by DR. KIM THORBURN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he large digital clock showed minus four seconds when exhaust blew over the launch pad three miles to the east, on the other side of the Banana River. The 200 or so crew guests were counting down the seconds in unison. At zero, the nose of the orbiter Endeavor lifted over the shuttle structure, straight into the evening sky, glowing purplish orange as it reflected the rays of the setting sun.
Sitting on bleachers among the other crew guests, I felt my heart swell into my throat. Tears streamed down my face. I was unprepared for such emotion as I watched the perfect launch arch spaceward, carrying my girlhood friend from Fresno, Calif., Barbara Morgan. I was thrilled for Barbara: She had persevered through 22 years for this moment.
Surrounded by Barbara's family, I knew what was weighing most heavily on all our minds at that moment: the memory of the 1986 Challenger disaster and of Barbara's friend, Christa McAuliffe, who was on that flight.
We came off the bleachers eight and a half minutes after the launch, many eyes glistening like mine. The orbiter had been out of view for four minutes, but we waited for the moment when all external rocket boosters had dropped away and the orbiter was flying on its own power.
NASA and space exploration are controversial -- the high costs, problems with safety, goals gyrations through the years. But Barbara is a believer. Selected as a teacher-in-space in 1985 and a semi-finalist along with McAuliffe, she stuck with NASA through thick and thin. After the Challenger explosion, Barbara returned to teaching in McCall, Idaho, but was always available when NASA called. The call came in 1998, and it was to become an astronaut. Barbara and her husband, Clay, moved to Houston with their pre-teen sons, Adam and Ryan. As a mission specialist on STS-118, she is responsible for operating Endeavor's robotic arm.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hen the envelope came from NASA a couple of months ago, I opened it right away. I knew that Barbara was scheduled on a shuttle flight later this summer but I was nonetheless surprised to find an invitation to the launch. I marked my calendar and set the envelope aside. I'd look at my calendar and think, "a chance of a lifetime." Finally, right before the deadline, I registered to be a crew guest.
As the date approached, I grew more excited. I'd been waiting with Barbara all of those years. Yet I still had no idea what exhilaration was in store. Two days before the scheduled launch, I arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to sign in for the special crew guest briefing and tour the following day. We'd been told repeatedly that we would not be able to see the crew, which was in quarantine. Yet upon boarding the tour bus, we were informed by our guide that there would be only one stop -- the launch site, where we would greet the crew members.
I was one of the first off the buses. The astronauts and their immediate families were behind a fence in front of the shuttle with instructions to keep some distance between us. "Kim Thorburn," called Barb as I walked up. "You look great. Thank you for coming. These are my sons." Thank me for coming? Thank you, Barbara, for inviting me.
That was Barbara -- generous, kind-hearted. The mischievous side was still there, too. As nieces, cousins and a few Morgan nephews arrived at the cordon, she tossed candy. When that ran out, she approached us for embraces and greetings. NASA staff had to move her back repeatedly.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & fter the launch the next day, Barb's cousin, Jill, and I walked out to the buses together. Jill remarked that "Barb is such a role model for kids. She's an example to us all." I could only agree. When Barbara and I were growing up, space exploration was new and exciting -- something that many of us dreamed of. But now Barbara is living that dream. More important, for the sake of our children, Barbara has stuck with that dream for all of these years.
Barbara Morgan believes in inspiring children -- by showing them courage, by stimulating their curiosity, and by demonstrating that achieving a dream means hard work and perseverance.