Dr. Story Musgrave: A Surgeon in Space

Photo: Courtesy of NASA

At last count, Dr. Musgrave, age eighty-four, earned seven graduate degrees, flew on six NASA space missions, was awarded twenty honorary doctorates, operates a palm farm and a production company, serves as a landscape architect and concept artist with Walt Disney Imagineering, and also breathes when he gets a chance.

Story Musgrave ’64

  • Surgeon
  • Former NASA Astronaut

Our celebration of renown graduates of Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons continues today with a spotlight of Dr. Story Musgrave (class of ’64), who was a surgeon and former NASA astronaut.

Peter Wortsman has written a short post about his experience profiling Dr. Story Musgrave. You can read more in pages 276-282 of The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard: Profiles of Selected Distinguished Graduates of Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons

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When Dr. Story Musgrave, the surgeon-astronaut best known to the general public as payload commander and lead repairman on the first Hubble Space Telescope servicing and repair mission in 1993, asked me where I wished to conduct the interview, I did not hesitate: “In a capsule lying back in position for take-off at NASA headquarters in Houston.” And so we did. I still feel dizzy at the memory, as if I too were free floating in space. His response was a non-stop run-through of science, medicine, technology, poetry and philosophy. Asked by ABC Nightline’s Ted Koppel in an interview conducted live from space if the effort was worth the risk and cost, his unswerving, eloquent reply will surely go down in history: “We have no choice, Sir. It’s the nature of humanity. . . . And maybe I’m not just a human up here, you know, now life is leaping off the planet. It’s heading for other parts of the solar system, other parts of the universe. . . . It isn’t simply politics. It isn’t simply technology. . . . You could look at it as maybe the essence of life.”

FROM DAIRY FARM TO DISCOVERY: A LIFE IN HIGH DRIVE

Growing up on a dairy farm in Stockbridge, Mass., the son of an abusive alcoholic father and a loving but acquiescent mother, he found salvation in the care of livestock and the mastery of farm machinery. Young Story could run and repair anything on wheels. He started flying airplanes at age sixteen, “in a very informal kind of way: I drove them like I drove tractors, and then one day just leaped off!”

The next leap was to the U.S. Marines, which he entered in 1953, dropping out of high school to do so. Training at first as an aviation electrician and instrument technician, his love of aircraft and the need to get a license in order to fly them propelled him to pursue his studies. The reading of jet engine  manuals ultimately led to an appreciation of books. An early flicker of intellectual curiosity rapidly burst into flame and has been roaring ever since.

Leaving the Marines to study mathematics and statistics at Syracuse, where he earned a BS in 1958, he interned as a mathematician and operations analyst at Eastman Kodak before attending UCLA and completing an MBA in perations analysis and computer programming in 1959. His interest in computers led, in turn, to a fascination with the human brain. (“I always keep coming back in my interests to the human dimension!”) 

Subsequently earning a BA in chemistry from Marietta College in 1960, and thereby fulfilling his pre-medical course requirements, he applied and was accepted at P&S. “I think I was taken on as an oddball,” he reflects back. “They must have reserved a few slots for people they perceive may develop in strange ways.”

In fact, Dr. Musgrave comes from a distinguished medical lineage—nine straight generations of doctors on his mother’s side, including his maternal great-grandfather and great uncle, who were both professors of surgery at Harvard, and his paternal grandfather, a noted physician and researcher on the effects of exposure to gas during World War I. 

In New York, the erstwhile farm boy’s eyes were opened to a wide world of possibilities. He fondly remembers his P&S peers, “bright, talented, great learners, all broad and diverse in their interests.”

Pursuing his own research interests in the nervous system at the Neurological Institute under Dr. Donald Purpura (now dean of Albert Einstein College of Medicine), Dr. Musgrave decided to become a surgeon—“not,” he is quick to explain, “because I wanted to help people, but because of a curiosity of what a human is and what it means to be human!”

Next stop, the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, where, while pursuing his surgical residency, he added to his academic credentials an MS in physiology and biophysics in 1966.

The seemingly diverse strands of his wide-ranging intellectual search all came together in 1967, when NASA opened its doors to scientist-astronauts, and Dr. Musgrave decided to link his destiny to the Space Program. The decision proved a personal epiphany: “Everything I’d ever done, I realized, every crooked path I took was leading me to this!”

Excerpt from page 279-279 of The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard: Profiles of Selected Distinguished Graduates of Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Order a copy of the book, and save 30% with coupon code CUP30 at checkout. 

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