Yinzers In Space: A Conversation With Western Pennsylvanian Astronauts

Apr 7, 2016

A pair of Pennsylvania natives foresee big things for NASA’s current crop of astronauts.

“I think we’re going to see (Mars) in our career,” said Lt. Col. Andrew R. Morgan, of New Castle, who joined the space program in 2013.

Veteran astronaut and Emsworth native Michael Fincke orbited Earth for 363 days between 2010 and 2011, setting a record for longest cumulative time in space before fellow astronaut Scott Kelly surpassed it late last year. Like Kelly, Fincke began training in 1996.

Both said positioning themselves for space travel wasn’t easy.

“Odds are tough, so you have to be really good at what you do,” Fincke said.

Fincke rose to colonel in the U.S. Air Force following graduation from Sewickley Academy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, an exchange program in Moscow and aviation training. He’s also fluent in both Japanese and Russian, which he said probably factored heavily into his aeronautic appeal.

Morgan, also a physician, attended West Point, medical school, Army Rangers school and survived three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, including stints with special forces. And though he’s not yet gone to space, Morgan said he’s optimistic he could take flight in the next decade.

“When Orion and the Space Launch System make that step out of Earth’s orbit,” he said.

It’s been nearly 40 years since astronauts have left low-Earth orbit, but NASA is currently developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s, according to the U.S. National Space Policy issued in 2010.

A robotic mission would capture and redirect an asteroid on a stable orbit around Earth’s moon, which astronauts will explore with the multipurpose vehicle Orion. NASA’s Space Launch System rocket will enable that travel, eventually culminating in “proving ground” missions beginning in 2018.

A fleet of robotic spacecraft and rovers already are on and around Mars, according to NASA. Future missions like the Mars 2020 rover, designed to seek out signs of past life, also will test new technologies that could help astronauts survive on Mars.

For now, American crews will continue to travel aboard Russian rockets to the International Space Station through at least 2020. Fincke said NASA has been paying close attention to the overall health of its astronauts aboard the space station, even installing exercise equipment.

Researchers are also still testing Kelly in comparison to his identical twin, Mark, who was on Earth all 340 days Scott was away.

Previously, doctors found astronauts could lose up to 2 percent of their bone density over the course of a standard monthly mission, returning with slightly osteoporotic bones resembling that of a much older individual, Fincke said.

NASA researchers have also found ways to combat the physical and emotional stresses of long-term spaceflight, he said. When in orbit, astronauts have access to email and phones to keep in contact with family and friends. Upon their return to Earth, they undergo extensive physical rehabilitation as well.

“There’s a great team here at NASA that helps us keep performing our best,” Fincke said. “They help us keep a good attitude.”

To get there, Morgan is completing pre-assignment duties like spacewalk and robotic arm training. He’s also working on becoming fluent in Russian. Fincke tackles technical assignments and is developing a specialty in commercial crew vehicles with Boeing and SpaceX.  These tasks, plus public appearances and community outreach, tend to occupy the time of Earth-bound astronauts, Fincke said.

The next class of five to 10 astronaut recruits will be chosen from among nearly 18,000 applicants, Morgan said.

“We take these ideas, these dreams,” Fincke said. “We’re going to make them real.”

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