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Former Teacher in Space Finalist Anticipates Launch, Remembers Challenger

July 19, 2007

Category: Faculty, Teacher Education


When NASA launches the Shuttle on August 7th, it will carry teacher Barbara Morgan into space, 21 years after the Challenger disaster and the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe and her six fellow astronauts. McAuliffe was the finalist selected from 110 Teacher in Space Project candidates to make that ill-fated flight on Jan. 28, 1986; Barbara Morgan was McAuliffe's backup.

Catawba College's own Dr. Cyndi Osterhus, assistant professor of teacher education and director of Catawba's Shirley Peeler Ritchie Academy for Teaching  (part of Catawba's Teacher Education Department), will travel to Cape Canaveral in early August to attend the National Teacher in Space Conference for Barbara Morgan's flight (STS118). Osterhus was one of those 110 Teacher in Space project candidates. She, along with teacher Ernie Morgan from the western part of the state, represented North Carolina in the Teacher in Space project. She is a friend of Barbara Morgan and was a colleague of McAuliffe.

In the late 1980s, Osterhus was Mrs. Zeger, a mathematics teacher at Salisbury High School here in Rowan County. She, like thousands of other teachers, was watching President Ronald Reagan on television talking about sending a teacher into space, and she remembers saying, 'I want to go.'

"When the application came, it was 11 pages long on slick paper with stars around the pages' perimeters. That was before computers," she remembered. "I recall laboring over that application as I completed it on the typewriter."

That application primarily gathered personal information, the candidate's philosophy of teaching, and the candidate's project to complete aboard the shuttle. Osterhus' proposed shuttle project was called 'Pi in the Sky.'

"I was going to do the historical probability experiment which was done by the French mathematician Buffon where he dropped a needle onto a board with parallel lines and discovered that he could approximate pi with a simple calculation using the ratio of the number of times that the needle crossed the line," Osterhus said. "On the space shuttle, you can't drop anything, so I decided I was going to project — physically push — the needle toward a magnetized board and see if it affected the approximation of pi."

A successful application and interview won Osterhus her home state's nod as one of its Teacher in Space finalists to participate on the Challenger flight known as 51L. Nationwide, 11,000 teachers vied for the honor with each state responsible for choosing two representatives.

Osterhus remembered that it was an extraordinarily enthusiastic group of Teacher in Space finalists who gathered in June 1985 in Washington, D.C. "We were all excited about one of us going into space and we were also aware that the Teacher in Space Project could have a tremendous influence on the teaching profession. Many of us were mathematics and science teachers and we believed that sending a teacher into space would excite children and adults about science, mathematics, and space exploration," she said.

The finalists were grouped into pods and Osterhus was in McAuliffe's pod. One of her strongest memories about McAuliffe involved McAuliffe's name tag.

"We had these beautiful silver nametags, with stars around the perimeter, just like the application. Christa's name on her name tag was printed as 'Sharon McAuliffe' and I remember her taking a marker and x-ing out 'Sharon' and writing 'Christa' above it," Osterhus recalled. She also remembered McAuliffe running and jogging each morning. Although not a member of Osterhus' judging pod, Barbara Morgan was often in the same groups as Osterhus.

"We were in Washington for a week," Osterhus explained. "There was a lot of training involved and the NASA officials were priming us all to be ambassadors for the space project.

"Each of us had two judges. We did interviews with our judges and provided videos to them produced for us by our respective states. One of the questions posed by NASA that we answered on the videos and later discussed with our judges was 'What is our philosophy of life?' That question was one that took all of us by surprise. We expected the philosophy of teaching question, but not that one," Osterhus said.

"I remember that I talked about the importance of taking care of yourself physically, emotionally and mentally in order to be able to be what you needed to be for everyone else — your children, your family, your students and your community."

Osterhus' big meeting in Washington was with Mike Smith, the shuttle pilot of flight 51L who also was from N.C. "I met him at a social event and he introduced himself to me," Osterhus said. "He was actually looking for me because of the N.C. connection."

Ten candidates from among the 110 contenders were notified shortly after the week in Washington that they were Teacher in Space Project finalists; this group traveled back to Washington for a formal announcement. Although Osterhus did not make that final cut, she was an enthusiastic supporter of McAuliffe and Morgan, who did, as they began their training at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA paid for all 110 Teacher in Space candidates to travel to Cape Canaveral for the Challenger launch in January 1986.

