Barbara Morgan: No Limits
Idaho Public Television has been following astronaut Barbara Morgan's amazing odyssey for more than 20 years. Here is the story of the former Idaho teacher who finally achieved her dream of flying in space in August 2007.
Barbara Morgan: No Limits (Student Version)
Sean Astin narrates the student version of a documentary about astronaut Barbara Morgan.
This 50-minute documentary, narrated by actor Sean Astin, can be viewed in its entirety, or you may want to have your students watch it in two parts.
When using this video in the classroom, a good place to pause for discussion is at 29:30, at the end of Morgan’s launch into space.
If you have another class period, you can either continue the video from that point, or refresh your students’ memory by starting it before the launch at 23:30, and continuing to the end of the video at 48:48. (Credits are at 46:53.)
Objectives of the student video
- To understand the importance of setting goals
- To understand that you often have to persevere with your goals through challenges
- To understand appropriate risk
- To understand that scientific exploration is a collaborative activity
- To understand more about space flight
- To understand the role and importance of teachers
Grade Level: 7-12
Subject Areas: Civics, Science, U.S. History
Estimated Time Needed: One 50-minute class period if only the first half of the video is shown; two class periods if the whole video is shown.
When McCall, ID elementary teacher Barbara Morgan heard President Ronald Reagan announce the Teacher-in-Space program on August 27, 1984, she knew immediately that she would apply.
"I shot straight up and said, "Wow!" she said. "Because as teachers, we’re always looking for opportunities to bring the world to our classroom."
In her application, Morgan stressed her method of active teaching, which meant incorporating her own life into her lessons. In order to educate the children about space, she said, she needed to experience it. "I want to get some stardust on me," she wrote.
Out of 11,000 applicants, Barbara Morgan was named the runner-up to New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe, and trained alongside her. But after McAuliffe’s death on the shuttle Challenger in January, 1986, NASA cancelled the Teacher-in-Space program.
"It looked to me personally that Barbara Morgan would never get a chance to fly," said Bill Harwood, a veteran CBS space reporter.
But history would dictate another course. Using rare footage, photos and internal documents, as well as interviews with Morgan, her friends, colleagues, students and family, "No Limits" shows how Barbara became a full-fledged astronaut, and then overcame additional challenges, including the loss of another shuttle crew. On August 8, 2007, Morgan and her six crewmates blasted off in the Shuttle Endeavour, the beginning of a 13-day mission to the International Space Station.
From a 32-year old school teacher to a 55-year old astronaut, Morgan had finally achieved her dream. "Yes, actually I did get some stardust on me. We all got some stardust on us," she said.
- Students will be able to describe personal characteristics that define perseverance.
- Students will be able to describe characteristics of Barbara Morgan’s perseverance.
- Students will be able to identify examples of people who exhibited perseverance in their lives.
- Students will be able to describe how they might persevere with their own goals.
Before Viewing Activities
- Ask students what they think the word perseverance means.
- List students' ideas on whiteboard.
- Provide students with formal definition of "perseverance."
- Have students give personal examples of people they know or have read about who have perseverance.
- Lead the class on a discussion of the character attributes necessary to be persistent.
- Fill in student responses on the first two columns of the KWL chart (PDF).
Watch the first 23 minutes of the Barbara Morgan documentary, until the craft launches.
- During viewing, have students write down examples of how Barbara Morgan demonstrates perseverance.
- Discuss what perseverance means.
- Did students’ views change after watching the documentary?
- Discuss some of the challenges that can create the need for perseverance.
- Have students identify a personal goal (i.e., getting a part in a school play, being picked for a team, learning a foreign language, learning to play an instrument.)
- Have students describe two challenges that might require them to persevere in meeting their goal (i.e., lack of training, financial resources, lack of interest from family.)
- Have students identify how they would persevere through these challenges.
- Complete KWL chart (PDF).
- Pick one of the three questions Mrs. Morgan and Mrs. McCauliffe was asked and have students compare and contrast the two women’s answers to the same question.
Research the symbols in the STS-118 mission patch
- Divide the class into teams and have each team design a patch for that represents the entire class, with at least three symbols in it.
- Or have each team design their own patch with at least three symbols on it.
- Have your students write down a question they would have asked Mrs. Morgan.
- Have them research the answer to that question.
The teenage years are about testing limits and boundaries, it is a natural part of growing up and becoming independent adults. Research studies indicate that teens who are successful in taking positive risks have higher self-esteem and are less likely to experiment with taking unhealthy risks. Promoting positive risk taking can take many forms – trying out for sports, going to camp, making new friends, running for school office, etc.
Questions before viewing
- Have students define risk? (an uncertainty of outcome)
- What kind of risks do we take in our lives? List student responses on chart paper or white board.
- What is the difference between appropriate and inappropriate risks?
Questions after viewing
- It is risky to become an astronaut and go into orbit. What steps did Barbara Morgan take to prepare for those risks?
- What quotes from the program illustrate Mrs. Morgan’s emphasis on positive risk taking?
- "If we don’t take any risks at all, we aren’t going anywhere." — Barbara Morgan (:44)
- "If what you are going for is valuable, and you are taking all the precautions you can, then you do it." — Clay Morgan (12:59)
- "Most things that are worth doing, take a lot of time and effort." — Barbara Morgan (45:12)
Have your students research the naming of the Shuttle Endeavour
- Divide students into teams and ask each team to come up with a name for a new spacecraft, based on the theme of exploration.
- The importance of space exploration — "bag of potential"
This Lesson plan explores the importance of space exploration and extends the idea to that of exploration in general. Directed at 4th-5th grades, this lesson is still suitable for junior high grade levels.
- Additional material about Barbara Morgan’s mission can be found on the NASA STS-118 Educators’ Page.
- NASA Students’ Page
- NASA Space Shuttle Student Page
- NASA International Space Station (ISS) Student Page
- Interactive Demonstration of the ISS (Flash)
- Space Food and Nutrition Educators' Guide (PDF) (1551 KB) from NASA
Includes activities for the planning, selection and serving of food aboard the space shuttle, dehydration of food for space flight; determining the usable and waste portions of food selected for space flight.
- How High Is It? Educators' Guide (PDF) (3084 KB)
How High Is It? Game Cards (PDF) (2378 KB)
An educators' guide from NASA with activities focused on scale models of distances
- Connecting in Space: Docking with the International Space Station (PDF) (108 KB)
To get crews and supplies delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) the Space Shuttle must dock, or attach, to the ISS. This activity will help students learn the scientific principles in docking the space station and students will also attempt to "dock" their own space shuttle.
- Microgravity (PDF) (6105 KB)
Educators’ guide from NASA on microgravity, with primer and 14 activities.
- Microgravity Video
This NASA video segment defines microgravity. Viewers learn that microgravity is, in essence, a product of free fall and that experiments aboard the space shuttle experience continuous free fall. The segment also discusses ways to briefly recreate microgravity on Earth.
- Rockets Educators' Guide
Hands-on activities to teach students about how rockets work.
Barbara Morgan Timeline
November 28, 1951
Barbara Radding born
Raised in Fresno, CA, Barbara says she was a "natural explorer" who enjoyed looking at the stars and was "glued to the TV" during the first moon landing. But she had no particular interest in pursuing a career in spaceflight.
"I didn't even consider that that would be something that I could do," she says. "Part of that, too, was because of the opportunities then for women. By the time I got to high school, I realized . . . pretty much what seemed open to us was to either be a nurse or a teacher."
At Stanford University, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1973, Radding became fascinated by how the brain processes information. She decided classroom teaching would be a natural extension of that curiosity and received a teaching credential. Her first job, in 1974, was on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana.
In 1978, Barbara married Clay Morgan, who she had met at Stanford. Clay was from Boise, so in 1979, after a year living and teaching in Quito, Ecuador, the Morgans moved to McCall, ID. Barbara began teaching at the elementary school and Clay pursued a career as a smokejumper and writer.
