HE WILL BE THE ONLY ASTRONAUT, so far at least, to orbit the earth in a Ziploc bag. But then, no one wants fur floating all over the cabin. Weighing less than a six-pack of Tang would, Magellan T. Bear (fuzzy, stuffed and blue) will hit the outer limits of fame when he joins a NASA space mission on Feb. 2.

Call it a giant ursine leap if you must. But it began as a small step in pedagogy at Elk Creek Elementary in Pine, Colo., in 1993. There, library media specialist Penny Wiedeke, 47, wanted to make geography, math and science more bearable to the 573 students at her K-6 school. "In my teaching," says Wiedeke, "I always liked learning to be fun." When a parent suggested kids would pay attention to a world-traveler bear, Wiedeke was tickled by the idea: "I thought, 'Why can't we do this?' "

Several months and a dozen phone calls later (coupled by assurances that she wasn't a flake), United Airlines agreed, and the bear—donated by Chicago's North American Bear Co.—started logging frequent-flier miles. Since then, Magellan has circled the globe (his namesake, of course, led the first-ever circumnavigation—in 1519), met former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, hung out in the pit with the Paul Newman-Carl Haas pit crew at the Indy 500, traveled to Japan and plumbed the oceans in a nuclear submarine.

"A book is boring," says former Elk Creek student Colleen Bittner, 12. "All you see are these little pictures, but with Magellan [whose human escorts—aka flight attendants—handle postcard chores], you know he's really been there. It makes you want to learn more." At each new destination on his round-the-world trip, Elk Creek students read about the local culture and re-total Magellan's mileage (over 49,000 so far). "He is influencing a lot of kids to get involved in geography and math and lots of other skills they normally wouldn't be quite so interested in," says Brett Gladwell, 12, who went with Magellan on his submarine tour.

After the six-member Discovery crew touches down at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 10, Magellan—decked out in space togs and helmet—has an appointment with the mouse at Walt Disney World. And then, who knows? Wiedeke is checking out the possibility of a sleepover at the White House. "Magellan has so much potential," she says. "His motto used to be 'The sky's the limit.' But we'll have to change that when he goes into space. The sky's not the limit anymore."