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Army astronauts take flight

Feb 1, 2011

By Elizabeth M. Collins

"Soldiers magazine...this is Houston. Please call Station for a voice check."
"Station, this is Soldiers magazine...how do you hear me?" "We've got you loud and clear. Welcome aboard the space station," said Col. Doug Wheelock.

WHEELOCK, the first active-duty Soldier to command the International Space Station, never dreamed he could ever be an astronaut. It just seemed too far out of reach when, at the age of 9, he watched Neil Armstrong take those first fateful steps on the moon.

But becoming an Army aviator? That was a dream he could touch, and he attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and eventually the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School.

"I just wanted to fly," he said during a satellite interview from space. "I eventually got a chance to go to the test pilot school and got around people who were working in this industry and people who had contacts at NASA...so that really worked out for me." Wheelock reported for Astronaut Candidate training in 1998. He would become an Army astronaut.

Like all Army astronauts (at press time, there were five, including one in training and one about to retire), Wheelock is assigned to the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command's NASA detachment at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. After launching on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, TMA-19, in June, he took over as space station commander from Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov in September.

Soldiers might not realize that some of their own are serving far above the Earth's atmosphere, but Wheelock has said in other interviews that space is the "ultimate" high ground, so it's the perfect place for a Soldier.

And while the Army may have the smallest detachment out of all the services at NASA, it also has the strongest, its members like to say, and they're quick to point out that proportionally the amount of time they have spent on the ISS is greater than many of the other services.

"One of the things we find...working here is the ability to contribute to a much larger relation than yourself, to be able to subjugate for the greater glory of the team...and the Army guys have grown up doing that their entire lives," said Col. T.J. Creamer, Army detachment commander at NASA. "That aspect of becoming the best team member possible helps you in the selection process, but also radiates the Army qualities, the ethics that we've grown up with in the Army, and we see that at NASA. Our Army guys...are top-notch folks, and NASA knows that they get high quality from them."

It's that ability to follow as well as lead that makes Soldiers such great astronauts, added Lt. Col. Shane Kimbrough, but both men cautioned that because applicants have about a less than 1 percent chance of being selected as a candidate, Soldiers have to excel and be the best at everything they do, from their first day as a platoon leader. They also need to have at least completed a command, Command and General Staff College, Intermediate-Level Education and a master's degree in a math, science or engineering field.

Nothing, Kimbrough said, will ever beat the moment he learned he was finally selected as an astronaut. After a year-long interview process, he was already working at NASA in another capacity and knew the phone calls would be going out on a certain day, so when he saw his boss's number on the caller ID, he was ecstatic.

After several years of intensive training and office work, astronauts wait for a second crucial phone call: the call that they've been assigned to a space mission. And once they've gone, it could be years before they go again. Most of an astronaut's work involves training, administrative work, or supporting missions from the ground.

But the feeling when the shuttle or a Russian Soyuz catapults from the Earth, through its atmosphere and into orbit is almost indescribable, the astronauts said-definitely worth waiting a lifetime.

"It's absolutely just the coolest feeling I've ever had in my life, feeling the acceleration of that spacecraft and the rockets and the fire below you and just knowing that in eight minutes I'm going to be in space, so I'm going to be going about 17,000 miles an hour," remembered Kimbrough, who was on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. "You feel all the acceleration right through your chest, so that's really exciting. As soon as the eight minutes is over, you unbuckle and you're floating in space and that's another kind of euphoric feeling. That's just amazing and it doesn't go away until you obviously come back in the atmosphere. It's incredible."

Another incredible thing is the view from space. The ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, so every 45 minutes, crew members enjoy breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, and Creamer has watched grown men and women-trained astronauts and scientists-cry from the sheer beauty. Wheelock added that looking back at the Earth, an explosion of color and life in the middle of the vast wasteland of space, takes his breath away.

"Of course, when you look down on the planet now, you can see the different land forms and continents and of course there are no borders," he explained. "The things that you worry about when you're on Earth, they seem to sort of fade away and you look at things in a broader picture.

"It's like, wow, we're all trying to kind of live...and work together on this little blue marble in the middle of space. And sometimes I think we tend to lose perspective that we have a beautiful place to live, and...sometimes we're not good stewards of our home. And it puts things in perspective that there truly are no borders.... It helps to peel those things away."

