BOSTON — Story Musgrave is a walking superlative.
When the Space Shuttle Columbia thunders off its launch pad tomorrow, the veteran astronaut will become the oldest person ever to escape the earth's atmosphere. It'll be his sixth space flight, another record, and the first time anyone has flown on all five shuttles.
But forget about that for a moment. With six college degrees on his office wall and two more on the way, Dr. Musgrave is arguably one of the world's most educated men. He's a legendary jet pilot and parachutist who runs five miles a day, writes poetry, quotes St. Augustine, listens to Madonna, and dabbles in photography, gardening, chess, ballet, and scuba diving.
Those who know him have a tendency to gush.
"Story is obnoxiously talented and well educated, but he doesn't come across as a stilted person," says former astronaut Norman Thaggard, an old friend. "He's one of those people who knows how to live a balanced life and does it. He deserves all the praise anyone wants to give him."
Although he has been an astronaut for 21 years, the 61-year-old Musgrave first leapt to the world's attention in 1993 when he led the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour on a mission to capture and repair the malfunctioning Hubble Space Telescope. It was a critical moment for NASA, which had been called to the mat in Congress after the multibillion-dollar contraption failed in orbit.
In a nail-biting 11-day process, Musgrave and his crewmates snagged the telescope with the shuttle's robotic arm and performed a record five spacewalks to fix its nearsighted lenses. Although he still doesn't take credit, the operation was Musgrave's baby, and his ability to maneuver in his 300-pound. oxygen suit made the difference.
"If you want to get an impossible job done, Story is the person to choose," says Bill Thornton, a former astronaut who joined NASA with Musgrave in 1967. "That [Hubble] exercise was a terribly complex bag of worms, but he pulled it off. That mission did as much to turn the image of NASA around as anything I know of."
For Musgrave, the glory of space travel lies in the details. In a business where one faulty calibration can lead to disaster, his meticulousness exceeds every standard. Crewmates note the reams of checklists he prepares, the eight or nine ThinkPad and Grid notebook computers he totes along, and his ability to work in close quarters.
Working with the limits
"Sitting in the center seat of a commercial airline is very similar to a space flight," Musgrave says. "But you can still be productive with limited space." In orbit, Musgrave likes to think of himself as a mobile workstation. He adds velcro to his clothing so he can attach books, notepads, pens, and tools. "It's like wearing my desk."
But don't mistake Musgrave for a strictly nuts-and-bolts guy. In addition to bachelor's degrees in chemistry and mathematics, an MBA in computer programming, a master's in biophysics, and a doctorate in medicine (all from different universities), he also holds a master's in literature and is working on two more master's theses in history and psychology. To him, space travel is as mystical, philosophical, and eerily poetic as it is technical.
"One thing that has been missing is the heart and the soul" of the space program, Musgrave said at a pre-flight news conference. "I do not think that we have given to people what the inner experience is, what is going on in the heart, in the head, what you're feeling, what you're thinking.... That's what human spaceflight is about."
By any measure, Musgrave's life is a portrait of courage. Born on a Stockbridge, Mass., dairy farm, he spent a nomadic childhood with an alcoholic mother, who, like his alcoholic father, eventually took her life.
After earning his first two degrees, working for a time as a systems engineer for Eastman Kodak and practicing medicine, he entered the space program as part of only the second group of scientist-astronauts. At the time, Dr. Thornton recalls, NASA had not yet shed its cowboy machismo, and many top officials resented the admission of "eggheads" to what had always been a fraternity of fighter jocks.
As Thornton recalls, his class was subjected to grueling tests in T-38 jets, which washed many of them out of the program. It was then that Thornton says he realized the depth of Musgrave's talents. Instantly at home in jets, Musgrave earned his Air Force wings, qualified as a test pilot, and logged more than 17,000 hours in the cockpits of 160 different types of civilian and military planes.
"He would do things in an aircraft that I'm not gonna talk about," Thornton says. "He pushes the envelope in whatever he gets into."
Take parachuting, for example. The former Marine has made more than 500 jumps, often for research into the aerodynamics of the human body. He has leapt from planes blindfolded with only an altimeter to tell him when to pull the rip cord.
But some of Musgrave's most rewarding journeys have been intellectual. He describes his life as a constant search for meaning, a search that intensifies in space as he ponders the connections between science and faith, biology and art, brute force and choreography. He is convinced of the existence of other intelligent life somewhere in the universe, and on the shuttle sometimes he'll turn off the lights and gaze out the window at the star carpet, lost in thought.
Although Musgrave says he'd like to keep soaring, NASA has told him this will be his final flight. They say it's time to give other astronauts a chance. Yet Musgrave has no plans to leave the space program. It's his home, his calling, and the best window seat to life's mysteries that he's ever known. "I am not able to walk away from this business," he has said. "I am not able to walk away from the airplanes. I am simply unable to set it down, and someone, sometime, [will] to have to do it for me."