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June 22, 2013

Meet Andrew Morgan, Part 1: For new astronaut, New Castle always will be home

NEW CASTLE — For most of his 37 years on Earth, Maj. Andrew Morgan has considered New Castle his home base.

However, the Army physician soon may be leaving for Mars — and not the borough in Butler County.

Morgan was one of eight new astronauts selected this week by NASA, which plans space exploration to an asteroid and perhaps even the Red Planet within the next few years.

Morgan and his wife, Stacey, were in Houston this week, searching for yet another place to call home. A week before, they were preparing for a move to Stuttgart, Germany.

But that then came the call that put them into a different orbit.

When the phone rang, Morgan recognized the 281 area code as being Houston. He held his breath.

Dr. Janet Kavendi, chair of the astronaut selection committee, was on the line. After an exchange of pleasantries, she said the words Morgan wanted to hear. “Would you like to come to Houston and join our team?” she asked.

He didn’t hesitate with his acceptance.

Astronaut training begins in August.

“We were going to Stuttgart for three years, but we had to turn all that off,” Morgan said. “It’s just another military move.”

Andrew made many of those while growing up a son of an Air Force colonel. His parents, Richard and Janice Morgan, are Neshannock High School graduates who returned to their home turf when Ruchard retired after 24 years.

“It’s just the family business,” Morgan said of the military commitment that has spanned three generations. Both grandfathers, Warren Morgan and Jeremiah Maher, served as well. Morgan’s brother, Ben, is on active duty in the Coast Guard.

ROAD TO NASA

The 18-month selection process began with a paper application filled out by more than 6,000 men and women with astronaut aspirations.

Interviews began when the field was narrowed to 120. The number was pared to 50 for a second round of interviews, conducted in front of NASA employees and astronauts.

Then came a week of extensive medical and physical evaluations, along with assessments of different skill sets

Along the way, Morgan wouldn’t allow himself to think about the possibility of being selected.

“After all that, you don’t hear anything,” said Morgan, who completed the process last winter and was living in the Washington, D.C., area. “We were just going about our lives.”

Morgan certainly didn’t follow the normal path to NASA. Never before has an Army physician been invited to be an astronaut.

Morgan was a flight surgeon in the Army, taking care of air crews. He jumped out of airplanes.

“There’s certainly a bit of luck involved, and I feel very lucky,” he said.

Jay Bolden, public affairs officer for NASA, said people from different specialties are selected to be astronauts, not just rocket scientists and test pilots.

“If you’re going to explore planets, we need to have every type of skill.”

Morgan said he didn’t know what to expected and just winged it during interviews.

“I felt confident that I had given my best,” he said. “I didn’t pretend to be something that I wasn’t.

“This is who I am, and if this is what you’re looking for, I’m ready.”

Bolden likened the process to picking a shiny penny from a batch of shiny pennies.

“On paper everybody stacks up evenly against each other,” he said. “Sometimes personality traits and the way a person presents himself just stands out a little more than others.

“If you are going to spend two years training side by side and then six months together on a mission, being able to adapt is vital.”

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