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NASA Prepares for Launch, Remembers Challenger

Hear NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce

In Florida, NASA is getting ready to launch a space shuttle Wednesday. This is always an exciting and nervous time for everyone involved in the space program. Shuttle launches are dramatic, but they're also dangerous. And this time around, many people have special reasons to remember the Challenger disaster, which killed seven people back in 1986, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

If all goes as planned, astronaut Tracy Caldwell will be strapped in Wednesday, waiting on the launch pad for her first flight into space. At a recent press conference, Caldwell said that when she was a kid, she never thought she'd go on a spaceship. Then, something happened.

"I was 16 years old," she said. "A junior in high school, when the world was really excited about NASA and it was all because of the Challenger mission."

Challenger was going to take schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe into orbit. This was surprising--Caldwell had thought that astronauts all had to be macho, like military test pilots. "Before Christa McAuliffe I never thought of being an astronaut," Caldwell said. "But once I heard about her, I thought, well, I might not know a test pilot or an astronaut, but I know a teacher or two."

Now Caldwell knows one more teacher. Her name is Barbara Morgan, and she'll also be on board the space shuttle Wednesday.

Back in the 1980s, Morgan was an Idaho schoolteacher who served as Christa McAuliffe's backup. After the Challenger disaster, she kept in touch with NASA for years. Morgan eventually applied to be a full-fledged astronaut. She knows that her close connection with Christa McAuliffe is bringing a lot of attention to her first flight.

"This whole mission, and many other missions, but in particular this mission is a tribute to the Challenger crew," Morgan says. "I do know that folks will be thinking of Challenger, and that's a good thing."

Even though people will be thinking of Challenger, the work on this mission is different; education is not the focus. Morgan will talk to some schoolchildren on the ground, but most of the time she'll be operating a robotic arm, helping Caldwell and the other astronauts do construction work on the international space station.

Still, many teachers have come to Florida to watch this launch because it represents the continuation of a dream.

"For me, personally, it brings psychological closure," says Art Kimura, who was a state finalist from Hawaii for NASA's Teacher in Space program back in the 1980s. The Challenger accident was difficult for him. There was an astronaut from Hawaii on board. And, of course, he knew Christa McAuliffe.

"And I think having Barbara, who was Christa's backup, finally having her unique experience flying into space for all students, I think it will bring us at least psychologically through a full circle," Kimura says.

Space shuttle Endeavour is set to lift off at 6:36 p.m. ET Wednesday. Kimura says he'll be out by the water, watching.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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