Even if he's on Mars, astronaut candidate will call Pa. home

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 10:57 p.m.

Sunlight streamed into an airy blue and white sitting room in New Castle where Janice Morgan flipped through loose photographs of her oldest son.

“I said to my husband, ‘Honey, did you know when you snapped those pictures NASA would want them someday?' ” she said.

Dr. Andrew “Drew” Morgan, 37, put those pictures in demand and catapulted his family into the spotlight in the summer when NASA announced his acceptance into its newest recruiting class, set to report to Houston's Johnson Space Center in August. A blend of scientists, physicians and military pilots, the eight-member group, four of whom are women, could be among the first to set foot on Mars.

Drew Morgan, an Army major and physician, said he thought the news “would go totally undetected.”

“That's what's so exciting about all this,” he said from Texas. “People are talking about space again. Of course, we have an astronaut program, and we're going to go so much further.

“The space shuttle used to just orbit the Earth. We're talking about something bigger and bolder than ever before.”

His father, Rick Morgan, still has the posture of an officer at 62. A small-town dentist and retired Air Force colonel, he brought up his three boys near military bases across America and Europe. His high school sweetheart, Janice, helped him make a new home everywhere they went.

“But our parents, their grandparents, they all lived here, so for Christmases and summers — anytime, really — we'd bring them back to New Castle,” she said. “Now we're the grandparents, and he brings his children here. Andrew never had a hometown, exactly, but this is still our home.”

Her boys were close to their extended family, she said, picnicking in Pearson Park for the Fourth of July and making frequent trips to Neshannock Creek. Today, the bulk of their clan lives within minutes of downtown New Castle in a series of homes lovingly dubbed “The Compound.”

“When you grow up a military brat, having a place to call home is important,” Drew Morgan said. “New Castle filled that void. I always knew the military was the path for me, and I saw a lot of the world that I wouldn't have. Even now, with the move to Houston, we'll probably be there for 10 years or more, but Pennsylvania will remain our home.”

He and his fellow trainees will join 48 active astronauts in Houston, where director Ellen Ochoa said American crews are scheduled to launch aboard Russian rockets to the International Space Station through at least 2020.

Missions could include commercial space flights as early as 2017 and adventures beyond Earth's orbit, including the development and launch of a multipurpose vehicle dubbed Orion, Ochoa said. It would coincide with research that aims to capture an asteroid and put it on a stable orbit around the moon.

The day after NASA broke their big news, Drew Morgan was in Texas attending modest dinner parties and house hunting. The home he and his wife, Stacey, chose — one large enough to accommodate his son, 9, and three girls ages 7, 4 and 2 — is near his soon-to-be co-workers.

“This was the first time we've shopped for a house with the idea that we get to live here awhile,” he said. “The current astronaut corps immediately reached out to us. We had dinner at someone's house every night, and everyone campaigned for this or that neighborhood. It's nice to be a part of this club so quickly.”

Before his selection, the family was preparing for a three-year stint in Stuttgart, Germany. The kids expected a move, he said, but he and Stacey have not broached any larger implications of space travel.

His son took a road trip with his dad in 2011 to watch the last space shuttle mission take off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The duo camped in the back of their rental vehicle, fighting off mosquitoes the whole time.

“We thought it would be the last time; we had to go,” Drew Morgan said. “It was such an emotional, awesome experience. Then a couple months later, (NASA) called for new applicants. Now I'm an astronaut candidate. It's so surreal.”

By the time Morgan makes his first flight, his son will likely be in high school. The conversation will be radically different, Drew Morgan said. His parents said they'll focus solely on his accomplishments, not the danger.

“He's always been so driven, so determined to push himself as far as he can,” Janice Morgan said, citing West Point, medical school, Army Rangers school, three deployments and special forces training. “If he wants to go into space, we'll love him there, too.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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