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Backup on ill-fated flight heads for stars

Two decades after the Challenger crash, Christa McAuliffe's alternate is to journey to the space station.

January 20, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Like millions of others, Barbara Morgan was watching as the ill-fated Challenger spacecraft lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on a chilly winter morning in 1986.

But her connection to that flight was more intimate than most. The elementary-school teacher from Fresno was the backup to Christa McAuliffe, the bubbly woman chosen to be the first teacher is space.

If McAuliffe had fallen ill, it would have been Morgan on that flight, which ended with the deaths of all seven astronauts.

Two decades and one more shuttle accident later, Morgan, 55, is finally getting her chance to go to space, this time aboard Endeavor on an assembly mission to the International Space Station. She has no trepidations.

"I'm really, really excited," Morgan said Friday in an interview from Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"I was really lucky to be Christa's backup," she said. "They were all absolutely wonderful people."

Morgan said she understood the dangers of her flight, scheduled for no earlier than June 28. "We know spaceflight is a very risky business," she said. "You can't get rid of all the risk."

After the Challenger accident, Morgan returned to the classroom. She taught in McCall, Idaho, before being selected in 1998 to be the first of NASA's "Educator Astronauts." NASA sees the program as a way to interest young people in space.

Morgan has been training full time as an astronaut for the last seven years, according to NASA. She had been scheduled to fly in November 2003, but that flight was canceled after the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry, killing seven astronauts.

Morgan will be a mission specialist on the Endeavor flight. The crew's job will be to continue building the space station. It will deliver a starboard truss segment, a part of the station's spine. The other crew members are shuttle commander Scott Kelly and pilot Charlie Hobaugh, and mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio and Dave Williams.

The mission will also transport flight engineer Clayton Anderson to the space station.

Morgan, who is married with two children, said her family was "behind me all the way. They would like to bump me off and go in my place."

After her flight, she said, she will return to teaching. Three more teachers are in training as astronauts, she said.

Some astronauts take keepsakes aboard to memorialize their flights.

Morgan said she hadn't thought "a whole lot" about what she would take. Patting her heart, she said she would be carrying McAuliffe's memory inside.

"She made all of us proud," Morgan said.

john.johnson@latimes.com

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