Barbara Morgan was a woman with a big dream in her early 30’s, a vision of spaceships blasting into orbit, teachers beaming lessons from weightless cabins miles above the earth. In 1986, Morgan was Christa McAuliffe’s teammate and backup — McAuliffe slated to be the first “Teacher-in-Space” for NASA, Morgan at the top of the list for future flights.
Morgan’s dream evaporated with the contrails of the space shuttle on that cold January day in 1986 when the Challenger exploded just seconds after liftoff. The tragic loss of McAuliffe and her crewmates set the shuttle program back for years, and ended the Teacher-in-Space effort.
Today, 21 years later, Barbara Morgan has soared into space on the Shuttle Endeavor, now 55 years old and a full-fledged astronaut. Shortly after liftoff Mission Control waxed poetic, proclaiming that Morgan was “racing into space on the wings of a legacy.”
Morgan carries McAuliffe’s legacy, to be sure, but she has created her own legacy as well. How many of us women of a certain age watched her stride purposefully onto the launch pad today and thought, “OK, if she can do that at age 55, maybe my own career has another rocket or two left in it as well!” Morgan is not just a role model for young girls — she’s a symbol of vitality, persistence and courage for women of all ages.
In a week where the over-hyped feat of hitting a ball hard enough to travel several hundred feet into the upper deck took up too much airtime, it’s refreshing to have an act of genuine talent to celebrate. Like major league baseball, NASA has had its share of recent ugly headlines, scandals and disappointing behaviors. But more than athletic feats, which tend to be singular, the real work of NASA scientists and astronauts is an awesome collaboration of truly brilliant brains and passionate hearts coming together to explore what we don’t know. We sometimes forget that — the whole point of going into outer space is to explore a wholly unfamiliar universe, to go beyond what we can see to encounter the unknown. Getting there requires talent, cooperation, risk-taking and the ability to cope with failure without giving up, learning anew from even the most tragic moments.
I remember that terrible moment in 1986 when I looked at a TV screen and saw the shards of the Challenger arcing in too many directions across the brilliant blue Florida sky. Those who saw in that moment of despair the death of space exploration were just plain wrong. So long as great minds and strong souls like Barbara Morgan and her crewmates and colleagues at NASA persist, the adventure will continue.
Hooray for Barbara Morgan for keeping the dream alive!