USA — Army astronaut takes command of space station

WASHINGTON (Army News Ser­vice) — The first U.S. Army astro­naut to com­mand the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion said Wednes­day the expe­ri­ence has been the pin­na­cle of his career.

Col. Doug Wheelock, who now commands the International Space Station, is shown in his Extravehicular Mobility Unit spacesuit, in the Quest airlock of the International Space Station, prior to a spacewalk earlier this year.
Col. Doug Whee­lock, who now com­mands the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, is shown in his Extrave­hic­u­lar Mobil­i­ty Unit space­suit, in the Quest air­lock of the Inter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion, pri­or to a space­walk ear­li­er this year.

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Army Col. Doug Whee­lock with the Army Space and Mis­sile Defense Com­mand, who had already been aboard the ISS for four months, took com­mand of the sta­tion Sept. 22. Whee­lock talked with Army reporters Oct. 13 via satel­lite about his respon­si­bil­i­ties for the six-mem­ber team of inter­na­tion­al astro­nauts, the station’s equip­ment, main­te­nance and sci­en­tif­ic research. 

“It would be hard to imag­ine some­thing that would top this … I have to pinch myself every day,” Whee­lock said of the expe­ri­ence. “I feel very blessed just to be here … it’s the oppor­tu­ni­ty of a lifetime.” 

Trav­el­ling at 17,500 miles per hour, or about five miles per sec­ond, the space sta­tion orbits the earth every 90 min­utes, giv­ing the astro­nauts on board views of a sun­rise or sun­set every 45 minutes. 

Com­mand­ing the space sta­tion, Wheel­er said, is sim­i­lar to a small unit com­mand in the Army. 

“Like the com­man­der of any unit, I’m respon­si­ble for every­thing that goes on here,” he said. It’s a real fun job, and I’ve got a great crew, which makes it very exciting.” 

The station’s pri­ma­ry focus is research, and as Whee­lock describes, it is an “orbit­ing lab­o­ra­to­ry.” Whee­lock explained that ISS research includes stud­ies on bone loss, cures for can­cer, new meth­ods for trans­port­ing phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals through the body to fight off dis­ease, and how humans can be bet­ter stew­ards of the planet. 

He said that spe­cif­ic empha­sis is placed on what hap­pens to the human body while in space, which will help future gen­er­a­tions make trips deep­er into the unknown. 

But Whee­lock did­n’t always dream of becom­ing an astro­naut — he start­ed out his career as a pilot. 

“Ear­ly on it was too big of a dream for me … I just want­ed to fly,” he said. 

Whee­lock explained that as a young stu­dent, he thought the notion of going to space was beyond his reach. 

But after stints at West Point, and lat­er as an exper­i­men­tal test pilot with the Army Avi­a­tion Tech­ni­cal Test Cen­ter, Whee­lock set his sights a lit­tle higher. 

“I think that’s where every­thing came togeth­er for me,” Whee­lock said of test-pilot school, where, he explained, he was exposed to peo­ple who were involved in the space program. 

Whee­lock went on to assign­ments as NASA’s direc­tor of oper­a­tions at the Gagarin Cos­mo­naut Train­ing Cen­ter in Star City, Rus­sia, and lat­er aboard the STS-120 Dis­cov­ery in 2007. Pri­or to join­ing the crew on the ISS, Whee­lock had already clocked 362 hours in space, includ­ing more than 20 hours dur­ing three space walks. 

Whee­lock said chal­lenges the ISS staff faces include extreme tem­per­a­ture swings — the out­side tem­per­a­ture can shift up to 500 degrees in 45 min­utes. Also, solar and cos­mic radi­a­tion can wreak hav­oc on the station’s com­put­ers and elec­tri­cal systems. 

“Space always seems to have sur­pris­es for us,” said Wheelock. 

He also explained that work­ing with his Russ­ian coun­ter­parts has been a reward­ing experience. 

“It’s a real thrill,” he said. “For me, it’s a neat expe­ri­ence to look back and see where we’ve come from. It’s real­ly encour­ag­ing, and I think it speaks vol­umes of those who have gone before us and have paved the way.” 

Whee­lock received his flight train­ing dur­ing the Cold War, and he said he’s glad Amer­i­ca and Rus­sia are now work­ing so close­ly togeth­er through their space pro­grams, and hopes that future gen­er­a­tions will car­ry on this partnership. 

In addi­tion to the col­lab­o­ra­tion dis­played by astro­nauts from dif­fer­ent coun­tries on the ISS, Whee­lock said being in space has changed his per­spec­tive on humanity. 

“It makes you think about the things that we wor­ry about … pet­ty dif­fer­ences,” Whee­lock said. “When you look down on the plan­et, you can see the con­ti­nents, but there are no bor­ders. These pet­ty dif­fer­ences that you think about when you are on earth seem to fade away, and you begin to think of things in a broad­er picture.” 

“We’re all try­ing to live and work togeth­er on this lit­tle blue mar­ble in the mid­dle of space, and some­times I think we tend to lose per­spec­tive,” he continued. 

Whee­lock said it has been chal­leng­ing to be away from home for sev­er­al months, but he had very much looked for­ward to the expe­ri­ence of liv­ing in space, and has not been disappointed. 

“When you look at deep space, it’s so dark and so vast, it’s actu­al­ly pret­ty fright­en­ing­ly emp­ty … and then you turn toward the earth, and it’s this explo­sion of col­or and explo­sion of motion and life in the mid­dle of this vast waste­land of noth­ing,” he said. “It’s quite a dra­mat­ic con­trast — look­ing at the earth com­pared with the back­drop of deep space. It real­ly takes your breath away.” 

In the future, Whee­lock said he’d like to return to space if pos­si­ble. He is due to return to earth in November. 

Unit­ed States Army 

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