As I write this, my squadron is deploying to the the war in the Middle East. But this time, I am not flying with them.
For the last 2 years, I served as a flight commander in the 773rd Airlift Squadron of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. My flight, the smallest of the units in the Air Force structure, was made up of young officers, aviators all. To be where they are, they excelled in school and training, succeeding where others did not. They are bright, intelligent people, dedicated to their country. They are all parents of young children. These men and women were my responsibility to train, administer, and lead.
I am not leading them now, however. I took a different pathway. Instead of combat, I accepted an opportunity in the space program. I turned down a leadership position with the service to accept this one commanding the second HI-SEAS Mars analog mission.
My goals are not at odds with the service, but they have taken me away from those responsibilities. Some may say my actions are selfish. That I have shirked my duty. Certainly not everyone has been supportive of this endeavor. In order to be here, I have left my troops in the ranks of others to lead and declined a role that would allow me to prepare them for the war. Another officer is serving in my stead.
Increasingly, I find myself drawn to the incredible and historic calling of space exploration. My interest in spaceflight and science has always been there, but only now have I had the opportunity to play a role it for real. I have always seen my time in the service and my flying experience as launching point for a career in the space program. In order to make that possible, though, I must sometimes take off my uniform and be something other than a soldier.
Did the astronauts of the Gemini and Apollo missions have similar thoughts? Many of them left their operational squadrons to serve as test pilots as the war in Vietnam began to escalate. The NASA lunar exploration missions took place at the height of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Those men knew, like brothers, their comrades-in-arms who were flying- and dying- in the war.
I cannot help but feel torn between my loyalty to the service, my troops and my responsibilities now leading this analog mission. I took this role as mission commander because I believe in it, and the significance of this program. I know that I am not an astronaut, and this is not a real mission to Mars. But I hope that what my crew and I are doing here helps make it possible for people to do so one day .
Tonight my thoughts are with the young navigators I once led, who will soon face combat for the first time. I regret that I cannot be there to see them through this conflict, but I have faith that they will succeed and return home safely to their families.