Much is being made of Wang Yaping, who is described as “China’s first teacher in space.”
The Chinese space program is all about public relations and scoring “firsts.” Yet, no one seems to ask if this claim is accurate.
According to the Chinese news media, the 33-year-old Wang is a member of the Communist Party and a major in the People’s Liberation Army with 1600 hours of flying time. Nowhere does the story indicate that she has ever been a schoolteacher. In fact, given the reported details of her military and space career, it is hard to see how Major Wang could have found the time for that.
Apparently, she is being described as a “teacher in space” simply because her mission plan includes teaching a lesson from space.
That is quite a stretch. Astronauts have been giving short lectures and demonstrations from space since the days of Project Apollo, at least. Don Petit’s “Saturday Morning Science” sessions aboard the International Space Station are a great example. Yet, Petit never claimed that those lessons made him a teacher in space.
The “teachers in space” concept dates back to the 1980’s. The original Teacher in Space program was announced by President Ronald Reagan on August 27, 1984. The goal of the program was to fly at least one classroom teacher on the Space Shuttle and return him (or her) to the classroom.
That program came to an end after the Challenger accident, which claimed the life of teacher Christa McAuliffe. President Reagan wanted the program to continue. The night after the accident, he went on national television and said, “Nothing ends here. Our hopes and journeys continue. There will be more Shuttle flights… and more teaches in space.” Unfortunately, the bureaucracy did not have the same courage. The Commander-in-Chief’s instructions were ignored, and the program came to an end.
McAuliffe’s backup, Barbara Morgan, subsequently trained and flew aboard the Space Shuttle, but not as part of the Teacher in Space program. NASA created a new program, called Educator Astronauts. The Educator Astronaut program does not prepare teachers to fly in space and return to the classroom. Instead, it takes teachers out of the classroom to become permanent members of the NASA Astronaut Corps. For this reason, NASA does not consider educator astronauts to be teachers in space.
The founders of the United States Rocket Academy revived the Teachers in Space program in 2005. We recognized that the new fully reusable suborbital spacecraft would allow us to fly not just one or two teachers in space, but large numbers of teachers.
The new program was publicly revealed in March when second-grade teacher Pam Lesstma completed a training flight in a privately owned MiG-21UM jet fighter. Soon after, the United States Rocket Academy acquired a contract with XCOR Aerospace for 10 flights on a suborbital spacecraft that would eventually be known as the Lynx.
In 2012, we announced that Teachers in Space was being expanded into a larger program, called Citizens in Space. There were a number of reasons for this change, which was well received by all the teachers we talked to. First, we had been approached by many people who were informal (museum) educators, university students and professors, etc. who asked why they were not eligible. Frankly, we couldn’t think of any good reason.
Second, many people had asked us what teachers in space were going to be doing during their suborbital flight. Was it just a ride?
We had some vague ideas about educational experiments, but the concept didn’t really gel until we noticed the rapid growth of the citizen-science and maker movement. At that point, we immediately realized that this was a logical combination.
The Citizens in Space program combines citizen science and maker activities with the educational goals of our original Teachers in Space program. Teacher astronauts are now embedded within our citizen-astronaut training program, not as observers or second-class citizens but as full participants. The training they receive, and the experiments, will not be watered down or simplified in any way. Rather, teachers will be asked to step up and perform at a higher level.
In addition to our citizen-astronaut training program, we are also inviting teachers (and students) to participate by building experiments to fly on our flights. We will be offering training for his through our Space Hacker Workshops. At these workshops, teachers will work alongside hobbyists and professionals from many fields.
In the future, most of our citizen astronauts will be chosen from the ranks of citizen scientists who have built and submitted experiments. It is likely that many of them will be teachers (much like Gregor Mendel, the high-school teacher who invented the science of genetics).
We believe that this immersive approach is the best way to provide teachers with genuine research experience (which most high-school science teachers are currently lacking) and the content knowledge they need. Over the last several years, however, we have spoken to many educational experts, inside and outside of NASA. Over and over again, we were told that teachers need more content knowledge. Most teachers are well-honed in teaching theory and pedogogy but they are desperate for content, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas.
The other thing we have heard is that teachers need first-hand experience with the scientific process. “Learning through inquiry” is a popular phrase in modern education, but most schoolteachers have never had the opportunity to participate in a genuine research project performing real experiments. They are being asked to teach something which they have never done. Citizen science can provide a solution to this problem.
Citizens in Space continues to expand and grow. We have not abandoned the original goals of Teachers in Space, nor have we “split” the program or transferred any part of the program to another organization. We still hope to enable a large number of teachers to fly in space and return to the classroom, along with people from every walk of life.
There are other organizations that have the goal of flying teachers in space. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education has acquired two seats on a Virgin Galactic flight for teachers. Virgin Galactic has also donated a seat to the Royal Air Force for a British teacher. So far, however, we are the only organization that has purchased a significant block of flights and initiated a training program for citizen astronauts. We hope we will not be alone much longer. Regardless of what other organizations do, however, our path is clear. As President Reagan said, our hopes and journeys will continue.