Some of us are obsessed right now with President Trump. Some are drawn to Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. Others are preoccupied with Dr. Anthony Fauci. I can’t stop thinking about Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan.
Jessica Meir? Andrew Morgan?
Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan, as he is known, are astronauts, two of the three space travelers — the other is a Russian cosmonaut, Oleg Skripochka — now circling the Earth on the International Space Station. Morgan has been in space for eight months, Meir for six. They are the only Americans who today live without fear of contracting the coronavirus that has swept across the planet they sweep around 16 times a day.
In less than two weeks, they will return to a very different world from the Earth that the two of them — full of hope, inspired by their task, both in the peak of health — departed.
They are returning to a world convulsed in danger and death, full of fear and foreboding.
They are like the Notre Dame football team that took off from the St. Joseph County Airport in Indiana for a game scheduled to be played on Nov. 23, 1963, at the University of Iowa. When the team’s chartered United DC-6 arrived at the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airport the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the players stepped off into a different country.
In 1992, Sergei Krikalev became the last citizen of the Soviet Union, returning from the Mir space station after the country had broken up, landing in newly independent Kazakhstan. His home was in Leningrad when he was blasted into space and had reverted to its pre-World War I name of St. Petersburg by the time he returned 10 months later.
And nearly two decades ago, astronaut Frank Culbertson, 250 miles above the Earth in the space station when terrorists struck the United States, became the only American not on the planet when the country changed irrevocably.
That is the sort of situation the two American astronauts will experience when they board the Soyuz MS-15 crew ship to return to Earth, land in southern Kazakhstan — and then replicate the experience of so many here by going into quarantine. NASA wants them examined, as Dr. Morgan’s aunt, Donna Morgan Murray, put it, “absolutely totally non-touched by the virus.”
Meanwhile, American astronaut Chris Cassidy now is in a two-week quarantine in the Baikonur Cosmodrome before joining the crew at the space station. Russian and American space authorities almost certainly will test the new crew for COVID-19 before sending them aloft.
Space is, by its very nature, isolating. The world is far away and so are its cares. In ordinary times, ballgames are played, PTA meetings are held, traffic jams occur and then are dissipated, loved ones get colds and then recover, and the astronauts pay no mind to any of it. The world goes ‘round, the astronauts go ‘round the world: of it but separate from it. “You didn’t want to hear something you can’t do anything about,” said former astronaut Jay Apt, who has flown four space shuttle missions, two as shift commander.
Coronavirus is something the astronauts can do nothing about — but they are keenly aware of it as they fly above an infected planet. This is not a Wordsworth time, to feel, as the poet’s 1802 sonnet put it, “the world is too much with us.”
“Drew is very much attuned to it,” said his father, retired Air Force Col. Richard Morgan, who spoke to his son the other day from his home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. “He’s concerned, like everybody else, for his family. And he’s also concerned about how it will affect his re-entry. He’s not dwelling on that; he’s very, very busy. But he thinks about it.”
A few weeks ago, Dr. Morgan snapped a picture of Cape Cod from space. The peninsula extending out from Massachusetts was portrayed sharply against the deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean. Recently he added a poignant caption: “Here’s to clear skies ahead.”
Last week, the Army emergency physician marked National Doctors Day with this Facebook posting:
“As a medical doctor looking back on our planet this #NationalDoctorsDay, I think of the healthcare professionals and volunteers that are literally risking their lives during this crisis. We are at our best when we help each other during the most difficult times. I am in awe of your selfless service. Thank you from everyone on, and off, the Earth.”
And just month, Meir, of Caribou, Maine, tweeted: “Just like the doctors and scientists on Earth making a world of difference, we at @NASA on @Space_Station are dedicated to advancing science and medicine. For @NASA_Astronauts, that often means collecting our own physiological samples. Off the Earth, for the Earth.”
Meir also is an aquanaut and spent five days undersea in the Aquarius laboratory off Key Largo, Florida, that is part of NASA’s Extreme Environment Mission Operations. So isolation is not new to her — nor to other astronauts, who have advice for those of us here on Earth on how to survive, if not necessarily flourish, in relative isolation: Stay busy. Have a routine. Focus on essentials.
And maybe this: Be prudent and don’t worry too much.
That’s advice Dr. Morgan’s family is taking as well. “I’m not worried about him and the virus at all,” said his father. “There’s risk with re-entry and landing, and I’m more concerned about that. But NASA has done this many times and they do it very well.”
Astronauts are famously task-oriented. They are not poets. John H. Glenn Jr., the first American to orbit the Earth, pioneered on Friendship 7 the bland “what-a-view!” rhetoric his astronaut successors perfected. The Apollo 8 astronauts who read from the Book of Genesis in lonely lunar orbit on Christmas Eve in 1968 got the idea from the wife of a Washington public affairs officer. Neil Armstrong fiddled with his “one small step” remark while training for Apollo 11.
But Drew Morgan — orbiting the Earth without the fear of COVID-19 that grips the rest of us — is unusually eloquent. Here are his words, as we await one giant leap from those working to create a coronavirus vaccine:
“Even during our toughest times, we live on a beautiful planet. Stay strong, planet Earth, we’re in this together.”