"I study the mind's orientation to a brand new world. When I speak to scientific groups, my
discussions are taped and passed around. They enjoy them, but those who are strong in their various
studies don't know much about the space world and human adaptation to it. For now, I am a pioneer."
And a human guinea pig. Floating around various space shuttles, NASA's Story Musgrave has the kind of
physical, emotional, and philosophical experiences people on Earth cannot duplicate even with illegal
chemical recreation. So what is he really doing up there? And why does he come back down at all?
Musgrave has been called the astronaut's astronaut. One of the few career astronauts, he is also a
physician, philosopher, poet, pilot, skydiver, gardener, and perennial student. He is nearing
completion of a masters in philosophy, which will be his seventh advanced degree, ranging from
literature to computer science. He notes his every thought in his journals and in the margins of
the thousands of books in his library.
After receiving his M.D. from Columbia University in 1964, Musgrave joined NASA in 1967, with
dreams of going to Mars in the near future as the mission's physician. Even as Mars receded as
a real spacetrip, he threw himself into numerous technical assignments, helping to design and
develop all of the shuttle's extravehicular activity (EVA) equipment and spacesuits. In April,
1983, after 16 years in the agency, he went into orbit on the Challenger's maiden voyage. He was
48. By 58, he'd been up five times. "I was a long-term investor," he explains.
In December 1993, as payload commander on the Endeavor's mission to repair the Hubble Space
Telescope--with responsibility for coordinating the entire spacewalking fix-it extravaganza--he
took that fifth and most important flight. With enormous pressure on NASA, the Hubble was considered
a make or break mission for the space agency. "It may have been the most well-rehearsed mission,"
remarks Musgrave, "since the first moon walk." Musgrave's methodological preparation, attention to
detail, and imagination have made him so valuable NASA built the Hubble crew around him. Shortly
after the highly successful telescope repair mission, I met Musgrave for the first time in Baltimore,
where he and the rest of the Endeavor crew came to talk and celebrate with the staff of the Hubble
Space Telescope Science Institute. "Story is clearly one of the more unique people in the astronaut's
office," Dick Covey, the Hubble mission commander told me. "He's never stopped learning, and because
of that has a different perspective on many things from some of us who are stuck where we have been
for years. He always adds a different element to every enterprise we undertake."
"He has a rare insight into what space exploration means in human history and what the future could
be," added JoAnn Morgan, who was director of payload projects management at Kennedy Space Center
during the Hubble mission and is now a division director at the Center.
Intense and driven at 58, he sometimes wonders if he'd lose his inner fire if he ever completely
let go of the pain of his childhood. Born Franklin Story Musgrave, raised in an emotionally troubled
family on a 1,000-acre dairy farm in western Massachusetts, he still reels from the family discord.
At age three, he became keenly aware that all was not well at home and sought escape in the forests
surrounding the farm, in lying on his back there at night and gazing at the stars. As an adult,
nature is still his best friend, and he has found escape in space, in looking there for answers
to the human condition and the secrets of the universe. In doing so he turns each shuttle mission
into the deeply personal self-experiment of a man facing a truly unfamiliar nature.
OMNI: Why is lift-off a turn off?
Musgrave: If Scottie could beam me up there, I'd be beamed up. When the solids [fuels] light, it's
an explosion. The solids knock you upstream. The seats shake. Feeling the vibrations and sound
pressure of 137 decibels, you're worrying about structural integrity, all the pieces holding in
there, when you'd rather just enjoy the ride. It's not a steady push but a pound, and it hits you.
There's turbulence when you pass through the point of highest wind shear, around 35,000-37,000
feet. But it's not painful, not physically punishing--it's shake, rattle, and roll. But for me
it's fear: I worry about all the pieces holding in there. You slowly build to three g's, so the
force between you and your seat is three times your weight. It feels like you're being shoved
back into your seat. Everything's heavy. Then when the engines shut off--you go from three g's
to nothing. But it's no weirder than being on an elevator when it takes off and how light you are
when the elevator stops.
OMNI: You weren't a flight engineer this time, so what did you do when the engines shut down?
Musgrave: I closed my eyes. Your eyes say, I'm floating within this room, so if you shut them
before they can overwhelm the other physiological systems, your entire body's telling you, I'm
in free fall! It's like stepping off a high dive. You and the orbiter are in free fall toward
Earth. It's not a float, and nothing's resisting your free fall, so there's this apparent floating.
This was the first time I could close my eyes when the engines shut off.
In the past, to create a fall I'd close my eyes before going to sleep--since I sleep floating--and
imagine mountains and myself stepping off. The second I step off, my physiology tells me I'm in free
fall. The first time I did it I was so scared. I mean it was not nice. Then I did it again and
appreciated it. You can fall forever, and it is one of the most delicious things. But most people
have never had this in space because unless you evoke it, it won't happen. You can also create
illusions, like "where is the down?" In this room now, gravity is going down to the floor. Where
the gravity vector is affects your perception of your environment. In space, you shouldn't have a
down in any direction. But most people tend to carry the floor around because they've trained for
hundreds of hours and the simulators and the shuttle all have lights on the ceiling and walking
surfaces on the floor. Well, it's a sensory conflict and it gets to some people.
