Monday May 14, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Before he traveled away from Earth to test space suits of his own design, former astronaut Story Musgrave was a high-school dropout dreaming no bigger than the Stockbridge farm where he grew up.

"People ask me if I wanted to be an astronaut growing up," Musgrave told an audience at Berkshire Museum on Sunday afternoon. "No, I didn't. In 1930, there weren't any astronauts. There was no NASA. I wanted to be a farmer ... The outside world was my interest. I was inspired by nature growing up."

Musgrave, 77, addressed about 120 people as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsored in part by the museum.

Regaling his audience with tales of his journey from the Berkshires to outer space, Musgrave gave a simple but pointed message: "If you have a dream, follow that dream," he said. "It's never too late."

Born in the Linwood section of Stockbridge, now the site of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Musgrave dropped out of school, joined the Marines and became an airplane mechanic and pilot. He attended Syracuse University after attaining his high school equivalency and eventually joined NASA in 1967. His job involved work on space suit technology and testing and developing software for the space shuttle.

In 1983, Musgrave took the first of six space flights to enable him to test and use the space suits he had designed.


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He also participated in the design of the Hubble Telescope, and in 1993 was the payload commander for the famous repair mission to the Hubble.

"The Hubble has been part of my life for 37 years," he said. "And for the first 20, I was so excited by that, I called it the Hubble. After that, I started calling it ‘that piece of machinery.' And now, I just call it, ‘it.' "

On Sunday, Story recounted his career and quest for knowledge and self-discovery in a series of humorous stories.

"I've always been interested in the juxtaposition of technology and nature," he said. "I'm going to talk about designing the Hubble, but I'm also going to talk about designing a life."

During his time in the Marines, he made more than 800 parachute drops.

"And I don't have any funny stories to tell you about that," he said. "Because I made sure my chute opened every time I jumped. Which is why I'm here talking to you."

His eventual foray into space was spurred by his interest in aviation, he said. When he joined NASA, "I was a mechanic. I had skills no one else [who wanted to join NASA] had."

Musgrave also detailed the difficulties he encountered designing and testing space suits.

"One of the things I fought for was to include opposable thumbs in the gloves to make a human hand," he said. "I lost that fight."

The problem, conceded Musgrave, was that it was difficult to do repair work with a glove that had, essentially, no thumbs. In addition, he said, the suits weighed 480 pounds.

"Now, people say that in zero-G (gravity), you don't have to worry about that," he said. "But you do, because it still has mass. You can't go jumping all over the place like a squirrel. First, you've got to get that 500 pounds going. Then, you have to stop. And if you can't stop, you go off into space, which is bad form."

He added that working in space required one to be anchored.

"You turn on a power tool and you're not anchored," he said. "And you spin like a pinwheel."

Musgrave's point was that he approached every problem by understanding what was possible and working to achieve it.

"Know the playing field," he said. "Know the rules. Do what you have a passion for, what you love. I'm almost 80, and it's not over for me, Dammit. It ain't over till it's over."