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Space shuttle launches with teacher aboard

Times Staff Writer

The space shuttle Endeavour launched Wednesday on an 11-day mission to the International Space Station, carrying the first teacher-astronaut into space since Christa McAuliffe was lost in the Challenger tragedy more than two decades ago.

Barbara R. Morgan, 55, from Fresno was originally selected as a backup to McAuliffe to be the first teacher in space. After McAuliffe perished with the rest of the Challenger crew on Jan. 28, 1986, Morgan, a onetime elementary school teacher in McCall, Idaho, became a full-fledged member of the astronaut corps.

The shuttle lifted off from Pad 39-B at Cape Canaveral, on central Florida’s east coast at 3:36 p.m. PDT, sucking fuel at a rate of a half-ton a second. The redesigned Endeavour, making its first flight in almost five years, executed a smooth, apparently trouble-free, 8 1/2 -minute jump to space.

“What you’ve all seen today is an example of NASA at our very best,” space agency head Michael D. Griffin said at a news conference after the launch.

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Griffin’s appearance at a post-launch news briefing was an indication of the gravity of the occasion as well as an effort to refocus attention on what NASA does well, rather than on news that has given the agency a black eye.

This includes the arrest of one astronaut for allegedly stalking a rival and the recent anecdotal accounts of drinking by astronauts before flying.

Griffin said NASA is in the midst of an intensive review of shuttle flights to find any evidence of a crew member being allowed to fly while intoxicated. So far nothing has surfaced, he said.

Attending the launch were relatives of the Challenger crew. “I can only hope they enjoyed seeing this,” Griffin said.

Morgan made no public comment as she took her historic, long-delayed ride into space.

On the seventh day of the mission, she is scheduled to talk to students gathered at the Discovery Center of Idaho in Boise.

NASA officials, however, made frequent educational references as the flight lifted off, calling the shuttle “a classroom in space,” and noting that Morgan, a junior member of the crew in terms of experience, was “racing toward space on the wings of a legacy.”

The mission patch, which shows the shuttle and the space station, also carries a torch symbolizing the flame of knowledge, meant to represent the importance of education and teachers.

Launch Director Mike Leinbach said he recently had dinner with Morgan. “She reflected back,” he said. “But she was really looking forward.”

Besides Morgan, the crew is made up of commander Scott J. Kelly, a 43-year-old Navy commander from Orange, N.J.; pilot Charles O. Hobaugh, 45, from Bar Harbor, Maine; mission specialist Tracy E. Caldwell, 37, of Arcadia, a Russian speaker who says she enjoys running and auto repair; mission specialist Richard A. Mastracchio, 47, of Waterbury, Conn.; mission specialist Dafydd R. “Dave” Williams, 53, of the Canadian Space Agency; and mission specialist Alvin Drew Jr., 44, of Washington, D.C.

The crew is scheduled to install a new segment to the right side of the station’s backbone, known as the truss. Endeavour also carries a replacement for a damaged gyroscope, one of four that keep the space station properly aligned.

After reaching orbit, the crew opened the payload compartment doors and began to fire Endeavour’s maneuvering engines to align the ship for docking Friday with the space station.

Overnight, NASA engineers at Johnson Space Center in Houston were scrutinizing hundreds of photos taken of the spacecraft’s skin during the launch.

Additional cameras were installed on the spacecraft after the 2003 Columbia accident to check for damage to the shuttle’s thermal protection system. Columbia’s left wing was damaged by a piece of insulating foam that tore off the external fuel tank during launch. Columbia and its crew of seven were lost when the heat of reentry tore a hole in the damaged wing and caused the craft to break up over Texas and Louisiana.

The Endeavour astronauts will conduct three spacewalks, on the fourth, sixth and eighth days of the mission. A fourth is possible if the mission is extended by three days, a possibility depending on the how quickly other work can be done.

Morgan, who is married and has two children, is a mission specialist on this flight.

After the Challenger accident, she returned to teaching before being selected in 1998 as a member of the astronaut corps.

Aboard Endeavour, she will be load master, responsible for the 5,000 pounds of supplies that will be transferred to the station. She also will operate the shuttle and station robotic arms during spacewalks.

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john.johnson@latimes.com


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