Blogs  |  3.14.2022

Celebrating Women’s History Month: Educator Astronauts of Past, Present, and Future

Every March, the world celebrates Women’s History Month and the many contributions women have made to history and society. Countless women have laid the foundation for success in STEM, space exploration, and education. This year, we’re shining a spotlight on three of those women who have exemplified commitment and excellence in STEM education. Barbara Morgan and Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger are teachers, astronauts, and Challenger Center board members. They followed in the footsteps of Christa McAuliffe, the beloved teacher in space who we lost in the Challenger shuttle tragedy. These women are inspirations to girls across the globe. It’s within the legacy of Christa McAuliffe and her Challenger crewmates that Challenger Center was built, and it’s with the guidance and commitment to education from teachers like Barbara and Dottie that Challenger Center will continue.

Sharon Christa McAuliffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1948. After graduating from Framingham State University, McAuliffe moved to Washington, DC where her husband, Steven McAuliffe, attended the Georgetown University Law Center. Christa taught American history at Benjamin Foulois High School in Morningside, Maryland beginning in 1970 and simultaneously earned her master’s degree from Bowie State University. In 1978 she moved to New Hampshire with her family and continued teaching middle school and then high school. In 1984, she applied to the Teacher in Space Project and was selected as NASA’s Teacher in Space from more than 11,000 applicants. Barbara Morgan was announced as Christa’s back-up, and the two began training for the mission aboard the Space Shuttle. Christa and Barbara became close friends and shared a special relationship through the training program.

Christa was set to teach lessons from space aboard the Shuttle and broadcast live lessons to millions of students. The Teacher in Space program garnered new attention and excitement for the Space Shuttle program, and Christa quickly became beloved by millions of Americans. After the Challenger tragedy, the crew’s families came together, firmly committed to the belief that they must carry on the spirit of their loved ones by continuing the Challenger crew’s educational mission. Their efforts resulted in the creation of Challenger Center. In 2019, nearly 30 years after the tragedy, Challenger Center partnered with NASA and STEM on Station to complete several of the lessons Christa had planned for the mission.

After the tragedy, Barbara assumed Teacher in Space Designee duties in which she consulted, spoke at events, helped design curriculum with NASA, and served on a task force of the National Science Foundation. Barbara also returned to her home in Idaho and continued her public school teaching, which she had begun 12 years earlier on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. In 1998, Barbara was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate and began training to become a full-time astronaut. In addition to training and evaluation, her technical duties in the Astronaut Office included serving in the Space Station Operations Branch, the Robotics Branch, and CAPCOM Branch, where she worked in Mission Control as prime communicator with on-orbit crews. Barbara logged over 305 hours in space in 2007 as a mission specialist on the crew of STS-118 to help construct the International Space Station. She served on Challenger Center’s board of directors for many years and remains a close friend, supporter, and advisor to the organization.

Similar to Barbara, Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger was a science teacher turned astronaut, and is now a member of Challenger Center’s board of directors. Born in 1975 in Colorado Springs, Colo., Dottie earned a bachelor’s degree in Geology from Whitman College in 1997 and later earned her Teaching certification from Central Washington University in 1999. She spent several years teaching earth science and astronomy to high schoolers at Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Washington. As she was teaching about human spaceflight, a student asked how astronauts use the restroom in space – and at the time, Dottie wasn’t exactly sure. “As an educator, it’s so important to validate every student’s question. To let them know their question matters, and it engages our own curiosity as well.” In her search to learn more about the bathroom and living quarters on the Space Shuttle, she discovered the astronaut application on NASA’s website and immediately applied. She was selected as a Mission Specialist in 2004 and went on to spend 362 hours in space.

In June 2014, Dottie retired from the Astronaut Corps and returned to the Pacific Northwest with her family. She finished her MS in geology at the University of Washington, and she joined the environmental consulting firm, Geosyntec. As a Challenger Center board member, Dottie chairs the Education Committee and remains a steadfast STEM education advocate.

Just like their students, Barbara and Dottie all share a strong curiosity for the unknown, which led them to new heights. Thanks to their commitment to education, their impact will be felt for generations to come and surely inspire the next generation of educator astronauts. Christa said it best, “I touch the future. I teach.”