Blogs  |  3.28.2023

Educator Astronauts: Past, Present, and Future

Challenger Center

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As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we reflect on the many contributions women have made throughout history; particularly, the countless women who have laid the foundation for success in STEM, space exploration, and education. Three of those women, in particular, have exemplified a commitment and excellence in STEM through space education as NASA Educator Astronauts: Christa McAuliffe, Barbara Morgan, and Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger.

Sharon Christa McAuliffe

Sharon Christa McAuliffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 2, 1948. As a child, she was excited about the Apollo moon landing program, and years later, on her NASA astronaut application wrote, “I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate.”

Christa graduated from Framingham State University in 1970. She then taught American history and social studies at Benjamin Foulois High School in Morningside, Maryland, while simultaneously earning her master’s degree from Bowie State University. In 1978, she moved to New Hampshire with her family and continued teaching middle school; then, high school.

In 1984, Christa applied to NASA’s Teacher in Space project and was selected from more than 11,000 applicants. That fall, she took a year-long leave of absence from teaching, during which time she trained for an early 1986 Shuttle mission. Christa planned to teach educational lessons from space aboard the Shuttle and broadcast live to millions of students. The Teacher in Space project 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.

Barbara Morgan

Barbara Morgan is the public elementary school teacher who trained with the Challenger crew as Christa’s backup for the Teacher in Space project. She and Christa became close friends and shared a special relationship throughout their training together. After that mission ended tragically, NASA asked Barbara to continue as the Teacher in Space designee. She returned to her teaching in Idaho and continued to work for NASA, part-time, where her duties included public speaking, educational consulting, curriculum design, and serving on the National Science Foundation’s Task Force for Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering.

NASA then selected Barbara for the 1998 astronaut class. She flew 5.3 million miles in space in 2007 on STS-118, a two-week mission to help construct the International Space Station. Her duties included operating the space shuttle and space station robotic arms, serving as loadmaster, assisting the pilots with re-entry and landing, and teaching lessons from orbit to schoolchildren on Earth. In addition to spaceflight, Barbara worked in Mission Control as prime communicator (“Capcom”) with on-orbit crews, and she served in the Space Station Operations Branch and Robotics Branch of the Astronaut Office.

Barbara retired from NASA in 2008 to become Distinguished Educator in Residence at Boise State University, where she represented the university and provided vision and leadership to the State of Idaho, primarily in STEM education. Her work included policy and program development, advocacy, and mentoring. Currently, Barbara works with Boise State University as Emeritus, and continues to work with national and international education organizations, other non-profits, and NASA.

Barbara served on Challenger Center’s Board of Directors for many years prior to joining Challenger Center’s Advisory Council.

Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger

Dorothy “Dottie” Metcalf-Lindenburger was born and raised along the Front Range of Colorado. A scholar-athlete, she ran cross-country and track for Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Wash., and graduated with honors and a degree in geology. After attending Whitman College, she received her teaching certification from Central Washington University, and she went on to teach for five years at Hudson’s Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash. In addition to teaching, she coached cross country and Science Olympiad.

In June 2004, Dottie joined NASA and the Astronaut Corps. After several years of training, she was assigned to the STS-131 crew, an International Space Station (ISS) resupply mission, and flew as Mission Specialist 2 (also known as the flight engineer). She also served as a robotic arm operator, the Intra-vehicular crew member (the inside coordinator of the spacewalks), and a transfer crew member (helping move six tons of hardware and equipment). The mission lasted 15 days.

In June of 2012, Dottie commanded the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operation (NEEMO) in the Aquarius Reef Habitat off the Florida coast. The underwater mission sought to develop techniques for working at an asteroid while working under a 100-second time delay.

In 2014, she retired from the Astronaut Corps and returned to the Pacific Northwest with her family. She finished her master’s degree in geology at the University of Washington and joined the environmental consulting firm, Geosyntec. She continues to speak and promote Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) education.

Dottie serves on Challenger Center’s Board of Directors and is currently the Education Committee Chair.

Christa’s Lost Lessons Continue to Inspire

Barbara and Dottie are teachers, astronauts, and Challenger Center supporters. They followed in the footsteps of Christa McAuliffe, the beloved teacher in space who we lost too soon. 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 continues.