By Nelia Schrum
WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2006 – An Army astronaut orbiting 220 miles above the earth did a somersault Sept. 14 for wounded warriors recuperating at Brooke Army Medical Center here. Hooked up to BAMC through a NASA video teleconference, Col. Jeffrey Williams performed a sideways somersault for 15 wounded warriors talking with the astronaut, who serves as the flight engineer and science officer for International Space Station Expedition 13.
From his outpost in outer space, Williams quipped to the wounded, "How often do you see a colonel do a somersault for you?" The video conference was arranged after Williams asked NASA to reconnect him with the wounded warriors. Some of the BAMC patients had already met the astronaut once on a video teleconference when they toured the Johnson Space Center in Houston in June.
The first voice the group heard on the teleconference was the Army astronaut, a West Point graduate.
"This is the International Space Station, can you hear me?" Williams said. The group responded, "Loud and clear."
Williams told the wounded warriors that not a day goes by that he doesn't think about troops fighting in the global war on terrorism. As he welcomed the group "aboard" the International Space Station, he said he considered the wounded warriors heroes. "I think very highly of those who are willing to serve our country and put themselves in harm's way -- those who understand what duty and service is," he said. "You all have demonstrated that and made some obvious sacrifices."
Reviewing a busy week at the space station, he said the space shuttle Atlantis had docked and that two completed space walks went well. Williams said the view from the shuttle was fantastic, with the shuttle orbiting the earth every 90 minutes.
For 22 minutes, Williams answered questions posed by the group. He said he was looking forward to returning to Earth. "You can relate to being in far-off places for way too long," he said.
Williams launched into space March 30 along with Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov, arriving at the International Space Station on April 1. The three-member crew, which also included German astronaut Col. Thomas Reiter, is set to return to Earth in two weeks.
The Army astronaut said that although he had spent a long time in what he affectionately referred to as a "tin can" and away from family, he never experienced any boredom in space. With free time, he finds a window with a view to the Earth below.
The group asked him about sleeping in space. The Army astronaut said he slips into a special sleeping bag in a crew area. "Sleeping is a little tough to get used to," Williams said. "I want to find a place to put my head, and you just don't do that up here."
The astronaut said that although he was eating well and exercising on a treadmill, he had dropped eight to 10 pounds.
Asked about the chow, Williams told the group that MREs -- meals, ready-to-eat -- also were available in space.
Asked where he we would eat first when he returned to the United States, Williams gave a smart reply. "I'll probably eat a meal prepared by my wife -- she's a great cook," he said. After that, he said, he would be looking for Tex-Mex food or a big Texas steak.
One of the wounded asked Williams if he thought the flight doctors would ever allow an amputee to go up in space. "I'd say never give up," Williams said. "Some of you and those who have gone before you have proven that you can do some pretty incredible things, even after amputation. So whatever your goals might be, I'd say pursue them and don't give up."
From his perch in space, Williams said he was rooting for the Army to win the upcoming West Point vs. Texas A&M match.
The Army astronaut said he planned to visit BAMC with his wife after getting back to Texas. Thanking the wounded for their service, he signed off by reminding them that "the cause is important, and I know you are thinking about your buddies back in theater, as I am."
Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Sevald, who plans to go back to teaching, said he hopes to use the videoconference experience in his classroom. "I'll use this experience to motivate my students' interest in history," Sevald said.
Navy Petty Officer Derek McGinnis said the videoconference to the International Space Station was motivating to him, especially since a fellow servicemember had asked to speak with the wounded troops. "The military is a family and team," he said. "You can overcome obstacles and go on to do bigger and better things."