Next June, Army Lt. Col. Andrew Morgan will strap into a capsule on the top of a Russian Soyuz-FG rocket. As the first stage engines ignite, 838.5 kilonewtons of thrust will thunder out of four liquid-fueled boosters. Less than ten minutes later, he will be in space, orbiting the Earth.
Morgan is not your typical astronaut recruit. He went to West Point. He became a doctor. He volunteered for Army Special Forces. He served as the flight surgeon for the 3rd Special Forces group out of Fort Bragg. And when the highly publicized opportunity appeared in 2012 to apply for astronaut training, he applied like most of us do for new jobs: by filling out a boilerplate application online.
“When I applied, I figured, ‘There’s no chance I’m gonna get selected,'” Morgan told Task & Purpose in a recent interview, “because they had never selected an astronaut that looked like me.”
He was right: When Soyuz mission 59S launches next year he will be the first U.S. Army doctor to fly in space.
“I planned a career that I was excited about, and nothing excites me more than being in a position of doctor in special operations and taking care of the bravest soldiers on the planet,” Morgan said. “I had this dream of being an astronaut, but I didn’t plan a career around how best to become an astronaut.”
Like most born into military families, Morgan moved around frequently in his early life. Morgan’s father was an officer in the Air Force for 24 years who retired as a full-bird colonel. As a teenager, Morgan was extremely competitive: He ranked top of his class academically, and also excelled as both a swimmer and a wrestler. That combination of intelligence and athletic acumen propelled Morgan into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
At West Point, Morgan made his name with the ‘Black Knights,’ the elite cadet parachutist group renowned for their drops into events around the country. Only a handful of cadets are selected for the prestigious squad, and of Morgan’s cohort, one other Black Knight went on to become an astronaut; three became Army battalion commanders, one became a squadron commander, another was a defense attache, and the last became an assistant dean of a university.
“I think that the type of person that goes to West Point,” Morgan said, “are the types of people who pursue becoming an astronaut.”
In 1998, then-2nd Lt. Morgan graduated from West Point and enrolled at the Uniformed Services University, also known as “America’s Medical School,” to become a doctor specializing in emergency physician practices. It was an unusual decision: most West Point graduates roll directly into their military careers after commissioning. But after completing his residency, Morgan volunteered for an assignment with U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
Morgan ended up becoming the battalion surgeon for the 3rd Special Forces Group based out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Along the way, he also completed the combat divers course and Ranger School, arguably two of the toughest courses in the U.S. armed forces. When he goes to space, Morgan told Task & Purpose, his Ranger tab will “definitely” be going with him.
While with the 3rd Special Forces Group, he deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq, honing his craft as a emergency physician. These experiences are not conventional compared to a traditional astronaut applicant: In 2013, Morgan was selected out of a pool of applicants to train for six years to join the next wave of American astronauts. Over 6,000 competitive candidates applied, and out of this pool of talented test pilots, scientists, and engineers; fewer than 8 were chosen.
The training leading up to the launch of Soyuz 59S next summer has been both physically and mentally challenging. Morgan had to learn to fly the T-38 jet trainer; he did extravehicular activity training in pools to simulate the weightless environment of space. Among other things, Morgan had to learn Russian, fly at extreme altitudes to prepare for wearing a pressure suit, and undergo survival training, just in case his Russian capsule lands off-course in the uninhabited wilderness of Siberia.
“I enjoy all of it,” Morgan said. “Every day is a little bit different. We’re always doing some kind of really exciting training that’s challenges and rewarding. It’s a lot like being in the Army.”
Even after his flight next year, Morgan says that he will look back at it all and point to the achievements he made while in a Army uniform as the defining moments of his life.
“At my core, I’m an Army medical doctor, and what I have been able to give to soldiers that I’ve mentored and soldiers that I’ve treated and their families that I’ve treated,” he said. “That, to me, has been the greatest honor of my life.”