Former teacher keeps space shuttle hopes high

Ericka Turner expects the feeling will be “bittersweet” when she watches the space shuttle Endeavor blast off into space this week at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

She plans to be there to show her support for astronaut Barbara Morgan, who shares a bond with Turner and the other educators who embraced the space program 22 years ago through the Teacher In Space project.

In fact, Morgan was the backup to teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died alongside the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. Turner, who was teaching at Chaparral High School at the time, and Joan Turner, a teacher at Las Vegas High School who is not related, were among the 114 semifinalists to be the first civilian in space.

After the accident, Morgan became the teacher in space designee and continued to work with NASA after she resumed her teaching career in Idaho. In 1998, she left teaching to become a mission specialist with the space agency. She has served in various branches of the Astronaut Office, most recently in the robotics branch.

Turner, 66, now is a coordinator for occupational and physical therapists working with special needs students in the Clark County School District. But she never lost interest in space exploration. She joined the Space Education Foundation, formed by teachers involved in the project, which later merged with the Challenger Learning Center, an education foundation formed by the families of the Challenger’s crew.

A majority of the Teachers In Space Program members plan to be in Florida this week for the scheduled launch as a show of support for Morgan, Turner says. Morgan’s duties on the mission will include operating the robotic arm, providing logistical support for supplies and conducting a plant germination study. Teachers will be able to request seeds from the experiment for use in the classroom.

Morgan’s former colleagues will be wearing white T-shirts with a replica of the NASA patch they received in 1985, which features a flaming torch. The flaming torch also is included on the STS-118 mission patches for the Endeavor flight.

“Every one of us has kept in touch,” says Turner. “We are really looking forward to seeing each other and keeping each other close.”

“I don’t think there’s a one of us that wouldn’t trade places with Barbara,” she adds.

That’s the same enthusiasm Turner felt in 1984, when she was teaching American literature at Chaparral and saw an advertisement for the Teacher In Space program.

“I wanted students to challenge themselves and reach for their dreams, no matter what others thought about their goal. When the TIS program presented itself, I wanted to prove to students that even if your dreams don’t come true, you will learn something important about yourself,” Turner recalls.

On the day of the Challenger launch, Turner was in Las Vegas.

“Ironically, that morning we all decided to wear our flight suits to school,” Turner says of the teachers in the program. “I got stopped for speeding. The cop said to me, ‘What do you think this is, a shuttle?’ “

Turner, who was unable to get a TV in her classroom to view the launch, was unaware of the tragedy until Chaparral’s vice principal came to her classroom. The two stepped into the hallway where Turner was told the Challenger crew was lost in an accident. Turner initially did not believe it.

” ‘How can you say that?’ I said. She said, ‘No, it’s true,” recalls Turner. “And then all the media came.”

Turner attempted to continue her day teaching, but eventually had another teacher take over so she could go home.

“The difficult part was we kept seeing Christa leaving all the time,” Turner says of the television footage showing the crew that morning. “The last thing we saw was her walk on the tarmac.”

Turner and the Teachers In Space candidates attended the funeral in Houston.

“When they did the missing man formation, there was not a dry eye in the place,” Turner says of the flyover by jet trainers commonly used by astronauts. “The whole country was stunned, it was just incredible.”

President Reagan made all of the teachers in the program space ambassadors.

Turner, who still visits schools to share her experience in the program, discussed the tragedy with her students at the time and told them: “When you are an explorer exploring new things, things happen, but you shouldn’t end the mission.”

“I’m glad it has continued,” says Turner.

The launch of Endeavour, she says, will be “bittersweet.”

“I don’t think anyone will feel the way we feel,” she says.

And although the Challenger and Columbia disasters are not far from anyone’s mind, Turner believes Morgan’s launch will go well.

“We are all really excited,” Turner says. “I feel like this is going to be great.”

“I don’t think space exploration is dead by any means,” she adds. “It is something that will always be there.”

If you know of a worthy candidate for this column, mail information to Newsmakers, Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125-0070, or send faxes to 383-4676.

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