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Illustration: Suborbital spaceship
Space Adventures
In an artist's conception, a private suborbital spaceship soars against the backdrop of a curving Earth and the black sky of space.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/21/2006 2:56:29 PM ET 2006-04-21T18:56:29

As suborbital space companies gear up for their first tourist flights in the next couple of years, at least three seats have been set aside to give teachers a free ride to the final frontier, a space activist group announced Friday.

So far, three ventures — Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. and California-based XCOR Aerospace — have each pledged to donate a ticket for a teacher's use once they're at full operations, according to Rick Tumlinson, one of the organizers behind the private-sector "Teachers in Space" effort. Such seats are valued in the $100,000-to-$200,000 range, but the first opportunities for flight won't come until next year at the earliest.

The Space Frontier Foundation has been laying the groundwork for the effort over the past few months, and announced the companies' pledges Friday at the Space Access ’06 conference in Phoenix. Tumlinson told MSNBC.com that the project is designed to send scores of teachers to the fringe of outer space and back every year — and support the rise of the suborbital spaceflight industry at the same time.

"The eventual goal of the program is to get at least 100 teachers a year into suborbital spaceflight, with a mix of private and public funding," he explained. "However, we realize that it's premature to begin any legislative action to get that funding. ... So what we're starting with is going after private contributions from either companies or individuals."

More than a joyride
Tumlinson said the selection process for the suborbital space teacher program still had to be worked out, in cooperation with educational groups such as the National Science Teachers Association.

Al Byers, NSTA's assistant executive director for government partnerships and e-learning, told MSNBC.com that his organization will look forward to working with private-sector partners on space opportunities. Byers also emphasized that the experience should be more than just a joyride.

"We're supportive of any experience that would enhance teachers' knowledge and experiences, to excite students to study science, mathematics, technology and engineering," he said. "The real challenge is being able to transfer that experience to the classroom. ... If it doesn’t translate to what teachers can do in the classroom, ultimately it's much ado about nothing."

Byers said NSTA "recognizes and applauds the effort of bringing in the high-tech sector of industry" to support educational goals.

Only the beginning
Project leader for the "Teachers in Space" effort is business executive Bill Boland, and the advisory board includes Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

In a news release, Boland praised the companies whose contributions were announced Friday. "They understand how the real-life experience of space flight can touch the classroom.  These new American heroes are offering tickets, at a real financial cost to them, to support America’s future, its teachers and students," he said.

And Tumlinson said there was more to come: "Other companies that have stepped forward will come out in a few weeks. We're getting some real momentum going," he said.

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XCOR spokesman Rich Pournelle said the "Teachers in Space" venture provided an opportunity for competitors in the infant suborbital spaceflight industry to work together for the common good. "This is our attempt to jump-start the program, so we invite both the private sector and the public sector to join us in this new expedition," he told MSNBC.com.

Tragedy marked NASA effort
The idea follows through on NASA's educator-in-space program, which has suffered several setbacks over the past two decades. NASA's first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the 1986 Challenger explosion.

After a decade's wait, Idaho elementary-school teacher Barbara Morgan, who was McAuliffe's backup for Challenger's doomed flight, entered full-time astronaut training in 1998. Morgan had been scheduled to make her maiden spaceflight on the shuttle Columbia in November 2003 — only to have those plans thrown into disarray when Columbia and its crew were lost in February of that year. She is currently assigned to the shuttle Endeavour's STS-118 mission to the international space station, due for launch no earlier than June 2007.

The Columbia tragedy came in the midst of NASA's selection process for a second wave of educator-astronauts. Despite the grounding of the shuttle fleet, NASA followed through on its plans, and three teachers were included in the astronaut candidate class of 2004. However, because of NASA's shifting strategy for space exploration, it's not clear whether any of those teachers will ever fly before the shuttle fleet's scheduled retirement in 2010.

What teachers would experience
The flights that teachers would take on suborbital spacecraft would be markedly different from the days-long orbital trips on NASA's space shuttle. The typical flight would last only a couple of hours, and passengers would experience only a few minutes of weightlessness at the top of the ride.

There'd be little opportunity to conduct real-time lessons from space, as McAuliffe hoped to do and as Morgan intends to do.

Nevertheless, from an altitude of more than 62 miles (100 kilometers), the teachers and other passengers would see the curving Earth spread out below them, with the black sky of space stretching above. And there would be time enough to do microgravity demonstrations for playback after the trip.

"There are experiments that can fly along with the teachers," XCOR's Pournelle said. "Possibly the teachers can fly as payload engineers."

Pournelle said the most inspirational part of the exercise would likely come after the flight itself.

"The teachers will be able to come back and explain to the kids what it's like to fly into space and tell their story," he said. "If the kids see that their teacher flew into space, they see that they can do it too, and it motivates them to want to learn math and science."

In Friday's news release, executives from the first three companies to provide "scholarships" for suborbital spaceflight expanded upon the inspirational theme:

  • Jeff Greason, president of XCOR: "To open space, we will need a workforce that is educated and motivated.  Inspiring today’s students and their teachers by putting them in direct contact with this new space industry does just that."
  • George French, president and chief executive officer of Rocketplane: "Inspiration always accelerates education, and history shows that there is almost nothing that is more inspiring than spaceflight."

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