Just as the Army has its "navy," - something that sounds like a misnomer but isn't - it has its space, not a prescribed area of land but limitless avenues in the universe that have yet to be charted.
Active-duty and retired Soldiers of NASA's Astronaut Detachment are among some 90 astronauts (which include members of the other services and civilians) at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, who are today's space pioneers. As they work to complete construction of the International Space Station, they're charting new frontiers.
In the not-too-distant future, the ISS will be a home base in space from which space travelers will further explore the universe - the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and beyond, said Astronaut Detachment spokeswoman Lou Moss.
Col. William McArthur Jr. (Ret.) has traveled into space four times, beginning in 1993, and he said each mission was unique. The first time he went up aboard the shuttle Columbia. The crew performed cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, metabolic and musculoskeletal experiments on themselves and 48 rats to learn more about how spaceflight affects humans and animals.
Besides conducting other experiments, they made contact with school children and amateur radio operators around the world, through the Shuttle Amateur Radio experiment.
On his second mission, McArthur flew aboard Atlantis, which rendezvoused and docked with the Russian Space Station Mir in November 1995. In addition to conducting numerous experiments, the crew attached a permanent docking module to Mir and transferred 1.5 tons of supplies to the space station.
MacArthur's third trip up, this time aboard Discovery in October 2000, took him to the International Space Station, to attach parts using Discovery's robotic arm, readying the ISS for its first resident crew. He performed four spacewalks, logging 13 hours and 16 minutes outside the spacecraft.
The October flight, STS-92, was only the third shuttle flight dedicated to building the ISS at a time when, according to McArthur, "nobody was onboard and no one had visited."
His September 2005-to-April-2006 mission brought him back to the ISS, this time via the Russian Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. He remained at the station for six months.
Col. Jeff Williams (Ret.), currently training for a fall 2009 launch to and six-month stay on the ISS, was the first active-duty Army officer to live aboard the ISS for months at a time, from March 31 through Sept. 28, 2006.
"The ISS had experienced five and a half years of permanent human presence by that time," Williams said. It wasn't the skeletal apparatus it was when he first laid eyes on it. On the later trip, he'd also experienced being launched into orbit aboard the Soyuz versus the shuttle.
"They're both rockets to get you to orbit," Williams said. "But the similarities end there."
In the Soyuz, "you're like one of three triplets in a womb; the shuttle is designed to carry seven astronauts. You pull more Gs in the Soyuz, too," Williams said. "You re-enter the atmosphere at a steep angle, taking four Gs and as much as eight Gs. It's a parachute entry (whereby a parachute is released from the spacecraft to slow it down). So, it's a pretty violent experience."
For his 2009 mission to the ISS aboard Soyuz, Williams has been undergoing training in Japan on a Japanese module that will be attached to the ISS and used for conducting experiments, among them experiments "to prepare us to mitigate the affects of weightlessness, so we can send crews to the Moon and Mars," Williams said.
He likened the upcoming trip to "a long deployment to a combat zone; you can't count the days you'll be there, because they're too many. There's some risk, and it's a long time to be away from your family, because you can't just come home."
Williams is married and has two sons, 26 and 23.
Col. Tim Creamer will be at the ISS part of the time Williams is there. "Jeff will be up a month before me," said Creamer, who will serve as science officer aboard the ISS. "I'll be the robotics guy - 'EVA-able,'(authorized to conduct extravehicular activities, or spacewalks)."
Between April and July 2008, Creamer went to Canada, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and Japan for training to prepare him for the mission.
He's undergone Soyuz-simulation training, sea- survival training and training on the intricacies of the Japanese module for the ISS.
Additionally, he experienced 25 seconds of parabolic flight in a C-9 aircraft, fondly referred to by the astronauts as the "vomit comet," because of its stomach-churning descent from a high altitude and the nausea and vomiting that can ensue. He also worked with the SPDM, special-purpose dexterous manipulator (robot arm), which "looks like a cowboy," Creamer said. It has two arms that can grab things and turn screws, precluding humans, in some cases, from having to do spacewalks.
When a Japanese delivery vehicle "as big as a house" arrives at the ISS, Creamer will be expected to use the robotic arm to grab it and perform what's called a "free-flyer capture," he said. "I have to be good, because if I bump it, it could spin away."
One of the last astronauts scheduled to go up on one shuttle and come down on another in May 2009, Col. Timothy Kopra expects to spend three months on the ISS. While there, he'll install a piece of hardware on the Japanese-owned laboratory module, allowing a telescope to be attached to it, and he'll replace batteries outside the ISS.