April 12, 1981
First space shuttle launches
STS (Space Transportation System)-1, the first space shuttle, launches with astronauts John Young and Bob Crippen aboard, orbiting the earth 36 times in two days.
August 27, 1984
President Reagan announces the Teacher-in-Space program
In a speech at Jefferson Junior High School in Washington, D.C., President Reagan announces that a teacher would be the first "citizen passenger" on the space shuttle. "When that shuttle lifts off," said Reagan, "all of America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can't think of a better lesson for our children and our country."
The Teacher-in-Space, or TIS program, as it came to be called, was actually the first of several planned programs to allow non-astronauts to fly on the shuttle.
"The concept was supposed to be that we were going to fly various occupations . . . where people tend to be good communicators," says Ed Campion, the first press secretary for the Teacher-in-Space program. "So the first one was a teacher. The next one was going to be a journalist . . . and they were talking about flying an artist or flying a poet."
When 32-year old McCall Elementary School teacher Barbara Morgan heard the president's announcement on the news that night, "I shot straight up and said, "Wow!" she recalls. "Because as teachers, we're always looking for opportunities to bring the world to our classroom, to gain more experiences, gain more knowledge about our world, so that we can make our classroom a better place for our kids."
"We were sitting on our canoe on Lake Payette," says her brother Howard Radding. "And she said, "President Reagan just announced that he is taking a teacher in space on the shuttle. I had heard nothing about the shuttle and her comment was, "I'm going." And my mom and I, we all kind of looked at each other and laughed, "Ha ha, Barbara." And she said, "No. I'm going."
January 29, 1985
Barbara Morgan applies to the Teacher-in-Space program
Barbara's husband Clay says she filled out her application using one of the first personal computers. "It was one of the original Radio Shack TRS-80s, they were 48K and they were powerful," he says. "It's funny; we thought we had a leg up on other people who were using typewriters because we had a word processor we could work on."
In her application (.pdf, 1.13MB), Morgan stressed her love of teaching underserved populations as well as her method of active teaching, in which she the children conducted experiments, heard from experts and got out of the classroom. Going to space and bringing the experience back to her students, she said, would be the ultimate lesson.
"The more I learn, the better teacher I become," she wrote. "You can't really know about something unless you get a little of it on you. I want to get some stardust on me."
More than 11,000 other teachers from all the states and U.S. territories would also apply.
Each state and U.S. territory could select two teachers as semi-finalists. In Idaho, a committee of five people, chosen by Helen Williams of the Idaho Department of Education, reviewed Idaho's applicants and picked Barbara Morgan and Boise High teacher Dave Marquart.
As part of their final application to NASA, the two were given three questions to answer. Their responses were filmed at the Idaho Public Television studios.
From June 22-27, 1985, the 114 semifinalists went to Washington, DC for additional interviews, supervised by the Council of Chief State School Officers. President Reagan also addressed them.
July 1, 1985
10 Teacher-in-Space finalists announced
Both Morgan and Marquart from Idaho were among the 10 finalists for the Teacher-in-Space program.
For Helen Williams (now Gephardt), who had selected both as Idaho's representatives, it was a joyous time. She remembers hearing her boss, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans, after he had received a call from U.S. Senator Jim McClure notifying him of the news:
"I heard him say, "Oh, you don't mean it, what are you saying? Tell me again! Are you sure?" And his voice was so loud it just boomed all over the office and he came running out of his office and I was right there and he said, "We have two of the top 10 finalists"! Well he couldn't believe it, I couldn't either and I guess maybe that was probably the highest point of my professional career."
"When the ten of us were chosen we had a national press conference," says Morgan. "Well, the very first question that came out was, "OK, you guys; how come two from Idaho?" And we were just really proud to be from Idaho and I think it speaks well for the education in this state."
The press seemed to generally regard the program in a light-hearted manner, calling the finalists "teachernauts" who wanted to be modern-day "Peter Pans." "Send my teacher into space," pleaded one little boy in a cartoon.
On July 7, 1985, the finalists traveled to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for medical tests and a flight in the KC-135 airplane, which simulates weightlessness. From July 15-18, senior NASA officials in Washington, DC conducted the final interviews.
From the beginning, the group bonded.
"All of us were so different from each other in our own ways and had different ideas about what we wanted to do or could do; there was no real way to compete," said finalist Judith Garcia.
Read "10 teachers in line to 'play Peter Pan'" (USA Today; .pdf; 132 KB)
July 19, 1985
NASA announces first Teacher-in-Space
Christa McAuliffe of New Hampshire was chosen as the first Teacher-in-Space, with Barbara Morgan as her backup.
"In my view those two were the clear front runners," says Bill Harwood, a longtime spacer reporter for CBS News. "In fact I predicted Barbara Morgan would win and Christa McCauliffe would come in second. I remember Barbara Morgan as being very enthusiastic . . . enthusiasm and optimism I guess were the two things. A lot of energy. She clearly wanted to do it and believed in the goals of that program. Just like Christa McAuliffe did. They were both good choices."
From September 1985 to January 1986, Morgan trained with McAuliffe and the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Although she was the backup to McAuliffe, Morgan was involved in all activities, in case Christa couldn't make it to the launch.
Read "Idahoan heads for teachernaut training" (Idaho Statesman; .pdf; 98 KB)
In September, 1985 Idaho Reports host Marc Johnson interviewed Morgan about her experiences thus far.
January 28, 1986
Space shuttle Challenger explodes 73 seconds after liftoff
An O-ring seal on Challenger's right solid rocket booster failed due to, among other causes, very cold temperatures at the launch site. Morgan watched as the crew of seven, including McAuliffe, perished.
President Reagan assured the nation that, "There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue."
But the political reality was otherwise.
It became very obvious that NASA viewed the risk of shuttle flight as too high to put a common civilian . . . on board," says Harwood of CBS. "They wanted people with professional qualities that you needed for the mission and it looked to us, or it looked to me personally, that the teacher in space program would never happen and that Barbara Morgan would never get a chance to fly."
Friends, though, held out hope when they heard NASA Administrator James Fletcher on The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour say he thought Barbara Morgan would be the next civilian in space, when NASA determined it was safe.
And Morgan herself remained undaunted, as can be seen in this 1986 interview with Bruce Reichert of Idaho Reports.
While Morgan continued to teach and make special presentations for NASA, 12 more years would go by.
Morgan teaches, makes NASA presentations, starts family
After the Challenger disaster, Morgan returned home and taught second, third, and fourth grades at McCall Elementary School in McCall, a resort town in the mountains of central Idaho.
In addition to her day job as a school teacher, Morgan worked with the NASA Education office. Her duties as Teacher in Space Designee included public speaking, educational consulting, curriculum design, and serving on the National Science Foundation's Federal Task Force for Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.
Also during this period, Morgan and her husband Clay, a writer (among other things), had two sons, Adam and Ryan.
January 15, 1998
NASA announces both John Glenn and Barbara Morgan will fly in space
When NASA announced that 76-year old former astronaut and Senator John Glenn would again fly in space as part of an experiment on bone loss in orbit, officials also made another announcement. Almost exactly 12 years since the Challenger explosion, Barbara Morgan would also be given a second chance. But this time, she would go to Houston and train as a full fledged astronaut.
The former manager of the Teacher-in-Space program, Alan Ladwig, says once Glenn was chosen, Morgan's selection was almost inevitable.
"The point was made that "Well, okay, if we're going to fly John Glenn, a non-astronaut, then what about Barbara Morgan?" he says. "And it caused a lot of discussion. There was still some feeling that okay, are you going to get criticized from the public that you are putting a non-astronaut on board? And one of the senior NASA managers at the time came up with the idea, "Well, let's make her a full-time astronaut." That way there is no question that she didn't understand the risk, there was no question that she didn't have a specific role to play."