"We had another conference with more training and more information about the shuttle," Osterhus remembered, "and then we were there as VIPs for the actual shuttle launch, but, they kept postponing the launch. After I had been there and out of my classroom for 10 days, I decided to head back to N.C. and my students and family; many others did that too. When the Challenger actually launched on January 28, 1986, there were less than a dozen of the Teacher in Space finalists left down there.

"I was en route back to North Carolina from Florida when I heard on the radio that they were going to launch the shuttle. We stopped for lunch and I sat in the car and listened through the blastoff; I was irritated that I was not there. Then, I turned off the radio and went into the restaurant to have lunch," she continued. "I was sitting at a booth with my parents and I heard on a policeman's radio in the booth behind me that the Challenger had exploded.   I ran over and sat with the policeman and cried.

"I think because NASA had constantly reminded us about the risk   — that we would be riding on a bomb, riding on explosives — that we were all aware of the dangers, but the explosion made us face that reality.

"When I pulled in my driveway, there were three television stations there waiting. My daughter Mandy came up to me, she said, 'Sorry your shuttle exploded, mommy.' It was tough, but I did do the interviews. They had a memorial service for the Challenger crew in Houston, but I did not go. I didn't want to be away again from my family and classroom and I'm just very private with my feelings and didn't want to attend."

Many of the Teacher in Space Project finalists, like Osterhus, stayed in touch after the Challenger disaster, and some signed a telegram sent to NASA shortly after the tragedy, indicating that they would still be willing to be part of the project and willing to fly. The families of the seven astronauts established Challenger Centers all across the U.S. and involved Teacher in Space Project participants, including Osterhus, as international faculty who helped develop programming for these centers.

For Osterhus, talking about the dream of a teacher in space after Challenger helped her grieve and heal. "I know people started asking me to speak," she remembered. "I had a space suit. I had pictures. The public was crying out for explanation, for comfort and they found that comfort in my enthusiasm for continuing space exploration and as a means for exciting young people about science and mathematics.

"I went up to Langley and talked to a scientist who actually explained what happened to the shuttle. The school system supported my attendance at conferences in New Orleans, at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California when the first pictures of Neptune came back, and at Huntsville, Ala., where the Space Academy and Space and Rocket Center are located."

For Osterhus, Barbara Morgan's flight into space, almost 22 years after the Challenger disaster, will be exciting and bittersweet. Osterhus departs for Florida Aug. 4 where she will join approximately 80 of the original 110 Teacher in Space Project finalists gathering at Cocoa Beach for a conference sponsored by the Delaware Aerospace organization. She and other finalists have been invited by Dr. Joyce L. Winterton, NASA's assistant administrator for education, to attend a NASA reception at the Kennedy Space Center in celebration of the flight on Sunday, Aug. 5, before pre-launch activities.

Osterhus will be part of a pre-launch party with Barbara Morgan's family and friends from Idaho on the evening of Monday, Aug. 6. Then on launch day, Aug. 7, NASA will transport her and other Teacher in Space Project participants to the causeway to view the launch as VIPs. This puts Osterhus and her peers closer to the launch site and with other special guests.

An e-mail Barbara Morgan sent to Osterhus and other Teacher in Space colleagues several weeks ago, Osterhus said, aptly expressed the shared feelings and sentiments for them all. Morgan suggested that the Teacher in Space finalists gather with her family and other friends and have a great time the night before the launch. Of course, Morgan cannot be there because the astronauts are in quarantine prior to the launch, but Morgan wrote:

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"... But I'll be thinking about you and your families. And I know I'll be missing a good time!

 ... I'm looking forward to OUR flight."

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Barbara Morgan's flight is a long time coming, Osterhus said. It was announced that she would fly in the 1990s and NASA determined that she needed to be a full-fledged astronaut. She was selected as an astronaut candidate and has spent years training for this mission. Osterhus has remained in touch with Morgan through their mutual affiliation with the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and through e-mails and list serves maintained by Teacher in Space participants.


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Osterhus will share her impressions of pre-launch activities and the shuttle launch through several communiqués from Florida in early August. Look for those on Catawba's website at www.catawba.edu.

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;Osterhus is a former N.C. Teacher of the Year (1987), a former finalist for the Teacher in Space program (1985), and a former N.C. Gifted and Talented Teacher of the Year (1984). She joined the faculty of Catawba in 2003. Prior to that, she worked as a teacher-educator in the sciences and mathematics for 30 years in the Rowan-Salisbury School System. She served 13 years as coordinator for that system¹s K-8 science program, and 17 years as a middle and high school mathematics teacher. Additionally, she served as director of professional development for 10 years in that same school system. ;