Challenger Understudy Gets Chance In Space

On Tuesday, the shuttle rolled out to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. The crew includes Barbara Morgan, the first teacher in space since the ill-fated Challenger mission more than two decades ago.

The launch date is Aug. 7 and Morgan has waited a long time for her chance to fly. Her journey began in 1985 when she was named the first alternate teacher in space. She was Christa McAuliffe's understudy. They trained together and became close friends.

"Close, close," Morgan, 55, of Idaho, told The Early Show national correspondent Hattie Kauffman. "She's a great gal, a great teacher, great person."

Children and teachers across the country celebrated Challenger's launch and were devastated when the shuttle exploded, killing all who were aboard. That day is seared into Morgan's mind, she said.

"Everybody had the same reaction," Morgan said. "That crew was very, very important to all of us."

But she didn't think about the fact that she came some close to death. The truth is, Morgan said, she wanted to be there. As a teacher she saw a valuable lesson in the Challenger.

"We had kids all over the country watching what adults do in a bad situation. It was very important that they see we figure out what was wrong, we work our hardest and best to fix it," Morgan said. "And what I want people to remember is that what happened was wrong, but what the Challenger crew and what NASA was trying to do with that mission, with all their missions, was absolutely right."

Morgan returned to the classroom, but never gave up on her dream. Twelve years after Challenger, she became a fully trained astronaut assigned, incredibly, to the shuttle Columbia, the next mission that never came. Four years ago, Morgan was at the landing site waiting for the crew, as Columbia broke apart on re-entry.

"Those things never go away, they get easier with time, but they never go away," she said.

But Morgan never fully gave up her dream and accepted that risk is a part of what she does as a teacher.

"What you do in these kinds of situations is you weigh the risks. Why am I doing this? What are the pros, what are the cons?" she said.

And going into space, she says, is a risk worth taking.

"This is a really important thing to be doing, keeping the future wide open ended for our students," Morgan said. "That's what the universe is all about, and I mean, that's what's so wonderful for our kids and why it's so motivating."

Morgan has inspired a generation of students and someday hopes to return to the classroom — but not until she gets her chance to fly.

"All of a sudden, it really does feel — it feels real now," Morgan said. "And I can actually picture that the time is right and it's time for us to go!"

When she heads for the sky, she will remember the first teacher in space.

"I know that people will be watching this and thinking about Christa, and that's a good thing," she said.

And in her heart, Morgan said she will be carrying the memory of her "Challenger buddies and their families."