Becoming an Astronaut with Andrew Morgan

Three astronauts in full gear in training pose for photo
By Zachary Willis

Army Col. (Dr.) Andrew Morgan, is the first Uniformed Services University graduate and Army physician to become a NASA astronaut. On July 20th – the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Morgan will be launching into space as part of the Expedition 60/61/62 crew headed to the International Space Station (ISS). We asked him what it takes to become a NASA astronaut.

Morgan in a space suitQ. What propelled your interest in becoming an astronaut?

A. Well, my interest in space and space exploration and the concept of being an astronaut goes back to when I was a kid because I’ve always had an interest in space and aviation and astronauts, and that whole concept of space exploration was interesting to me, but I pursued a career that was realistic and achievable and fulfilling for me.

By the time I had finished my first three assignments and I had finished my fellowship training, NASA had announced that they were going to select a class of 2013, and I had always thought I might as well apply -- no reason not to. I could always say I was a NASA applicant, even if I was never selected. I was at a point in my career where I was kind of at a crossroads and I could’ve taken a couple different paths, and I made this one of those options. I was fortunate enough to just continue making it through the year and a half process.

Q. You were selected for the astronaut program class of 2013. Your training was two years long. Did you think you would be going into space so soon?

A. We had no expectations because it was really hard to tell what the flight rate would be for rookies. When we were given the guidelines after being selected, we were told it could be up to a decade before your first flight. As it turned out, the eight in my class have all been assigned to flights already and three of my classmates are on the ISS already and I’ll join them in July, so by this summer, half of my class will have flown. I imagine that within a year and a half of that, all the rest of my classmates will have flown as well.

So all eight of us will have flown much sooner than we ever expected, and that’s a good thing because you go in with expectations of it being a decade and you fly several years sooner than that, which is good for morale. The leadership in the Astronaut Corps and Flight Operations directorate at NASA made it a priority to get rookies flown early to give us the experience that we’re going to need to go into further programs here in the next decade. So getting rookies flown early was the priority and we’re the beneficiaries of that and we’re grateful for it.

Q. What military medicine experiences or training served you most on your path to becoming an astronaut physician?

A. In general, it’s incredibly valuable to have a physician on board in human space flight, but we don’t have a requirement to have a physician on board. We like a variety of backgrounds; we have engineers, test pilots, pure scientists, and medicine is well represented in the Astronaut Corps. So it was already a valuable skill set, but my particular experience in practicing medicine in an austere environment with limited resources was important. Most of my medical background was in operational medicine in operational units, special operations units, so in addition to the medical skills, I have a lot of operational experiences with military parachuting, military diving, aerospace medicine and exposure to aircraft, integrating medicine and medical support into combat operations, deploying overseas, and conducting medicine in an austere environment. When we do have to practice medicine on the ISS, there are a lot of similarities in that it’s a less-than-optimal situation, resources are limited, your capabilities are limited, just like when you’re deployed to a combat zone.

Morgan in training cockpit
Q. What advice would you give an aspiring physician who also wants to work with NASA in the future?

A. The right approach, which was my approach all along, was that I didn’t plan my career on how to best become an astronaut, and the best data to back that up is that there had never been an Army physician selected in the past so I didn’t have any model or pathway that I followed. I followed my own career path and I made my decisions based on what I enjoyed most. I decided I wanted to be in the military before I decided to become a physician before I decided to become an astronaut. I made those decisions in that order with no plan to end up where I did.

The skill set in the end that NASA selected me for was all a product of my military education, my medical education, and the operational skill set that I developed while serving as a military physician after I graduated from USU. I built this skill set but my intent was never to pave the pathway to become an astronaut – I was just very fortunate in that respect – but at the same time I think that I was very unique because not many candidates with my background had applied before.

The biggest advice I give (and it’s not that earth shattering) is: I pursued the things I was interested in and along the way I tried to excel at what I did and I tried to be a good team player along the way, and that was it.