Morgan, her husband and two children moved to Houston, where she trained on all the systems involved in spaceflight. She became close to the three other women in her class, Tracy Caldwell, Patricia Hilliard, and Sunita Williams. They dubbed themselves "the Spice Girls," with Morgan as "Old Spice." Williams would eventually spend six months on the International Space Station. Caldwell and Morgan would both be assigned to the same flight.
Patricia Hilliard Robertson was killed in a crash of an experimental plane on May 26, 2001.
John Glenn launched on October 29, 1998. But in 2002, Barbara Morgan still was not even assigned to a crew. While a time lag of length is not unusual, it made her friends frustrated.
The former manager of the Teacher-in-Space program, Alan Ladwig, says once Glenn was chosen, Morgan's selection was almost inevitable.
"We started seeing people paying to fly into space," says Kathy Phelan, a former McCall teacher. "And I thought, here's somebody who has been working for this for years and years and years. She wasn't even assigned to a crew yet."
Phelan, who had become the president of the Idaho Education Association, wrote a letter to NASA. The president of the National Education Association and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo also submitted letters.
December 12, 2002
Morgan assigned to the crew of STS-118
The flight, which was originally slated for the shuttle Columbia, had a scheduled liftoff of November 2003. Shortly after her assignation in 2002, Morgan spoke with Marcia Franklin of Dialogue about the mission.
February 1, 2003
Space shuttle Columbia explodes upon re-entry
After a successful 17-day mission, NASA controllers lost contact with Columbia as it re-entered the atmosphere. Debris from the craft was spread over a wide area of the southern United States. Investigations indicated that tiles on the shuttle designed to protect it from the searing heat of re-entry had been damaged by chunks of foam on takeoff. Seven crewmembers were killed.
Columbia's next flight was to carry Morgan and the rest of the STS-118 crew. Their November flight was now postponed indefinitely.
It would be the second time that Morgan would face the loss of close friends, as well as a mission delay. In order to cope, Morgan focused on work, and happy memories of her friends:
"Maybe I'm in denial, but they are very much alive," she says. "It's not who they were, it's who they are, and it's very much in the present for me."
April 16, 2007
STS-118 given a target launch date of August 9, 2007
Barbara Morgan is assigned as loadmaster, keeping track of 5,000 pounds of stowage moving from the shuttle to the International Space Station, and another 5,000 pounds of equipment loaded back onto the shuttle. She was also assigned to operate a boom sensor system to check for gouges in the shuttle's tiles after liftoff, and control a robotic arm to lift a stowage platform out of the payload bay and hand it off to the station's robotic arm.
August 8, 2007
Liftoff of the Shuttle Endeavour and the crew of STS-118
Despite a last-minute problem closing the hatch, Endeavour makes a picture-perfect ascent through the atmosphere.
The next day, in a short satellite message, Morgan describes the feelings of weightlessness. "Even though I kept my head upright so it looked like a normal ceiling and a normal floor, normal walls, I felt like I was upside down the whole time," she said.
By then, NASA managers had already noticed that chunks of insulating foam had hit the shuttle on liftoff. It was damage from foam that doomed the Space Shuttle Columbia upon re-entry. After docking with the International Space Station on August 10, Morgan helps operate the boom sensor system that takes photos of the tiles for detailed examination.
In an interview with Marcia Franklin of Idaho Public Television, Morgan expresses confidence that engineers will work out a solution and bring the shuttle home safely. She also talks about the beauty of seeing the blackness of space from above the atmosphere.
On Day 7 of the mission, Morgan and Astronaut Tracy Caldwell successfully pull a 7,000 pound stowage platform out of the shuttle's payload bay using a robotic arm, and hand it off to the space station's robotic arm. Morgan also focused on her loadmaster duties, meticulously documenting every item coming on and off the shuttle.
Although she would have little time for the educational events that she and McAuliffe had originally planned, Morgan and some of the crew were able to answer questions from students at the Discovery Center of Idaho via satellite.
Morgan is also able to talk with students in McCall over ham radio.
On Day 8, Morgan receives the traditional wakeup call that each astronaut gets on a mission She is serenaded by her son Adam, with a song called "Good Morning World" that he composed for the crew.
And in a poignant event, Morgan and Astronaut Alvin Drew spoke with students at the Challenger Center in Arlington, VA, started by June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger Commander Dick Scobee.
After intensive modeling, NASA managers decide not to repair the damaged area of tile underneath the shuttle, saying that the risk to a spacewalker repairing the tile would be greater than the possibility of shuttle failure upon re-entry.
Managers do worry, however, that Hurricane Dean, which is headed for Houston, could cause Mission Control to shut down. So they order the shuttle home a day early.
August 21, 2007
The shuttle Endeavour and its crew land safely
The Endeavour makes a flawless landing at the Kennedy Space Center, after its 13-day mission. However, Barbara Morgan is not able to participate in the traditional crew photo a few hours after landing, still feeling the effects of a return to gravity.
Later, at a press conference, she would joke about her condition, saying she was doing "some good science" on the medical transport vehicle.
Ed Campion, the first press secretary for the Teacher-in-Space program, was one of the first to see Morgan. It was a bittersweet moment, since the last time he'd seen her at the Kennedy Space Center was when the Challenger exploded.
"If you're not feeling good, you don't want people to run up and give you big bear hugs and shaking you," said Campion. "And she just got off the bus and she looked at me, and she goes, "Can I have a hug?" And I went, "Oh, absolutely." And I said "A congratulatory hug, 21 years in the making."
December 10-14, 2007
Barbara Morgan visits Idaho
Nearly four months after landing, Barbara Morgan is able to visit Idaho. She meets with the students who had spoken with her from the Discovery Center when she was in space, speaks to several packed houses at the Morrison Center in Boise, and then travels to McCall, where she had taught.
There, she is given a hometown welcome and the key to the city. For the rest of the week, she keeps a dizzying pace, speaking to students at all grade levels, as well as adults at private events.
The highlight of her visit is the dedication of a new elementary school to be named in her honor. At the dedication, Morgan said "May this school always be a home or a home away from home for every single one of our children in our community, and may it be a place where every one of us gets to explore and discover and create and learn and share. And may it always be a place of great love."
Morgan's example has inspired many of her own students to become teachers. Still others find in her odyssey proof that if you pursue your dreams doggedly, they can come true.
"What an example for the nation to see this lady of passion, love for teaching. Persistence. She just won't give up," says June Scobee Rodgers.
"That's what defines teachers," says Morgan. "They have patience and they have perseverance."
In August, 2008, Morgan retired from NASA to take an academic position at Boise State University. As a Distinguished Educator in Residence, Morgan will work with Boise State's colleges of engineering and education to help raise more money for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. She will also help promote scientific literacy in Idaho, including bringing NASA educational programs to local school districts.
Asked whether the mission has changed her, Morgan responds, "There's a great sense of pride to be able to be involved in a human endeavor that takes us all a little bit farther. When you look down and see our Earth . . . and you realize what we are trying to do as a human race, it's pretty profound."
by Marcia Franklin
I can get queasy driving myself from Idaho City to Lowman. Even on commercial jets, I have to sit in front of the wing, where it’s steadier, and by a window, so I can see the horizon.
Needless to say, I won’t be riding on a space shuttle anytime soon. The idea of being weightless has never much appealed to me. I quite enjoy the ground, and take full advantage of gravity to careen at high speeds downhill on my bicycle.
And while the experience of watching the grainy black-and-white transmission of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon will forever be etched in my mind, I’ve never had a particular fetish for astronauts.
But the story of astronaut Barbara Morgan has always intrigued me. As much about goal-setting and perseverance as it is about the space program, it’s also poignant. First, as the runner-up to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, Morgan did everything McAuliffe did, except step into that Challenger orbiter, which exploded 73 seconds after launch.
Then, in February 2003, nine months before Morgan was finally scheduled to launch, the shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry. It was the same craft she would have ridden later that year.
Yet Barbara Morgan kept going, kept supporting NASA, kept supporting the idea that “space--the final frontier” wasn’t just a catchy television phrase, but was instead a metaphor for all kinds of exploration that moves cultures or individuals forward.
