Star man Story… he’s still out of this world at 78!
Running across the fields of his parent’s dairy farm in Stockbridge just outside Boston, Massachusetts at the outbreak of the Second World War, a five-year-old Story Musgrave would often look up at the early evening stars and wonder about his existence in time and space.
This celebrated Space Shuttle astronaut and US marine hero- in- waiting says he knew at the age of just three he had already “crossed over,” as he put it, into the adult world. At that age, attuning with the forces of nature that surrounded him, alone and determined, he was building and floating river rafts by the time he turned five as well as riding combine harvesters. By aged 10, the young Story was driving trucks and tractors – still alone in remote fields – and by 13, when they broke down, he had the wherewithal and self-taught knowledge to repair them.
Speaking at his palm oil plantation home in Kissimmee, on the edge of the Florida Everglades, the man who fixed the Hubble telescope in 1993 explained: “I only do what’s fun, always have done. I am having fun now, so when I want to stop having fun, well, it’ll all be over for me.”
There wasn’t much fun, however, in Story’s early years. “I came from an extraordinarily dysfunctional family, full of abuse and alcoholism. It’s hard to say what drives a three-year-old, but I think I had a sense that nature was my solace, and nature was a place in which there was beauty, in which there was order.” He added: “I wouldn’t have wanted my boys to go through that but, for me I guess, it made me who I am. It took me there. It made me a survivor. I think the way you feel about the past is how you’re doing today. I like what I have today. It created something back then. I know it was a tragedy on them [his parents], but they mostly brought it upon themselves.”
Although not trained as a military pilot at this point, Story was learning as much as he could about the flying world. Having spent the early part of his life on a farm fixing a variety of farm machinery, Story was very much at home with the mechanics of the job. He took pride in the responsibility of ‘pre-flighting’ the airplane, but it was almost inevitable that he was to become a marine pilot.
The young adventurer wrote of his experiences in a series of poignant letters to his mother and brothers, documenting the joys and challenges of his new-found career. Story expressed his excitement about his various aircraft adventures and the fascinating nature of the new cultures he experienced.
He started flying with the Marines and over the next 55 years had accumulated 18,000 hours in over 160 aircraft. Dr Story Musgrave is a parachutist with over 800 freefalls, has seven graduate degrees in maths, computers, chemistry, medicine, physiology, literature and psychology and has been awarded 20 honorary doctorates. He was also a part-time trauma surgeon during his 30-year astronaut career.
Not having achieved his High School Diploma, he heard through a friend about the opportunities for servicemen at Syracuse University, New York. He applied and was accepted after almost two years in the Marines, and began what was to become a long and fruitful journey through the world of formal education. Syracuse was really the launch pad, if you’ll pardon the pun, of his academic achievements. Story applied himself and completed a mathematics-focused degree in record time, then applied to University of Los Angeles to enrol in a Master of Business degree. He was accepted and moved to California in late1958.
Story enjoyed the Californian lifestyle immensely and was fascinated with his studies in operations analysis and computer programming. After completing his Masters degree at UCLA, Story enrolled at Marietta College where he completed a degree in Chemistry. This would enable him to apply to medical school, which he subsequently did. Columbia University, New York was to be his home and place of study for four years.
Having joined NASA in 1967, it would be 16 years before Story flew in space for the first time, not having been appointed to a flight during the Apollo programme. Story would become backup Science Pilot for the first Skylab mission – America’s first orbiting space station – and then Capsule Communicator for the second and third Skylab missions. The last manned Skylab mission ended in 1974, but it would be 1981 before the first space shuttle mission STS-1 was launched, with Story slated to take his place on STS-6. This was a four-person mission which launched from the Kennedy Space Center on April 4, 1983. It was also the maiden voyage of the space shuttle Challenger.
Other crew members included Paul Weitz, Karol Bobko and Don Peterson. Story’s family was watching alongside the families of other crew members as he finally had the opportunity to fly in space. It was a successful daytime launch and on Day 3, Mission Specialists Story and Don Peterson took those first few memorable and historic steps outside the spacecraft – performing basic manoeuvres in their spacesuits and testing the tools as well as the manual operation of the payload bay doors.
Images of the astronauts seemingly performing somersaults as they worked their way along the payload bay have become some of the best-remembered images of the early days of the space shuttle. The crew successfully completed their mission and returned to Edwards Air Force Base on April 9 that year.
His most notable and daring achievement was the repair and servicing of the deep space Hubble telescope in 1993, when the Space Shuttle Endeavour rendezvoused with and ‘captured’ the telescope to install, primarily, protective covers on the giant space eye’s magnetometers. During this 11-day flight, the faulty Hubble was restored to its full capabilities through the work of two pairs of astronauts during a record five spacewalks. Story performed three of these spacewalks. After having travelled 4,433,772 miles in 163 orbits of the Earth, Endeavour returned to its Florida base.
“People love Hubble images. It tells them where they are from, it tells them where they’re going – it ties it all together,” he interjects while on the subject.
