Educator Astronauts or Buck Rogers?

by Walter Cunningham  

No offense to some very talented teachers, but NASA needs to immediately refocus on the serious business of spaceflight.

Every normal space mission has its usual quota of anomalies and is anything but routine, but the media seems almost bored by it. Let there be a hint of a crisis, or even a near-crisis, with the Shuttle or the ISS, and the media can’t get enough.

The media showed no such ambivalence when NASA accomplished something as irrelevant to their mission of exploration as flying a teacher in space. There was universal acclaim for Barbara Morgan when she flew on STS-118 last August. I have not seen one bit of negative coverage. For Barbara, it had been a long wait. She was backup to the original “Teacher in Space,” Christa McAuliffe. When Christa was killed in the 1986 Challenger disaster, Barbara returned to teaching but maintained her NASA contacts.

The Challenger disaster was a reminder that space travel was still risky and that it might not be appropriate for civilians who weren’t full-fledged astronauts. NASA’s response was to reincarnate “Teacher in Space” as the Educator Astronaut Program in 1998, and to appoint Barbara Morgan as a mission specialist trainee. (The other mission specialists in her astronaut class had to compete against a pool of several thousand qualified applicants.)

But this is not about Barbara, a career teacher and a wonderful representative for her profession. Nor is it about Joe Acaba, Ricky Arnold, and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger — three more teachers selected as Educator Astronauts in 2004. I am sure they are all fine people and they are not the ones responsible for sending teachers into space.

Even though a number of NASA employees have mentioned the subject to me, I have not seen or heard a single reporter, newscaster, or columnist ask, what seems to me, an obvious question: “Why is NASA flying teachers in space?”

So, I will ask: Why is NASA flying teachers in space?

Just to ask the question is to incur the wrath of the political correctness and diversity hawks, and I expect to be pilloried for the asking.

EndeavourThe current teachers probably do not share the view expressed by Christa McAuliffe a few weeks before her planned flight: “People think our training is grueling. We are no more tired than we would be teaching in a classroom. I find teaching more tiring . . . I never sit down when I teach. I am always moving around the classroom. And you have a lot of deadlines. The kids have to get those papers back.”

Now that teachers are training as mission specialists, NASA spokesmen have made some strange comments in justifying flying them on the few remaining Shuttle missions: “The Educator Astronaut experiences space, and then shares that experience through a teacher’s perspective and through the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of teachers.” How are their eyes, ears, hearts, and minds any different than yours? Or mine?

“Their years in the classroom have made them effective communicators.” Since when did the other astronauts become lousy communicators?

Former administrator Sean O’Keefe had this to say: “What better way to convey the excitement of space exploration than to entrust the mission to teachers?”

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it, “Let me count the ways.”

The whole thing reminds me a little of the Sixties campaign to fly a poet in space because astronauts weren’t articulate enough to express the wonder of space.

The rationale from NASA is so amorphous because the program is tough to justify. Couldn’t similar claims be made for artists? Journalists? Barbers? Who will get the next quota for space flights?

With a totally inadequate budget for the task at hand, NASA has been cutting science projects to make ends meet. It looks like they are favoring the trivial over science.

In 1998, then NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin, appointed the first teacher to be trained as a mission specialist; in 2003, he announced the cancellation of the mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. In 2004, then Administrator Sean O’Keefe endorsed the Hubble mission cancellation—he also selected three more teachers to train as educator astronauts. Mike Griffin, the current administrator did reinstate the Hubble rescue mission, but his announcement of the selection of a new class of mission specialists included a category for more teachers.

In addition to four educator astronauts, the Astronaut Office now has a Teaching From Space office with five educators and an administrative staff. And, I’m sure that NASA headquarters has people dedicated to the program.

The recent announcement for mission specialists for NASA’s 2009 Astronaut Candidate Class stated: “To be considered for NASA’s astronaut corps, applicants must hold a bachelor’s degree in engineering, science, or mathematics and have three years of relevant professional experience.”

If that seems too daunting, and you are a teacher, the next paragraph provides an easier alternative: “Experienced teachers of kindergarten through the 12th-grade level are also considered qualified.”

The Educator Astronaut Program is beginning to look like an affirmative action program for teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade. What about the otherwise qualified candidates who were rejected over the years because they did not have a degree in engineering, science, or mathematics?

This is a politically correct but misguided effort to regain lost relevance. The ultimate objective, of course, is broader support on Capitol Hill and an easier time at the annual budget battle. Space missions are too difficult, expensive, important, and risky an undertaking for NASA to experiment with turning teachers into mission specialists. Mission specialists should be selected from the best pool of qualified candidates for the position. While a K–12 teacher may be able to do some jobs in space, is the teaching profession the place to get the best mission specialists?

Yes, I said, “best”—not just someone who could do the job. There is a reason why we haven’t been recruiting from the thousands of classroom teachers for the last 30 years.

Why is NASA looking for more educator astronauts when flight assignments are at a premium and they will have a pressing need for operational experience on the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and Ares programs?

In the blink of an eye it will be 2010 and the shuttle will be grounded. Missions to the ISS will be few and far between and most of NASA’s resources will be devoted to development of the Ares rocket and the CEV. The CEV will be at the same place in its development that the Apollo Program was in 1963.

One of the reasons for the success of Apollo was the integration of the flying, engineering, and operational experience of the astronauts with the NASA engineers, flight controllers, and management. The most exciting, glamorous, and visible aspect of an astronaut’s life is flying into space—but more valuable in the long run, may be the technical and operational contributions they make to the design and development of the next generation of spacecraft. It was certainly the major contribution of my career at NASA.

Pilots have always played a critical role in the design of new flying machines, a role that has paid for itself a thousand times over. Test pilots contribute more to a project’s success than just test flying the machine; they are involved in the early engineering design to insure there are no nasty surprises when the project reaches the flight-testing phase. It is the return NASA gets from their multi-million dollar investment in a flight experienced astronaut.

The engineering and operational skills of astronauts are not all equal. The most qualified astronauts to contribute to the development of the CEV and Ares rocket are those with engineering and operational expertise and experience with crew training and flying in space. With the number of astronauts shrinking and only thirteen Shuttle missions remaining, you would expect NASA to concentrate on giving spaceflight experience to those most qualified—particularly the pilots. Instead, they waste time and resources on a politically correct Educator Astronaut Project.

In today’s political arena, and politically correct culture, NASA is forced to deal with dubious programs, such as flying teachers in space. That ride in space may be the experience of a lifetime for the lucky teacher, but it does nothing for NASA in exploration and development of the next generation of space vehicles.

Here is the world NASA finds itself in: A science teacher at a middle school and an applicant for the Educator Astronaut Program, after hearing of the Columbia disaster in February 2003, said it had shaken her but had not changed her resolve to fly into space. “Am I apprehensive? Oh yeah,” she said. “A part of me is scared out of my mind, and a part of me wants to make a very positive difference in the way space is perceived.” She still had to take an eye exam and submit three essays to NASA.

Three essays? What a unique way to join “the brotherhood of the right stuff.”

NASA worries about how to rekindle enthusiasm for the space program. That will take astronauts doing spectacular things in space, like the Hubble Repair mission, or Moon landings—not educator astronauts with lesson plans. Flying teachers in space is a far cry from the reason NASA was created 50 years ago.

Now, two more educator astronauts selected in 2004 have been assigned to one of the few remaining missions in 2008, ahead of some mission specialists selected four years before them.