She also seemed to have the patience of the gods. Twelve years after McAuliffe died, Morgan was still teaching in McCall and making presentations for NASA. Then, even after she was invited back to Houston in 1998 to train as a full-fledged astronaut, it would be another four years until she was assigned to a mission, then four more years after the Columbia disaster until her flight was given the green light again. Morgan was 33 when she was first selected; she’s now 55.
It’s a story with as many parabolic curves as those flights the astronauts take to simulate weightlessness. But good stories have arcs to them. That’s real life, after all. And Barbara’s determination can also inspire people of all ages to pursue their dreams, no matter the obstacles. So I wanted to try and tell it.
Despite its ready-made nature on paper, it’s not necessarily an easy tale to tell. For one thing, astronauts are very, very busy. Scheduling time with Morgan has meant working with countless public relations folks at NASA, being ready to hop on a plane with only a few days notice, and even conducting some interviews as someone stood behind me with a stopwatch.
Getting footage of Barbara has been another challenge. NASA has apparently decided that, rather than let separate television crews film her, they will instead schedule press events or simply hand out video.
Press events with a popular astronaut generally result in videographers taking pictures of other videographers, or other reporters, or boom mikes, as everyone crowds around and jockeys for position. The flashes of still photographers further damage the shots. And of course, everyone gets virtually the same video. Not a great scenario.
When NASA hands out stock footage, it’s the same situation. Everyone gets the same shots. And some, mysteriously, are missing sound. According to one press person we spoke with, it’s up to the commanders’ discretion as to whether sound gets recorded in certain venues, for instance when the astronauts are suiting up for their pre-launch test.
Even when you do want stock footage from NASA, it can be hard to find. I spent a week working with a NASA employee to track down a particular piece I knew had to exist. Finally, after looking through three libraries, she found it.
Interestingly, there’s ample video of Barbara and Christa, but very little footage of Barbara training over the past few years. Fortunately, NASA gave me and videographer Jay Krajic permission in 2003 to spend some time with Morgan and her crew. But opportunities like that seem to have disappeared, and her crew has changed since then.
A real dilemma: video of Morgan actually teaching seems to be virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, if it isn’t happening right now, it’s not “news.” So when Morgan went back to McCall, no one thought to get video of her. Instead, I’m relying on still photos scrounged from various sources, but if you know of tape, please let me know!
Fortunately, as far as interviews, Idaho Public Television did have Morgan on its weekly program in both 1985 and 1986, as well as on “Dialogue” and “Dialogue for Kids.” It’s been entertaining to look back at a young(er) Marc Johnson, now of the Gallatin Group, talking with Barbara after she’d been initially chosen, and our own dashing Bruce Reichert interviewing Barbara after the Challenger explosion.
Since 1986, Barbara has been remarkably consistent, clear-eyed and non-emotional about the tragedies she’s witnessed. Whether it’s because she simply has the innate capacity to see the positive in any situation, or because she has had to develop a ready response to the same questions over and over, Morgan keeps herself at arm’s length from emotion. It’s even difficult for her to express excitement about going into space, asking reporters to revisit the question upon her return. She’s completely focused on the work at hand.
Barbara does have a fun, wry sense of humor, and I had hoped to see that side of her by filming her with her family. But after the Challenger disaster, both she and her husband, Clay decided to keep their children away from the media. Clay says he and Barbara saw how painful it was for McAuliffe’s family to see video of Christa with her children over and over.
So at least for now you won’t see footage of Barbara being both a parent and an astronaut, certainly one of the more intriguing job/life combinations. But of course you have to respect the Morgans’ choice and privacy.
The biggest challenge may simply be telling a story that everyone else is telling, too. I’m usually drawn to stories that are more in the shadows; this, by contrast, is a story that all the networks are covering.
So I’m trying to find a narrative thread that’s a bit different, one that works around the lack of video and access, one that doesn’t just have an arc, but also comes full circle.
Frankly, I’m still on that journey, as we all are, because a big part of Barbara’s story is yet to happen—the launch of the Shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for August 7th.
I have no doubt that even at Mach 23, Barbara will remain cool, calm and professional. It’s everyone else down below who will be yelling their hearts out--after they stop holding their breath.
I live a block away from IPTV videographer Jay Krajic. That's a good thing when you're both trying to get to the airport at 6:15 AM. Early Saturday morning I haul my suitcase and daypack down the alley to his house. While we wait for a taxi, we do a last minute re-arranging of gear and those infamous "liquids" so that we will be charged as little as possible for additional baggage. Print reporters are fortunate they don't have to worry about such things-all they need to carry is a pen, paper and computer!
Nine hours later, after two blessedly uneventful flights, we emerge into hot, sticky Orlando. Man, is it steamy down there! And we arrive during a heat wave even by Florida's standards-108 degrees. But all that high pressure is a great omen for a launch-it means no thunderstorms.
Going to a space shuttle launch is always a risky travel proposition, whether you're a reporter or a spectator. Launches are often delayed, either by weather or by last-minute technical concerns. So it's a gamble deciding which days to fly there and back without incurring too many change fees and hotel nights. You can even end up returning empty-handed. So, hardly any media from Idaho are going. We've been fund-raising for several years for this project, so fortunately we are able to go, but I definitely don't want to rack up too many additional days.
I made our reservations for Saturday, so we'd have a few days to get familiarized with the vast Kennedy Space Center and do some interviews. Fortunately the launch was only delayed by a day, which was actually good, because it gave us time to do a bit more prep work.
And prep work there is-figuring out what pre-launch events are happening, where cameras can and can't go, where the people you want to interview are staying, and where they'll be during and after launch. So that's what I'll be doing Sunday. And Monday. And Tuesday…
The drive from Cape Canaveral to the Media Center is at least 30 minutes. One thing I notice right away is it's not as commercial as the area around the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I was expecting to pass endless tacky shops advertising "shuttle dogs," and people in fake astronaut suits wandering around. But because much of Merritt Island, where the Kennedy Space Center is located, is a protected wildlife refuge, the highway is just lined with trees, which creates a more peaceful entrance.
We stop first at the press credentialing center, passing striking workers from United Space Alliance (USA) outside the parking lot. USA, which employs 10,000 people, handles everything from safety inspections of the shuttle to suiting up astronauts on launch day. 600 of their workers are members of the Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. That union is striking over retirement and health care benefits.
The strikers sit outside under a tent and have a big board on which they write the names of all the "scabs" who have crossed the picket line to work on the Endeavour. They also feature the name of one 'scab of the day" on a separate sign. I notice that no one is honking in support of the strikers. USA and NASA both say the strike is not affecting their ability to launch on time or safely.
The Media Center at Kennedy is a nondescript building on a knoll at the end of a vast parking lot. Inside is a large counter with a line of NASA public affairs officers (PAOs) from every NASA site-Johnson, Kennedy, Marshall and Ames-all typing away on their computers. Behind the PAOs are desks with more employees, and behind them are the fortunate workers who have offices that look out on the shuttle platform three miles away.
There are long rows of desks set up for all the reporters from around the world who are there, and a big screen TV. I am assigned position number 26 in the second row. We are some of the first reporters to arrive, but every seat will eventually be taken, with some reporters having to sit on the floor with their computers or go to an overflow building.
Next to the main center are the offices of the media outlets that cover the space story the most. The largest building belongs to CBS, which I'm sure is a legacy of Walter Cronkite and his love of space. Bill Harwood, who has covered more than 100 shuttle launches, presides over their coverage. NBC also has a large structure.
Other media entities like Reuters have tiny buildings, just big enough to have a reporter, a computer and some air conditioning. I think the main reason they have their own structure is because it gives them a roof to shoot pictures or video from. CBS has a studio on its second floor, and quite a set-up on its roof, with lots of lights and shading equipment.
Down the slope from the buildings is a huge grassy area with the classic countdown clock you see in all the television coverage of the launches. Out in the distance, across a big marsh, you can see the shuttle, or rather, the shuttle enclosure. It's inside a protective cage right now. There's another empty shuttle pad off in the distance as well.
