stalling the shuttle program for more than two years. However, O’Keefe had earlier announced the inauguration of the Educator Astronaut Program (EAP) and in May 2004 teachers Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger were named as members of NASA’s 19th astronaut class. By February 2006, they completed their training and entered technical assignments, but all eyes were on Morgan that year, when she was reassigned in May to STS-118. In August 2007, she flew a 13-day mission aboard shuttle Endeavour, delivering the S-5 truss segment and supporting a range of educational payloads, which included a plant germination experiment and more than ten million basil seeds for student investigators. Morgan also participated in a series of educational events, responding to children’s questions about how far a baseball could be thrown in space to how the jobs of “teacher” and “astronaut” were similar. She also answered queries via amateur radio and explained the operation of the space station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2.
Morgan’s fellow educator astronauts followed her to orbit in short order. Joe Acaba and Ricky Arnold flew together as Mission Specialists aboard shuttle Discovery on STS-119 in March 2009, performing two spacewalks each, totaling more than 12.5 hours apiece. A year later, Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger flew STS-131 and Acaba chalked up his second mission in May-September 2012, becoming the first educator astronaut to log a long-duration ISS expedition. An unexpected development came in early 2017, when the reduction of Russia’s human presence on the station prompted a decision to increase the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) crew from three to four members. Acaba was added to Expedition 53/54 from September 2017 through February 2018 and Arnold was assigned to Expedition 55/56 from March through August 2018, producing the unique opportunity to have two educators in orbit for almost an entire academic year.
With Acaba due to return to Earth next month, and Arnold slated to launch from Baikonur in the mid-March timeframe, the halfway point of this “Year of Education” is upon us, as is the anniversary week of the Challenger accident itself. Speaking last week from orbit to an audience at the Challenger Center in Framingham, Mass., Acaba explained the motivations for repeating McAuliffe’s long-lost lessons.
“I can’t think of a better time or a better place to make this announcement than at Framingham State University, that was Christa’s alma mater,” he said. “Ricky Arnold and I, over the next several months, will be working with the Challenger Center to record several of Christa’s original lesson plans that she was going to do in space and we’re looking forward to sharing that with educators and students around the world. We look forward to helping to explore the next generation of explorers and educators.”
Although the exact outline of the lessons will emerge in due course, it is expected that several of McAuliffe’s in-flight activities will be “reimagined”, based upon materials available aboard the ISS. The Challenger Center has specifically pointed to four topics which she would have explored in the shuttle’s middeck, focused on demonstrations of Sir Isaac Newton’s first, second and third laws of motion, the behavior of liquids in microgravity and the mechanisms of capillary action in plants. “Filming Christa McAuliffe’s lessons in orbit this year is an incredible way to honor and remember her and the Challenger crew,” said Mike Kincaid, NASA associate administrator for the Office of Education. “Developed with such care and expertise by Christa, the value these lessons will have as new tools available for educators to engage and inspire students in science, technology, engineering and math is what will continue to advance a true legacy of Challenger’s mission.”