One of the very first things a new NASA astronaut learns is that there is no “I” on a team. As part of their nearly two-year training before qualifying for flight assignments, future astronauts are told not to use the space agency, or their spaceflight status, for self-promotion.
The mission is paramount, and while astronauts may be the most visible part of the NASA team, they are there to represent the agency and not themselves. Some recent astronauts who used their spaceflights to successfully boost their public profile, such as Chris Hadfield and Scott Kelly, did so knowing they never intended to fly again. That’s not to say Hadfield and Kelly weren’t great astronauts, nor team players. It’s just that astronauts looking to earn future flight assignments don’t draw attention to themselves.
This ironclad rule makes the recent publication of a book by Stacey Morgan, The astronaut’s wife, remarkable. In the book, Morgan tells the story of her relationship with her husband, Drew Morgan, whom she met at West Point when they were both college students. The story includes stories about their four children, life lessons, and references to scriptures; but the centerpiece of the book concerns Morgan’s spaceflight from July 2019 to April 2020.
The division of space
The most revealing aspect of the book is the detail in which Stacey Morgan discusses her relationship with Drew and their children and how his spaceflight has changed it. For example, because of the space station’s schedule and long work hours, the best time for Drew to call home was during his last hour before bed, around 9 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. Returning home, in the fall of 2019, this meant calling home in Houston around 4 p.m. This was the most hectic part of the Morgan family’s day, the hour after school, before dinner.
“I’d love to talk to Drew, hear what’s going on with the crew and tell him about my day, but this is an awful time. I have to drop Amelia off at a small group in 90 minutes and dinner’s only just getting started,” writes Stacey Morgan. “The parenting issues in this season are so heavy and pile up so fast. Lying, teenage heartbreak, bullying, friendship disappointments, GPAs, adolescent hormones, body image, college prep.”
The pair kept communication going over the 2019 holiday season, but ended up hitting “the wall”. Morgan likens this to the final miles of a marathon, which she knows must end, but never seems to end. She reached this point on the mission in early January, three and a half months before Drew Morgan’s Soyuz spacecraft was due to land.
“I look out the window and see gray sky and brown, sleeping grass,” she writes. “Everything is blah. There’s nothing on the next pages of my desk calendar to look forward to. Nothing exciting to plan for. Not even good for dinner. This stinks, I guess. And there’s no end in sight. I did hit the wall.”
When astronauts go to space, the husband is left behind, largely forgotten. Morgan tells in the book how NASA goes to great lengths to involve spouses and children in important spaceflight activities, but it can still be lonely on Earth. It is true that US military personnel are deployed around the world, and similar concerns are shared by hundreds of thousands of families across the country. Stacey Morgan and her children experienced this when Drew Morgan was deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa during his military days. But there was something very different about him in space, and about her back on Earth, with all the family responsibilities.
One of the most vivid scenes in the book is Stacey Morgan’s account of seeing her husband return to Earth. When he left, the planet didn’t know what COVID-19 was. When he returned, the earth was in the grip of the pandemic. This meant curtailing all the typical activities that spaceflight families undergo, leaving her feeling even more isolated not only from her husband, but from others who might have provided support.
“This is all wrong I think to myself as my inner dissident climbs on his soapbox,” Morgan writes of watching the landing. “I should have a raw circle of friends around me. We should laugh and talk.”
Instead, she and her children watch from a room overlooking NASA’s Mission Control Center at Johnson Space Center, in Houston. There is a single escort who brings them chocolate chip cookies while they wait.
Stacey Morgan is stunned to see her husband finally emerge from the Soyuz pod in daylight on a distant steppe in Kazakhstan. “Space travel has propelled Drew into the future, and he looks eighty-five. He’s not pale; he’s gray. He doesn’t look tired; he looks old,” she writes. “Any relief I may have felt when I saw the capsule safely on the ground has now given way to concern for Drew’s well-being. He looks awful.’