Wheelock's wife, Kate, echoed his sentiments, saying she often went outside and stared at the sky when NASA told her the space station was supposed to be orbiting overhead, and if she saw a particularly beautiful sunset, she would take a picture and e-mail it to him, saying "This is my perspective of a sunset, on my side of the world."

Although she said that it's a little like watching Superman when Wheelock changes from his street clothes to his blue NASA flight suit, being married to an astronaut isn't that different than being married to a Soldier, except that he isn't in the same immediate danger. He spends months in training or in space, and like most Army wives, she's been known to miss a precious phone call or two. During his first mission, she kept getting a call with area code 281, with a number from the Johnson Space Center, and ignoring it. But it was Wheelock, calling her from space. "So I joke with people whenever I go out and tell them, 'Yeah, did you know that space has a 281 area code?'"

Weekly calls home, e-mail and even communication via social networks aside, life on the space station has a very regimented schedule, explained Creamer, who returned to Earth last summer. After spending eight hours sleeping in a small "phone booth," zipped into a light sleeping bag to ensure the astronauts don't go floating off in their sleep, they enjoy breakfast. Anyone familiar with MREs would feel at home eating NASA food, he added, although the astronauts can request special deliveries of real food when a shuttle is expected.

As ISS commander, this was one of Wheelock's jobs, said Peggy A. Whitson, a civilian astronaut and former ISS commander. She's now chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA. Not only did he have to make sure that the supplies at the ISS stayed stocked-important because if something ran out, it could be a long time before it was replaced-but he also prepared the crew for any emergency situations. Whitson called them the "Big Three": fire, depressurization and toxic atmosphere. Wheelock also integrated the ground crew with the flight crew, ensuring everyone was on the same page-not unlike a small Army command, he explained.

According to Creamer, the astronauts also spend two-and-a-half hours a day exercising to maintain their bone and muscle mass. Because everything in space is weightless, they lift weights against the evacuation cylinders, which create a vacuum. The rest of the day is taken up by meetings, vehicle maintenance and science experiments.

At its heart, the International Space Station, which Wheelock, Creamer and Kimbrough all helped construct, is a high-tech laboratory where scientist-astronauts from 15 countries can work without the pesky variable of gravity. Gravity, Creamer explained, can affect the shape of everything from cancer cells to candle flames. Research aboard the ISS has aided the cancer-cell interruption process, and has even led to more efficient cars.

During his mission, Wheelock participated in an ongoing study of how dietary countermeasures might lessen the bone loss experienced by astronauts during long-duration spaceflights-especially important with the shuttle program set to end, and all eyes turning to the next frontier: Mars.

"I like to tell people we don't just go to space to have fun and goof off...we go to help people here on Earth," Kimbrough said. "If we're going for other reasons, I think we're going for the wrong reasons. By going to Mars, I just can't imagine the amount of technology that's going to get developed."

A Mars mission is at least 30 or 40 years in the future, he cautions, and it's something no one country will ever be able to accomplish alone. But, added Creamer, staying on Earth forever seems so limiting and depressing. After all, he half joked, every species, like "the poor dodo bird," who ever went extinct here on Earth, did so without ever trying to leave the planet.

There's even, he thinks, the chance of finding life out there somewhere: "Every place we have found water, at the mouth of underground volcanoes, in the frozen Arctic tundra, we have found bacteria. Every place we have found water, we have found life. So, if we're able to find water some place, not only can we make our own fuel for return flights, we've got a good chance of finding life."

The main problem with being an Army astronaut, the men agreed, is that the job is just too good. Not only is there really no way to top commanding the International Space Station, by the time space Soldiers have gone through their training and flown a mission or two, it's usually time to retire-from the Army, at least. They simply stay at NASA and become civilian astronauts.

But shortly before he was scheduled to return to Earth, Wheelock said he was determined to buck that trend. Would he like to fly another mission to space? Of course, but a huge part of him also wants to return to the regular Army.

"I have to pinch myself every day, especially when you get the chance to look out the window," he said. "I feel very blessed to be here. I love the Army...and I've got a lot of my classmates from West Point, folks who I've served with over the years, who are scattered around the globe, some in Afghanistan, some in Iraq. So in that light, I feel a bit guilty from time to time that I get a chance to experience this, but I know it's an opportunity of a lifetime and I can serve our Army and our country here as well, just by doing a fantastic job here as commander and also doing the research that's needed here aboard the space station."

Editor's note: Wheelock returned to Earth aboard another Russian Soyuz spacecraft, landing in Kazakhstan, Nov. 25, 2010.

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