Kevin O’Keefe’s father showing up at Seldens Landing Elementary School Friday morning was a big deal, enough to bring reporters and camera crews, along with the entire student body to the gymnasium.
Sean O’Keefe is the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), sworn in December 2001 to lead the NASA team and to manage its resources. With him came Barbara Morgan, Teacher in Space Designee assigned to a space flight in 2004.
O'Keefe and Morgan came “to inspire this generation of folks to be explorers,” said O'Keefe of Ashburn, who makes two to three school visits a month.
School principal Susan Browning introduced O’Keefe, who in turn introduced Morgan to the 320 students attending the Leesburg school's assembly. O’Keefe served as a professor at Syracuse University and at Pennsylvania State University, as the Secretary of the Navy, appointed in July 1992, and as Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer in the Department of Defense beginning in 1989.
“His accolades go on and on,” Browning said to introduce O'Keefe.
“I get the really cool stuff at NASA. That’s my job,” O'Keefe said, then explained NASA’s functions. He said a team of three astronauts is living on an international space station, where the astronauts have stayed the past four months. A fourth team, including two American astronauts, will replace them, taking off on May 30.
“Now, we’re going to have a teacher,” O’Keefe said about Morgan’s becoming the first educator mission specialist in early 2004, flying with a team of six other astronauts.
MORGAN, a teacher with 24 years experience teaching in Montana and Idaho, was selected as a back-up candidate for the NASA Teacher in Space Program in 1985. Morgan, who lives in Clear Lake, Tex., trained with the late Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. After the Challenger accident, Morgan became the Teacher in Space Designee. In 1998, she decided to become a full-time astronaut and the first Educator Mission Specialist, reporting for training in August of that year. She was assigned to the Astronaut Office Space Station Operations Branch.
“It’s been almost four years since I’ve been to a school,” Morgan said to the students, later attributing her visit to Seldens Landing to missing her old classroom. She explained her training, which involves classroom work, instruction in Shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training and T-38 flight training. So far, she has four years of training for the 2004 flight, the timing to be announced in six months and the mission to be determined later. Her next job will be working as an astronaut on the ground communicating with astronauts aboard the space shuttle during its next mission.
Morgan asked students why they would want to go into space. The answers included wanting to “check out the moon and go to Mars,” fix a broken satellite, explore other solar systems and Saturn’s outer rings, and take moon rock home.
“I didn’t want to be an astronaut,” Morgan told a fifth-grade class after the assembly where Kevin is a student. “When I was your age, I wanted to be a teacher. I really liked my teachers and school,” she said, adding that in high school, she changed her mind since girls were teachers and nurses. She said her secret ambition was to be a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, so she "could help people and ride a horse."
MORGAN DECIDED on teaching as a career when she studied the brain and learning processes in her biology classes, later entering the NASA program to have something “to bring back to students.” “As classroom teachers, we want to make sure we continue to give them things [to make them want] to be explorers,” she said. "Although what I'm doing is really, really fun, it's no more fun and no harder than teaching. Everybody thinks being an astronaut is a really important job, but the most important job in the world is being a teacher."
“It brings home to kids everywhere that teachers are an important part of the world,” said Doug Peterson of public affairs at the Johnson Space Center.
“I thought it was very inspirational,” said fifth-grader Kelly Friedman, who is 11. “I thought most astronauts would be strict. … She seems like a normal person. It’s inspirational to me to think anyone could be an astronaut.
Boomer Peple, also 11 and in the fifth grade, said, “It would be really cool to see stuff no one else has ever seen.”
Friedman and Peple’s teacher Mikaela Quattrini said Morgan and O’Keefe’s visit made the space unit the students studied a few weeks ago more real for them. “This made it a reality to help them understand the material we’ve been learning about,” she said. “They are very proud, too. This was a big honor bestowed on us.”