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NASA to Send Another Schoolteacher Into Space - 2002-04-14

The U.S. space agency NASA is planning to send another schoolteacher into space in 2004, 18 years after one died in the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. NASA chief Sean O'Keefe calls it part of the agency's unfinished mission following the disaster to inspire the next generation of explorers.

Mr. O'Keefe told an audience at Syracuse University that Idaho schoolteacher Barbara Morgan will embark on a space shuttle mission in two years. Mr. O'Keefe says she is a fitting choice because she was the backup for the teacher who was killed in the 1986 Challenger blast, Christa McAuliffe.

Mr. O'Keefe says education is part of NASA's core mission and Ms. Morgan's flight will be the first in a new series putting U.S. educators into orbit. The NASA administrator points out that the space agency will work with the Department of Education to begin recruiting them. "I have mentioned the alarming shortage of teachers qualified to teach science and math," he said. "I hope that NASA's new direction in this area, in the person of Barbara Morgan and those who will follow her, will result in a new crop of invigorated educators who clearly see the importance of their contributions to our society."

Mr. O'Keefe became NASA administrator in December. He is a former budget official whom President Bush wanted to straighten out NASA's financial and management problems as space station costs escalate.

In his first policy speech since taking charge at the space agency, Mr. O'Keefe outlined his vision of its future. He put politicians and the public on notice that NASA will go where science dictates, not because it's close, like the moon, or popular. "That's the big change. NASA's mission must be driven by the science, not by some destination," he said. "While policy and politics and economics are inevitable factors, science must be the pre-eminent factor."

This vision differs considerably from earlier U.S. space policy, which was guided by competition against the Soviet Union. President John Kennedy initiated the race to the moon in 1961 in an effort to reassert U.S. space primacy after the Soviet Union became the first nation to put a satellite and then a human into orbit. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan called for the space station, an area of technology Moscow had dominated.

Now, with Russia as a space partner and with restraints on the U.S. space budget, Mr. O'Keefe's more limited vision focuses on reductions in piloted missions, increases in unpiloted ones, and improvements in space technology.

In his Syracuse University speech, he called for development of new propulsion techniques, such as nuclear power. He also says NASA will work with other government departments to study Earth's environment, and to make airline and other transportation systems more efficient and secure. "As I'm trying to describe today, NASA has to do things differently in the future," he said.