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After 22-year wait, teacher ready to blast off to space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - When former schoolteacher Barbara Morgan leaves Earth on a space shuttle next week, she hopes her students back in Idaho learn a lesson from her 22-year wait to get into orbit: perseverance and patience.

That's what defines teachers, said the astronaut, who is achieving her dream at age 55.

Morgan will fly with six other astronauts to the international space station on the shuttle Endeavour, assuming launch goes forward on Wednesday as planned.

The mission comes less than two weeks after an embarrassing report by a panel of medical experts suggested some astronauts were cleared to fly after drinking too much - despite concerns raised by flight surgeons and other astronauts. NASA says it's investigating those claims. The report on astronaut health also called for regular psychological tests.

Endeavour commander Scott Kelly said he has already discussed behavior expectations for the upcoming flight. Until the news about possible astronaut drinking, most of the attention in recent weeks has been on the next mission and Barbara Morgan.

In 1985, Morgan was chosen from thousands of applicants to be the back-up to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe. They trained together at Johnson Space Center in Houston for six months, and it was McAuliffe who was on board Challenger when it blew apart on Jan. 28, 1986. A poorly designed seal in the shuttle's solid rocket booster was blamed for the disaster that killed her and six astronauts.

After the Challenger accident, Morgan returned to teaching grade school students in Idaho, but NASA asked her to stay on as the teacher-in-space designee. She gave speeches and served on a federal task force for women. She helped NASA figure out how to include space in schools' curriculum.

She waited to go to space.

NASA struggled with whether to continue the teacher-in-space program or whether to include teachers in the astronaut experience in another way. The agency chose the latter, and in 1998 Morgan was asked to become a full-fledged astronaut. Three other teachers have since joined the astronaut corps.

Morgan's duties during the Endeavour mission will include helping move 5,000 pounds of cargo from the shuttle to the space station and relocating a stowage platform using the shuttle's robotic arm.