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TEACHER'S CHALLENGER CLAIM CHALLENGED
SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE CITES
SOURCES, INCLUDING NASA, WHO
DISPUTE FRANK SLEZAK'S CLAIM THAT
HE NEARLY RODE THE SPACE SHUTTLE

By DAVID ISEMAN; Times Leader Staff Writer

Sunday, June 02, 1996     Page: 1

WEATHERLY -- Frank Slezak's name remains notorious in this small borough because of the sex scandal with his students.
    But Slezak has tried to rise above the rap -- very high above it. He has been portraying himself in for-pay speeches as a teacher who almost made it to the deadly Challenger mission.
    NASA, and a reporter in San Diego, have brought him back to earth.
    Slezak, 48, and his "motivational speeches" were the focus of a lengthy, investigative story May 19 in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
    Reporter Christine Huard wrote that Slezak did a weeklong speaking tour in various locations in California early this year -- for hundreds of dollars for nearly every appearance.
    He wore a space shuttle lapel pin and talked fervently about his "friend," Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion, the story says.
    It also quoted at length from Slezak's promotional literature, which says:
    He underwent training to be an astronaut.
    As a "semifinalist" in the Teacher in Space program, he worked with the Challenger crew.
    The explosion of Challenger taught him an invaluable, inspirational lesson about life.
    Officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say Slezak never got close to riding on the ill-fated shuttle.
    The story says he didn't even make the first cut, which left 114 teachers in the running. About 11,000 teachers had applied. The story also said Slezak never underwent astronaut training that was either sponsored or sanctioned by NASA.
    "We know he has nothing to do with NASA. We'd never heard of him before this story," NASA Spokeswoman Beth Schmid told The Times Leader last week.
    She said the investigative story caused enough concern at NASA for officials to refer it to the detective arm of NASA called the Inspector General's Office.
    "This is certainly a mysterious thing on his part ... I don't know why he would do this," Schmid said of Slezak.
    A misunderstanding?
    In a telephone interview from Weatherly last week, Slezak, 48, confirmed he does motivational speaking, that he recently spoke in California and that he stresses his connection to the Challenger, especially how he came close to being chosen for the flight.
    He also confirmed he is the same Frank Slezak who had taught science in Weatherly schools until he pleaded guilty in 1987 to two counts of indecent assault on two 13-year-old girls in his home. They had been former students, old news accounts say.
    He was sentenced in June 1987 in Carbon County Court to 20 to 40 months in prison, which forced his resignation from teaching, court and Weatherly school records show.
    Asked to respond to the Union-Tribune story, Slezak said he read it and didn't think it was fair. He called the reporter who wrote about him a "rattlesnake" but declined to respond to issues the story raised.
    "I really had my fill of reporters," he said. "I've been beat up enough in the press."
    He later sent a fax saying the Union-Tribune reporter had "found a few people who could not remember my involvement in the space program" and failed to check other sources. The only such source he mentions in the fax is the Hazleton Standard-Speaker newspaper.
    Slezak also wrote that the misunderstanding emanated from an "introducer's error who referred to me as the backup to Christa McAuliffe."
    The video
    Slezak has produced a video tape in Hazleton called Challenge Your Dreams, and it tells of how he "got down into the finalists to go on the shuttle," John Nilles, owner of Alpine Productions, Hazleton, told The Times Leader.
    He said Slezak hired him to create the video as a motivational tool. Nilles declined to allow The Times Leader to view the video.
    Some of Slezak's promotional materials -- supplied to The Times Leader by Huard -- spell his surname Slazak and Slayzak but still give his address as Weatherly. Nilles confirmed Slezak at times uses the surname Slazak as he does business.
    Told about the Union-Tribune story, Nilles was surprised and said he knew of no challenge to the truthfulness of Slezak's claims about NASA.
    The `talk'
    The Union-Tribune story quotes a portion of a speech by Slezak in which he says he is still haunted by a heart-to-heart talk he once had with McAuliffe.
    In Slezak's speeches, according to Huard's story, he tells audiences he and McAuliffe talked about who would be selected for the space ride. McAuliffe told him she "had a feeling it's going to be either you or me," Slezak says, contending she continued, "So let's make a deal. If it's me that's chosen, I promise you I will take a piece of your heart with me when I go. And if it's you to go, please take a piece of me with you."
    Barbara Morgan, an elementary school teacher from McCall, Idaho, who NASA says was McAuliffe's backup to ride on the shuttle, told The Timnes Leader she knew all 114 finalists in 1986 and Slezak was not one of them.
    "I've never heard of him," said Morgan. NASA says Morgan still is the teacher designated to go up next in the Teacher in Space program.
    A friend of McAuliffe's who supervised her as a teacher where she worked in Concord, N.H., said McAuliffe never spoke to him of Slezak.
    "This guy's name never came up. I knew the 10 finalists and he was not anywhere near around them," former Concord Superintendent of Schools Mark Beauvais told The Times Leader. Beauvais said he went to many gatherings of finalists and their families and never heard anyone mention Slezak's name.
    He believes Slezak is wrongly trying to make money from McAuliffe's tragedy, adding, "I was her friend. I'm very upset."
   
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