Parabolic Tales

An Idaho journalist Endeavours to tell an astronaut's story


I can get queasy driving from Idaho City to Lowman. Even on commercial jets, I have to sit in front of the wing, where it's steadier, and by a window, so I can see the horizon.

Needless to say, I won't be riding on a space shuttle anytime soon. The idea of being weightless has never much appealed to me. I quite enjoy the ground and take full advantage of gravity to careen at high speeds downhill on my bicycle.

And while the experience of watching the grainy black-and-white transmission of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon will forever be etched in my mind, I've never had a particular fetish for astronauts (don't go there, folks ...).

But the story of astronaut Barbara Morgan has always intrigued me. As much about goal-setting and perseverance as it is about the space program, it's also poignant. First, as the runner-up to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, Morgan did everything McAuliffe did, except step into that Challenger orbiter, which exploded 73 seconds after launch.

Then, in February 2003, nine months before Morgan was finally scheduled to launch, the shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry. It was the same craft she would have ridden later that year.

Yet Morgan kept going, kept supporting NASA. She kept supporting the idea that "space—the final frontier" isn't just a catchy television phrase, but a metaphor for the kind of exploration that moves cultures or individuals forward.

She also seemed to have the patience of the gods.

Twelve years after McAuliffe died, Morgan was still teaching in McCall and making presentations for NASA. Then, in 1998, she was invited back to Houston to train as a full-fledged astronaut. It would be four more years until she was assigned to a mission. It took another four years after the Columbia disaster for her flight on the Endeavour shuttle to be given the green light. Morgan was 33 when she was first selected; she's now 55.

It's a story with as many parabolic curves as those flights the astronauts take to simulate weightlessness. But good stories have arcs to them. That's real life, after all. And Morgan's determination can also inspire people of all ages to pursue their dreams, no matter the obstacles. So I wanted to try to tell it.

However, despite its ready-made nature on paper, it's not necessarily an easy tale to tell.

For one thing, astronauts are very, very busy. Scheduling time with Morgan meant working with countless public relations folks at NASA, being ready to hop a plane with only a few days notice and even conducting some interviews as someone stood behind me with a stopwatch.

Getting footage of Morgan has been another challenge. In 2003, NASA allowed videographer Jay Krajic and me to videotape Morgan in training. But since then, the agency has decided to limit her appearances to formal press events, or simply hand out NASA stock footage of her and her crew.

Press events with a popular astronaut generally result in videographers taking pictures of other videographers, or other reporters, or boom mikes, as everyone crowds around and jockeys for position. The flashes of still photographers further damage the shots.

And, of course, everyone gets virtually the same video. Not a great scenario.

When NASA hands out stock video footage, it's the same situation. Everyone gets the same shots. And some, mysteriously, are missing sound. According to one press person we spoke with, it's up to the commanders' discretion as to whether sound gets recorded in certain venues, for instance, when the astronauts are suiting up for their pre-launch test.

Even when you do want stock footage from NASA, it can be hard to find. I spent a week working with a NASA employee to track down a particular piece I knew had to exist. Finally, after looking through three libraries, she found it.

Another dilemma: Video footage of Morgan actually teaching seems to be virtually non-existent. Unfortunately, if it isn't happening right now, it's not "news." So when Morgan went back to McCall, no one thought to get video of her. Instead, I'm relying on still photos scrounged from various sources. (But if you know of tape, please let me know.)

Fortunately, as far as interviews, Idaho Public Television did have Morgan on its weekly program in both 1985 and 1986, as well as on Dialogue and Dialogue for Kids. It's been entertaining to look back at a young(er) Marc Johnson, now of the Gallatin Group, talking with Morgan after she'd been initially chosen, and IPTV's Bruce Reichert interviewing her after the Challenger explosion.

Since 1986, Morgan has been remarkably consistent, clear-eyed and un-emotional about the tragedies she's witnessed. Whether it's because she simply has the innate capacity to see the positive in any situation or because she has had to develop a ready response to the same questions over and over, Morgan keeps herself at arm's length from emotion. It's even difficult for her to express excitement about going into space, asking reporters to revisit the question upon her return. She's completely focused on the work at hand.

Morgan does have a fun and wry sense of humor. I had hoped to see that side of her by filming her with her family, but after the Challenger disaster, both she and her husband, Clay, decided to keep their children away from the media. Clay says they saw how painful it was for McAuliffe's family to repeatedly see video of her with her children.

So, at least for now, you won't see footage of Morgan being both a parent and an astronaut, certainly one of the more intriguing job/life combinations. But, of course, you have to respect the Morgans' choice, and privacy.

The biggest challenge may simply be telling a story that everyone else is telling, too. I'm usually drawn to stories that are more in the shadows; this, by contrast, is a story that all the networks are covering.

So, I'm trying to find a narrative thread that's a bit different; one that works around the lack of video and access, one that doesn't just have an arc, but also comes full circle.

Frankly, I'm still on that journey, as we all are, because a big part of Morgan's story is yet to happen—the launch of the Shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for Aug. 7.

I have no doubt that even at mach 23, she will remain cool, calm and professional. It's everyone else down below who will be yelling their hearts out—after they stop holding their breath.

Franklin's first installment of Barbara Morgan's story will air on Dialogue on Idaho Public Television, 8 p.m., Thursday and 5 p.m. Sunday.