US shuttle blasts first teacher into space

United States space shuttle Endeavour was blasting through space on Thursday, taking the first teacher there 21 years after the Challenger explosion ended the dream of another pioneering teacher.

Teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan (55) has become the star of the second shuttle mission to the International Space Station (ISS) this year, as space agency Nasa has otherwise been tainted by stories of drunken and love-crazed astronauts.

Her chance to fly into space came at last with Endeavour’s launch at 6.36pm local time on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral.

The booster rockets separated about two minutes after the shuttle lifted off, and Endeavour was hurtling toward space at a speed of 24 000km/h, a Nasa official said.

“Class is in session,” a Nasa mission-control spokesperson said after the external fuel tank separated from the shuttle and the Endeavour entered its preliminary orbit less than nine minutes into the flight.

Nasa called it a “flawless” lift-off. “A launch operation doesn’t get any better than this,” Nasa administrator Mike Griffin said afterward.

The shuttle is due to reach the orbiting space station on Friday.

First Lady Laura Bush, a former teacher herself, called Morgan on Tuesday to offer congratulations from “one school teacher to another”.

Morgan had trained alongside fellow teacher Christa McAuliffe in the 1980s as a back-up for the Challenger shuttle mission.

Nasa had hoped that sending a teacher into space would fire the imaginations of millions and keep up support for its shuttle programme.

On January 28 1986, Challenger exploded and broke up 73 seconds after blast-off, killing all seven aboard, and delaying for two decades Morgan’s own aspirations to carry out a mission with the elite astronaut corps.

“Christa was, is, and always will be our ‘Teacher in Space,’ our first teacher to fly” in a shuttle, Morgan said in an interview released by Nasa.

“She truly knew what this was all about—not just bringing the world to her classroom, but also helping ... to show the world what teachers do,” she said.

After the Challenger disaster Morgan went back to teaching, and then rejoined the astronaut corps in 1998.

Once in space she will operate robotic arms on the ISS and the shuttle to unload and install new equipment and supplies on the space station.

In keeping with her roles as “educator astronaut”, she is also due to answer questions from schoolchildren during a broadcast from the station.

Endeavour is taking seven astronauts on an 11-day mission to continue the expansion of the ISS, an orbiting laboratory that Nasa considers a key part of its space exploration ambitions and a stepping stone for exploring Mars.

The mission will carry a truss section about the size of a small car to extend the space station to a length of 108m—about the size of a football pitch.

The astronauts will also replace a defective gyroscope, one of four keeping the space station on an even keel, and install an external stowage platform.

Astronauts will venture out of the ISS on three spacewalks to complete assembly and repair tasks.

Nasa could prolong the mission by three days to include a fourth space walk, to prepare for installation of a boom that will allow crews to inspect for potential damage to the shuttle’s heat shield.

Nasa has been wary of damage to shuttle heat shields since February 2003, when a broken thermal tile led to the disintegration of shuttle Columbia on re-entry, killing all seven aboard and putting the shuttle programme on hold for two and a half years.

Nasa finally resumed ISS construction missions last year after conducting two missions aimed at improving safety, but the space agency has been hit by earthly scandals ever since.

Earlier this year, astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested and charged with attempting to kidnap a woman dating another married astronaut.
She has since been fired from Nasa.

The incident prompted Nasa to set up an internal panel to review astronauts’ health. The panel recently issued a report saying astronauts had been allowed to fly into space while drunk.

The space agency avoided yet another black eye with this mission, by repairing in time for lift-off a computer that had been sabotaged while in the care of a Nasa contractor.—AFP

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