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Christa: Pupil With a Mind of Her Own

'I Touch the Future'. Teacher Christa McAuliffe underwent rigorous training at the Houston Space Center to become a useful member of the Challenger space shuttle crew. She had two jobs on the flight: to conduct two live television lessons and to videotape six science demonstrations that NASA would distribute to schools across the country. This is the third in a five-part series, which coincides with the first anniversary of the Challenger disaster, Jan. 28. Next: NASA's media darling.

January 27, 1987|ROBERT T. HOHLER

On Sept. 9, 1985, Christa McAuliffe, 37, winner of NASA's teacher-in-space competition, entered a course at the Houston Space Center on living in space and confronting emergencies that might never occur. However, emergencies were conceivable enough that a life insurance company canceled a policy she had bought from her husband's cousin.

"I still can't believe they're actually going to let me go up in the shuttle," she said, smiling, as she pinned on a NASA identification badge before television cameras.

Christa and her backup, Barbara Morgan, were to be trained as payload specialists, shuttle guests who had thus far fallen into three categories: engineers for private companies with cargo aboard the shuttle, foreign dignitaries and American politicians. Their formal training was to last 114 hours, a tiny fraction of the time it took an astronaut to prepare for space flight. They would learn the basics--how to work, eat, sleep and go to the bathroom in space.

Thoroughly Outfitted

The teachers chose wardrobes before they trained, television cameras whirring as they were fitted for sky-blue flight suits, sturdy black boots for the launch and leather-soled woolen moccasins for flailing about in weightlessness. They picked up their red, white and blue helmets and tried on the inflatable rubber pants that would keep their blood circulating during the plunge back to Earth. They selected personal items that ranged from a toothbrush and skin cream to a Swiss Army knife and a sleeping mask. Occasionally, they scurried for privacy.

On their second day in training, the teachers critiqued NASA's space cuisine, sampling some of the 140 food and beverage items Christa could order for her orbital meals. They graded them from 1 to 10, with 10 at the top of the scale. Christa gave a 5 to a powdered strawberry breakfast drink, a 7 to the rice pilaf, an 8 to scrambled eggs, a 9 to Texas barbecued beef and a "9-plus" to her favorite--broccoli.

Later, she met her crew mates, who gave her a shiny red apple. Christa's new comrades turned out to be just who Alan Ladwig, the manager of the Space Flight Participant Program, had been looking for when he asked that they accompany the first teacher into space.

There was Dick Scobee, a teacher's husband, the enlisted man who had used education as a springboard to success; Mike Smith, who had a master's degree in science and three children in Houston's public schools; Judy Resnik, a doctor of electrical engineering; Ellison Onizuka, an aerospace engineer who was the astronauts' liaison to NASA's student involvement program and served in the parent volunteer program at his daughter's school, and Ronald McNair, who spoke louder and more often than any of them about the power of knowledge. (Gregory Jarvis had yet to join the crew.)

Nearby Apartment

Christa settled into a furnished apartment at Peachtree Lane, a sprawling, adults-only complex tucked behind a half-occupied shopping mall a mile from the space center.

Her apartment, which cost about $1,000 a month, came with tight security, a bedroom, a living room, a galley kitchen and a dining room she had turned into a study. She often sat at her desk past midnight poring through training manuals, answering letters and writing college recommendations for students at Concord High.

About half of her 114 hours of training was book work--lessons on how to read the 50-pound flight data file; how to enter and exit the shuttle; how to operate the cameras, the galley and the $1-million toilet; how to do everything in a weightless environment from cap her toothpaste to extinguish a fire.

She learned where to find her color-coded food tray, her clothes locker and her sleeping bag. She learned the location and the range of the cabin's mounted cameras. She prepared to turn the mid-deck into history's first cosmic classroom. But she collided with NASA's education people.

Teachers in Conflict

Christa had two jobs on mission 51-L: to conduct two live television lessons and to videotape six science demonstrations that NASA would edit and distribute to schools across the country after the flight. The assignments seemed simple at first, but they soon grew sticky. First Christa clashed with her educational coordinator, Bob Mayfield, a science teacher from Texas who chafed at working with a social studies teacher from New Hampshire.

"This would be a lot easier if she knew science," he said midway through the training. "We don't speak the same vocabulary, and it doesn't help that she has one kind of accent and I have another."

The science demonstrations excited Mayfield the most and meant the least to Christa, who considered her mission sociological rather than scientific.

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