Teacher-astronaut? Astronaut-teacher? Does it matter any more?

Should we be surprised that the first “Educator Astronauts” to fly in space won’t actually be teaching lessons from orbit?

NASA's Educator Astronauts: Mr. Arnold (top), Mr. Acaba, and Mrs. (Dottie) Metcalf-Lindenburger

Should we be surprised that the first “Educator Astronauts” to fly in space won’t actually be teaching lessons from orbit? Maybe it’s a sign of progress. Ricky Arnold and Joe Acaba, who were both classroom teachers before joining NASA in 2004, will be plenty busy on their two-week STS-119 mission. They’ll each go out on two spacewalks, including one together on March 21 to do routine maintenance on the space station. Rookie astronauts don’t often get to spacewalk their first time up. NASA must have a lot of faith in these guys.

And that, really, is the point. We no longer question whether an “ordinary” teacher is capable of doing the work of an astronaut. When Christa McAuliffe was chosen to fly on Challenger in 1986, she was an outsider, a civilian daring to venture where only square-jawed professionals (okay, and the odd politician and Saudi prince) had gone before. McAuliffe aimed to make the shuttle her classroom, and would likely have done a fine job with the many lessons she prepared.

But 100 shuttle flights later, the distinction between amateur, professional, and educator astronaut seems far less important. Science lessons—good ones—are routinely beamed down from orbit by career astronauts like Don Pettit. Richard Garriott, a paying space tourist who could have spent his whole trip turning zero-g backflips if he’d wanted to, conducted interactive lessons for the Challenger Center instead. Do we really need a separate category of teacher-astronaut any more?

(By the way, the same goes for the outdated notion of a “journalist in space.” What could Anderson Cooper tell us about life in orbit that Charles Simonyi and Anousheh Ansari haven’t already?)

So even though NASA’s first Educator Astronauts will undoubtedly put in many long days visiting schools after they return, for the next two weeks let's just consider them astronauts, without the qualifier. And somewhere, a former middle school student will be watching and saying, “Wow, that’s Mr. Arnold!”

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