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The day a teacher blasted into space, years after a shuttle mission killed her friend

School teacher turned astronaut Barbara Morgan smiles as she takes part in a post-landing news conference after landing onboard the space shuttle Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility Tuesday afternoon Aug. 21, 2007 in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
School teacher turned astronaut Barbara Morgan smiles as she takes part in a post-landing news conference after landing onboard the space shuttle Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility Tuesday afternoon Aug. 21, 2007 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. AP File / 2007

Ten years ago, on Aug. 8, 2007, NASA finally redeemed the promise of shuttle Challenger and its lost crew in the 1986 shuttle explosion. Teacher Barbara Morgan accompanied six astronauts on a field trip that took them 140 miles from home. Morgan and her fellow astronauts soared into orbit aboard shuttle Endeavour, relaunching the nation's educator-in-space program. Here is the report from that day from the Miami Herald archives:

It took 21 years, but NASA finally redeemed the promise of shuttle Challenger and its lost crew Wednesday evening:

Teacher Barbara Morgan accompanied six astronauts on a field trip that took them 140 miles from home — straight up. They soared into orbit aboard shuttle Endeavour, relaunching the nation's educator-in-space program.

“Morgan racing toward space on the wings of a legacy,” NASA mission commentator Rob Navias said as Endeavour sliced straight and true through a steamy, hazy midsummer sky.

Less than nine minutes after blastoff, to the relief of all, the shuttle safely carried the educator and her colleagues into orbit. Navias: “Class is in session.”

Morgan, who taught elementary school in tiny McCall, Idaho, has been training and waiting for space flight since 1985.

“That's the first valuable lesson — persistence pays off,” said Gayle Moore, a former teacher who now works for the Idaho Education Association and watched the launch from the Kennedy Space Center. “Stick with your dream and don't give up.”

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Members of the STS-118 crew mission specialist Barbara Morgan, front, and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams, rear, wave as they leave the Operations and Checkout Building with their colleagues on their way to Launch Pad 39A and Space Shuttle Endeavour Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007, at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Alan Diaz AP File

This mission was special to Moore and to anyone who remembered that awful day, Jan. 28, 1986, when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing teacher Christa McAuliffe and the six other astronauts aboard.

Fittingly, Endeavour was built 16 years ago to replace Challenger.

“It certainly does bring back memories of Challenger,” said Mike Griffin, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “That was a very tough day.”

But now, the teacher-in-space program is back in business. Three other “educator astronauts” are awaiting liftoff on shuttle missions.

And so, hundreds of teachers and countless students joined many thousands of spectators at the space center and along nearby beaches and riverbanks. A shuttle launch always is thrilling, but this one had a special attraction: Barbara Morgan, the teacher.

“She's doing all the teachers justice up there right now,” said Joanne Deal-Pigg, a special education teacher from Zolfo Springs in Central Florida, who watched from Titusville.

Morgan, 55, and the rest of Endeavour's crew are scheduled to spend 14 days in space, delivering supplies to the International Space Station and conducting three spacewalks to attach a new component to the orbiting laboratory.

In addition, Morgan is scheduled to conduct three lessons from space that NASA will beam over the Internet to students around the world.

“What space offers is a never-ending, open-ended land of opportunity,” Morgan said before the launch. “There is just so much to learn out there.”

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Astronaut Barbara Morgan discusses her upcoming space shuttle mission with students during, "Meet an Astronaut Day" at Space Center Houston, Friday, Jan. 19, 2007. Morgan, a former Idaho school teacher, is a member of the Space Shuttle Endeavour's STS-118 crew scheduled to launch in June. Dave Einsel AP File

She was a close friend with — and NASA's backup for —McAuliffe. She is married and has two children.

“I know people are going to think about Challenger, and they should,” Morgan said.

“And I want people to remember what great folks they were and that what happened with Challenger was wrong, but what the crew and what NASA was trying to do was absolutely right and I am grateful that we are continuing that on,” she said.

This is the first flight in nearly five years for Endeavour, which underwent an extensive refurbishment that included new filters and seals, window replacements and thorough inspections.

It also is the first mission since last month's embarrassing disclosures concerning possible alcohol abuse by at least two astronauts assigned to previous crews and the sabotage of a computer Endeavour was carrying to the space station.

Griffin said NASA is investigating the vague, anecdotal accounts of drunken astronauts, has carefully examined the past 10 years of flight and has not yet found any evidence to substantiate the assertions.

“I would be extraordinarily surprised if there's really anything there,” Griffin said. “If it were to be true, it's extraordinarily serious, and it's my responsibility to find out.”

In addition to Morgan, aboard Endeavour are commander Scott Kelly, 43; pilot Charles Hobaugh, 46; mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, 37; Benjamin Drew Jr., 44; Rick Mastracchio 47; and Canadian astronaut Dave Rhys Williams, 53.

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The shuttle brought home seven astronauts, including teacher Barbara Morgan. PHIL LONG Miami Herald File

But the spotlight focused tightly on Morgan. When all is said and done, she said, she hoped her mission would help inspire young people.

“What we would really like to have them do is look deep inside themselves and dig up their curiosities,” Morgan said. “Kids are naturally very, very curious, and we would love for them to know what they are interested in about our world, about our universe, about space exploration.”

It already seemed to be working.

As Morgan and the rest of the crew thundered into space, David Postma, 9, from Stafford, Va., watched wide-eyed from Titusville.

“I think about school and science and how you learn about stuff like that — atmosphere and orbiting — and a teacher is [in space] to do that,” young David said.

If all goes according to plan, Endeavour and its astronauts will land at the space center Aug. 22 at 12:49 p.m. — with many lessons learned.

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