Drew Morgan Goes to Space

By Sharon Holland

The late Space Shuttle Columbia astronaut Navy Capt. (Dr.) David M. Brown once said, “I remember growing up thinking that astronauts and their job was the coolest thing you could possibly do... But I absolutely couldn’t identify with the people who were astronauts. I thought they were movie stars.”

A lot of people hold today’s astronauts in the same high regard. Within days of being named by NASA officials as one of America’s newest astronaut candidates, USU alumnus then-Army Maj. (Dr.) Andrew “Drew” Morgan was already getting requests for his autograph. Morgan, a USU class of 2002 graduate and Military and Emergency Medicine department assistant professor whose previous experience includes serving as an emergency physician and flight surgeon for the Army special operations community, was among the eight military and civilian astronaut trainees selected out of more than 6,100 applicants by NASA for their 2013 class. Now, he’s headed to space as the first USU graduate and Army physician to do so.

“I am very proud to represent USU, military medicine, Army medicine and the Special Operations medical community,” said Morgan. “Military service members make great astronaut candidates because we are taught discipline, perseverance, teamwork and coolness under pressure from the earliest points in our careers. In my class, six of the eight of us are either active duty or had extensive military backgrounds. That says a lot for the type of people in today’s military and the experiences that it provides.”

Morgan reported to Johnson Space Center in Houston in August, 2013, with his fellow astronaut trainees to begin their two-year technical training in Texas and at space centers around the globe to prepare for missions to low-Earth orbit, an asteroid and Mars.

Morgan’s journey towards space began shortly after the final Space Shuttle launch in April 2011. After the launch, many Americans, including Morgan, felt there was some uncertainty about the future of the program, particularly when or if a new class of astronauts would be fielded. “I always had an interest in space and dreamed of becoming an astronaut . . . but I realized that it wasn’t a realistic goal that I could plan my career around, so I never thought it would really happen. I took my son to the last Shuttle launch in Florida, and I said to him ‘I don’t think I’ll get be an astronaut, so maybe you can make it instead.’ But within a couple of months, NASA sent out an announcement seeking applicants, so I applied,” Morgan said.

Active duty members were directed to apply through their respective service, while an announcement was simultaneously placed on USAJOBS.gov. It took NASA more than nine months to cull through the thousands of applications they received. They eventually narrowed the field to 120 and Morgan received a phone call letting him know he had made the cut. Morgan’s background in emergency medicine and Special Operations, along with his diving, airborne, military freefall, and flight surgery qualifications and experience were instrumental in helping his packet stand out above so many others. The applicants were divided into two groups for interviews. Morgan was among the second group and during the three-day process he underwent psychological testing, cursory medical testing, and interviews before a panel made up of astronauts and other NASA employees. Three more months went by without word. In the meantime, Morgan was finishing his civilian deferred sports medicine fellowship at Virginia Commonwealth University/ Fairfax Family Practice, led by USU alumnus (’84) Thomas Howard, MD, and had received orders for his new duty assignment in Germany.

In February, 2013, Morgan got another phone call letting him know that the applicants had been further reduced to 50 and that he was among the finalists. He reported to Johnson Space Center in Houston again, this time for a full week of testing – more psychological and medical tests, along with language aptitude testing and an extensive physical examination. Afterward, Morgan once again returned to Virginia and resumed his fellowship training, again hearing nothing for more than four months as NASA officials went through the daunting process of narrowing the field down to a mere eight astronaut candidates.

He and his family focused on their upcoming move to Germany, but Morgan held out hope for a change in plans. “My family knew I was applying to the astronaut program,” he said. “I told them, ‘we’re moving to Germany, but there is a small chance we could be moving to Texas.’” In mid-June, he was standing in the hallway of a local area high school having just finished teaching a class on physical examination skills when he got a phone call. It was veteran astronaut and director of NASA Flight Crew Operations Dr. Janet Kavandi, who had served as the chair of the selection board. “She said, ‘I want to know if you want to come down to Houston to be a part of our team.’ I got a little choked up and said, ‘Absolutely!’” Morgan then turned off his phone so that he would not be tempted to call anyone and went home to break the news in person to his wife, Stacey, and their four children.

“They were excited about going to Germany, so I said, ‘I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news is that there will be no three-year “vacation” in Germany. The good news is that I’m going to be an astronaut and we’ll be moving to Texas and not have to move again for a really long time!’”

Morgan said his wife shed tears of joy and his son simply smiled and gave him a “that’s cool” look. Morgan’s relatives, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, as well as strangers, also thought it was cool. NASA made the public announcement on June 17, 2013, and Morgan started receiving calls and emails of congratulations and autograph requests from all over the country.

His new celebrity status didn’t go to his head, though. He reported for duty at Johnson Space Center, where he was surrounded by dozens of current, veteran and former astronauts serving in a number of different capacities. His class of astronaut candidates reported to the space center in August, 2013, and began their two-year training program to become Mission Specialists.

The training program consists of language immersion (primarily Russian since all of the missions are now flown on Russian spacecraft), robotics, space walking, and flight training. Morgan and the other the non-pilots were sent to Pensacola to go through the Navy’s flight training curriculum, where they used the T-38 Talon twin-engine, high-altitude, supersonic jet to train. The astronaut class did most of their work at Johnson Space Center, but also spent time at Kennedy Space Center and Goddard Space Center in the U.S., and with their international partners in Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. After the initial two-year training was completed, Morgan was assigned to a NASA directorate as a “full-fledged astronaut” while he waited his turn to go into space.

Morgan originally estimated it would take about 8-10 years before he would make his first flight, but on May 24, 2018, NASA announced he would be part of the International Space Station Expedition 60/61 crew, launching on July 20, 2019 – the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. Since then, he has been preparing for the launch – first as a member of the back-up team for the ISS Expedition 59/60 crew, and now as a member of his own three-man crew. Morgan will be joined on the mission to space by Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency and Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. The second week of June, Morgan left for Russia for his final preparations, including training aboard the Soyuz MS-13 rocket that he will be taking into space. His time in Russia spanned about three weeks and included final exams and several days of ceremonial events in Moscow and Star City.

At the beginning of July, Morgan, Parmitano and Skvortsov flew down to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to be quarantined for the last two weeks prior to launch. Astronauts use this quarantine time to review the mission, gather their thoughts before the upcoming trip, and to ensure they don’t catch any illnesses before their flight.

The trio will board the rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for the launch, scheduled for 12:28 p.m. EST. NASA expects they will arrive about seven hours later.

Once on board the International Space Station, Morgan will be busy conducting a variety of scientific studies based on the effects of space on the body, including neuroscience research tied to balance and coordination, and experiments with blood and other body fluids. He will also prepare for spacewalks and assist with routine maintenance of the Space Station.

Morgan’s mission is expected to conclude in April 2020.