FORT MEADE, Md. -- When Col. Andrew Morgan, a NASA astronaut and Army flight surgeon, looked out the cupola of the International Space Station at 250 miles above Earth, he could see it all, he said.
From the windowed dome, Earth was a big blue marble with white swirls, suspended in the inky-black emptiness of space. Everyone he ever loved, served in combat with, cared for as a doctor, and billions more were all somewhere below his feet.
From his view, he said, there were no borders -- just Earth.
It was a humbling experience for Morgan, the first Army doctor to go into space. One that made him think about all the Soldiers and the advancements made through the generations. Among his belongings he took into space was an armband, once worn by a combat medic during World War II that was loaned out by the National Museum of the U.S. Army.
“You have Soldiers around the globe and orbiting above it and [the brassard] is just one of the many symbols [to show] we have a presence, literally everywhere,” Morgan said during an interview Monday.
The unlikely story of that medical brassard featuring a red cross has continued from the battle-tested arm of an Army medic in 1944, ascending into space with Morgan, and now back on display at the museum.
In honor of National Astronaut Day, Morgan plans to return the brassard to museum curators Wednesday at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
During the same event, Lt. Gen. Daniel L. Karbler, head of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, will also pin an Army astronaut device on Morgan, affixed to his master flight surgeon wings.
Army Regulation 600-8-22 authorizes awarding the device to personnel who complete a minimum of one operational mission in space, which is defined as 50 miles above Earth. It is one of the rarest qualification devices a Soldier can receive.
In November, fellow astronaut Lt. Col. Anne McClain received hers from Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, during a ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"It's another reminder of the Army's role in space," Morgan said. "A human presence in Earth orbit is only a small part of Army space capabilities, and the Army NASA Detachment is proud to play a small part in representing Soldiers on the ultimate high ground."
Out of this world adventure
Morgan became eligible for the device following a historic 272-day mission onboard the International Space Station, where he completed seven spacewalks that totaled over 45 hours as part of Expeditions 60, 61, and 62. He returned April 17, 2020.
During his time on the ISS, the crew made 4,352 orbits around Earth, which totaled over 115 million miles.
Morgan, who served as a flight engineer, was a jack-of-all-trades. He worked with robotics, carried out experiments, and made repairs to the ISS as it whirled around the globe at over 17,500 mph. At that speed, night and day pass every 45 minutes and even the most menial tasks, like changing batteries, become a difficult process.
Solar arrays on the ISS, which are the size of basketball courts, provide stored power for the batteries of the station’s truss structure. When the station enters night, it routes the stored power through the station and powers everything from life support systems to the vacuums the crew uses to clean. To keep the station going, upgraded batteries often need to be changed, according to NASA's website.
But swapping batteries in space isn’t as easy as popping them in and out like on Earth. On spacewalks, Morgan was tethered to the ISS as he replaced older hydrogen-nickel batteries with modernized lithium-ion batteries used to store and distribute power gained from the solar arrays.
At 250 miles above the planet, conducting spacewalks was unlike anything Morgan had ever experienced. Whether it’s 250 miles or 25,000 feet, “it’s all high up,” the airborne doctor said. “It felt like I was on the edge of a cliff.”
During on spacewalk, Morgan recalled looking down and between his feet, he noticed the boot of Italy. The country fit in between where his space boots were, he said.
Morgan also had a hand in hundreds of experiments in Earth science, human research, biology, physical sciences, and technology development. The astronaut assessed ways to go beyond the Earth’s orbit and how humans can adapt to microgravity environments.
The mission ranked as the busiest in NASA history for spacewalks and cargo as well as robotics operations, he said.
For the former 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) flight surgeon, defying gravity in the vastness of space had very few surprises, something he credited to his six years of astronaut training, said Morgan, who joined NASA as part of the class of 2013.
Morgan said he also drew from his Army training and field experiences to prepare for the expeditions. In the Army, he has completed Ranger School, airborne training, and is a certified Army combat diver.
“Exiting through the hatch into space for the first time reminded me of jumping out of the back of a C-130 during a military freefall jump,” said Morgan, a former member of the U.S. Military Academy’s “Black Knights” parachute demonstration team.
Although the NASA astronaut is the first person in his family to orbit Earth, he is not the first to parachute onto it.
Morgan’s great-uncle, who he knew simply as Uncle Clink, was an inspiration to him. During the Second World War, Uncle Clink was an airborne Army infantryman, and among the thousands of Allied forces who battled to secure beachheads during the invasion of Normandy.
Both of Morgan’s grandfathers also fought in WWII, and like Uncle Clink, they served during multiple historic missions, like Operations Overlord and Garden Market, he said.
To honor his relatives, as well as all service members, Morgan brought an historical piece to represent them into space with a little help from the curators at the national museum.
“It needed to be small because I needed to carry it with me up to the space station and bring it back,” he said. “I wanted it to be significant, potentially tied in my career as a medical officer and as an Army physician.”
Morgan received the medical brassard from Paul Morando, chief of the museum’s exhibits division, on May 30, 2019, at the Johnson Space Center.
The brassard "was a good way to symbolize the Army,” Morgan said. “[Now I’m] bringing it back so the entire Army and the public can appreciate this artifact that made the trip to and from the International Space Station.
“It was a great honor to carry this little piece of Army history with me up to the ISS, bring it home, and [now return] it to the museum for display,” he added. “It was rewarding to be part of the full lifecycle of [this artifact's story] and adding to its value in Army history.”
(Editor's note: The National Army Museum is temporarily closed as a public health precaution. Visit the museum’s website, www.theNMUSA.org, for visitor updates and more information.)