On the side of the grassy area some media entities like CNN have set up their RVs, where their producers and reporters will sleep (CNN has two producers here, as well as one television reporter, and a radio reporter.) Because hotels are so far away, it's more practical for them to just camp out near the media center and their satellite truck.
Indeed, the parking lot is full of satellite trucks, both from Florida stations and also rented trucks for all the reporters from out of town.
I spend part of the morning getting to know the NASA public affairs officers (PAOs). While there are easily 15 different PAOs there, each has their own purview. Sometimes the information they give correlates with what you have heard from another NASA worker; sometimes it doesn't. Then there are another dozen volunteer "escorts," each with their own set of rules and knowledge.
I quickly learn who has the best information, but even then, they're sometimes wrong. It's a good example of what Malcolm Gladwell delineates in his book, "Blink," where more mistakes can actually be made when there's too much information to sort through.
One reporter who has covered NASA for a long time tells me, "Just remember, here you're always wrong." But for the most part I find the NASA employees very accommodating. As thank-yous, I bring Idaho pins and Idaho Public Television chocolate bars to hand out.
Clay Morgan, Barbara's husband, was kind enough to email and say that he'd have some time on Sunday to do an interview. It's nice to see him again. My photographer Jay Krajic and I had dinner with him in Houston in May, but I hadn't formally interviewed him since 2003. He seems a bit tired, but calm, and his usual open and honest self as he talks about how everything was starting to seem very, very real to him.
I had heard that there was a group of former teacher-in-space (TIS) finalists staying at one of the local hotels, so I go down there. I ask a hotel worker if he has a schedule for the group. He doesn't, but points me to a banquet room. When I open the door, there they are!
About 60 of the 114 finalists for the TIS program have come to Florida to support Barb. They are already emotional two days before launch. I even recognize some of them from old footage I had looked at preparing my first documentary piece on Barbara. It's fascinating for me to see them all these years later and I feel a bit like a detective having found them. We take some footage of the group reuniting and arrange for interviews at a later time.
The biggest surprise-as I'm glancing at the photos of all of the finalists, I see that one of them was my high school physics teacher! I would later get a chance to see the teacher, Dr. Barwick, for the first time in almost 30 years.
I have a last-minute request of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Center. Will they let me in to get footage of a member of the "Mercury 13" who is staying at our hotel?
The Mercury 13 was a group of women who were secretly tested for the astronaut program (although not by NASA itself) in the 1960s. They passed the same tests as John Glenn the Mercury 7 did, but were not allowed to become astronauts because in those days only test pilots were approved, and women couldn't be test pilots.
I knew that one of them, Gene Nora Jessen, had been invited by Barbara Morgan to attend the launch, and was bringing her granddaughter. I thought it would be great to see them in the rocket garden at the visitor's center.
But we have very little time. They are going to be there around noon, and it is already 10:30. The PAO I reach by phone is nice, but says they're too busy to accommodate me. You need an escort, and there isn't one available. I drive to the center anyway and call again. "OK," she says, "But it has to be right now, and we can give you only 30 minutes."
The problem is-Jessen is stuck in traffic! When she finally gets there, we have about 20 minutes. We try to get into the rocket park, but are behind an older man who is also trying to get in. He is having some difficulty convincing the NASA employee that he has a special pass. "Dr. Radding," he says. "It should be down there as Radding." Jay and I look at each other. We know that Radding is Barbara Morgan's maiden name.
At that moment, another man walks up who looks just like Barbara. Sure enough, it's Barbara's brother. And then another two brothers arrive! It's once again one of those small world moments. Jay and my interviewee go into the rocket park, and I stay to chat with Barbara's family.
Our filming crisis narrowly averted, we head back for the long drive to Cocoa Beach to meet with the former Teachers-In-Space. We pick a place outside the hotel that's relatively quiet. But as soon as we start doing interviews, strange birds begin squawking. Jay and another videographer who arrived the night before, Jeff Tucker, throw stones at them. But they keep turning up in the middle of an emotional part of an interview. Then security guards start talking on their radios. Then people start slamming car doors. The hotel door squeaks every time it opens. Cameras are sound magnets. As soon as you turn them on, strange sounds begin.
But the worst part was the heat. I thought I was staying hydrated, but apparently I was not. A dull headache began. My interviews are going well, but I am not.
After two hours, we complete the last of our five interviews, including interviews with three of the 10 finalists from 1985, and the original head of NASA's teacher-in-space program. Despite the noise issues, I think we have some compelling comments. The teachers are still so invested in the program it's remarkable.
We head to a nearby park where Clay Morgan is hosting a picnic for family and friends. I see a woman in a blue astronaut suit and recognize Sunita Williams, who has recently come back from space, having broken the record for the longest amount of time spent there by a woman. She was in Barb's original class of 1998. I'm able to do an interview with her. I must admit to being rather starstruck!
Barbara had asked that the broadcast media keep their distance from the party, so we are on the perimeter. But even still, NASA security people remind us to stay back. It feels a bit strange to be thought of as intrusive when we're trying to document something happy! And the folks from Idaho certainly don't mind us there. But I have to go into the party and ask people if they would mind doing an interview, and then bring them out by the parking lot.
We see Barbara's children there-her two boys are 19 and 18-- but we had been asked not to interview them, so of course we respect that.
I interview a teacher who had made some artwork of the shuttle patch, and was asking people to sign it for Barbara. When I look at it, I notice the signature "June Scobee Rodgers." I know that was the widow of the Challenger commander, Dick Scobee, so I ask if she is there. She is, and she said she would be glad to do an interview (even though her two NASA "handlers" look nervous!)
It is one of the more poignant moments of my trip. Mrs. Rodgers has undoubtedly been asked thousands of times about the Challenger explosion. I'm sure she was very nervous to be at Barbara's launch. But she tells me that she would have crawled to be there, especially since she herself was a former teacher. As she speaks she tears up, and I feel emotional as well. Normally I have more of a barrier between myself and an interviewee.
But I'm still feeling pretty terrible physically. I have a crashing headache, am nauseated and feeling cold. We complete all our interviews at around 7:00 PM and I spend the next few hours trying to recover from what apparently was a case of heat exhaustion, complicated by eye strain from my sunglasses not being the right prescription. I vow to make sure from then on to wear a hat, drink electrolyte replacement fluid and wear sunscreen. And get new sunglasses!
I check my email to find that the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is going to run a truncated version of my piece from the week before on Barbara Morgan. Unfortunately they have cut out almost all of the emotion from the piece-the parts with her former students and her friends-but I am very pleased that they want to air the story.
We start our day at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, where I had heard there was a little shuttle landing simulator. I wanted our Mercury 13 interviewee to try it out, since she was never able to actually fly a real one. It would not be until 1995, almost 35 years after the Mercury 13 tests, that Eileen Collins would become the first woman to pilot a shuttle.
The PR folks allow us in, and our interviewee graciously lets us to film her crashing the shuttle twice!
We head back to the Media Center, where I decide to see if Bill Harwood of CBS would do an interview with us. I knew from talking with him at the Johnson Space Center in Houston that he was so impressed with Barb back in 1985 that he thought she would be chosen as the first teacher-in-space.
I don't always like it when reporters interview other reporters, but when you have someone with the longevity and expertise of a Bill Harwood, I think it makes sense. Very few reporters are covering space issues any more, and I think there is only one other reporter who has been doing it as long as he has, Jay Barbree of NBC, who's been there since 1965. It was an interesting interview and I'm glad that Harwood agreed to do it, with everything he had on his plate.
We have a break and then head back to Cocoa Beach to talk to Barbara's brothers. As it turns out, one can't make it, but two are able to. We struggle a bit to make a small hotel room work for the interview, putting the two men side-by-side on a bed. It was great to talk with them about Barbara when she was younger. They've had a really long day, so I appreciate them doing the interview.
