Veteran Astronaut Story Musgrave

The only person to fly on all five space shuttle orbiters.


Former astronaut Story Musgrave is a veteran of six space shuttle flights on five different orbiters. He has seven academic degrees, including a doctorate in medicine. During his 30 years with NASA, he worked as a part-time trauma surgeon. As a pilot, Musgrave has logged 18,000 hours in 160 types of aircraft. He is the author of The NASA Northrop T-38: Photographic Art from an Astronaut Pilot.

Air & Space: How do you feel about the retirement of the space shuttle program?

Musgrave: Well, I have my own purely personal affection for it. I never wanted to do that particular machine in the early 70s—I thought it was the wrong idea. But, my goodness, American engineering pulled it off, and it did what it did magnificently. A lot of new technologies, new science, and new ways of doing things in space, but as you know at massive cost, and with massive fragility and vulnerability. It’s had an awful long run. And everything has its timing. The timing now is rather strange, when you have the only way to get to the space station, and you’re doing away with it. After flying for as long as it did, it really is time to move on to the next one. So I feel affection for it, I feel sentimental about it. But it’s time to move on. It turns out, though, we’re moving on to nothing.

A&S: Do you think the space shuttle program was worth the money spent on it?

Musgrave: No, it was not worth the money—it ended up being a billion [dollars] a flight. And people might question my accounting: My accounting is to look at the Congressional budget that says how much money goes to the shuttle, and divide that by the number of flights. That kind of accounting is hard to argue with, and so it was a billion a flight, which is a massive amount.

The whole thing is very complicated. I would have joined the robotic programs and the human programs instead of having them separate into either/or. People always used to try to get [Carl] Sagan on one side of the fence and me on the other, and have a little debate. Well, when the moderator talked to us, he found out I was on Sagan’s side. We need to join the robotic and the human programs so that they optimize each other. Send robots first to mine the materials you need, and they build the habitats. And then humans can get low-cost reliable access to space.

All in all, I do have to give American engineering unbelievable credit that they were able to pull off this thing, as difficult as it was. [The shuttle] ended up having the best possible team in the world to make the most of it. But they’re not able to do anything with cost, of course. So the question is: Was it worth it? No, it was not worth it. But this is hindsight, you see.

A&S: From a financial standpoint, not worth it?

Musgrave: Well, I’m looking at what we could have done for the same money. The cost of the space station is 300 Voyager-class satellites. I could have a dozen or more satellites, Voyager-class, on every planet, and on every moon of every planet. I could have had satellites transmitting high-resolution, multimedia data back from 30 different bodies out there in the solar system. I could have the space station up there doing another truss, another module, another connection, another resupply--that’s what it is to the public. Or I could have had 30 simultaneous transmissions covering the entire solar system. Now that’s what people need to understand we gave up.

The space shuttle opened up spaceflight. It opened it up in a massive way. It was also a laboratory, and it was a great laboratory. And it did all kinds of things. We made huge progress in spaceflight with the shuttle.

A&S: What could we do to build on the foundation laid by the shuttle?

Musgrave: Whatever we want to do. We are incredibly mature now. We are incredibly sophisticated, and we have learned how to operate a very difficult thing. If we went back, and did a simpler machine, we’d do an even better job. So we can do what we want now—it doesn’t mean we leave for Mars. There are things we don’t know about. Space radiation we have no fix for. We don’t even have a decent proposal for how to deal with radiation. We need a closed ecological system. We have to have plants onboard. It’s a different psychology going to Mars, with Earth becoming a little bright star out there. You know you can’t come home. So there are things about going to the planets we haven’t yet dealt with.

A&S: Do you plan to attend either of the final two shuttle launches or acknowledge them in some way?

Musgrave: I’ll kneel down, face east, and say a prayer. I do a hundred appearances a year, and with the shuttle dates moving all the time, I can’t block that date. When I get a call to do an appearance, I sign up and do it. If it falls on a shuttle date, then I don’t make it.

A&S: How do you feel about the Obama administration’s cancellation of the Ares/Constellation program?

