There aren't many Idahoans who have seen the state like Barbara Morgan. For more than 12 days in 2007, she and six other crew members saw the United States from 250 miles up while aboard the International Space Station. Morgan, who began her career as an elementary teacher in McCall, was selected by NASA as a participant in the Teacher in Space program, training first in 1985 as a back-up candidate for the Space Shuttle Challenger crew. After the Challenger's tragic explosion, she continued to work with NASA and train for a mission that ultimately took her to space two decades later. During our conversation with Morgan, we discussed her experiences in space, her work as a Boise State University professor and the state of science education in the United States today.
BW: There must be a million strange things about adjusting to a zero-G environment. What was the weirdest one?
BM: For everyone, it's a little bit different. You get what's called a fluid shift, where you don't have gravity pulling on the fluid in your body. Everything shifts upward into your head. That's why if you look at pictures of people in space, you'll see their faces look a lot rounder and fuller. Your digestive system shuts down, the fluid moves to your head and your brain thinks that you have too much in your body. So you spend the first couple days getting rid of that fluid. You're actually kind of dehydrated even though it doesn't feel like it. And before you come back down to Earth, you have to restore that fluid, so you drink lots of either salt water or salty chicken or beef consomme. You have to build those electrolytes back up in the body so you don't pass out.
BW: This may be a silly question, but as one of the few people who have seen Earth from space, what do you make of Flat Earther conspiracy theorists?
BM: The Earth is not flat! We were up about 250 miles up, and you cannot see the whole Earth from that view. So it's not like the Apollo program, when we captured that beautiful view of the full Earth and also the Earth rise. From 250 miles up you can basically see across the entire United States and a little bit beyond. So you definitely see the curve of the Earth, and you know the Earth is round!
BW: And what a sight, too!
BM: I really wish that every single person could see it, because I do think it will help bring our world closer together.
You travel around the Earth in 90 minutes, so it's 45 minutes of day, 45 minutes of night. All those beautiful pictures that you see of Earth where it's shining and glowing, and you see the clouds are all on the daytime side of the planet. ... It is absolutely pitch black all the way down to the edge of the planet, and all that atmosphere we look at from our perspective on Earth that looks like it goes on forever. It's like an eighth of an inch or a quarter of an inch. It's like the skin on an apple. That's a perspective I wish everyone could see. And that's when you really understand we are all on this planet traveling through space. We are on spaceship Earth.
BW: Shortly after the mission, you accepted a position at Boise State University. What led you to choose Boise as your home following the mission?
BM: I have a commitment to education and had an opportunity to come to Boise State. It was transitioning into a metropolitan research university of distinction. It was a great honor and pleasure to be able to help with that transition and work full-time on education again. Boise is where our family is, also. I had a wonderful career at Boise State. I feel very lucky to have had three incredible careers: in elementary education, as an astronaut and higher education.
BW: Tell me about investing yourself in a community after something as momentous as space flight? How do you pass those experiences along to the next generation?
BM: I've been very lucky to work with kids and teachers across the state. We have wonderful students here, and it's a pleasure to be able to do that. I am emeritus now at Boise State and am retired from my full-time position, and I love it. I love Boise, I love our whole state. I love McCall and have been here for many years, too. I just think we're very lucky to be able to live and work in Idaho.
BW: We face many challenges in society that can only be addressed by a strong scientific backbone. Do you have any thoughts or concerns about the state of science education and support in America today?
BM: I wouldn't limit it to just science. What I love about education is its work is never finished. And it's constantly going to be improved upon. As times change, we adjust to the times. And with the new science standards, the focus is more than just memorizing facts. It is about the work of scientists and the overarching themes and the process... I'm really excited about what we're doing. I think we can never take education for granted, especially public education. I think public education is the foundation of our democracy, and I really worry when it is constantly under attack.
BW: Is there anything that excites you about the future of space travel?
BM: I hope that you can go into space someday. And I would say never say never. One of the things that excites me is the whole commercial space program. I know it seems like a long time—many, many years—but people are working very hard toward that. I always think about my grandfather, who was 90 years old when he died. He came over to this country on a boat before there were cars. And in his lifetime, he saw the development of cars ... all the way to commercial airlines and even to see the first space shuttle launch, re-enter the Earth and be able to be used again. Anything is possible if we set our minds to it.