For U.S. Astronaut and West Point Graduate Douglas H. Wheelock, achieving his childhood goal of spaceflight is truly extraordinary, and yet it's only one of his proudest achievements. His sky-high personal goals take a backseat to honoring those who have served before him and inspiring those who will serve in the future.
As the sun sets on the Space Shuttle program, and rises for the new space age of exploration with the International Space Station (ISS) and the promise of a voyage to Mars, the 50-year old U.S. Space Program claims another first, thanks to Wheelock: The first space flight for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Wheelock carried it with him during his 6-month voyage on the ISS earlier this year as a tribute to a fallen Vietnam Veteran who lived near his hometown when, as a small boy in 1969, Wheelock dreamed of being “just like Neil Armstrong.”
“It was the most moving thing that has ever happened to me. It was the greatest honor, way beyond being commander of the space station or flying in space,” Wheelock says in an exclusive interview with Veterans Advantage.
In April of 1970, when Wheelock was a youngster with ambitions for service to our country, Lester Stone posthumously received his Medal of Honor for saving his entire squad, while he perished in hand-to-hand combat. “It went down as folklore in my town,” Wheelock said.
Prior to the start of his ISS mission in Doris Stone’s yard last year, Wheelock nervously accepted the medal from Stone’s reluctant mother, who herself had trouble parting with the medal. “My knees were shaking. It was such a daunting task. I cannot let this out of my sight,” said Wheelock, who kept the medal in the pocket of his space suit as he returned to earth earlier this year.
And on the 41st anniversary of the MOH award presentation from President Nixon in April, he presented the medal back to Doris Stone “on behalf of NASA and veterans around the world, and service men and women who are currently serving” at a touching ceremony at Harpersville (NY) High School, Stone’s high school. Many of his fellow soldiers attended and all placed their supportive hands on Doris Stone’s shoulders.
“Being able to witness this, all together, melted me,” Wheelock adds.
JOURNEY OFF THE BEATEN PATH AND INTO SPACE
Getting to where he is today, to a special place where he can honor heroes of the past through his service, Wheelock credits his own experiences in the military. He thinks back to his days in a Cavalry command, where, as a young soldier, he met Gen. Ron Adams, who took the bold step of encouraging the young officer to follow a career path less travelled by his Army peers.
“I said ‘Sir, I don’t know if I want to be a brigade commander. I really want to be a test pilot, and I think that’s where my gifts lie’,” he recalls telling Adams, who Wheelock credits as the leader who first encouraged him to follow this dream. “It was a turning point, and it really helped me believe in myself. It gave me a boost of self confidence.”
“I am here only because of the Army, and the experiences that the Army has afforded me,” he says. Colonel Wheelock received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Infantry from West Point in May 1983. He entered flight school in 1984, graduated at the top of his flight class and was designated as an Army Aviator in September 1984. He subsequently served in the Pacific Theater as a combat aviation Section Leader, Platoon Leader, Company Executive Officer, Battalion Operations Officer, and Commander of an Air Cavalry Troop in the 9th U.S. Cavalry.
By the 1990s, his career developed in the direction of space flight. He earned an MS degree in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech in 1992, with research in the areas of hypersonic and high temperature gas dynamics, flight stability and control, and automatic control and robotics. He was selected as a member of Class 104 at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and, upon completion, was assigned as an Experimental Test Pilot with the Army Aviation Technical Test Center (ATTC). By 1998, he was accepted into Astronaut training with NASA. Today, he stands as the only Active Duty Army member to command the ISS.
Wheelock’s path to space flight was similarly cleared by another leader, a civilian, his fourth grade teacher. Soon after the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, when the possibility of space flight entered everyday conversations across the country, Ms. Christine West led a class discussion on the subject. As she went around the room, she turned to young Wheelock and asked “How about you – why should you become an astronaut?”
Douglas H. WheelockPosted on his Twitter feed last November while in space: On this sacred night, when the aurora looked like rain, I reflected back on my childhood dreams of flying a spaceship through the infinite expanse of space.
Wheelock credits Ms. West as the first person to speak to him about the possibilities of space flight during his youth, and he thanked her personally years later over an afternoon lunch.
“Sometimes to believe in yourself you have to really have someone else believe in you as well to make it over that same hurdle,” he said.
Nowadays, Wheelock’s chief goal is to play the role of Ms. West and General Adams, and he tours the country physically and via the Internet, espousing the virtues of space flight, hoping to inspire future leaders of our country.
“If we really believe 20, 25, 30-years from now, that we are going to see the first humans setting foot on Mars, then those people are somewhere in our school system right now,” he says. “It is going to take a spark from somebody. Hopefully, I am going to watch it from a rocking chair, but I hope that one day it is a kid that I have spoken to. That will be a full circle, the ultimate for me.”
Kids across America now know Wheelock from his cool blue spacesuit and his classroom lecture circuit. They also know him from his popular Twitter feed, which represents a history lesson, space flight simulator and personal diary all rolled into one. It’s a 21st Century variation on what Neil Armstrong did for Wheelock via a grainy television screen in elementary school in 1969.
And this is Wheelock’s very own way to serve.
“The magic of the space program belongs to all of us. We are born with a sense of exploration and discovery, and it has defined us as Americans. And the power of bringing an image to somebody’s cell phone in Wal-Mart, to a regular ordinary person, standing on the earth somewhere, that’s exactly the impact I wanted to have. This is your program to have.”
Image Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_H._Wheelock#/media/File:Wheelock_Douglas.jpg