One of the very first things that a new NASA astronaut learns is that there is no “I” in team. As part of their nearly two years of training before becoming eligible for flight assignments, prospective astronauts are told not to use the space agency, or their spaceflight status, for self-promotion.
The mission comes first, 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 profiles—such a Chris Hadfield and Scott Kelly—did so knowing they never intended to fly again. That’s not to say that Hadfield and Kelly were not great astronauts, nor team players. It’s just that astronauts who want to earn future flight assignments don’t call attention to themselves.
This ironclad rule makes the recent publication of a book by Stacey Morgan, The Astronaut’s Wife, notable. 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 undergraduates. The narrative includes stories about their four children, life lessons, and Scripture references; but the centerpiece of the book concerns Morgan’s spaceflight from July 2019 to April 2020.
The space divide
The most revealing aspect of the book is the detail to which Stacey Morgan discusses her relationship to Drew and their children and how it was changed by his spaceflight. For example, due to the space station’s time schedule and long working hours, the best time for Drew to call home came during his final hour before bed, about 9 pm Greenwich Mean Time. Back home, during the fall of 2019, this meant he called home around 4 pm in Houston. This was the most hectic part of the Morgan family’s day, the post-school, pre-dinner hour.
“I desperately want to talk to Drew, to hear what’s going on with the crew and tell him about my day, but this is a terrible time. I need to drop Amelia off at small group in ninety minutes, and dinner is barely started,” Stacey Morgan writes. “The parenting issues in this season are so heavy and pile up so quickly. Lying, teenage heartbreak, bullying, friendship disappointments, GPAs, adolescent hormones, body image, college prep.”
The couple kept the communication going through the 2019 holiday season but eventually hit “the wall.” Morgan likens this to the last few miles of a marathon, which she knows must end but never seems like it will. She reached this point of 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, dormant grass,” she writes. “Everything is blah. There is nothing on the next several pages of my desk calendar to look forward to. Nothing exciting to plan for. Not even anything good for dinner. This stinks, I think. And there’s no end in sight. I have hit the wall.”
When astronauts go to space, the spouse is left behind, largely forgotten. Morgan recounts in the book how NASA takes great pains to include spouses and children in key spaceflight activities, but it can still be lonely back on Earth. It is true that US military personnel deploy around the world, and similar anxieties are shared by hundreds of thousands of families across the country. Stacey Morgan and her children experienced this as Drew Morgan deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa during his Army days. But there was something profoundly different about him being in space, and her back on Earth, with all of the familial responsibilities.
One of the most vivid scenes in the book is Stacey Morgan’s account of watching her husband return to Earth. When he left, the planet did not know what COVID-19 was. When he returned, Earth was in the throes of the pandemic. This meant that all of the typical activities spaceflight families undergo were curtailed, heightening her feeling of isolation not just from her husband but others who might have provided support.
“This is all wrong I think to myself as my inner dissident climbs up on its soapbox,” Morgan writes of watching the landing. “I should have a raucous circle of friends surrounding me. We should be laughing and talking.”
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 aghast when she finally sees her husband emerge from the Soyuz capsule, in daylight, on a distant steppe in Kazakhstan. “Space travel has propelled Drew into the future, and he looks eighty-five years old. He isn’t pale; he is gray. He doesn’t look tired; he looks ancient,” she writes. “Any relief I may have felt seeing the capsule safely on the ground has now been replaced by concern for Drew’s well being. He looks dreadful.”