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VOL. 23, NO. 8OCTOBER 31, 1997


Columbia's Rocket Man

Story Musgrave's Philosophical Journey into Space

Story Musgrave—astronaut, surgeon, alumnus. Record Photo by Eileen Barroso.

By Bob Nelson

Story Musgrave motioned toward a slide of Florida he took from a space shuttle flight. Cirrus clouds speckled the ocean, and an emerald peninsula curved away to the horizon.

  "This is a direct experience of Earth. It's Emerson, it's Thoreau, it's the English Romantic poets," the 62-year-old former astronaut said.

  Florida by night followed, a thin sheath of light bulging at the cities. "Here we are, Miami, Fort Lauderdale. All you see is where the people are. Know what the brightest star in the human firmament is? Las Vegas. You look at that thing and you say, 'What is that?'"

  Veteran of six shuttle flights and 1,281 hours in space and the oldest human ever to fly in space, Musgrave brought a fresh, gee-whiz enthusiasm for space and a soft Kentucky drawl to Columbia last Thursday.

  "I hate to tell you I'm afraid of heights," he said on climbing the stage at Davis Auditorium in the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research.

  Musgrave, who earned an M.D. from the College of Physicians & Surgeons in 1964, did triple duty at Columbia last week, speaking on "Earth as a Work of Art" on the Morningside campus, on "An Artist's View of the Universe" at Health Sciences and lunching with graduate students in the School of Public Health, where he discussed the nation's high consumption of nonrenewable resources and possible resulting health problems.

  He was invited a year and a half ago to appear at Columbia by Joseph Graziano, professor of public health and pharmacology and head of the Division of Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. Musgrave delivered the fifth Granville H. Sewell Distinguished Lecture, established in 1993 in memory of the late clinical professor of public health and director of the division's graduate programs. When Musgrave accepted, Graziano also arranged a Morningside appearance, which was sponsored by the Columbia Earth Institute, and he was introduced by Peter Eisenberger, vice provost and director of the Institute and of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

  Musgrave's Morningside talk featured slides he took from space, using a hand-held Hasselblad. "You've just got your nose pressed to the window, and you say 'Wow!'" There were shots taken during his five famous space walks to repair the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, with the enormous blue curve of the Earth as a backdrop.

Musgrave uses both hands in discussing his slides of space. Record Photo by Eileen Barroso.

  In different frames, the Earth appeared above or below the space shuttle Endeavour, and Musgrave said one of his research interests was in the cognitive psychology of how we come to perceive up and down.

  He spoke, too, of working with other astronauts in a tightly orchestrated team, and of impromptu experiments inside the shuttle, including making a sphere of Coca-Cola that floated in the cabin. Since there is no up or down in space, carbon dioxide gas doesn't escape and the globe of Coke is all bubbles. "You stick a straw in that and you get froth," Musgrave said, adding that Alka Seltzer won't dissolve inside the space shuttle cabin, either. "And I've never tried this, but if you lit a match it would go out, because in zero-G the combustion products, which are lighter than air, don't rise and they snuff out the match."

  Then came slides, 250 in all, of the Earth's wonders: Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, New Zealand's South Island and the Himalayas in winter, a "marble sculpture." Solitons, deep-sea waves that propagate across entire oceans, were visible from space, as were fronts of warm and cold ocean water that sliced a ship's wake in two.

  "I'm always interested in what you can see with the naked eye," he said. Volcanoes, deserts, lakes, mountains, shorelines and islands from Madagascar to Pacific atolls followed.

  "You're going 18,000 miles an hour at 400 miles up, and you feel like just reaching out and touching the Earth," said Musgrave, who displayed a passionate respect for nature. The slide show closed with a series of sunsets, including one taken from the backyard of his home in Houston, and Musgrave advised audience members to write the time of the sunset in their Filofaxes and run up to a rooftop or the shoreline to see it, every day. "It will make you a different person," he said.

  Musgrave holds six advanced degrees, earned from 1958 to 1987. He comes from a distinguished medical lineage: nine straight generations of doctors on his mother's side, including two professors of surgery at Harvard, and his paternal grandfather, a noted researcher on the effects of poison gas during World War I. He called his experience of medical school "like trying to drink from a fire hose"—there were classes and labs, as well as 20 hours a week of research with Dominick Purpura, then associate professor of neurological surgery and now dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. He was also married with three children; there are five now, and he is divorced.

  "New York was a rich place in which to grow," he said in comments before his Morningside lecture. "I had nothing but positive experiences at Columbia from day one. It's a fantastic institution, and I got a great education."

  Neither doctors nor the public at large should think of a medical degree as training for a career, Musgrave said. "You need to take a step back and see it as an education in humanity, in what it means to be human. You're dealing with people who are in crisis because of a disease. An M.D. opens a lot of doors in a lot of directions, above and beyond the clinical path."

  Born in Boston but raised in Lexington, Ky., Musgrave dropped out of high school in 1953 to join the Marines and served as aviation electrician aboard the carrier U.S.S. Wasp in the Far East. In 1967, he was selected in NASA's first crop of scientist-astronauts, and a career was born.

  He spent his first 16 years with NASA as back-up science-pilot and capsule communicator on various missions, and helped design the space suit used in the shuttle program. He trained as a military pilot at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas, finishing first in his class, but never gave up surgery. He commuted to Denver General Hospital to work as a trauma surgeon, and later continued research in cardiovascular medicine and exercise physiology.

  He eventually flew all five space shuttles: Challenger in 1983, its maiden flight, and 1985; Discovery in 1989; Atlantis in 1991; Endeavour in 1993, the Hubble repair mission, and Columbia in 1996. Musgrave has said that he watched aghast as the third Challenger voyage ended in flames in 1986, but that his determination to fly again was undiminished. His sixth and final flight, in November 1996, tied John Young's record for the number of space flights.

  Musgrave left NASA in September, after the agency told him he would not be flying any more missions. He does not consider his space career over, however. "I'll be doing more of this—talking and educating about space, whether it's in person, on film, video, CD-ROM, writing prose or poetry or whatever." He mentioned ongoing discussions with Disney, CNN and the Discovery Channel in which he would host programs about space science.

  He remains fascinated by space: "Space is not jobs, and it is not technical spin-offs. It's trying to find out who I am and what's the meaning of this life."