Last Friday I sat in on Dr. Ronald E. Doel’s Space History class in order to hear and observe a Skype call with Story Musgrave (M.D.), astronaut and engineer, who was kind enough to answer student questions and share some of his varied experiences.
Story Musgrave is a former astronaut who has spent a total of 53 days in space over the course of 6 missions and currently works as a public speaker, professor, and consultant for groups such as Disney’s Imagineering group and General Electric.
The following questions were asked by audience members.
Have you ever seen anything eerie on your spacewalks? How did it feel?
I’ve seen so many things – and that includes plenty of things that I don’t understand. Sometimes things look different when you’re out there and you think you’re seeing something and you’re not. But look, you’ve got 10^29 stars – just extrapolating from statistics alone, you can assume that you’ve got hundreds of thousands of planets conducive to life. I’ve personally got no evidence that I’ve seen but why wouldn’t there be more out there- the numbers favor life. There likely life everywhere but I’ve got no personal evidence.
Space. It’s a fun place.
What was the most amazing thing about going into space?
The coordination and the various hundreds of specialists. It’s amazing the project management and the way that everything comes together – it’s an art. We are designing ways to keep some organism alive somewhere where it is not supposed to be. So I would say it’s really the human element and all of the expertise that goes into making all of these missions happen in the first place.
What are your opinions on NASA’s direction with the Mars Program and related research?
We are not going to Mars. Take a look at the 2017-1018 congressional budget- there’s nothing for the development of a Mars mission*. You have to know what people are doing and as of now there is no head of Mars mission – there is no money for it, and it comes down to Congress. To have any space mission you have to have everyone pulling together. Sure, President Trump says we are going back to the moon as a “stepping stone” but Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. both said that we are going back to the moon and Congress earmarked no money. This would have to be a long term vision and it needs the project management to make it happen, you can’t vacillate between administrations- it you don’t go to the moon that quickly and you won’t go to Mars. Obama cut Constellation all together. What’s required is not just the money for the flight – it’s the leadership, management, company, and most importantly the vision. I don’t know if vision is something that this administration has.
[*In December of 2017, President Donald Trump signed the Space Policy Directive 1 to “refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery” As of January 28th, the Senate Appropriations Committee has actually appropriated around $200 million less for NASA’s operational budget for the next fiscal year, but provided an additional $75 million to the Mars Exploration Program than in 2017.]
Do you have any further goals and aspirations?
I’m on my last chapter. I’ve messed up all the rest of it, [laughs]… I am going strong, but don’t tell me it isn’t the last chapter for me, I know it is. The last chapter is just as important as the rest of it,though things are different and you still have to decide what to do.Thankfully I have a fantastic number of clients for whom I’m still working including General Electric.
I have my child – my oldest daughter is 58, and she is an incredible mechanic. Right now what I’m focusing on is figuring out what experiences do I want to give her to grow her; I want to give her all that I can. It’s an important part of how I live my life- to look at what the possibilities are and where I have the most fun – and right now its problem solving for these excellent clients. I have my professorship, too; I teach aircraft and landscape design and get to interact with artists, designers, and engineers. I look at the life that I’ve had and I’ve had an incredible life. It’s been so much fun- why would I want to “retire” and leave the fun?
The Challenger Disaster was once of the most investigated and well-known disasters in United States history. Did you have any doubts and worries about going back into space after that?
The thing is, we know how the shuttle works- we helped design the thing, the Challenger. What happened was not the result of an engineering problem – it was criminal negligence. It was just criminal negligence.
We had all the data about the O-Rings and the blow bys..there’s no way the O-Rings could have done this job at those temperatures. There were icicles on the launch pad. In the tens of hundreds of pages of requirements for getting this entire shuttle off of the ground, would you be able to find the requirement for icing it? As a common sense person you look at the ice and ask whether we designed this system to fly in ice? No, we didn’t. It’s one of those things…
I know the risks involved in going to space better than most. After Challenger we really got our act together. We got rid of cult of fame that said we could do no wrong, we were going to space and that we could do whatever it took to get us there. We got rid of that normalization of deviance and it was one of those things where… until something horrible happened it wasn’t going to go away. It’s what happens when you have that kind of multinational enterprise. Someone had to die for us to get it straight. What I can say is that a space shuttle is a fragile system. We remembered that [after the tragedy], and we formed an incredible operation system that the triumph to come out of that.
What fears did you have on your first mission and how did you tackle them?
You can’t tell yourself things like “there’s no way you could get hurt.” Don’t fool yourself with platitudes. During Korea, when people were not coming home, I would work with boys here at home and we would send them off and then they wouldn’t come home. I was really just a teenager but you do learn to live with that. You can intellectualize fear, though. I made a choice to do this early in life- I don’t like risk but when it comes to space, I can recognize that this is the choice I made, to do this with my life, and learning what the risks are and what the chances actually are that something may happen is how you deal with it.
Is there anything in particular that you wanted to pass on to our students?
You take one opportunity at a time – just one. If you get to the finish line somewhere you take what you learned with you and you look for the next finish line. Don’t ever let that knowledge go and in this way you become a person with a varied skill set. When I joined the marine corps reserve, I became a tank mechanic, and I took it with me and looked at what was next.
Furthermore, you have to like what you do- if you don’t you won’t be any good at it. You have to look at who you are today to get an idea of who you might be tomorrow and decide whether that’s who you want to be. You have to look for what opportunities are going to grow you the most-and sometimes you don’t know where you’re going and you’ll end up somewhere you never foresaw. There was no space program when I was in college or when I was in graduate school, but some fifty years later here I am having been there six times. You have to prepare for the unknown.