— Two more companies say they are setting aside seats in their yet-to-be-built suborbital craft to give teachers a free ride to the edge of space: The Space Frontier Foundation reports that Masten Space Systems has signed up for its "Teachers in Space" program, and the chairman of the Canadian-American venture PlanetSpace told me he wants to participate as well. It's just the latest small step toward a giant leap in out-of-this-world educational opportunities.
Eventually, the Space Frontier Foundation would like to see a federally funded $20 million program to put teachers on suborbital spaceships - which would help prime the pump for private enterprise in space travel. For now, however, organizers are happy with every privately donated seat they can get.
"Rides to space are what we're about," Bill Boland, project manager for Teachers in Space, said in this week's news release. "Masten Space System's generosity means another teacher will have the experience of a lifetime. It's great to have them onboard."
Masten is hard at work on an unmanned XA-1.0 rocket that can take payloads the size of soft-drink cans up to altitudes in excess of 62 miles (100 kilometers), with manned flight as a goal for the 2009-2010 time frame.
"We want to democratize space," said Michael Mealling, Masten's marketing vice president. "We want to encourage K-12 students to be in close proximity to the kind of science only NASA has been able to do until now. By flying their teachers we can create a direct connection to these kids in a way national space programs could never do. We can make it something they experience and can relate to in the form of someone they respect and work with everyday."
The Space Frontier Foundation hasn't announced a deal with PlanetSpace quite yet, but company chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria told me he's already on board with the idea of setting aside a seat on a future Canadian Arrow flight for the Teachers in Space project.
The idea of using space-oriented experiences for educational purposes isn't new. For years, NASA has been offering parabolic flights on its "Weightless Wonder" jet (also known as the "Vomit Comet") to teams of students and teachers with heavy-duty research projects.
More recently, Zero Gravity Corp. set up a less rigorous educational zero-G program for teachers that evolved into Northrop Grumman's "Weightless Flights of Discovery." This month, I participated in the program myself and lived to tell about it. There's a story today about yet another educational zero-G program, targeted at international students rather than teachers.
Suborbital spaceflights promise to kick the experience up a notch - with that weightless sensation lasting for minutes rather than seconds at a time, and a fantastic view out the window. Note to spaceship builders: Your passenger cabins should be bristling with video cameras pointing inside and out, to record the experience from multiple points of view for the take-home DVD.
Then there's the orbital experience. Over the years, NASA astronauts have devoted a lot of effort to demonstrations that use the weird environment of microgravity to teach the finer points of physics. Unfortunately, the space agency's first attempt to put an actual educator in orbit ended with the death of elementary-school teacher Christa McAuliffe and six full-time astronauts in the 1986 Challenger explosion.
Ever since then, Idaho elementary-teacher Barbara Morgan has been waiting for her chance. Morgan was McAuliffe's backup for the Challenger flight, and NASA promised her that if educators were ever again allowed to board the shuttle, she would be first in line. That's why Morgan was brought into the astronaut corps in 1998, as NASA's first educator astronaut.
At one point, it looked as if Morgan would finally get her flight in the fall of 2003 - but once again, tragedy scrambled the schedule. Just recently, NASA confirmed that Morgan and her crewmates would fly to the international space station on the http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/archives/sts-118/index.html" target="_blank">STS-118 mission, scheduled for launch no earlier than June 11, 2007.
Since Morgan's selection, three more educator astronauts have been selected, but it's not clear whether any of them will fly on the space shuttle before the fleet is retired in 2010.
Will there be a privately organized "Teachers in Orbit" program to follow up on zero-G flights and the suborbital "Teachers in Space"? Or will the educational work be taken on by deep-pocketed civilians such as telecom entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari? (She's due to speak with students at George Washington University on Friday over an orbit-to-Earth communication link, and participate in a variety of educational events after her return.)
What does an educator bring to the outer-space experience that an astronaut or a millionaire can't offer?
Teachers, here's your chance to speak out. You don't even have to raise your hands: Just leave a comment below.
Update for 8:45 p.m. PT: After checking the schedule, I revised my listing for Anousheh Ansari's school contact.