While he was in the fourth grade, Drew Morgan wrote a letter to Apollo astronaut Alan Bean.
Today, Morgan, an Army lieutenant colonel and emergency physician, often thinks back to what happened next.
Bean, the fourth person to walk on the Moon, sent Morgan a signed lithograph.
For a boy growing up with the movie “The Right Stuff” and father-son visits to see the space shuttle, the gesture meant the world to a young Morgan.
Now, it’s Morgan, who took an unusual route to becoming an astronaut himself, who receives letters from children all over the world.
And while he hasn’t walked on the Moon, Morgan is preparing for his first trip into space.
Last month, NASA announced that Morgan would be one of two American astronauts heading to the International Space Station next year.
He will launch aboard a Russian Soyuz 59S rocket and spacecraft in July 2019 as a member of Expedition 60/61.
Morgan, who has ties to various Fort Bragg units during his Army career, is set to become the first Army doctor to go to space.
Now, with training for his launch underway, Morgan still finds the time to respond to the letters he receives.
“That was a pinnacle moment when I was young,” he told the Observer last week from Houston. “It really ingrained in me how important it is, how role models have an impact in shaping the next generation.”
Morgan said he responds to the letters in hopes that those who receive his answer will be inspired to do something they love.
“You will be more successful in life if you love what you do,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be an astronaut. If that’s not your interests… pursue what you love.”
For Morgan, he found that love not in searching out the stars, but in putting on an Army uniform.
The son of an Air Force colonel, Morgan attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, serving as a member of the school’s parachute team, the Black Knights.
After graduating, he attended medical school and volunteered to work in the Army special operations community.
That brought Morgan to Fort Bragg, where his first assignment was as an attending physician at Womack Army Medical Center.
He later served with Joint Special Operations Command and as a part-time physician for the U.S. Army Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. He subsequently was assigned as the battalion surgeon for 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group and has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa in support of special operations forces.
Morgan is a flight surgeon and special operations diving medical officer, having completed Ranger School, the Combat Diver Qualification Course and advanced airborne and freefall parachutist courses.
Most astronauts come from flight or engineer backgrounds. But Morgan said he didn’t pursue his Army career with a goal of going into space.
“I never built my career to come to this point,” he said. “I was fortunate along the way. I see this as a continuation of my service to the nation.”
Morgan was one of eight people selected in June 2013 to be members of NASA’s 21st astronaut class.
One of his classmates, Christina Hammock Koch, will beat Morgan into space by a few months.
Koch also has ties to North Carolina. She grew up in Jacksonville and earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and physics, and a master’s degree in electrical engineering from N.C. State University.
She has experience in space science instrument development and remote scientific field engineering, having begun her career at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and later serving as part of the U.S. Antarctic Program, completing several deployments to the South Pole.
Koch and Morgan were selected from among thousands vying to be astronauts as part of the 2013 class.
Morgan said Koch will already be aboard the International Space Station when he arrives. And they will overlap for the first half of his seven-month mission.
To prepare for that mission, the astronauts have a busy year ahead of them, about half of which will be spent overseas.
In addition to training with NASA in the U.S., Morgan will also travel to Russia to train on the Soyuz 59S that will take him into space next year.
He’ll also train alongside astronauts in Germany and Japan to prepare for missions aboard the International Space Station and will eventually make the trip alongside an Italian astronaut and Russian cosmonaut.
By the time he leaves Earth, Morgan said he will have six years of rigorous training under his belt and a confidence in his own abilities and the abilities of his fellow astronauts.
While Morgan is a doctor, his role in space will be as a jack-of-all-trades.
All astronauts receive some medical training, are flight engineers, maintainers and scientists.
“We’re all trained to the same standards,” he said.
The typical day will include a mix of science, space walks and making improvements to the International Space Station, he said. Every waking moment will be scheduled by officials back on Earth.
“It sounds like a good Army day,” Morgan said. “The duty day ends and it all starts over again.”
Morgan said it’s an exciting time for the space program and that his experience has exceeded his expectations.
Most astronauts wait eight to ten years before they go into space, he noted. But Morgan will be in space just six years after his selection.
And while he will be riding a Russian rocket to the space station, he said American-led space flight is in the near future.
He hopes more soldiers will be part of that future.
Morgan is now the senior Army astronaut, with three other soldiers in the program, including a physician with ties to the 10th Special Forces Group.
Morgan said NASA and Army special operations have many parallels.
Both go out of their way to find high quality people, he said. And the work is extremely rewarding.
At Fort Bragg, Morgan said he formed strong bonds and built cherished memories with his fellow soldiers. And it’s a similar dynamic with astronauts.
“I trust them with my life. They trust me with theirs,” he said. “We work hard together. We play together. We make great memories together.”
Morgan hopes his background will open the door to more soldiers following him into the astronaut program.
He said the experiences of building a team and working together were just as important as any technical competence an astronaut candidate could bring to the program.
Already, Morgan said he has heard from many soldiers hoping to become part of NASA. And last year’s astronaut class included a record number of applicants from the Army, particularly from the special operations and medical communities.
“One of the most valuable things I can do is open pathways for people who haven’t thought about it,” Morgan said. “You can do anything in the Army. I mean, literally, anything. An astronaut is just one of them.”
Morgan said he is excited to go to space. But confident that he would have been just as excited in his Army career had he not become an astronaut.
If not selected, he would have continued to serve in special operations, he said.
“My career would have been equally rewarding,” he said.
And while he now wears a NASA flight suit, Morgan said he remains a soldier first.
“The Army has made me who I am,” he said. “I’m an astronaut because the Army gave me some really incredible experiences.”
Morgan said his years at Fort Bragg were among the most formative of his career.
“It’s some of the best memories of my life there,” he said.
And he’ll be taking a piece of the Fort Bragg community with him into space.
“The spirit of Fort Bragg and the surrounding area is very special to me,” Morgan said. “I look forward to representing them... and I look forward to the Fayetteville community following along.”
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3567.