Macon woman recalls applying to become first teacher in space

Elsie Daniels’ name could have been on the space shuttle Challenger memorials across the nation instead of teacher Christa McAuliffe.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan asked NASA to start a Teacher In Space Project, and Daniels answered the call. Daniels was a teacher at Monroe County Middle School at the time and she made it through several rounds of selection in 1985.

Rockets didn’t scare Daniels. Heights didn’t bother her, either. Typing did give her pause when it came to applying, she said.

“We had to be very precise in our application. NASA wanted only the best, and just typing out the application had several restrictions. We couldn’t cross a certain line on the page, and of course there could be no mistakes made,” Daniels said. “I decided to hire somebody to type it out.”

She still has a copy of the blue jacketed application folder, which contains page after page of biographical information and references from community leaders.

It could have landed in a pile with almost 11,000 others, but Daniels made the top 10 percent of choices from the Georgia pool of selectees, she said.

Daniels was ultimately eliminated, and in July 1985, NASA settled on just two teachers. New Hampshire’s McAuliffe would fly the mission, and California-born Barbara Morgan would serve as a backup crewmember.

The aim was to put teachers through grueling astronaut training and launch them into space to perform research, all in order to spark interest in math and science studies. For 73 seconds on Jan. 28, 1986, a teacher -- McAuliffe -- was bound for orbit. The journey was cut short.

A defective piece of a rocket booster damaged by cold weather blew out, causing Challenger to explode and killing the seven astronauts aboard.

The danger was never a consideration for Daniels, she said.

“I knew it would be dangerous, and I was 53 years old then,” Daniels said Thursday while sitting in the kitchen of her north Macon home, never taking her eye off a batch of brownies she was baking. “That never left my mind. But I’m what you would call a glutton for punishment for my kids.

“If I thought I could get something across to them, then I would do it. Even go into space.”

A student called and told her the shuttle exploded on that cold day in January 1986.

“She called crying and laughing nervously,” Daniels said. “It could have been me.”

The tragedy grounded the American human spaceflight program for almost three years in the 1980s. Morgan would finally fly in space in August 2007, but she left her teaching post to become a full-time astronaut.

The space program had been a side interest for Daniels, now 78. Memories of America’s race to the moon include the Apollo 1 fire on Jan. 27, 1967, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s jaunt on the lunar surface on July 22, 1969.

In May 1979, she did manage to get NASA to send sample moon rocks to show her students, however.

“That was something for them. How could you not be interested in pieces of the moon? I hadn’t been a direct fan or kept up with every bit of space research, but I saw it as a valuable way to teach,” Daniels said. “If I thought it would reach them, then I would go after it, no matter what it was. Being a teacher in space was something that I could use to reach my students and fire their interests in science.

“For that reason I wanted to ride a rocket, and no other.”