CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Space shuttle Endeavour roared into orbit yesterday carrying teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who after more than two decades is finally carrying out the dream of Christa McAuliffe and the rest of the fallen Challenger crew.
Endeavour and its crew of seven rose from the seaside pad at 6:36 p.m., right on time, and pierced a solidly blue sky. They are expected to reach the international space station today.
Once Endeavour was safely past the 73-second mark of the flight, the moment when Challenger exploded shortly after the call "Go at throttle up," Mission Control exclaimed, "Morgan racing toward space on the wings of a legacy."
Immediately after the shuttle reached orbit, Mission Control announced, "For Barbara Morgan and her crewmates, class is in session."
Morgan was McAuliffe's backup for Challenger's doomed launch in 1986 and, even after two space shuttle disasters, never swayed in her dedication to NASA and the agency's on-and-off quest to send a schoolteacher into space. She rocketed off in the center seat of the cabin's lower compartment, the spot that had been occupied by McAuliffe.
McAuliffe's mother, Grace Corrigan, watched the televised launch from her home in Massachusetts. "I'm very happy that it went up safely," she said.
More than half of NASA's 114 Teacher-in-Space nominees from 1985 gathered at the launch site, along with hundreds of other educators, to see Morgan continue what McAuliffe began.
Also on hand was the widow of Challenger's commander, who said earlier in the day that she would be praying and pacing at liftoff and would not relax until Morgan was safely back on Earth in two weeks.
"The Challenger crew -- my husband, Dick Scobee, the teacher Christa McAuliffe -- they would be so happy with Barbara Morgan," said June Scobee Rodgers. "It's important that the lessons will be taught because there's a nation of people waiting, still, who remember where they were when we lost the Challenger and they remember a teacher was aboard."
Michael Griffin, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, met Tuesday night with several members of the Challenger astronaut families in town for the launch and said they did not seem worried.
"They didn't act like they came to see another tragedy," he said. "They're here to celebrate her having a chance to fly."
A little more than an hour before liftoff, NASA successfully worked through a pair of problems. Microswitches on the shuttle hatch were not indicating a good seal, so two technicians entered Endeavour and confirmed from inside that the hatch was closing properly.
A week into the flight, Morgan, 55, will speak with schoolchildren in Idaho, where she lived and taught before joining NASA in 1998 as the first teacher to undergo full astronaut training.