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Army doctor, now astronaut, begins several months of work in space

By DAN IRWIN | New Castle News, Pa. | Published: July 23, 2019

NEW CASTLE, Pa. — It took over six hours for the Soyuz rocket that blasted off Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to get astronaut Drew Morgan and his two crew mates to the International Space Station.

And that was the short part of the mission.

Now Morgan, who calls New Castle home, is settling into several months of living and working in space.

The West Point graduate and Army physician is following in the footsteps of many who made the station a temporary home before him, including Doug Wheelock, a retired astronaut who logged more than 178 days in space. Wheelock, who served as flight engineer for Expedition 24 and commander for Expedition 25, attended a launch party Saturday at the Neshannock Township home of Morgan’s parents, where he provided explanations and answered questions about coverage that friends and family members were watching.

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After the launch, he also took some time to talk about what Morgan — who is making his first space flight — can expect in the days ahead.

“He’s going to have the time of his life up there,” said Wheelock, who now works at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and who helps to train young astronauts for their missions.

Nonetheless, he added, there will be some adjustments to be made.

New experiences

“What Drew is going to experience is what it’s like to live in space and all of those things that come along with that,” Wheelock said. “It’s the euphoria of being in a new, very unique environment — everything’s floating around you, your body feels different. Your body starts to determine very quickly, ‘Hey, I don’t really need my legs any more to hold myself up.’ The body starts to do things physiologically that we have countermeasures for, exercise countermeasures.”

In addition to physiological differences, Wheelock said, Morgan can expect to deal with the emotional and spiritual elements of being in space.

“When you look out the window, you see your planet, and you see how fragile it is, just sort of hanging in the balance of the vastness of space,” he said. “So spiritually, it begins to change you. It intensifies the feeling of family, of friends, of home. After about three to four weeks, feelings of isolation and separation tend to set in.”

There are, though, countermeasures for that as well.

“Drew will be finding ways to stay connected to the planet,” Wheelock said. “Everyone has sort of their own unique ways. We have a phone on board, you can call home. We can do videoconferencing with family. Probably each week, and more often if he requests it, he’ll have a video conference with his wife and kids and others he wishes to speak to.

“Staying connected to the planet is very, very important, and he’ll find ways to do that.”

Moreover, added Morgan’s sister-in-law, Sara Morgan, it will be equally important for the planet to stay connected to him.

“It’s neat that we will have the opportunity to Face Time him and talk to him while he’s in space,” she said. “So we’ll have a first-degree chance to see how it unfolds.”

Walking in space

During the course of his mission, Morgan is scheduled to make multiple space walks — something, Wheelock said, for which he has been well trained.

“Doing a space walk, there are quite a bit more nerves because now, you’re essentially going to be by yourself in your own self-contained space suit, which is a space ship in itself,” the former astronaut said. "It’s got all of your life support systems there to keep you alive and keeping you cool from the rays of the sun.

“The tendency is, we try to teach them to stay in the moment, to not get rushed, to move very, very slowly because now he’s in micro-g. You can’t grab on tight. Your initial instinct is, you look down at the earth, and some people get a sense of falling or a sense of height, so the human tendency is to grab on really, really tight, but because there’s no gravity, you can begin to over-control your body. So we try to teach them, very, very lightly, fingertip control.”

Overall, though, Wheelock said he is excited for Morgan and the sensations he will experience on his space walks.

“You’ve got panoramic view with your visor, and you feel like you’re out there in the cosmos,” he said. “You’ve got a healthy set of nerves, you’re very alert, your senses are heightened and very intense. There are moments you kind of have to bring yourself inside and stay in the moment, step by step, and we teach them to do that, to stay in the present.

“Don’t worry about what happened five seconds ago — because you can’t change it — and don’t worry about 10 minutes from now, because you don’t know if that’s going to come, so stay in the moment.”

Wheelock described the space station as “about the size of a four- to five-bedroom” house with four laboratories on board. Thus, he said, it’s very possible to be “working your science and everything, the entire day without seeing your colleagues down at the other end of the space station.” To combat such isolation, Wheelock tried to get Americans and Russians together each night for dinner.

“I liked to make it a point to do that, and I think Drew will be the same,” he said. “He’s a soldier at heart and a tremendous leader, so I know that he’s going to be a catalyst for group cohesion on board.”

©2019 New Castle News (New Castle, Pa.)
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