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P&S Journal

P&S Journal: Fall 1997, Vol.17, No.3
Alumni News and Notes
ALUMNI PROFILE: Story Musgrave'64

A Surgeon in Space
          By Peter Wortsman
Alumni News Editor:
Alumni News Writer:

NASA, Houston. Saturn V, the mighty rocket that flew 10 manned missions into space, now lies flat on its side, an arcane metal dinosaur in a patch of grass. In a nearby field, a pair of Texas longhorn cattle languorously chew their cud, oblivious to the pace of human enterprise. The juxtaposition is striking. Here at the hub of the great adventure of space travel, where rocket scientists hone humanity's wildest dreams, aerospace engineers give them shape, and a hand-picked cadre of astronauts train to ride those dreams into history, the future flies by in a flash.

Most astronauts sign on for a limited hitch. But when you're in it for the long haul, like Story Musgrave'64, you can't get space out of your system. In 1997, at age 62, following 30 years at NASA and after flying all five space shuttles (Challenger in 1983 and 1985, Discovery in 1989, Atlantis in 1991, Endeavour in 1993, and Columbia in 1996), raring as always to go up again, the oldest space traveler reluctantly accepted retirement. Biting the bullet, he's shifted his focus to space education, to "communicate the heart and soul of what human spaceflight is about."

"Now Life is Leaping off the Planet"
Alumni Day 1994 Story Musgrave'64 at Alumni Day 1994
Lithely leaping over a wall to open the locked door of a test module, the ideal setting for an interview, the senior spaceman shows he still has the right stuff.

Best known to the general public as payload commander and lead repairman on STS-61, the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing and repair mission in 1993 (a stunningly successful effort that helped reveal distant reaches of the universe never before visible to the human eye), he communicated his impressions live from space.

Asked by Ted Koppel of ABC "Nightline" if the effort was worth the risk and cost, his unswerving, eloquent reply will surely go down in history: "We have no choice, sir. It's the nature of humanity. . . . And maybe I'm not just a human up here, you know, now life is leaping off the planet. It's heading for other parts of the solar system, other parts of the universe. . . . It isn't simply politics. It isn't simply technology. . . . You could look at it as maybe the essence of life." Speaking on behalf of the human species, Story Musgrave also was espousing his own personal credo.

Medal The medal, which Dr. Musgrave carried into space
Massachusetts-born, Kentucky-bred, Dr. Musgrave has a Southern-inflected speech and sinewy build that may make him seem laid back. In informal conversation, he tends to take his time, carefully selecting his words with the precision of an engineer and the conceptual lyricism of a philosopher-poet. (The author of 25 scientific papers, he also writes poetry. His voracious reading ranges freely across disciplines from aerodynamics to transcendentalism, from mathematics to theology, from physiology to Freud.)

But get him on the subject of space and you perceive a striking metamorphosis. His steel blue eyes dilate with laser-like intensity. His shaven head suddenly takes on the contour of a helmet. Thought furrows his otherwise smooth brow. The Kentucky twang accelerates into astronaut high drive. Story Musgrave is ready for takeoff.

From Dairy Farm to Discovery:
A Life in High Drive

Former Deans Story Musgrave'64
with former deans Donald Tapley, left, and Henrik Bendixen at the presentation of a medal to the astronaut
Growing up on a dairy farm in Stockbridge, Mass., the son of an abusive alcoholic father and a loving but acquiescent mother, he found salvation in the care of livestock and the mastery of farm machinery. Young Story could run and repair anything on wheels. He started flying airplanes at age 16 "in a very informal kind of way: I drove them like I drove tractors, and then one day just leaped off!"

The next leap was in 1953, when he dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marines. Training at first as an aviation electrician and instrument technician, his love of aircraft and the need to get a license in order to fly them propelled him to pursue his studies. The reading of jet engine manuals ultimately led to an appreciation of books. An early flicker of intellectual curiosity rapidly burst into flame and has been roaring ever since.

Leaving the Marines to study mathematics and statistics at Syracuse, where he earned a B.S. degree in 1958, he interned as a mathematician and operations analyst at Eastman Kodak before attending UCLA and completing an M.B.A. in operations analysis and computer programming in 1959. His interest in computers led, in turn, to a fascination with the human brain. ("I always keep coming back in my interests to the human dimension!")

Subsequently earning a B.A. in chemistry from Marietta College in 1960, and thereby fulfilling his pre-medical course requirements, he applied and was accepted at P&S. "I think I was taken on as an oddball," he reflects. "They must have reserved a few slots for people they perceive may develop in strange ways."

Plane In fact, Dr. Musgrave comes from a distinguished medical lineage, nine straight generations of doctors on his mother's side, including his maternal great-grandfather and great-uncle, who were both professors of surgery at Harvard, and his paternal grandfather, a noted physician and researcher on the effects of exposure to poison gas during World War I.

In New York, the erstwhile farm boy's eyes were opened to a wide world of possibilities. He fondly remembers his P&S peers, "bright, talented, great learners, all broad and diverse in their interests."

Pursuing his own research interests in the nervous system at the Neurological Institute under Dr. Dominick Purpura (now dean of Albert Einstein College of Medicine), Dr. Musgrave decided to become a surgeon--"not," he is quick to explain, "because I wanted to help people, but because of a curiosity of what a human is and what it means to be human."

Next stop: the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where, while pursuing his surgical residency, he added to his academic credentials an M.S. in physiology and biophysics in 1966.

