CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — It was 1961 when the very first human went into space, and in the 62 years since then, two West Virginians have followed those footsteps and ventured into space themselves.
Jon McBride — 1984
The first West Virginian to go to space was U.S. Navy Captain Jon McBride in 1984. McBride made his first trip to space as pilot of the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS-41-G mission, the 13th flight of NASA’s space shuttle program.
In a 2012 interview for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, McBride said one of his biggest inspirations to become an astronaut was John F. Kennedy’s pledge to get a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the 1960s. Only a year earlier, Kennedy had visited McBride’s high school in West Virginia during his presidential campaign.
“That just added more fuel to my fire,” McBride said. “I met this guy last year. Now he’s challenging us to go to the Moon. Boy, that would be something. That really got me more engaged in college and more reason to go off to the Navy as soon as I could and keep dreaming, reaching for the stars. I’m a lucky guy, I guess.”
Although McBride was born in Charleston, his biography on the NASA website says that he considers Beckley, West Virginia his hometown. McBride began his flight training in Florida in 1965 using aircraft like the F-4 “Phantom II,” but has flown more than 40 different aircraft in his career. In three years during the Vietnam War, McBride flew 64 combat missions across southeast Asia.
McBride officially became an astronaut in 1979 but wouldn’t actually make it into space until five years later on Oct. 5, 1984. For his first and only mission to space, McBride piloted the Challenger with six other crew members, making it the largest-ever crewed space mission at the time. McBride and his crew spent the next eight days in orbit while they conducted observations of Earth; during this time Kathryn D. Sullivan became the first American woman to complete an Extravehicular Activity (EVA), or spacewalk.
In a 2012 interview, McBride said he is often asked if anything happened during the mission he wasn’t expecting and recalled an experience he had during mission takeoff. The moment the booster rockets on his spacecraft separated, McBride said the windshield of the cockpit went completely black, blocking his vision. Thinking something catastrophic had happened, he turned to look at his commander Bob Crippen, who had already gone on three previous space shuttle flights.
So when this thing went [demonstrates] and it got dark, I’m going, ‘Oh, my God.’ I look over at Bob Crippen, and he’s going [demonstrates], because he knew. It happened to him. He was waiting for it, to look at me to see the expression. I kind of looked over and said, ‘Bob, what the hell happened here?’
He goes, ‘Happens all the time.’
‘Thanks a lot.’ So after about five seconds, the wind screen clears and [it’s] blue sky. I think my heart went from about 60 to 70 real quick.Jon McBride in a 2012 interview as part of the the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
Once the crew had made it into orbit, McBride left the pilot seat to prepare the ship for their upcoming mission. When he opened the bay doors, he got his first complete look at Earth about 150 miles above the surface.
As [the doors] got wider and wider, I could see all the way from the west coast to east coast of Australia. I kept thinking, ‘This is it.’ I think I got tears in my eyes, this big swelling in your chest where you think, ‘My God, I’ve been wanting this for 20 years, and now I get to see it.’ And the first thing I get to see is Australia, and I’ve got [an Australian] here with me. So I think, ‘Paul, come up here and look and this.’ Just one of those memorable things.Jon McBride in a 2012 interview as part of the the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project
During the mission, McBride said he came to enjoy sleeping in the Challenger’s airlock because of how quiet and cool it was between the space suits. He and his crew also received a call from President Reagan while they were in orbit.
“To be able to talk to the President from space was a real pleasure and honor. He was one of my favorites. I liked him a lot,” McBride said.
McBride was assigned to be the commander of his next space shuttle mission, STS-61-E in the space shuttle Endeavour. However, about one month before he and his crew were scheduled to launch, the Challenger suffered a catastrophic failure and was lost along with all seven of its crew members. His mission was deferred, and although he never got to return to space, he spent the following years working as NASA’s Assistant Administrator for Congressional Relations where he worked with U.S. congressmen like Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd to secure funding for future NASA projects.
Andrew Morgan — 2019-2020
The other West Virginian to make it to space is U.S. Army Colonel Andrew Morgan. Morgan spent nine months aboard the International Space Station (ISS), from July 2019 to April 2020. During that time Morgan spent more than 45 hours in outer space across seven spacewalks, an American record for a single spaceflight.
Morgan was born in Morgantown, West Virginia while his father was studying dentistry at WVU. Morgan’s father was an officer in the Air Force, and so Morgan spent his childhood living across the United States in places like New York, California, Texas and even in Great Britain.
Inspired by his father to join the armed forces, Morgan enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained extensively in parachuting and skydiving, but later worked as a military physician and surgeon and was deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.
12 News interviewed him about his experience.
“All I ever wanted to [do] was to serve in the military,” Morgan said. “When I was 18 years old and I made the decision to attend West Point, there’s no way that I would’ve been able to imagine that I’d be here now.”
In 2013 Morgan was selected for NASA’s astronaut program, but it wouldn’t be until 2019 that he would actually board a spacecraft bound for the ISS. During the six years in between, Morgan said he had to learn about robotics, how to spacewalk, and how to fly supersonic jets. As a member of an international crew, Morgan also learned Russian and spent about six months training in Russia and Kazakhstan leading up to his flight.
Morgan officially began his nine-month space journey on July 20, 2019. When reflecting on his first first time in space, Morgan said being weightless is just as fun as it sounds, but after a while, it starts to feel normal.
In many ways, it’s like being born again. You have to start over and learn how to do everything from eating to going to the bathroom to sleeping and just performing basic tasks. And luckily when you arrive on the ISS, there’s already a crew in place there because the human presence there has been continuous now for over 23 years. And so there’s already a group of astronauts, usually people that you know and know well there to teach you how to do everything all over again, and kind of giggle a little bit when you make a mess the first time you eat food or try to go to the bathroom.Andrew Morgan in an interview with 12 News
Even in such a small space, Morgan and his five other crew members had no shortage of tasks, experiments and repairs that needed to be completed. Morgan said that nearly every minute of every day is blocked out for astronauts by mission control; when they wake up, when they go to sleep, when to eat, and what to do are all planned ahead of time, all while keeping the place clean on top of that.
“You can imagine after 20-plus years of humans living on board, you can create quite a mess,” Morgan said.
However, even with such a tight schedule, being able to plan on the fly is critical. Morgan recalled an instance where one of the critical battery units that supplied power to the space station had failed and needed to be replaced. Two of his crewmates, Jessica Meir and Christina Koch were tasked with replacing the part, with Morgan as the airlock operator. For seven and a half hours Meir and Koch worked to replace the battery and completed the first all-woman EVA in the process. The repair was broadcast live and can still be watched on YouTube.
When Morgan and his crew finally returned to Earth, they were coming back to a planet much different than the one they left only nine months earlier.
When I returned in April 2020, it was right at the beginning of the COVID pandemic and so there’s that additional complication of the entire world was going into quarantine. And so in some ways that was good for me, it allowed me to reconnect with my family much more thoroughly and be around them in a way that I hadn’t been, but at the same time it disconnected [me] from everyone else in the world for several months after I returned.Andrew Morgan in an interview with 12 News
Morgan is still an active astronaut and said he doesn’t think there’s a single active astronaut he hasn’t interacted with in some way.
“One of the most valuable things that [astronauts] have is the demonstration of international partnership and friendships that last for a lifetime,” Morgan said.
In 2023, Morgan is currently the commander of the U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. You can watch Morgan’s interview with 12 News in the video player below.