By Sean KimmonsJune 1, 2017
HOUSTON -- Like the out-of-this-world missions they train for, the career paths taken by the Army's only two active-duty astronauts may also boggle the mind.
Lt. Col. Drew Morgan, a Ranger-tabbed doctor with several years of experience in Special Forces, now heads the Army Space and Missile Defense Command's small but skilled astronaut force. And while he once fed his adventurous spirit by flying into stadiums as part of West Point's parachute team, he looks forward to the ultimate adrenaline rush -- being blasted off into space.
His comrade, Maj. Anne McClain, has also acquired a stacked resume in her 14 years of Army service. With over 2,000 flight hours on 20 different rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, along with piloting a Kiowa Warrior helicopter in combat, she's no stranger to air travel.
On top of that, she was a Marshall scholar who earned two master's degrees while studying in England. During her time across the pond, she also fine-tuned her rugby play before later landing a spot on the U.S. women's national rugby squad.
Both Morgan and McClain agreed that without the Army, those unique opportunities likely would not have happened.
"I owe that back to the Army," the 41-year-old Morgan said of his accomplishments during his past two decades in uniform. "Everything that made me a good candidate to become a good astronaut came from the Army."
McClain also joined the Army first and foremost to serve the nation, not necessarily to travel in space. "It was the path I wanted to take even if I had not become an astronaut," the 37-year-old said. "The Army is probably going to have to kick me out at some point because I'm not going anywhere."
The talented duo is part of a team of nearly 50 astronauts, some of whom are retired Army officers, in NASA's human spaceflight program.
One of those seasoned officers, retired Col. Patrick Forrester, profoundly influenced McClain's military career years before she was selected for the program in 2013, along with Morgan and six others.
At the time, McClain, a 19-year-old cadet from Spokane, Washington, listened to Forrester speak about his experience during a visit to West Point. He told the cadets that the Army was too important to simply be a stepping stone to something greater, and if they truly paid attention to their job and did the right thing for their Soldiers, they would be rewarded.
"It'll work out for you in the end if you do that," she recalled of his speech. "That was best advice I could have gotten at that time and he was absolutely right."
Shortly before coming to Johnson Space Center as an astronaut candidate, she was surprised to see Forrester's familiar name again in her reporting instructions. The person who had inspired her 15 years ago was now the supervisor of her class. "To me, that was just full circle," she said.
Almost 20 Soldiers have become astronauts since Maj. Robert Stewart paved the way in 1979, before he went on to do the first untethered mission in space using a jetpack in 1984.
"They were people that I looked up to and followed their careers from afar as I was growing up as a young cadet and young officer in the Army," Morgan said of Forrester, former Col. Jeff Williams and the others who came before him.
As the years have passed, so have the missions, especially when the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Today, American astronauts are launched into space on Russian Soyuz rockets and typically stay in space for six months to help maintain and conduct science experiments on the International Space Station with other foreign partners.
Army astronauts have embraced the longer trips, as shown in their almost continuous presence in space over the past two years. "We're very well suited for that," Morgan said of the lengthy missions. "The Army has quite a good reputation in the astronaut corps, and I look forward to seeing more Army presence on the International Space Station."
While they wait to be assigned to a space mission, Morgan and McClain constantly train so that they are prepared for when their time comes.
Recently, inside a simulator dome with a 180-degree viewing angle, McClain practiced grabbing a cargo load with the space station's robotic arm.
While peering out of a mock cupola, a multi-windowed observatory attached to the space station, McClain operated the controls and brought in supplies from a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that would normally deliver food, clothing and science experiments to the crew every six months or so.
The day before, Morgan had used virtual training equipment to mimic maneuvering outside the space station with a jetpack. Although such a spacewalk is one of the most difficult and dangerous tasks to do in space, he said, he'd still jump at the chance to do one in real life.
"It's an exciting, tense and physically demanding period of time while you're out there outside the space station for six or seven hours," said Morgan, who was born to a military family in a city with whom he shares his namesake -- Morgantown, West Virginia.
In preparing for a spacewalk, astronauts also train at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, which is basically a huge pool that holds a replica of the space station. Using a specialized spacesuit that simulates microgravity, astronauts stay underwater for hours completing tasks, such as replacing the station's heavy batteries.
Astronauts also train to fly a T-38 Talon jet trainer, learn about space systems and a whole new set of acronyms, and receive in-depth lessons on the Russian language, which along with English are the official languages onboard the station.
"One of the most challenging and cool things we do at NASA is that we don't do the same thing any two days," McClain said.
With all sorts of moving pieces going on, astronauts must rely on an elevated level of teamwork. The ability to lead, but also to follow, are strong traits for an astronaut to have when working in close quarters for long periods of time on specialized, costly missions.
Already well-trained, Soldiers come to NASA with a good exposure to these types of teams, according to Chris Looper, a NASA training integrator who helps instruct astronauts.
"Being able to bring that team together so it can be a high-performing team, and not just a group of individuals who are all trying to perform at a high level, that makes a big difference," he explained.
A successful astronaut, he said, should have an easy-going attitude and be able to roll with the punches when things don't go right. Another helpful characteristic is endless thirst to be proficient in their tasks through continuous training.
"[So,] when you do something real in space, it will feel like a practice run," Looper said.
While the space station mission has been a top priority for the past 17 years, other added elements to NASA's human spaceflight program may be in the near future.
In February, NASA officials announced a study to look at launching two crew members around the moon in 2019, as part of the Orion spacecraft's maiden flight with a NASA rocket. The ambitious goal for the spacecraft is to one day enable human exploration of asteroids and deep-space destinations, including Mars.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program also has SpaceX and Boeing developing two launch vehicles to send astronauts into space, rather than sharing rides on Russian Soyuz rockets.
"We're on the cusp of some pretty amazing times in the space program," McClain said, "and we're going to see things that we've never seen before."
The current space station mission, a joint effort of 15 nations, is projected to last until 2024. But for Morgan and McClain, it doesn't really matter what mission they end up serving.
An optimistic McClain said that there are no bad assignments. "When I look at all of the different jobs I could do, I'd be thrilled to get any of them," she said.
After all, she didn't expect to end up in her current role when she first learned she had been selected while working as a test pilot at the Redstone Test Center in Alabama.
It was bittersweet for her to leave the Army ranks and not be able to wear her military uniform every day, she said. But whatever she does as an astronaut, she still brings a little "hooah" with her.
"The space program has always been so inspirational to me and I love contributing to it," she said. "But what really makes it special for me is to be able to do it as a Soldier.
"There are many paths to being a Soldier, and this is [just] one of them."
(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)