We also talk to one of their daughters. She seems shy, but when she starts talking she's so articulate that all I have to do is ask two questions and she gave wonderful answers. We interview her on the beach, and in the distance could see one of Barbara's children surfing. He looks very happy and calm. Of course, all he's known his whole life is that his mom is an astronaut, and he probably goes to school with children of other astronauts who have had successful experiences.
This is the closest I will get to a beach in 5 days.
Then it's back to the media center 40 minutes away to wait for a bus that will take us for a night unveiling of the shuttle. I lather on the bug repellant, as they're already biting. After an hour of waiting, we're finally at the site. The cage that covers the shuttle moves very slowly, but finally it's open and the shuttle is revealed, lit by floodlights. It's only 1,500 feet away, definitely the closest you can get unless you actually work on the vehicle. I feel very fortunate.
Even from that close distance, though, the shuttle seems quite small to me. I think it's because the rockets next to it are so large.
At the event, it's fun to talk to reporters from other countries and even try out my rusty French with the Canadian reporters who've come to cover astronaut Dave Williams.
We get back to the hotel very late, but not as late as the family members of the astronauts. They are on their way to see the shuttle. Our buses probably crossed paths. NASA keeps the media and the families very separate from each other.
Launch day! We are trying to figure out where to interview Gene Nora. We have just found a place by the pool, but all of the sudden an automatic waterfall goes on! So we walk outside the hotel to start, and all of the sudden lawnmowers and weed whackers start up! The "sound magnet" theory is in full force. Finally we go to a hotel room. What was to be a 15-minute proposition turns into an hour.
After that, we have a focused discussion about where videographer Jeff Tucker should be during the launch. We would like him to be on the causeway with the Idaho teachers, but have been told there are no cameras there. So we decide that he should try and get video of the family members loading on the bus to go to the launch, and then go to the beach to get the view from there.
We also have another freelance videographer who will get the Idaho teachers getting on their bus, and then go to the media center. In the event that something happens with the shuttle, he will then be there. Jay and I will go to a different location.
Then it's on to the media center to wait for a bus that will take us to the famous "astronaut walk out." We wait in the sweltering heat, all lined up like criminals with our backs against hot buses and our bags out a few feet away to be sniffed by a dog. Sweat is dripping in my eyes.
Finally we are loaded onto buses. We are taken to a little alleyway in between two NASA buildings. All the photographers who had been on the first bus have already taken the closest positions. And about eight cameras are also clamped onto a rod across from the door, to be remotely triggered. I notice with interest that the center camera is with the Orlando Sentinel. One of their columnists had written a scathing piece the day before about Barbara Morgan and the shuttle program. I guess they know what sells papers, though-they certainly have their camera positioned front and center.
Jay has been to a practice walk out a few weeks ago, and he prefers to be further down the line, so he can get a tight shot of Barbara getting into the AstroVan for the ride to the shuttle. I don't want to stand in the sun, so I wedge myself between two photographers across from the main door. It's not a great vantage point, since the NASA cameraman is right in front of me. But it's fine for me, and it's cooler.
About six minutes before the astronauts are scheduled to walk out, there's a commotion. I look over and one of the elderly NASA volunteers has started to pass out from the heat.
At 2:46 the astronauts walk out, waving. Barbara looks great-happy and rested. Jay is pleased with the shot he gets. We all get back on the bus like happy cows. The still photographers have amazing shots with their rapid-fire shutters. When you put them all together it's just like moving video.
I learn, however, that NASA has told Jeff Tucker, our videographer, to leave the site where the family members are boarding the bus. This doesn't make sense to me. It seems like over-protectiveness in a big way. We're trying to show something positive, not negative. Plus, when you're in a public area, you can't be stopped like that. But we decide not to push it.
Back at the media center I watch, fascinated, as the astronauts get further suited up, enter the shuttle, lie down and have their helmets secured. Barbara's entry is anti-climatic-I don't see her wave or anything-it just appears to me that she crawls in, while someone unfortunately walks in front of the camera shot just then. Tracy Caldwell makes the "love" sign with her hand as she turns around to enter the shuttle.
Inside, Barb is in the worst position for a camera position-center seat of the lower deck. What's worse-they load her last, so she's blocked by Alvin Drew the whole time. He looks a bit nervous, jiggling his foot. It's starting to make me claustrophobic realizing that they have to lie that way for three hours.
I check with our videographer in McCall, Chuck Cathcart. He's sitting by Payette Lake enjoying the cool weather and waiting for everyone to show up at the Elementary School to watch the launch.
Soon it's time for us to leave. Almost all the media is going to stay at the Media Center, because that's where the "money shot" of the launch is-with the big countdown clock, the American flag and the shuttle in the distance. But we don't need the launch, or to see other media. NASA will get us great shots of the launch. What we want is the human emotion surrounding the experience.
We have decided to go to Banana Creek, a short distance away, because that's where the former Teachers-in-Space are sitting, along with other VIPs. However, we have been to the site to scout it, and we know there's no way to get good shots of the audience.
Since the Challenger explosion, when cameras trained on the faces of Christa McAuliffe's parents and the children in the audience, all VIPs have been moved away from the main media site to Banana Creek. But that site is much more narrow so we are off to the side.
But since we know there will likely be a lot of emotion at the site, we are crossing our fingers we can at least get interviews afterwards. That's not always possible, because usually reporters and guests are escorted immediately away from the site.
NASA agrees to let us stay and will take other reporters back with them after the launch. But there aren't that many-just two still photographers. There's only one other video camera, and no other broadcast reporter. After having been cheek-to-jowl at the astronaut walkout, this is great. There's also a breeze!
One thing we notice is that there are no Idaho officials at the launch. This seems like a missed opportunity to support Barbara and also to do some promotion of Idaho with the dozens of reporters here.
We are able to do two interviews beforehand, and arrange for some of the teachers to visit with us afterwards. I'm feeling much more relieved. Because we can't actually see them in the stands, we've left a small camera with one of the teachers so they can film each other.
Now all that's left is the launch. Jay and I talk about what we'd like to do. As much as it would be fun to train our camera on the shuttle itself, we're here to see the people. So we decide to get about 10 seconds of the launch, and then move to the people.
NASA builds in "hold time" before a launch for last minute work. The last hold happens at nine minutes before launch for 45 minutes. That's a long time when you're waiting outside. So once that hold has lifted, you can hear the crowd swell with anticipatory buzzing. As the voice of Rob Navias from Mission Control gets to 10 seconds, the crowd starts chanting the numbers.
And then lift-off.
I've seen many shuttle launches on TV, and the NASA cameras switch back and forth on their views-distant, close-up. When you see it with your own eyes, it's different. It's further away, so the shuttle looks quite diminutive, especially against the rockets. And the "rockets red glare," so to speak is very, very bright. I guess that was the biggest surprise for me. The firepower, and how dangerous it seems for the shuttle to be near all that. I kept thinking about Barbara inside and how it must feel.
Then you hear the crack as the sound of the blast-off gets to you. It wasn't as loud as I expected, or perhaps I'd just been prepared for it. But it is loud, like very loud thunder that kind of ripples. Folks at the media center, who are near the huge Vehicle Assembly Building, get more of the shock waves.
The shuttle, which on NASA close-up views you can see for a long time, actually goes up very, very fast and quickly disappears from view. There was a nice shot of it framed by the two flags in front of us, but by the time we swung the camera around it was almost gone.
Annoyingly, as soon as the shuttle took off, the engines of the 50 or so buses behind the bleachers started up. I learned later that was because in case the toxic smoke from the rockets blew towards the crowd, the buses had to be ready to leave immediately. But it wasn't a great background noise to have.
The other interesting thing was the crowd noise. It was very loud on lift-off, and then quieted down. Then after the famous words, "throttle up" there was an intake of breath, and then once everyone could see the shuttle was OK, another round of screaming. Then quiet again, and then once Main Engine Shut Off (MECO) happened, more hooting and hollering. Folks knew the crew was now in orbit.
