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Published: Monday, 8/6/2007

NASA's PR mission

NASA is scheduled to send a teacher into space on Wednesday, 21 years after an earlier effort ended in disaster. If all goes well with the Endeavour shuttle flight with Barbara Morgan, 55, as a crew member, the space agency may actually experience a public relations rebound.

After the spate of bad press that hit NASA in recent months, any boost to its battered reputation would be welcome. One of its latest embarrassments, involving astronauts drinking before launches, recalls a role Jack Nicholson played in the 1983 film Terms of Endearment.

The character, Garrett Breedlove, was a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing, self-obsessed former astronaut who broke rules faster than officials could set them.

What made Mr. Nicholson's Oscar-winning depiction of an alcoholic astronaut so hilarious was how unthinkable it would have been for such a person to have gotten a job at NASA in the first place.

A lot has happened in 24 years since Terms of Endearment packed movie houses. Were it released today, it might qualify as a documentary, if recent stories about the troubled space agency are to be believed.

In February, shuttle astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested at Orlando International Airport for allegedly attacking a woman she considered a rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut. Allegations of Ms. Nowak's bizarre behavior created a tabloid firestorm.

Two new reports last week added to NASA's public relations woes. Aviation Week & Space Technology reported that, on two occasions, astronauts were allowed to fly into space despite the threat they posed to the mission by being drunk. The identities of the astronauts have not been revealed.

If that weren't scary enough, NASA reported that a disgruntled employee for one of its subcontractors sabotaged a computer slated for installation on the International Space Station. The agency is racing to repair it in time for the shuttle launch next month.

To say NASA's prestige has suffered as a result is an understatement. There was a time when the agency was synonymous with the highest ideals of American life.

Barbara Morgan's initial involvement with the space agency came during a far more optimistic period for NASA. She was backup to high school teacher Christa McAuliffe when the agency had great ambitions for its fledgling shuttle program and its educational potential.

The Challenger explosion, which took the lives of Ms. McAuliffe and six crewmates, dashed those hopes. And the subsequent disaster with the shuttle Columbia grounded the fleet for two years.

The teacher has waited a long time to fly in space. If she can carry the torch for the Challenger crew and rekindle public interest in its mission, she will have served NASA and her nation well.



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