Story Musgrave: Conquering Life in the Cosmos

An astonishing list of achievements in the life of one remarkable man has inspired many to strive for their own story of success.

Is it possible to be a pragmatist of the highest order while your spirit floats above the earth seeking the age-old answers of what it means to be human? Is it possible to peer into the heavens, connecting with the vastness of it all, while rummaging through your NASA toolbox for just the right screwdriver? Does a man exist who admits he knows nothing about a problem but is confident enough to know he can fix whatever you’ve got if you just let him try?

Why yes, he does. His name is Story Musgrave and his life can be a lesson to all of us. He’ll walk through any door of opportunity so the chance isn’t wasted. If the door is closed, he’ll stick his foot on the threshold and talk his way in. He shows us just what can be accomplished with enough bullheadedness not to give up; not ever.

A Born Survivor

Musgrave was born on a 500-acre farm just outside Boston (although if you ask him, he’ll claim Kentucky as his real home.) Hearing him speak in the soft, relaxed twang of Appalachia might convince you of it. God had placed him in a contentious, troubled family but that was immaterial to a young child bent on living life as large as possible no matter what was thrown at him. And life did throw a lot at him. True to his self-proclaimed Midwestern roots, he would throw his iron will right back at life.

Sorrow as a Propeller

His family legacy was a string of suicides through several generations, including two grandfathers and both parents. One of his seven children would also succumb. But Musgrave was made of stern stuff. His built-in emotional bulwark steeled him from the epic sorrow that would crush most people. Musgrave accepted these events and used them to become even stronger and push himself further.

The Stargazing Toddler

On the farm, Musgrave did chores and learned about tractors. To escape exceptionally raucous and booze-filled evenings in the home, he would wander off of an evening into the woods at the tender age of three. There, he would lie in the soft grass and stare at the universe. He could hear it beckoning; inviting him. Musgrave would spend his entire adult life taking the necessary steps to accept that invitation.

The Pragmatic Teen

Musgrave learned a lot growing up on the farm; fixing tractors and cars, planting and harvesting crops. He soaked up every bit of knowledge he could wherever he was. It was a habit he would carry throughout his life. As a teen he suffered injuries from a car accident and never graduated high school. Ever the problem-solver, Musgrave enlisted in the United States Marine Corps because well, he needed a job. The tough young man from “Kentucky” took to military life like a fish in water. He loved driving giant tanks that no doubt were just giant tractors to this matter-of-fact farm kid.

A Soldier and a Scholar

He worked hard and learned all he could about everything around him, soaking up knowledge from experienced people who had the most to convey. While in the Marines, Musgrave completed his GED. Not a man to stop at the first door, he set his sights toward academia following his discharge. His hunger for knowledge seemingly knew no bounds. He traveled the country earning BAs and MBAs in everything from computer programming and literature to chemistry and biophysics. By the time he was done he had six academic degrees; one of which was an MD from Columbia University.

The Doctor is In 

Musgrave took his medical degree “home to Kentucky” and began a surgical internship at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. Upon completion he stayed on as a United States Air Force post doctoral fellow, applying his extensive list of university degrees toward the study of aerospace medicine and physiology. This resulted in advances in how astronauts survive and work efficiently in outer space. Musgrave wrote a total of 25 scientific papers during this and other fellowships.

NASA is Hiring!

In 1967, NASA put out a call for civilian professionals to join the space program. Prior to this, only military test pilots were accepted into the astronaut program. Who do you think was pounding on the door first? That’s right, because this was the biggest door of opportunity Musgrave had ever seen. He had been dreaming of this chance since he was a toddler gazing at the stars and there was no way this door wasn’t opening. Luckily for the program director and the entire entity of NASA, they agreed. History was about to be made.

An Astronaut in Group 6

After completing the astronaut training program, NASA has the same policy as the military as far as actually going into space: hurry up and wait. As Musgrave waited for an assignment, he worked on designing Skylab and the Space Shuttle as well as EVA equipment and Manned Maneuvering Units. By the time he first reached outer space he had helped design much of what would keep him and his fellow space travelers alive. In fact, he would be on the missions that tested all of it.

Saving the Hubble Space Telescope

When NASA and the general public learned about the millions of dollars spent on a giant telescope that was orbiting space with a defective lens, the mood was dire to say the least. NASA was taking heat politically and people were questioning NASA funding in general. A hero and a solution were needed. Enter Musgrave and his stubbornness regarding problems. He knew nothing about cameras but had the craziest, most pragmatic solution to this advanced technical problem.

Showerheads in Space

Soaking up ideas for solutions from everywhere is the way Musgrave brainstorms. Suddenly, something will trigger the needed epiphany and such was the case with NASA’s defective Hubble lens. A German engineer was speaking about the way water streams from a showerhead and BAM. Musgrave sees the solution. He will attach “showerhead” mirrors around the lens to reflect light at the angles necessary to capture images in space. Making this solution a reality was well, a bit more complicated.

Floating Screws and the Servicing Mission

To hear Musgrave tell about millimeter screws floating away in space makes me think of the opening scene in Gravity where Sandra Bullock, also a civilian astronaut, keeps forgetting they won’t just fall to the floor like they do in the lab. Musgrave also laments trying to recapture tiny screws with big puffy astro-suit hands. But he and his colleague worked for hours at a time floating above the telescope. They fixed it, logging a record five space walks for the mission. Musgrave did three of these walks.



An Impressive Career in the Cosmos

Until John Glenn revisited space in 1998 at the age of 77, Musgrave held the record for being the oldest astronaut at 61. During his time at NASA he flew on all 5 space shuttles traveling on six space flights. He can boast a total of 1,281+ hours flying around the cosmos; 27 of those hours outside the spacecraft.

Ever the Door-Crasher

Now that Musgrave has retired from NASA he continues to give himself and others challenges. He is a popular TED Talks speaker, urging young people to seize every opportunity and crash through every door. I imagine in his free time he might wander off into the woods and lie down in the soft grass, checking in with his old pal, the cosmos.