We found our Mercury 13 interviewee, and even though she is normally quite unemotional, she was tearing up. The teachers are so emotional that they haven't even made it over. Almost all the buses are gone, and they're still snapping pictures of each other a hundred yards away. We ask if we can go over and do some interviews and are given permission.
The teachers are beside themselves with emotion-crying and laughing at the same time. They even want to take pictures of us. I think their emotion alone gave the Endeavour some extra rocket power. They truly see her as living out their own dreams. I was so glad we had made the choice to go to this location instead of stay with the rest of the media.
We go back to the media center, where a press conference has already started. The administrator of NASA and all the flight managers are there. They are asked some questions about their feelings regarding Barbara Morgan finally going up in space, as well as the "throttle up" moment. All of them except one express little personal feeling about it. To them, at least in public, she is just another member of the crew. Bill Harwood of CBS thinks NASA has missed an important opportunity to do more highlighting of Barbara.
One reporter asks the administrator a pointed question about what the next "PR" event will be to attract attention to the space shuttle program now that Barbara is up in space. I squirm in my seat. Although I dearly love my profession and would defend it at almost any cost, during the past few months covering this story I have heard several questions in press conferences that I think are quite inappropriate and make me embarrassed for the profession. (One reporter in Houston actually asked the commander if he wanted to put an arm about Barbara on liftoff to calm her.)
The administrator answers that he's having a "cognitive disconnect" at the question, because he finds every space launch fascinating. I think it's an appropriate response.
He is then asked for the first time about the reports of drunk astronauts and answers quite firmly that he believes the allegations to be anecdotal and lacking in basis.
It's almost two hours after launch, and the road is looking pretty good, but soon enough we hit traffic. The traffic going back to Orlando looks horrible. We finally make it to one of the hotels at around 9 PM to see an after-party with the Idaho teachers and do some interviews.
I learn from them that even though we were told we couldn't be with them on the causeway, there was a reporter and photographer there. I am stunned and angry. When it comes to working with NASA, you definitely need to know who to ask and when to ask, because they can change their rules. But it's too late. I hope that the video we've arranged for one of the teachers to take on his own camera comes out well.
Then we go to another hotel to say goodbye to the Teachers-in-Space finalists. We have one more interview to do, but it will have to wait, as it is nearly 11 PM.
We don't have to get up quite as early today, but my body still wakes me up around 7. I grab a copy of USA Today and the Orlando Sentinel for posterity. Since I've been a kid, I've collected newspapers from the days of famous events. Darn it-forgot to buy Florida Today.
At around 9:30 we go down the road to interview one of Barb's good friends. In the apartment elevator we meet Commander Scott Kelly's in-laws!
We find the friend and some others watching NASA TV in their condo. Every time they see even a small part of Barb, they cry out, "There's Barb's ear!" or "There's Barb's hair!" It's fun. Of course, that would happen right as we had our camera turned the other way, and then she'd float out of frame right as we set up our shot. Eventually we get her on tape, though.
We all try and determine from small things how Barbara is doing. She looks tired to me, and is wrinkling her forehead in concentration. But she's moving her head from side to side, which is good. I know from talking to Eileen Collins that making any sudden movements those first few days can make you sick, so if she was able to do that, that's a good sign.
Tracy Caldwell is amazing, sitting at a control panel and looking up at switches, then down at her book. Her vestibular system doesn't seem to be very affected by weightlessness.
After the interview, we drive to the media center one last time to say goodbye to folks, and then go to the cafeteria for the first time. We haven't had time before. There I see a woman who I had noticed in the media center before and invite her to join us.
It turns out that she is a NASA physician. We have a very interesting conversation about what happens to the body in space-she's been weightless herself in the "vomit comet" for a total of 90 minutes over the years (that's a lot of parabolas!) She says she loves it even though she gets very sick. She confirms that Tracy Caldwell does look like she's doing very well physically.
Interestingly, she admits she's a bit disappointed that in the rush to build the space center, there isn't room in the payload or the time to do very many pure science experiments, either on humans or on animals. Perhaps once astronauts live aboard the International Space Station for longer periods of time, more experiments will happen.
Jay and I then go to the Visitor Center for the first time as tourists. We walk around a bit, but neither of us is that interested in watching a 3-D movie or going on a simulated shuttle ride. We are just too tired. We go to the gift shop, but unfortunately the only shirt that I want is sold out.
Interestingly, there really aren't that many things for sale specific to STS-118---just a few shirts, a hat, and some pins. My guess is that that NASA doesn't order a lot, because if the flight doesn't happen, or not enough people show up, then they're left with too much stock. But they were silly not to order more of the shirt that I had wanted! Guess I'll have to check E-Bay.
But there are reasons for everything; while in the gift shop we once again bump into Barbara's brothers. I have a wonderful conversation with one of them about the emotions that he and others had as she launched.
We get to our hotel and grab a bite to eat. As I pack, I watch NASA TV on my computer because I know there's a chance that Barbara will talk around 9 PM. And then, there she is! Her face looks a bit swollen from all the fluid moving into it, but she seems very happy. She speaks for only a short time, but it's definitely a "teachable moment" as she describes how dizzy she's been and how you have to be careful not to let objects float away. I'm glad that she's feeling well enough to talk to everyone.
Commander Scott Kelly also sends down the first-ever video of how astronauts look on ascent, taken from a small camera in the flight deck. It's amazing tape, and I call back to Boise to make sure we're recording it back at the station. You can see everything rumbling as the craft starts lifting off, and then the flight deck shaking even more. But the astronauts look so calm, especially Tracy Caldwell. She could be just sitting in a car. The one in the middle, though, Rick Mastracchio, seems to be occasionally moving his head back and forth pretty violently. You can't see the lower deck where Barbara is.
Then when they hit weightlessness, it's pretty sudden-papers that Rick Mastracchio has been holding go flying. And he himself doesn't look too well-at one point he kind of leans over and disappears from view. I wonder if he is getting sick. He's been in space before, but they say you can't predict how someone will feel, just like some people who normally can be at high altitude sometimes get altitude sickness out of the blue.
Tracy Caldwell, though, who is on her first flight, takes off her helmet and immediately starts photographing out the window of the shuttle, as does Dave Williams. He's on his back looking through a camera as the shuttle is spinning. Ugh. I'm just staring at the video thinking how I could not handle any of it-the launch, the claustrophobia, the motion. I'm still thinking about it as I drift off to sleep and hoping that they're doing OK.
We're up at 3 AM Boise time to get back home-via Orlando, Kansas City and Las Vegas. At 3 PM we're finally in the City of Trees.
It was a challenging trip, but a great trip. Seeing the shuttle launch was exciting, but for me, it was mostly about feeling the energy of the people who were there to support Barbara-her family, her friends, even the Teachers-In-Space who barely knew her. We should all be that fortunate to have a team like that behind us.
Barbara's still up there, and so the story continues. Her big day is Tuesday, when she operates a robotic arm and also talks to kids at the Discovery Center.
We will follow her adventure, including talking to her in space! So stay tuned.
It’s a big day for Barbara—she operates a robotic arm in the morning to move a stowage platform, then does interviews with the national television networks, and then answers questions from children at the Discovery Center in Idaho. Joining her are astronauts Dave Williams, Clayton Anderson and Alvin Drew.
The long-anticipated downlink—Christa McAuliffe had hoped to do exactly the same thing from space—is now routine procedure for NASA. But that doesn’t lessen the excitement at the Discovery Center, which organized a whole week of space-related activities around the event.
Barbara and the rest of the crew do well—NASA has given them the questions beforehand so they can be ready with “props”—a stationary bicycle, a baseball and some drinks. Children giggle as a drop of red liquid turns into a big floating blob in space and Dave Williams opens his mouth like a fish to eat/drink it. Barbara is a hit when she shows how weightlessness enables her to lift two grown men up, one with each arm.
