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Sue Darnell Ellis

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced NASA’s Teacher in Space Project, a program designed to honor teachers and inspire students to take a deeper interest in math, science, and technology. Paducah schoolteacher Sue Darnell Ellis was selected to be the Kentucky ambassador to the project.

The Teacher in Space Project was suspended in 1990 because of the tragic 1986 Challenger explosion in which teacher Christa McAuliffe died. But Ellis didn’t walk away from the educational opportunities that she had been working toward for her western Kentucky students and community.

“When I was selected to represent Kentucky for the NASA teacher in space program, and we lost the Challenger, Dr. Larry Allen invited me to come to Paducah schools to do some stuff with NASA,” says Ellis. “From all of that we created the NASA Space Project. It was a community involvement program.”

Ellis and a team of volunteers worked with students, teachers, and families in 19 western Kentucky school districts in the Space Science Education Program. The program was a success, and NASA took notice. Ellis’s program became their national model for space education.

Ellis was recruited by the Kentucky Department of Education, where she served as State Science Consultant from 1989 through 1993. From there, she went on to a long tenure at NASA where she was the Curriculum and Staff Development Specialist, working with educators across the country on math, science, and technology materials.

“Sue took a stand when the Challenger exploded,” says Dr. Renee Fister, a professor of mathematics at Ellis’s alma mater, Murray State University. “She said, ‘I’m going to do what Christa McAuliffe didn’t have the opportunity to do.’

“We in Kentucky sometimes get down on ourselves,” adds Fister, “To be the hub of NASA teacher education at that point—we have a lot to be proud of.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2305, which originally aired on November 4, 2017. Watch the full episode.