July 29, 1985 12:00 PM


They have lived lately at a motel near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, getting up each morning at 6 o’clock to expose themselves to things not even the most imaginative 10-year-old would wish on his least favorite teacher. Running on a treadmill (imagine Mrs. Crankshaw from second grade trying that). Being zipped into 11 layered cloth bags to test for claustrophobia (don’t even try). Being zoomed up and down like a roller coaster in a KC-135 training plane 40 times one morning in order to experience weightlessness and air sickness (even Crankshaw didn’t deserve that).

They’ve been dubbed the “teachernauts,” and by the end of the month one of them will be chosen to be America’s first pure civilian shot into space.

President Reagan himself suggested that the first “citizen passenger” in orbit should be an educator. “All of America will be reminded of the crucial role teachers and education play in the life of our nation,” the President declared last August. Cynics noted that at the time, Reagan, running for reelection, had poor support among teachers, and NASA, hoping for 100,000 applications, got only 10,000. Three weeks ago 10 finalists were chosen by a special panel that seemed as oriented toward public relations as toward quality. One celeb member was Pam Dawber of TV’s Mork & Mindy. Each teacher, moreover, had to make a videotape “screen test,” which included giving his or her “philosophy of life” in 90 seconds. And committee head William Pierce admitted that one of his key criteria was, “Would I like to see this person on the cover of Time and on the Today show?”

Yet the finalists have done amazingly well: While half of all past space candidates have thrown up during weightlessness, for example, only one teacher needed an airsick bag.

Each has a project for space, ranging from keeping detailed diaries to showing the effects of weightlessness by mixing up a salad dressing. But none has a more poetic charge than Peggy Lathlaen, 34, a teacher of gifted children from Texas. When told about the trip she might make, her 5-year-old nephew had one request: “Will you bring me a star?” Good question.

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