You can aim any way you want. You can have the cargo bay, the belly, or the nose toward Earth.
Since there's no down, you can move your g-vectors through some wall that's not there. The body
has always had a g-vector and wants to snap onto one, so it's easy to evoke one. You can stand
on a side wall, pretend you're walking on the floor, and evoke that you might fall on your nose.
I've come down on Earth and, imagining I was in space, tipped places over. Space taught me how
to think this way. The world had never thought about the g-vector, or that moving it from down
changes perception of the environment. Virtual reality machines will be able to do this.
OMNI: What inexplicable things have you seen out there?
Musgrave: You see satellites. I've seen Mir go by within 28 miles; other satellites and you don't
know what they are, but maybe just space debris. All kinds of debris come off space ships,
especially at the back end after the main engines shut down and you open the doors: ice chips,
oxygen or hydrogen, stuff dumped from the engines. On two flights I've seen and photographed what
I call "the snake," like a seven-foot eel swimming out there. It may be an uncritical rubber seal
from the main engines. In zero g it's totally free to maneuver, and it has its own internal waves
like it's swimming. All this debris is white, reflecting sunlight, or you don't see it. Cruising
along with you at your velocity, it's still got its own rotation. At zero g, things have an
incredible freedom. It's an extraordinary ballet.
OMNI: What's the best part of being in space?
Musgrave: The view of the heavens: the stars are brighter and you see the entire celestial sphere.
On an EVA, your helmet is fairly panoramic. But if you don't think about having these experiences
they won't happen to you. At the last astronaut reunion, someone said, "Story, you know something
I really regret? I had three space flights and never saw the stars." On a night pass over Earth,
we dark-adapted our eyes ahead of time, and the second the sun went down we turned all the lights
off. At 370 miles out [the farthest-out shuttle flight to date], we saw the whole United States.
Las Vegas is the brightest place on Earth.
OMNI: Could you see it from Mars?
Musgrave: Yeah, and they're probably looking. Earth looks like it should: deserts are brown,
oceans blue, jungles green. We saw cities and interstates at 2000 to 3000 miles. While over
Florida we saw an incredible aurora over Canada--the whole North Pole was covered with auroras.
This was while we were doing a spacewalk! We saw the Mediterranean, Sicily, Rome, Athens, then
Cairo, the pyramids. We saw the Nile run down. It's all lit up. It's marvelous to look at solid
snow, the Himalayas as sculpture. I got a meteorite on video. Shooting stars go underneath you
when you're in space, since the atmosphere's underneath you. I'm working on ways of capturing
this. Most of the time my photography is of Earth. I have a theme of Earth tying into philosophy:
a history slide show of all the civilizations in one picture. My favorite place is the South
Pacific from space.
OMNI: Some people want to go to Tahiti; you want to hover over it!
Musgrave: You see the coral, the sea, mountains coming clean out of the water, the different blues,
the expanse, the ocean greens, the particular clouds.
OMNI: What things do you take up there?
Musgrave: You're allowed to fly items up, bring them back and give them to people; 12 things up
to an ounce each. There are also the things you fly for institutions. I've flown dinosaur bones,
a 350 million-year-old fossil, a piece of Stonehenge. I want to get a piece of the Iceman, that
ancient explorer recently discovered, and then return that piece to the Iceman. I've flown a
book of John Dewey's on education, a cover to the book Art as Experience. I flew a Hot Wheels
car and a little bulldozer for my six-year-old son, Lane.
OMNI: Describe sleeping.
Musgrave: I usually sleep floating. This time I slept in the airlock with four EVA suits. They
looked like people with their own arms and legs, and they'd grab onto me. As I'd float along,
I could snuggle up inside the arms and rest there. I'd hug the suits, and they'd hug me. Because
they've got their own neutral point, they've got their memory. Two of them might be grabbing you
at once. If you get into a sleeping bag, that determines where down is. You can strap your head
onto the pillow--there's less contact in a bag than in bed. Few people like to freefloat, and
most want a sleeping bag. I have freefloated while sleeping and actually gone up into the flight
deck, down into the mid-deck, and around. You bounce lightly off other sleeping people. Even if
your face contacts the wall, it's so light you tend not to wake up.
OMNI: Have we studied sex in space?
Musgrave: I don't think so, and have no information about whether there's been any.
OMNI: Who knows what's going on up there?
Musgrave: I don't know!
OMNI: The logistics of it, in zero g, would be difficult.
Musgrave: Thats not a problem, but an oppotunity!
Continued in OMNI part II