Musgrave: The entire future of space policy—it’s dead. It’s absolutely dead. It’s nothing. They killed it. They killed not only Ares—I guess Orion’s going to have a lighter weight version to be the rescue boat to get back to the space station. But, no, the whole thing is dead. The program should not be evaluated in terms of people’s opinion: It should be evaluated by looking at hard reference points. And there is only one real reference point, and that is the 1960s. Kennedy said go to the moon: Four years later, a Saturn lifted off. Now that’s how to do business. And it was Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo within eight years, and we did it right.

With 45-year hindsight, we look at how we did it, and it turns out we did it right. Innovation is driven by necessity. Kennedy simply said go. He didn’t lead the team. He said just do it. It was nuts. We had no infrastructure. We had no technology—we had nothing. But we did it. We had the best project management the world has ever seen.

There is no project management talked about or in place for the future. There is none, so nothing is going to happen. We are going to launch nothing, build nothing, and do nothing. And don’t tell me we’re going to develop all this game-changing technology. That’s not the way technology happens. Technology is driven by necessity.

NASA needs access to space, as does the rest of America. They need access to space in the year 2010. Because the shuttle is going away. We need access this year, so what is the response? We’re going to think about it for five years, and then make a decision. Which means we’re 15 years to getting access to space. That is not my kind of space program.

A&S: What is the value of putting tourists in space?

Musgrave: I think it’s a heck of a fun thing to do. Exploration is drama—it’s human drama. [Space tourism] is a theme park ride, it’s a very high-altitude theme-park ride. It is entrepreneurial, and you’ll get some new technology out of it.

A&S: Who impresses you? It could be a historical figure or someone alive today.

Musgrave: I’ve got lots of people—[Wernher] von Braun was one of them. He’s maybe my ultimate space hero, because he read science fiction. He was a dreamer, and he was an incredible communicator. His vision was unbelievably large. From his teen years on, he was loyal to spaceflight—that’s what he wanted to do. And he pursued it through the doctorate in physics. The dramatic story of him and 118 Germans coming to this country in 1945, and eventually the fact that our moon program rested on that man’s shoulders—it’s just unbelievable. I got to know him well, personally and professionally. He was a charismatic presence. If you were within 100 yards of him, you felt him.

A&S: You’ve flown on six space shuttle missions. Did being in orbit ever start to feel routine?

Musgrave: No. I was relaxed, but you don’t miss a minute that you can [be looking out] the window up there. You cannot get enough of Mother Earth. Now you’re looking at the heavens too: the stars, the aurora, and shooting stars. Mother Earth is the most powerful image. And you can’t get enough of playing in an environment you were not evolved to be in. It’s the art of the mission: how smooth you can pull it off one day after another. How smooth you can get things done. Not in a compulsive way. But it got better every minute—every flight got better. I got better too.

A&S: In what way did you get better?

Musgrave: Being able to conduct spaceflight—what I could get done up there. I flew in my forties, flew in my fifties, flew in my sixties. But I was also a communicator at Mission Control for 25 missions. I understood that world. I flew with 27 different astronauts. I flew with 17 rookies. Spaceflight is not reflexive—it’s not kick the tires and light fires. It’s a very complicated artistic business—being good. So experience pays off. You have to like the space business, not just the flying [on the shuttle].

A&S: Why did you write a book about the T-38?

Musgrave: When I joined NASA 43 years ago, I looked at the airplane, and I said it’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And that’s why it’s successful, that’s why it’s being extended by the Air Force. You can’t improve upon it, because you can’t come up with something that’s more beautiful. I looked at that and said, “My goodness. This is my machine.”

A&S: Are there any aircraft that you wanted to fly but didn’t get a chance to?

Musgrave: Well, you’ve got the SR-71. I didn’t have a relationship with it, but gee whiz. It’s just such an advanced animal—decades and decades ahead of its time.

A&S: What kind of cars do you drive?

Musgrave: Of course I have a Corvette—a 1994 Corvette. And I have a 300ZX Nissan that’s 24 years old, but it’s turbocharged—it’s a nice sports car. I like the ’94 Corvette because it’s so simple. I had a ’58 Corvette—that’s a classic.