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Space-Aging Astronaut Aims to Set Record in Final Frontier

NASA: Story Musgrave, 61, will be aboard Columbia this month. He still considers his career a privilege, despite blastoff terror.

November 03, 1996|MARCIA DUNN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The older he gets, the more frightened he is.

When Story Musgrave rockets into orbit on his sixth shuttle flight, he will become the oldest man ever in space. And he will be very, very afraid.

Considering all the risks he's endured in his 61 years--an ex-Marine, he has logged 17,700 hours in airplanes and 500 parachute jumps--Musgrave feels lucky to still be alive. His Nov. 8 launch aboard Columbia is yet one more risk, one he readily accepts for love of space.

Space is his calling for better and worse.

Better is exploring the final frontier, whether on the ground as a Mission Control capsule communicator or in orbit as the chief repairman for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Worse--no, worst--is being hurled into orbit by more than a half-million gallons of explosive fuel and two giant firecrackers.

Fly alongside Musgrave and this is what you'd hear once the booster rockets light: "I'm just scared to death, man. I hope this thing holds together."

This, as the other crew members "hoot and holler and carry on like it's a party."

"Probably they're more appropriate than I am," he says quietly, gently. "They're doing the only thing that you can do when you're in that situation."

Only one person in the world has been in "that situation" six times, at least until Musgrave soars: moonwalker John Young, who flew twice during Gemini, twice during Apollo and twice on the space shuttle Columbia. NASA still considers Young an active astronaut at age 66 even though he's in management and will never fly in space again.

Ex-astronaut Vance Brand was 59 the last time he flew in space in 1990 and set the space age record.

Breaking the age barrier doesn't mean much to Musgrave, a surgeon as well as an unpublished poet with six academic degrees (he's working on master's theses for two more, in psychology and history).

Nor does tying the record for the most spaceflights. Or becoming the first person to fly six times in space shuttles. Or becoming the first person to fly in all five space shuttles: Challenger in 1983 and 1985, Discovery in 1989, Atlantis in 1991, Endeavour in 1993 and, soon, Columbia.

"I feel very privileged to be in my 60s and to be going into space," says Musgrave, a healthy and indefatigable 5-foot-10, 152-pounder who runs to stay in shape. "But the important thing is I've been able to be on the job and to be able to live my calling for 30 years."

*

Dr. F. Story Musgrave (F. for Franklin) was working during the mid-1960s at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center in Lexington when he got the calling.

It was, he says, an epiphany.

NASA was starting to hire scientists, not just test pilots, as astronauts. Musgrave signed on in 1967. His colleagues flew to the moon the following year and landed the year after that. Musgrave, thinking Mars was not too far off, waited patiently for his crack at the moon, but it was not to be. Neither was Mars.

The Apollo program ended after six manned lunar landings. Then came Skylab, then Apollo-Soyuz. Still Musgrave waited. He'd joined NASA as "a longtime investor, and that was for better or for worse."

"Whether I flew or didn't fly, or flew once or flew 10 times, that was not the issue," he says. "The issue was I had found my calling."

Musgrave finally made it to orbit in 1983--16 long years after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration chose him as an astronaut. He performed the first spacewalk of the shuttle era.

Four more shuttle flights followed over the next decade, including the one that made him famous: the Hubble Space Telescope repair. He was the lead spacewalker on that hugely successful mission three years ago; the mechanics came naturally for this Massachusetts farm boy who had kept his family's tractor running a half-century earlier.

Soon everyone seemed to know, and wanted to know better, this amiable, soft-spoken, completely bald astronaut who had helped save Hubble and who openly shared his fears and belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life.

He'd be in Manhattan and someone would walk up and say, "Story?" He even attracted the attention of the woman who was pestering David Letterman; she posed as a reporter and kept calling Musgrave at his office until NASA security intervened.

Musgrave embraces it all. It is, after all, his calling.

"One thing that has been missing is the heart and the soul" of the space program, he says. "I do not think that we have given to people what the inner experience is, what is going on in the heart, in the head, what you're feeling, what you're thinking. . . . That's what human spaceflight is about."

His upcoming flight, a 16-day science mission, won't be nearly as dazzling as his last. Although two spacewalks are planned, Musgrave will stay inside as two younger astronauts go out to practice station-building techniques, and will monitor a crystal-growing satellite.

For his four crew mates, in their 30s and 40s, he's a mission highlight.

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