Afterwards, I interview a few children whose questions I had liked. Children can be refreshingly honest. When I asked several of them how they came up with their question, they said, “Well, my mom actually wrote it.” One boy said NASA had written his question. His original question was about the importance of different countries working together on the space station, which I thought was a good one. The "replacement" question was also interesting—can the astronauts see global warming from space? I was intrigued that Astronaut Clayton Anderson said he didn’t know if he believed in global warming, but then went on to say that he could see massive fires and glaciers melting.
The children were quite excited to have been picked to talk to Barbara, and they lucked out. The astronauts had spent so much time answering that the satellite time ended before three children could ask their questions. But NASA added on some time and they got their chance.
To some of the national media, the event was a poignant reminder of what Christa McAuliffe had hoped to do. I didn’t really see it that way, because so many astronauts have already communicated with children via satellite, but I was happy that Barb finally got the chance. She would go on to have similar events with children at the Challenger Center in Virginia, and with students in Canada.
In December, 2006, I sent a request to NASA to interview Barbara from space. I was told that I would not hear until two weeks before launch whether I had gotten a slot, and that I probably wouldn’t. There are very few opportunities to interview astronauts from space, and they go to the networks, which have the broadest reach.
When I was in Houston this spring, I asked again and got the same answer, although there was a slight ray of hope: if the mission was extended to 14 days, there might be a possibility.
When I hadn’t heard anything before launch, I figured it wasn’t going to happen. But just in case, after the launch I asked a PAO (Public Affairs Officer) about it. With a grin, she lowered her glasses and said something like, “Well, you never know what might happen.”
Two days later, I received an email that I would be able to interview Barbara and some crew members. It would mean getting to the office on a Saturday at 5 AM, but everyone here was game for it. It would be perfect timing, a few days before they were scheduled to land, and after a decision would have been made about the tile situation.
By the next Monday, though, NASA changed the date to Thursday. I was still thrilled, but the interview would now be at an awkward time—just a few hours before the announcement was scheduled to be made about the tile repair. So my responses would essentially be old news as soon as they happened. But the PAO in charge said that I was lucky—it could have been cancelled all together.
The PAO told me that in addition to Barbara, I’d be talking to the two spacewalkers, Dave Williams and Rick Mastracchio. Mastracchio would be doing the tile repair if it was going to happen.
On Wednesday, though, the plan changed again. Because Williams and Mastracchio were now being prepped to potentially repair the tiles, they were not available. Alvin Drew would take their place along with Barbara. I went back to the drawing board with my questions.
I would be given about six minutes. There's a five second delay in between each question and response. So you lose some time there. I knew from watching the network interviews that I'd be able to get in about six questions. Believe me, trying to pick those questions was hard. I knew I wanted to ask their opinion of the tile situation, but after that, I was curious about so many things.
The morning of the interview, our crew made sure the phone lines were working well. NASA called to test the line, too. My earpiece, though, was very muffled. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to hear well.
Then NASA couldn’t get its video camera in the crew cabin to work. Minutes ticked away. I knew that they didn’t have a lot of satellite time, and 15 minutes had already gone by. I was wondering if the satellite would disappear during my interview, or whether it would even happen.
Finally they fixed the camera and we started. I listened to the first two interviews, with Associated Press and Reuters. During the Reuters interview, you couldn’t hear Alvin Drew on one of his responses. So the reporter had to ask again. I thought for sure it would eat into my time.
When they came to me, I don't remember much, as I was so focused on getting my questions out quickly. By that point, after listening to the Discovery Center event and the network interviews, it seemed almost normal to interview an astronaut, although the concept that you could be talking to someone 200 miles above you is still an amazing one to me.
Barbara said she was not worried about the shuttle tile situation. Later, I would see that response quoted in a lot of papers, so I guess a lot of reporters were listening around the country to NASA TV.
Barbara was very eloquent in her last answer, about what she saw from the Space Station window — so eloquent that she ran over in time! NASA lost the satellite but kept the audio going, which was great. We ended up with a fun interview that we immediately posted to our web site. My only regret — not talking to Colonel Alvin Drew more. There just wasn’t time. And he’s a fellow DC native, so I felt doubly bad.
Who wouldn’t want to see a Space Shuttle landing up close? I know I would, and I even had a press pass to do so. But just as much, I wanted to be with Barbara’s friends when the shuttle landed. To me, just as with the launch, a big part of the story is not just the craft itself, but the human emotion surrounding it.
So Jay Krajic and I went up to McCall, where Barbara used to teach. Barbara’s friend and former colleague, Kathy Phelan, graciously allowed us to watch the landing on her television, which gets NASA TV. We were joined by Sue Anderson, another teacher friend of Barbara’s, and Michelle Harris, one of Barbara’s former students, who is now herself a teacher.
Although I had a very positive feeling about the landing, you just can’t help but get the jitters as the shuttle goes through the atmosphere and you can’t hear from the crew. That’s when the problems with Columbia happened, as the tiles couldn’t sustain the heat.
We were all relieved when we could hear the commander’s voice. But still, there were 30 minutes to go.
When you could finally see the shuttle, almost ghostly, on long range cameras, that’s when I felt better. The sonic boom was amazing—much louder than anything I heard on launch. At first it was startling—had something gone wrong, or was there a shooting nearby?
I can’t imagine what it would be like to hurtle downward like that, decelerating from 14,000 miles an hour to 400 miles an hour, and landing at more than 200 miles an hour. Well, I can. I would pass out.
When the shuttle landed, Kathy, Michelle and Sue all whooped it up, and there were some tears, too. Her dear friends have spent more than two decades vicariously experiencing Barbara’s highs and lows. Also, being teachers, they feel vindicated and empowered that one of their own was finally having a chance to show the world what teachers can do. To talk to Michelle, who is the same age Barbara was when she was chosen, and who was once Barbara’s student, was very moving for me. She says that Barbara’s willpower gives her more confidence to achieve her goal: writing a book.
Jay and I are packing up to leave, because we don’t think the crew will appear. Then all of the sudden, there they are. Without Barb. My stomach gives way a bit. “Barbara Morgan will be going back in the crew transport vehicle” intones the narrator. We’re all wondering what has happened. And I had just sent a congratulatory text message to her husband, Clay.
We wait and watch for the news conference. Finally it happens, but the first five questions have nothing to do with Barb. Finally Bill Harwood, the CBS News reporter, asks about her. "This was Barbara's first flight and she was feeling just a little bit under the weather," said NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. "She wasn't able to stand up and walk around out in the Florida heat quite right yet. Having stood up and walked around out there in the Florida heat, I was about ready to join her! So nothing more than that."
That was a relief, but knowing Barb, she’d have to be more than “a little under the weather” to miss being with the crew outside.
Sure enough, at the press conference later, Barbara looks wan. Her hair is covered by a red Nike hat (couldn’t they find a NASA hat?) There are circles under her eyes and her voice sounds raw. But she answered the questions with her wry humor, joking that she was just doing “good science” when she was sick. When asked what she wanted to do next, she said “stop the room from spinning.”
Astronaut Sunita Williams told me that it took days before she could walk a few feet without wobbling. So Barbara’s experience is certainly understandable, given all the G-Forces on her and the pitching and rolling the shuttle does while descending and slowing. The amazing thing to me is that the other astronauts were able to function so quickly at all.
All of them more than deserve a few weeks of rest. Then I anticipate the media rounds will begin, and hopefully Barbara will be able to get to Idaho this fall. Rumor is the crew will be going to Canada to ski. Hey, that’s only a hop, skip and jump from Idaho, especially as fast as they’re used to going. I look forward to visiting with her again and finding out what the experience was like and what it has meant to her. I know that she’s already inspired many people.
I’ve been asked often, “would you go up in space. “ And even as exciting as it’s been to cover this story, my answer is still the same—no, thank you! Although I curse gravity several times a week, I’m quite content to know there are people like Barbara Morgan, with stronger stomachs and calmer nerves, to be the space explorers for the rest of us…