The Teacher in Space Project was a NASA program announced by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1984. The project has for vision to inspire students, honor teachers and galvanise interest in mathematics, science and space exploration. Rightfully as James M. Beggs, former administrator of the space agency, said “This agency lives and dies by whether we can attract top talent and keep kids interested in the program“. Hence the choice of teachers as the first civilian passengers.
The Teacher in Space project’s mission was to send teachers into space as a payload specialist. A payload specialist is usually selected and trained by a commercial or a research organizations to perform a flight of a specific payload on a NASA Space Shuttle mission. They are usually trained to fly for a single specific mission. The first payload specialists sent on mission were technical experts and scientists with expertises in a specific field. They were sent into space for their particular skill in a field, a skill that astronauts lacked. Therefore they would at the same perform experiments and participate in experiments requiring human subjects.
The main part of the teacher in space project was for the teachers who would go to space to return to their classrooms in order to share their experience with their students. Indeed, teachers have a key role in our societies. They are the ones who pass on knowledge to the younger generations and they are the one who socialise the students to the values of society.
In addition, it’s important to note that communication between astronauts and the general public is of great importance. This is a phenomenon that has been observed better in recent years. Now, most astronauts have social media accounts and share their lives on the International Space Station (ISS) almost live. This ranges from the meal they are going to eat, to the experiment they are going to perform the same day, ending with the type of workout they will do.
It sparks a big interest in the people’s mind as we could observe during the mission of Thomas Pesquet on the International Space Station (ISS) between 2016 and 2017. But in the 1980s, there were no such means of communication as today. Sending teachers into space then made it possible to rekindle the public’s interest in the conquest of space, since they were civilian astronauts, as well as to transmit this interest directly to the students.
After the program was announced in 1984, more than eleven thousand teachers sent their applications to NASA. Out of all these applications, only one hundred and fourteen were selected to continue the selection process to reach the last ten applicants. Christa McAuliffe was then chosen as the first teacher to fly into space as a member of mission STS-51-L. She was supposed to conduct experiments in the fields of chromatography, hydroponics, magnetism and Newton’s laws as well as to teach two lessons from the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Throughout her life, Christa McAuliffe was fascinated by the conquest of space. An interest sparked in her youth by the Mercury and Apollo programs. As a social studies teacher in high school, she taught courses about history, law and economics. According to The New York Times, she “emphasized the impact of ordinary people on History“. This point may be the very why she was chosen among eleven thousand participants. Her will to convey knowledge and to involve ordinary people in the making of the world of tomorrow and her vision on education were surely the determining points of her selection.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 specifically states that NASA should provide the “widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the result thereof“. Thus the very essence of this program was to democratise access to space, or at least to the knowledge acquired since the beginning of the space conquest. The goal was to spark interest in as many people as possible, as much for humanistic reasons – to share knowledge and advance humanity in its conquest – as for practical reasons – to arouse vocations in order to have more competent people working in these areas.
It was also a necessity for the U.S. space agency to show its ability to organize a reliable space program.
Establishing a space program whose mission is to select and send civilians into space has two consequences. First, to revive public interest again after the end of the Apollo program. Then to show the beginning of the opening of space to the general public: going to space is no longer reserved for only a few people.
Unfortunately the teacher in space program was cancelled in 1990, following the death of its first participant Christa McAuliffe in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 1986.
The project was replaced in 1998 with the Educator Astronaut Project which required its participants to become astronaut Mission Specialists. There are different functions on board of a mission: pilot, flight engineer, mission commander and mission specialist. The last function refers to an astronaut who has a specific mission in a limited field, usually related to medical or engineering experiments. Mission specialists are first selected as astronauts and then get assigned to a specific mission whereas payload specialists were chosen at first for a specific mission. Hence they will have to meet a more rigorous list of criteria than the astronauts of the Teachers in Space program.
Consequently educator astronauts perform the same activities as current astronauts: they help coordinate space shuttle crew activity planning, assist with science experiments, participate in International Space Station (ISS) assembly and operation and even perform extravehicular activities.
The reason why NASA chose teachers is because they have the skills to communicate to the younger ones the challenging concepts that go along the study of science, technology and engineering. The purpose of this program is similar to Teacher in Space: convey the wonders of space exploration to the public and inspire students to pursue careers in those fields.
As Howard E. McCurdy, a professor at American University and a historian of the space agency, called the program: “new landmark, another chapter in the book on the broadening of recruitment… of employees who are representative of the nation at large” and not only military men and women, test pilots, scientists and engineers.
Barbara Morgan was the backup to Christa McAuliffe for the 1986 STS-51-L mission of Challenger. Following the Challenger disaster, she resumed her teaching career before being selection in 1998 as a mission specialist. However she did not train in the Educator Astronaut Project. She finally flew on STS-118 in August 2007 and she served as robotic arm operator and transfer coordinator.
Thanks to the private sector, the teacher in space project was revived. Currently Teachers in Space Inc. is a non profit educational organization which simulates students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They create opportunities for teachers including workshops about experimental flight, data sensors, remote device control and meeting scientists, developers at NASA as well as commercial space companies. One of their last project was the launch of the Serenity satellite into a low Earth orbit. It will provide low cost opportunities to test educational experiments in space. The point of the Serenity satellite is that it will carry a suite of data sensors and a camera that will be sending data back to Earth through the use of HAM radio signals. The ground stations will be collecting data and pictures sent back down to Earth.
Overall NASA has always been working with the U.S. Department of Education in order to develop programs for children and to promote science and technology, as the agency understood the importance of youth and education in the success of the conquest of space.