"We'll launch from the Kennedy Space Center and dock with the ISS two and a half days later," Kopra said. It doesn't take that long to arrive 200 miles in space, it takes that long for the shuttle to complete 35 to 40 orbits of the Earth and catch the ISS, which is orbiting at 17,500 mph.
"Up to now there have been three people on board the ISS. We'll have a crew of six," said Kopra, who added he might get a case of nerves closer to his launch date, but isn't feeling them now. "I've been training for three and a half years for the mission, so I'm just anxious to get there."
Kopra said he never had expectations to become an astronaut, "until it happened. In the '60s, when I was growing up, every kid wanted to be an astronaut or a fireman. One of the Apollo-mission astronauts talked to my school class, and then I realized the idea of becoming an astronaut was achievable," Kopra said.
Today, 17 countries are supporting the ISS and its scientific experiments, Creamer added. And, while the Army represents the smallest contingent of the joint-services Astronaut Detachment - which is primarily composed of Navy and Air Force personnel - "the amount of time we've spent on the ISS way over-represents the time our sister services have spent there," McArthur said.
"The shuttle mission goes up, and it's a sprint to maximize NASA's investment," said Creamer. The astronauts who train to spend months on the International Space Station "train for a marathon."
"'Be All You Can Be,' was the Army advertising slogan when I was a second lieutenant,'" said McArthur. "It encouraged Soldiers to be the best they could be then, and it still holds true today."
Of the roughly 15 Army astronauts who have served so far, the majority have graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and most have been test pilots, which makes sense when they have to fly the shuttle, Creamer said.
But NASA plans to discontinue the shuttle program in 2010, and astronaut requirements will change as future space transportation and delivery systems change, NASA officials said.
Williams' advice to Soldiers who dream of reaching the stars' "You have to have an interest, a passion. There's a long path toward becoming an astronaut, because by the time you're qualified, a lot of time will have gone by. Do a good job at whatever you do."
While there's only a .7 percent chance of being selected to the Astronaut Program, according to Creamer, "NASA's looking for someone who's adaptable - who can do a job with a sense of duty and responsibility," Williams added.
"Don't put all your eggs in one basket - but, if you want something badly enough, be consistent. I applied six times over 10 years to the Astronaut Program before I was accepted," Williams said.
The first U.S. astronauts were all servicemembers, and all were selected for the U.S. space program in 1959, before manned spaceflight had even taken place, NASA officials said.
NASA had queried the services for names of prospective astronaut candidates who met specific qualifications. At that time, the seven nominees were all pilots. And all were men.
Rear Adm. Alan B. Shepard (Ret.) became the first American in space on May 5, 1961, aboard the Freedom 7 spacecraft. He returned to space in January 1971 as commander of Apollo 14, the third lunar landing mission.
When NASA began concentrating on a space-shuttle program in 1976, the Defense Department agreed to help furnish astronauts, and each service began conducting its own astronaut-selection board, NASA officials said.
In 1978, Lt. Col. Robert L. Stewart became the first Army candidate selected by NASA. He flew as a mission specialist on two shuttle flights. During an eight-day voyage in 1984, he conducted the first space operations using a manned maneuvering system, or jetpack.
In 1985 he was among the crew on a classified DOD mission. Stewart, who later became a brigadier general and commanded the Strategic Defense Command, logged 289 hours in space.
While the United States, Russia and China are the only countries that have launched manned spacecraft, other nations have sent their space travelers aboard those spacecraft.
As of the end of May 2008, 482 people from 39 countries had traveled into space, among them commercial "astronauts," travelers not connected to the military or civilian space agencies who have paid to fly aboard Russian spacecraft.
Soldiers interested in becoming astronauts have a chance to do so every two years. That's when the Army's Astronaut Screening Board selects candidates for nomination to NASA. The next board will convene in May 2009.
Prerequisites for astronaut candidate selection include:
-A bachelor's degree or higher in engineering, biological science, physical science or mathematics from an accredited institution and three years' experience related to the degree;
-Applicants must pass a NASA Class II space physical similar to the Army Class II flight physical, have distant visual acuity of 20/300 or better uncorrected and correctable to 20/20 for each eye, minimal hearing loss, blood pressure not exceeding 140/90, and be between 58.5 and 76 inches tall;
-and be a U.S. citizen.
Applicants for pilot astronaut candidate selection must have at least 1,000 hours' pilot-in-command time in jet aircraft.
For more information contact the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command Public Affairs Office at (256) 955-3887. - Heike Hasenauer