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Endeavouring to Tell the Story

by Marcia Franklin

I can get queasy driving myself 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.

Barbara Morgan in her McCall classroom

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.

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.

Barbara Morgan talking to kids at a presentation

Yet Barbara Morgan kept going, kept supporting NASA, kept supporting the idea that “space--the final frontier” wasn’t just a catchy television phrase, but was instead a metaphor for all kinds 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, even after she was invited back to Houston in 1998 to train as a full-fledged astronaut, it would be another four years until she was assigned to a mission, then four more years after the Columbia disaster until her flight was given the green light again. 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 Barbara’s determination can also inspire people of all ages to pursue their dreams, no matter the obstacles. So I wanted to try and tell it.

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 has meant working with countless public relations folks at NASA, being ready to hop on a plane with only a few days notice, and even conducting some interviews as someone stood behind me with a stopwatch.

Barbara Morgan talking to kids at a presentation

Getting footage of Barbara has been another challenge. NASA has apparently decided that, rather than let separate television crews film her, they will instead schedule press events or simply hand out video.

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 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.

Interestingly, there’s ample video of Barbara and Christa, but very little footage of Barbara training over the past few years. Fortunately, NASA gave me and videographer Jay Krajic permission in 2003 to spend some time with Morgan and her crew. But opportunities like that seem to have disappeared, and her crew has changed since then.

Barbara Morgan trying on part of her space suit

A real dilemma: video 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 Barbara after she’d been initially chosen, and our own dashing Bruce Reichert interviewing Barbara after the Challenger explosion.

Since 1986, Barbara has been remarkably consistent, clear-eyed and non-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.

Barbara does have a fun, wry sense of humor, and 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 he and Barbara saw how painful it was for McAuliffe’s family to see video of Christa with her children over and over.

So at least for now you won’t see footage of Barbara 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 Barbara’s story is yet to happen—the launch of the Shuttle Endeavour, scheduled for August 7th.

I have no doubt that even at Mach 23, Barbara 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.