'Right stuff' old stuff to him 'I love space': A 29-year astronaut, Dr. Story Musgrave at 61 will be the oldest human to fly in space when Columbia takes off in November.

April 26, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Having "The Right Stuff" used to include being young.

Astronauts were strapping test pilots, or eager young Ph.D.s, their heads crammed with astrophysics and acronyms. The old guys took desk jobs. Or so it seemed until Dr. Story Musgrave hit his 60s.

Dr. Musgrave and six other men and women are preparing for a 16-day scientific mission aboard the shuttle Columbia in November. And when they reach orbit, Dr. Musgrave, at 61, will become the oldest human to fly in space.

An astronaut since 1967, when most of his Columbia crew mates were in grade school, he explains his longevity simply: "I love space."

Story Musgrave (his first name is an old family surname) is a Massachusetts dairy farmer's son. He recalls lying in the pastures, wondering at a starry universe that man had not yet touched.

On the night before a launch, he lies in the Florida surf, watching satellites pass over and marveling at flying among them. He writes poems and fills journals about space.

Now, NASA has told him his record sixth shuttle flight this fall will be his last. The space agency won't say why, citing privacy rules. NASA spokesman Steve Nesbitt said accumulated exposure to radiation in space and bone loss due to weightlessness can factor into such decisions. But he said, "There is no age limit."

Dr. Musgrave says he's "comfortable" with the decision. "Space flight is an incredible privilege and needs to be spread around among as many humans as you can," he said. Still, "I could go on and do a bunch more."

He maintains a remarkable pace and a formidable appetite for work, life and learning:

Dr. Musgrave fills out his busy days with night-school classes -- 200 credit hours in the past 10 years. Although he already holds two bachelor's degrees, three master's degrees and a medical degree, he studies philosophy, history, literature and the arts at the University of Houston. He earned a master's in literature there in 1987. The humanities offer "an incredibly rich context to look at space," he said.

He is fit enough to shrug off NASA's annual physicals. At 5 feet 10 and 165 pounds, he'd like to lose 10 pounds. But he runs regularly and works out three to four times a week. "I do what feels good," he said. Recently, that included 30 minutes each on a stair-step machine, a rowing machine and weight machines, plus 40 chin-ups, and a brisk half-hour walk on a steeply inclined treadmill. In 29 years with NASA, he has missed two days of work.

An active pilot, he has logged 17,700 hours -- the equivalent of two years -- at the controls of 160 different aircraft. He has more hours (7,100) than anybody in a T-38 jet trainer. He holds instructor's ratings for instrument flight, gliders and airliners. He has made 500 parachute jumps -- including 100 experimental free-falls to study human aerodynamics.

He reads "piles" of books. A recent choice: "Dream of Earth," the Rev. Thomas Berry's "eco-theology" book decrying exploitation of the planet. He also reads three news magazines a week, making notes in the margins and filing the best articles. His TV diet is lean and planned; he does not "channel surf."

While not yet a grandfather, he is the twice-divorced father of six, ages 9 to 35. He travels "all over the world" with his youngest son.

Dr. Musgrave admits he tires more now. "Physically, I cannot do what I used to do. If I take some kind of hit, I'm gonna break, not bend." But "I am very blessed," he said. "I can still work around the clock without even thinking about it."

His secret? "It gets down to your philosophy of aging," he said. "My theory is if you have huge demands on you, that you live up to the demands. If you have a reason to live, you will live. If you have a reason to be mentally sharp, you will be."

He has no qualms about being 60 in a game played by people in their 30s and 40s. "I'm incredibly proud of it," he said. "I'm glad to be still diving into everything I can get my hands on."

Actually, he said, "I'm much better now. I know how to do the details, how to envision ahead of time what's going to be required. I am better than in my 50s."

NASA's expert on spacewalks, Dr. Musgrave helped design the needed tools and equipment. He has choreographed the smallest details and contingencies for the exacting, high-risk work, and talked younger astronauts through it from Mission Control. And, he has been there himself.

Dr. Musgrave's shaved head became familiar during the 1993 spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Outside the shuttle or inside, his high, calm voice, humor and focus made the job seem routine.

Baltimore-born astronaut Tom Jones, 41, who holds a doctorate in planetary science, will take his first spacewalk aboard Columbia in November.

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