The seemingly diverse strands of his wide-ranging intellectual search all came together in 1967, when NASA opened its doors to scientist-astronauts and Dr. Musgrave decided to link his destiny to the space program. The decision proved a personal epiphany: "Everything I'd ever done, I realized, every crooked path I took was leading me to this."

Experiencing Space
He spent his first 16 years with NASA on the ground (as back-up science-pilot and capsule communicator on various missions), aiding in the design and development of the Skylab Program, America's first space station, as well as various parts of the space shuttle program, including the space suit.

Learning how to work with a space suit, he says, is like putting on a second skin, "forcing you to reflect on anthropology, anthropometrics, and kinesthetic motion. That's why," he suggests, "being a physician and a physiologist proved a particular asset which I brought to space walking."

First hurled into the heavens in April of 1983 aboard STS-6, the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Challenger, he and a colleague conducted the first extravehicular activity, more commonly known as space walking, to test, among other things, the very space suit he helped design. He is considered today one of the world's authorities on space walking.

A perfectionist attuned to the tiniest detail, Dr. Musgrave was known by his NASA colleagues as "Dr. Detail." For each of his missions, he carefully choreographed every move in months of dry runs, so that once he stepped out of the spaceship, he could perform his duties "with the grace and ease of a ballet dancer."

In his second flight aboard Challenger, in 1985, Dr. Musgrave served as systems engineer during launch and entry and pilot during orbital operations, also participating in major experiments in the life sciences.

Watching aghast from mission control as Challenger exploded during takeoff on its third voyage, on Jan. 28, 1986, Dr. Musgrave felt a profound personal loss at the death of the crew and the destruction of the craft he had flown twice. "I went back to my office," he confessed to American Medical News, "stared out the window, and cried like a baby."

"The Challenger explosion," he says, "was a wake-up call to the space agency and a lot of other people, but not to me. I helped build this system, I knew what we were biting off." He had not the slightest doubt that he'd go up again the next chance he got.

Risk is a regrettable factor he can live with. "I do my best to control it, to minimize it. It's ironic," he chuckles, "I don't like the risk because I want to get to do it again." Unlike other astronauts, he is willing to openly acknowledge fear, particularly his fear during a launch: "When that thing goes, it goes! And you go where it goes. You can't affect the outcome."

In 1989, he flew again, aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, a classified mission operating payloads for the Department of Defense. Two years later, he went up again, this time on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, whose primary mission was to deploy a Defense Support Program satellite. On that flight, Dr. Musgrave also helped monitor numerous medical tests to support longer duration shuttle flights.

Then in 1993, as payload commander aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour, Dr. Musgrave performed three of the mission's five scheduled space walks, working in tandem with his fellow crew members to service and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.

"I told everyone that I did not know if we were going to pull it off," he recalls. "I said to the media, the only thing I can tell you is that we are ready to go forward. It's a drama, enjoy it! Stand by and let it unfold!"

Unfold it did, before millions of television viewers the world over who watched spellbound as Dr. Musgrave and his colleagues performed delicate space surgery on a floating mechanical eye.

And while Hubble's $1.5 billion technology and the very credibility of NASA were riding on that mission, Dr. Musgrave kept his cool. "I had worked the details down to every thread on every screw, every finger position for five days and 300 tools," he insists, "but I never felt any pressure, because I never thought about the result. Sure, I want a good result, but when I'm out there working in space, I focus on my task, to do a perfect turn on every single bolt."

He believes the impact of the Hubble repair mission transcends science and technology. Hubble touches people of all ages, he suggests, "because it's about finding our place in the universe."

While his sixth and final flight aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1996 was accompanied by far less fanfare than the prior mission, Dr. Musgrave considers it his most successful. His criteria are both professional and personal. The crew deployed and retrieved the Wake Shield Facility, technology vital to the development of thin film wafers in semiconductors for the electronics industry.

And Story Musgrave experienced "a perfect night pass." He laid blankets across the interdeck access and turned off all the lights to "dark adapt" before peering out the portal. "You see lightning flash. You catch aurora, this silken curtain dancing over hundreds of thousands of miles." And best of all, he experienced flying under the Earth and the thrill of free-fall at zero g.

"Talk about ecstasy!" He closes his eyes in the telling, savoring the memory. "To fall through the dark forever, that's the essence of space.

"It's my philosophy," he says, "that you can't understand anything unless you've surrendered to it. That's why the idea of conquering space was so abhorrent to me from the very beginning. You'll never know it if your idea is to go out and vanquish it. If you bring in the big bulldozers, you are never going to understand the environment you're coming into, you're just going to level it and put up a cosmic parking lot!"

Total Immersion
For Story Musgrave, the intellectual engine, of course, keeps running in retirement. He believes in being "a total participant" in whatever he does.

Leaving Houston, he will move to a house he recently purchased in Florida, not far from Cape Canaveral. And just as he did on the night before each flight, he will lie in the surf staring up at the heavens. He has offers from various media--newspapers, TV, and film--to write about space. The physical memory, he trusts, will help him translate his experience and tell what he knows.

"It's humanity's destiny to explore the universe," he firmly believes. "When we start thinking and working on that cosmic level, we will transcend our parochial differences and tribal natures and become global creatures, solar system creatures. Then we'll figure out where we fit in."

Meanwhile, Dr. Musgrave is pursuing his studies in psychology, history, sociology, and literature to round out his knowledge and bring the lessons of space down to Earth.

copyright ©, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center

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