Surgeon, Pilot, Poet, Astronaut -- Renaissance Man Savors Last Flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Waitresses don't believe Story Musgrave when he asks for a senior-citizen discount at Houston restaurants. Maybe it's his 5-foot-10, 152-pound physique. Maybe it's the sparkling blue eyes.

Maybe it's because he blends in with his co-workers, who are a generation younger. They're astronauts.

So is he.

Musgrave and four other astronauts lifted off aboard the space shuttle Columbia yesterday on a busy scientific mission. At 61, he is the oldest human to go into space.

"I don't defy it," Musgrave says of his age. "I don't deny it. I enjoy it. It's very hopeful for people around me to know that life is better at 60 than it ever was at 50 or 40 or 30."

Musgrave's life is better because of what he calls his "quest" for knowledge and adventure.

This is his sixth shuttle mission, tying him with John Young for most flights. Musgrave is the only astronaut to fly on all five shuttles, including Challenger before it exploded.

"That whole quest, I have no choice. I don't know where it came from," Musgrave says. "Every single minute there is some other challenge the mind and body has to live up to."

He will have to find another challenge, probably teaching, because NASA says this is his last mission. He is "comfortable" with that. "Spaceflight is an incredible privilege and needs to be spread around among as many humans as you can."

Galaxy of college degrees

But Musgrave's age isn't what sets him apart. It's his thirst for knowledge and his unorthodox ideas.

"What makes Story unusual is his continued quest to learn new things," says Chief Astronaut Bob Cabana. "It's interesting to talk to Story, because many times he'll have a different perspective on a thing.

That could come from Musgrave's eclectic education. He has six college degrees:

-- A medical degree, Columbia University.

-- A master's in business administration, UCLA.

-- A master's in biophysics, University of Kentucky.

-- A master's in literature, University of Houston - "an incredibly rich context to look at space," he says.

-- A bachelor's in math and statistics, Syracuse.

-- A bachelor's in chemistry, Marietta College.

This spring he'll get his master's in psychology. All he needs for his eighth degree, a master's in history, is to write his thesis.

Left the farm for adventure

With all those degrees, there is one diploma that Musgrave missed, and he usually doesn't talk about it. He never finished high school.

As a boy, Musgrave didn't like to read. He wasn't a good student and wanted to leave rural Massachusetts, where he worked from age 5 on his family's dairy farm.

"Some people would have considered it rather harsh," Musgrave says. "But when things have brought me to where I am, I don't consider it harsh."

He dropped out of high school shortly before graduation, joined the Marines and went to Korea. Then he entered college on the GI Bill.

After getting his first college degree, in math, he went to work for Eastman Kodak as a mathematician. Then he got his MBA, his chemistry degree, and went to medical school. He then worked as a surgeon in Kentucky and earned his biophysics degree. Then he taught and did research at the National Heart Institute.

Grounded for 16 years

When Musgrave joined NASA in 1967, he was certain he was in the astronaut class that was going to explore Mars. It never happened.

Instead, he was earthbound for 16 years, helping design the Skylab space station and devise systems and procedures for spacewalks. In 1974, he began design work for the shuttle, including the spacesuits, airlock and launch escape systems.

Musgrave never lost hope of going into space. "I knew that would come," he says.

He finally flew in 1983, on the maiden flight of the Challenger. At age 47, he had been an astronaut six years longer than the average.

He is a spacewalking expert: four times for a total of 26 hours. In 1993, he supervised delicate repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, when his shaved head became recognizable to a worldwide television audience.

Two spacewalks are scheduled for Columbia's mission. Because NASA wants more astronauts to gain spacewalking experience, Tom Jones and Tammy Jernigan will go outside instead of Musgrave.

Shrimp cocktails, every day

Musgrave has logged more than 17,700 hours at the controls of 160 types of aircraft. He has more hours than anybody in a T-38 jet trainer.

As a skydiver, he has made more than 500 free falls, more than 100 to study human aerodynamics.

He has written 25 scientific papers.

Musgrave doesn't like to get distracted by little things, such as food. So he orders the same menu every day: shrimp cocktails each breakfast and dinner.

He can be told a telephone number once and remember it for years.

"When it comes to attacking details and being a robot, there's no better robot than me," he says, adding, "I like to live in all worlds. I like to know when to be creative."

He writes poetry, sometimes mentally preparing verses in space. He meditates, gardens, watches butterflies and even publicly talks about being frightened during the first minutes of a shuttle launch.

Open to possibilities

He also talks with certainty about parallel universes, life on other planets and changing gravity at his command. He says changing his own gravity involves retraining his mind to ignore visual clues around him.

However strange sounding, Musgrave says that attitude allows him to adapt to space easily. He says that on his first flight, "I just rolled out of the seat like I was born there. I seem to move in zero G (gravity) like a ballet.

"It has to do with my openness to possibilities," he says. "I want to experience emotions. I look forward to going to a place that I was probably not designed for, so I could revel in different experiences.

"Taking it to a high level, a philosophical level, it's a mentality that says I don't want to conquer space, I want to surrender to it."

Information from the Baltimore Sun and NASA was used in this report. Links to related Web sites are on The Seattle Times Top Stories Web site at: