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Teachers still ready to blast off into space

UNITED STATES

Shuttle crash puts Educator-Astronaut programme on hold - for now.

Stephen Phillips reports.

PLANS to send teachers into space are on hold along with the rest of America's space programme in the aftermath of the deadly explosion of the shuttle Columbia.

Idaho primary teacher Barbara Morgan, the torch-bearer for the so-called "Educator Astronaut" programme, had been due to visit the International Space Station aboard the doomed shuttle this November.

NASA has witnessed a flurry of interest since it began accepting applications from rank-and-file teachers last month, fielding more than 1,000 submissions, spokesman William Jeffs told The TES.

Mr Jeffs said the Educator Astronaut remained part of future US space agency plans, but had been suspended indefinitely.

NASA has grounded the fleet while it investigates why Columbia disintegrated on re-entering the Earth's atmosphere with the loss of all seven astronauts.

Cindy Workosky of the National Science Teachers Association expressed relief that NASA remained committed to sending teachers into space.

"The mission of education is too important to lose," she said. "We mourn the loss of the astronauts, but teachers are ready to fly."

The Educator Astronaut initiative aims to inspire and teach youngsters about space exploration. Astronauts already routinely visit schools before and after missions, but involving teachers as crew members is intended to intensify these outreach efforts, as they will conduct lessons directly from space.

However, the programme's history has been tinged with tragedy. An earlier incarnation, the "Teacher in Space Project", was disbanded in 1986 after the first educator bound for orbit, New Hampshire secondary teacher Christa McAuliffe, perished when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after blast-off.

Ms Morgan, 51, had been Ms McAuliffe's understudy and was recalled by NASA when it revived the teacher programme in 1998.

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