The irony of a launch into space from a Russian launch pad on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing isn't lost on Army Col. Andrew Morgan.
If all goes as planned, the first Army doctor to go to space will ride a Soyuz MS spacecraft to the International Space Station on Saturday, from the very spot in Kazakhstan that the Soviet Union sent Sputnik to orbit in 1957 and launched Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.
"An international crew launching to an international space station on the 50th anniversary of what was the apex of the space race -- it's an interesting contrast," Morgan said in a Defense Department news release.
Morgan's interest in space began when he was a child living in Austin and San Antonio, Texas. The son of an Air Force officer, Morgan remembers seeing the space shuttle as a child, a sight that piqued his interest in space. Then, in fourth grade, when he was required to write to a famous Texan to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial, he chose Apollo astronaut Alan Bean, who answered him.
"I often say that was kind of a seed that was planted ... when I got that letter back from NASA, with, you know, NASA letterhead," he said during an episode of "Houston We Have a Podcast."
For a while, the closest Morgan could get to space was in -- and out of -- an airplane. A 1998 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, he served on the West Point Parachute Team, the "Black Knights," which earned a Collegiate National Title in competitive skydiving.
He then went on to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, where he specialized in emergency medicine. After his first assignment on the staff of Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he volunteered to serve with Joint Special Operations Command, but also worked as a part-time physician with the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army Parachute Team, which allowed him to continue jumping.
As a battalion surgeon for 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), he maintained his jump qualifications, combat dive status and flight surgeon credentials. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan, once to Iraq and several times to African nations.
His wife Stacey says that, while her husband appears to be a thrill seeker, he isn't.
"He works well in teams, seeks out teams, high-performing teams, teams that take risks together," said Stacey, also a West Point graduate and mother of four. "Calculated risks ... not irresponsible risk."
The family was packing up for a move to Germany in 2013 when Morgan got the offer to become an astronaut. Given the intense competition, the news came as a shock, the couple said. "They've never selected an Army physician before. You know, if nothing else, our joke [was] because no matter what, you'll always be a NASA applicant. So we will cherish the rejection letter forever," Stacey said.
Instead, NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi, center director at NASA Glenn Research Center, asked Morgan whether he wanted in.
"I choked up. You know, I cried. I mean, it was unbelievable," he said.
Morgan has been training for this mission, Expedition 60 (as well as 61 and 62), ever since, including Russian language training; fundamentals of flight classes at Pensacola, Florida; robotics courses and expeditionary skills.
When he lifts off with Alexander Skvortsov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Luca Parmitano of the European Space Agency, he won't be returning for nine months. Aboard the ISS, he’ll join Roscosmos Commander Alexey Ovchinin and NASA flight engineers Nick Hague and Christina Koch, who has been on board since March 14 and is expected to stay through February -- a mission that will set a record for longest spaceflight by a woman.
The crew will spend their days and nights working on ongoing experiments involving biology, biotechnology, Earth science and physical science, including a study on fluid shifts in the human body.
"It involves a lot of ultrasound, which was an interest of mine in my medical career as well," Morgan said.
At home, Stacey will discover what it's like to go through an unusual deployment with more -- and older -- children than the couple had during Morgan’s last deployment.
"I've certainly never lived with a spouse orbiting above me. But, you know, we're doing our best to prepare in the best way we can," she said.
The launch is scheduled for 12:28 p.m. Eastern on Saturday. It can be watched live on NASA Television. Coverage begins at 11:30 a.m.