A dairy farm kid from Western Massachusetts, Story Musgrave had a talent for operating and fixing mechanical things. But farm life for a child can be a dangerous environment, and for Musgrave, it was life-changing.
“I was running combines at the age of 7 or 8, tying the knots for balers that didn’t tie (knots on bales). It was so dirty and dusty that I couldn’t see my hands, and if I put them in the wrong place, they’re gone forever,” Musgrave recalls during a recent visit to Marietta College. “I had several accidents. One of them was so bad I had to have neurosurgery to stop the bleeding.”
The young boy had fractured his skull after being run over by a piece of farm equipment. Despite the danger, farm work must go on.
“I came out of that with seizures,” he says. “So, I’m having grand mal seizures while I’m operating farm equipment, which is not a good story. But I’m here. I can’t complain.”
Starting with his farm kid upbringing, Musgrave spent his life building the skills and knowledge it took to become a true pioneer. He is the only NASA astronaut to fly on all five Space Shuttles, the second astronaut to fly on six space missions, and is the most highly educated astronaut in history. Those accomplishments didn’t come easy. He had to force those outcomes.
Musgrave didn’t graduate high school — an injury led to him forgoing his senior exams and enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he put his mechanical skills to work, soon earning the title of Crew Chief — the youngest in USMC history. He signed off on all the maintenance for the airplanes as airworthy to go to war. After serving three years active duty in the Marines, he continued on active reserve for three more years, driving tanks.
After his active duty, Musgrave enrolled at Syracuse University, where he studied mathematics and statistics on the G.I. Bill.
“I got into math and statistics to control all the factors in any situation,” he says. “I was a survivor at that point. I had to survive everything: the farm; the Marines. I got in these situations that I had to survive in, so I understood that, in any situation, you’ve got to identify all the factors that affect the outcome — the good factors that will help you and the bad factors that are going to hurt you getting to the outcome.”
After Syracuse, he and his mother moved from New York to California so Musgrave could attend UCLA to study computer programming and analysis. That’s where he first became interested in neurophysiology and decided his next stop would be medical school — but first, he had to complete undergraduate pre-med requirements. He and his mother started their drive back to Syracuse.
“I crossed the Ohio River going east and I run into this place,” he says, adding that the age and beauty of Marietta, as well as the presence of Marietta College and the pre-med offerings, were what led to him staying for his B.A. in Chemistry, which took him a year to complete. He then attended medical school at Columbia University, during which time he married and had four children. In addition to raising a family and completing medical school, he began developing another skill: parachuting.
“I would take my family parachuting with me,” he says. “They didn’t go parachuting but they saw Story Musgrave at work and they knew how it was going to turn out every time. (The kids knew) ‘He don’t mess around. He likes doing it but he’s going to force the outcome.’ ”
During his surgical training at the University of Kentucky, he saw a posting on a bulletin board that NASA was considering flying a scientist-astronaut. His mind was set on becoming a NASA scientist-astronaut. He left his clinicals to complete a two-year post-doc fellowship that resulted in a master’s degree in Biological Physics and also did research on parachuting.
“After the Marines, I did take up flying as a hobby,” he says. “I did a lot of flying, but (after learning about the NASA opportunity) I really focused and got my airline transport rating to get ready for the selection process because the competition was rough.”
The Marine, mechanic, pilot, parachutist, computer programmer, chemist, physiologist, mathematician, statistician, surgeon — and college wrestler — threw his name in the mix of candidates for the new NASA program.
“They had 6,000 applicants and six of us got to space out of 6,000 — so the odds were kind of tough. … When I joined NASA, they said, ‘I hope we don’t bore you.’ They had looked at what I had done.”
Musgrave was selected in 1967 to work on the design and development of the Skylab program, as well as all of the Space Shuttle extravehicular and spacesuit equipment. He was on Space Shuttle Challenger’s first flight and did the first spacewalk in 1983. He was the first astronaut out the door, testing the new spacesuit and the new construction and repair devices and procedures with fellow astronaut Don Peterson. In addition to being on the Challenger in 1983 and 1985, Musgrave also was on the Space Shuttle Discovery (1989), Atlantis (1991), Endeavour (1993) and the Columbia (1996) missions.
“I became the lead spacewalker for 25 years with NASA,” he says. “I knew how to fix stuff. I was with the Hubble Telescope for 18 years before I had to fix it. They told me to identify every problem you could get into and what you’d do in a spacewalk to fix it. Of course, I’d get (the scientist-astronaut) job. No one had the mechanical skills and mechanical background that I had. I also had the physician and ergonomic skills of having to work with a biological body — the ergonomics. So, I was made for that job.”
Because he had always worked hard in a variety of areas, his workload didn’t really increase. He even created time to continue his medical work by flying one of the NASA airplanes from Texas to Colorado to work with the former chairman of surgery at Kentucky, who also led Musgrave’s first internship class. The surgeon left Kentucky to lead surgery at the University of Colorado and soon called Musgrave to join his team.
“He said, ‘Story, if you could join me two or three days a month up here, me and you can start a trauma department.’ I said, ‘Of course.’ ”
He was a trauma surgeon part-time for 28 years until frostbite damaged most of the fingers on his right hand while in a thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The chamber simulated super-cold and super-hot space conditions, and helped prepare him for the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission that he completed in 1993.
Musgrave was the only person in history to stay with the Astronaut Corps for 30 years. In total, he flew on six spaceflights, spent 53 days, nine hours and 55 minutes in space, spent 26 hours and 19 minutes in space outside of the spacecraft, accumulated more than 18,000 hours flying on NASA, military and civilian aircraft, completed 1,000 parachute jumps, and completed six undergraduate and advanced degrees.
Today, in addition to training and consulting, Musgrave is enjoying watching his youngest daughter — 16-year-old Story — learn to fly.
“I have kids in their 60s, 50s, and a 35-year-old who’s flying B-1s with the Air Force, and then there’s little Story, who’s 16,” he says. The two built their current plane with other children helping. Young Story’s flight instructor knows who her father is, and Musgrave is happy to augment some of her school lessons.
Looking back, Musgrave says his NASA work in space did make him a bit nervous.
“I don’t like risk,” he says. “The Shuttle was more risk than I wanted, but it was the way to get to space at the time, so I kept doing it. I don’t risk. I don’t want to go there. I like to control risk and I like to be ready, but of course, if I put myself in a bad machine, it’s over.”
In 1987 — while still actively working as an astronaut and a surgeon — Musgrave obtained a master’s degree in literature from the University of Houston. Though he would have liked to have tapped into that creative side, the breadth of his professional experience has been rewarding and remarkable.
“I could have been an artist and a writer, and so I missed that part,” he says. “It’s hard to do everything, but this (life) turned out pretty well.”