One of the very first things a new NASA astronaut learns is that there is no “I” in the team. As part of their nearly two years of training before becoming eligible for flight assignments, future astronauts are told not to use the space agency, or their spaceflight status, for self-promotion.
The mission comes first, and although the astronauts are the most visible part of the NASA team, they are there to represent the agency, not themselves. Some recent astronauts who have used their spaceflights to raise their public profile, like Chris Hadfield and Scott Kelly, have done so knowing they never intended to fly again. That’s not to say Hadfield and Kelly weren’t great astronauts, or team players. It’s just that astronauts who want 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 Wifenoticeable. 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 narrative includes stories about their four children, life lessons and Bible references; but the centerpiece of the book concerns Morgan’s spaceflight from July 2019 to April 2020.
The Space Divide
The most telling aspect of the book is the detail in which Stacey Morgan discusses her relationship with Drew and their children and how that was changed by her spaceflight. For example, due to the space station 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. Back home in the fall of 2019, that meant calling home around 4 p.m. in Houston. It was the busiest part of the Morgan family day, the hour after school, before dinner.
“I desperately want to talk to Drew, hear what’s going on with the crew and tell him about my day, but it’s a terrible time. I have to drop Amelia off in the small group in ninety minutes, and dinner just got started,” wrote Stacey Morgan. “This season’s parenting issues are so heavy and building up so quickly. Lying, teenage heartache, bullying, friendship disappointments, GPA, teenage hormones, body image, college prep.”
The couple kept communication going through the 2019 holiday season, but ultimately hit “the wall.” Morgan compares this to the last few miles of a marathon, which she knows has to end but never seems to. She reached that point in 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 skies and dormant brown grass,” she wrote. “It’s all blah. There’s nothing on the next pages of my desk calendar to look forward to. Nothing exciting to plan. Not even anything good for dinner. It stinks, I guess. There’s no end in sight. I hit the wall.”
When astronauts go into space, the spouse is left behind, largely forgotten. Morgan recounts in the book how NASA strives to include spouses and children in key spaceflight activities, but she can still feel lonely on Earth. It is true that American 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 when Drew Morgan deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa during his days in the military. But there was something profoundly different about the fact that he was in space and she was back on Earth, with all the family responsibilities.
One of the most vivid scenes in the book is Stacey Morgan’s account of her husband’s return to Earth. When he left, the planet didn’t know what COVID-19 was. When he returned, Earth was in the throes of the pandemic. This meant that all typical spaceflight family activities were curtailed, increasing her sense of isolation not only from her husband, but from other people who might have been supportive.
“That’s all wrong, I think to myself as my inner dissident climbs onto his soapbox,” Morgan wrote, watching the landing. “I should have a boisterous 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, Houston. There is a single escort who brings them chocolate chip cookies while they wait.
Stacey Morgan is appalled when she finally sees her husband emerge from the Soyuz capsule, in broad daylight, in a distant steppe of 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 wrote. “Any relief I may have felt seeing the pod safely on the ground has now been replaced by concern for Drew’s well-being. He looks appalling.”