Of course, I had to ask the obvious question: What was it like for the first time to look back at the Earth from outer space? “I’ve actually had better experiences,” came the surprising reply. “You just don’t even know what you’re looking at. That first time I just asked myself Where am I? Where’s the geography? You get much better though flight after flight. You get smarter. You never get familiar with it, just very good at seeing things. But you know, space flight was not an epiphany for me.”
Fired, not retired
He is the only NASA astronaut to have flown missions on all five Space Shuttles. Prior to John Glenn’s return to space in 1998, Story held the record for the oldest person in orbit, at age 61. Each successive spaceflight was to become “richer and richer,” over his 30 years with the Space Shuttle series, he said. Like many others, he was sad to see the end of the programme in 2011 – and he was vehemently bitter about NASA and the US Government’s attitude to space exploration. In a startling confession, he told me that he did not, as the official records state, ‘retire’ from NASA in 1997 – but was fired!
“They’d had enough of me. They had no vision and when I protested they just said – ‘that’s all for you.’ I am sad to see no vision out of Washington regarding the shuttle. They have no vision on anything apart from budgets, but then I don’t think the current Government would have been different to any other regime. It’s simply a case of not being able to get to do anything anymore when it comes to space.
For Story, who will be 78 in August, his later experiences in space were the epitome of his childhood exploration and discovery of nature. It was the child who is totally immersed in a strange and wonderful environment, who finds new perspective in the experience. He has never lost sight of the need to challenge life’s experiences, and by turns has had high expectations of himself – as well as others. This is a man who doesn’t suffer fools – or those who become too settled and comfortable with their lot in life – gladly.
“I have a different perspective on things I guess. Not that I’m prejudiced against those who lack motivation but I know what happens to people who don’t want to keep moving – always looking for stability. Stability is not my game. If you want to get somewhere in life you have to be wary of stability and people that have given up. Otherwise, you can’t get anywhere. They don’t want challenge, they don’t want the unknown, they don’t want they unexpected, they don’t want to reinvent themselves. They’re happy just standing still. I can’t do that. Getting out of the comfortable path – that’s what exploration of any kind is all about.”
Youth and the future
Not a man to mince his words, he explained: “If I run into an organisation that seems dead, I leave. I can’t work with dead people. They’re corpses. I’m trying to make stuff happen… I want ideas to go forward.” On the subject of the younger generation, he excelled. “I love them. They’re my sounding board. They [his students] make me question myself – Am I thinking OK? I give four hours a week with graduates of industrial design – they’re going to get my faith, they’re going to tell me how it is, they’re not going to accept what I give them straight off, they’re going to challenge me. I don’t want ‘yes’ people. Yes, they’re my sounding board for Am I young enough? I love youth. No, if in doubt, you’ve got to go with youth.”
On Britain, he’s totally enthusiastic. “I used to come to the UK every month, working for Deutsch Bank in Bishopsgate, London. I’m 100 per cent English, although I’ve been in this country for 300 years. I met my relatives out there, in Bath. My family history goes back to the Norman Conquest. But London, it’s extremely fast… economically fast, like New York.”
As a man of culture as well as science, he describes himself as “massively spiritual.” I can feel that when I go to places of antiquity, like museums – places like Winchester and Stonehenge are a wonder.”
With such a remarkable career behind him, yet still very much in full flight in terms of his businesses and teaching, could there really be anything else left for him to achieve?
“I only do what’s fun these days. I am having fun, so when I want to stop having fun, well, it’ll all be over for me. I am going to go to space again, sure. The sub orbital tourist thing – and I want to take little Story with me. But I don’t think the world will let me!
“What do I still want to achieve? To be a good husband, dad and grandfather. I like to think I make a difference to someone every week, but it starts here, with my family. Little Story is the light of my life. She’s the best thing I’ve ever done. She’s just massively joyful… a bundle of pleasure for me and that, in looking back at all I’ve done, makes me more contented than anything else.”
Graham C. Garnett
The Story Musgrave biographical.. at a glance
Dr Musgrave is a member of Phi Delta Theta, Alpha Kappa Psi, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Beta Gamma Sigma, the Civil Aviation Medical Association, the Flying Physicians Association, the International Academy of Astronautics, the Marine Corps Aviation Association, the National Aeronautic Association, the National Aerospace Education Council, the National Geographic Society, the Navy League, the New York Academy of Sciences, Omicron Delta Kappa, the Soaring Club of Houston, the Soaring Society of America and the United States Parachute Association.
US National Defense Service Medal and Meritorious Unit Commendation as a member of the United States Marine Corps Squadron VMA-212 (1954)
United States Air Force Post-doctoral Fellowship (1965–1966)
National Heart Institute Post-doctoral Fellowship (1966–1967)
Reese Air Force Base Commander’s Trophy (1969)
American College of Surgeons I.S. Ravdin Lecture (1973)
NASA Exceptional Service Medals (1974, 1986)
Flying Physicians Association Airman of the Year Award (1974 & 1983)
NASA Space Flight Medals (1983, 1985, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996)
NASA Distinguished Service Medal (1992)