Are Explorers Born That Way?

by Lane Wallace on April 29, 2010

A few days ago, NASA celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope launch. Ironically, nobody much remembers the 1990 launch. What they remember is the big post-launch “Ooops” when NASA realized that the primary mirror of the telescope was flawed, and the legendary 1993 Shuttle mission that repaired the telescope, finally giving it the clear view into the heavens that its designers had intended.

One of the lead astronauts on that 1993 repair mission (or “servicing” mission, as NASA euphemistically called it) was Dr. Story Musgrave, a veteran astronaut who’d been with NASA since he signed on as an astronaut-scientist in 1967. In anticipation of the anniversary, I spent some time talking with Dr. Musgrave last week on a wide range of subjects. We talked about everything from the Hubble repair, to the future of the space program, to space flight and exploration in general, to risk and what it means to have the soul of an explorer. (For some of Musgrave’s comments on the future of the space program, see this piece I did for The Atlantic.)

The whole conversation was far too lengthy to recount here (even by the standards of my sometimes loquacious posts!) At least in one pass at the subject. But one of the elements that struck me, listening to Musgrave’s answers, was how pervasive Musgrave’s passion for exploration was, and still is. And it made me wonder, once again, whether explorers are simply born that way—insatiably curious souls who, as Tom Petty would put it, “need to know.”

Most astronauts are well-educated and achievement-oriented, so a couple of advanced degrees and, for pilots, an impressive flight record, are standard fare in the astronaut corps. But Musgrave has way too many degrees and ratings to have pursued them for mere career advancement. He learned to fly as a civilian, and got all his ratings up through an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, even though he wasn’t pursuing a career as a professional pilot. He has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and statistics, a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, an MBA, a master of science degree in physiology and biophysics, and a master of arts degree in literature. And … oh, yeah. He’s also a medical surgeon.

So the fact that every minute he wasn’t attending to the highly rehearsed, disciplined tasks of a mission (like repairing the Hubble telescope) he was experimenting with and exploring the conditions and experience of space … isn’t all that surprising. He tried sleeping while floating in the Shuttle’s constant “free-fall” condition, just to see what it was like. He strapped his sleeping bag to the ceiling, instead of the floor, to see if it would alter his sensory perception of “up” and “down.” (It did.) He stood up during re-entry on one mission (he went into space 6 times) so he could video the plasma flows of re-entry out of an overhead window, from Mach 25 all the way down to Mach 10. And he spent hours just gazing out the window, at Earth and the stars passing by. I asked him if any particular sight stood out in his memory from all those hours.

“A night pass,” he said. “Taking a night pass, 30 minutes of night, where you look at the aurora, you look at the meteorites coming in between you and earth, you look at the moon racing down the rivers, you look at the dance of city lights and the stars. You look at the clouds, you look at the purple light that goes horizontal for 100 miles. A night pass, if you take the time … Most people don’t take the time to do that. To turn down all the lights off, all the computer lights down.”

That, of course, would be the reward of an explorer. The experiences you get to have; the wonder you get to feel at new discoveries; the joy and beauty you get to see, if only because you’re taking the time to really look at what might be there, outside of your normal life and routine.

But exploring and adventuring generally has costs attached, as well. In the case of space flight, one of the big costs is the physical risk you have to take on, just to get off the planet.

“I hate risk. It makes me nauseous,” Musgrave said. “With the shuttle I had to accept it, and I hated it. But I had no other way to get into space, and I belong in space.”

Most astronauts, Musgrave noted, “have no idea how risky it is. No one tells you the risk. You have to figure it out. Most astronauts are whooping and hollering like kids on a thrill ride.” But, he added, that’s partly because “they’re not long-term players. They’re only there for 5-7 years.” Musgrave, on the other hand, was in the astronaut corps long before there was a Shuttle, and through the Challenger disaster, and that gives him a different perspective.

“Before STS-1,” he said, “Congress held hearings, and the Air Force said you’re going to lose 1 in 30 shuttles from solid rocket boosters alone. But NASA told Congress it’s more like 1 in 100,000. NASA said they could fly every day for 300 years without an accident. We kept telling ourselves we had a bus. Even the astronaut office signed up to fly on the Shuttle with no escape system. We had no choice. It’s a lie that people started to believe, and that’s why we were so bad on our safety record.”

So what, I asked him, made him decide that the risk, costs, effort, and other trade-offs were worth it?

“I have no choice,” he said simply. “Because it’s me. I’m an explorer. I went into the forest, alone at night, at the age of 3. Because I’m an explorer. It was my world, I felt comfortable, so I went out there. And I felt things. Even then, I knew that I was on the edge. I was really out there. It’s like The Soul’s Code. You don’t have much choice. It’s like you come into the world with a certain destiny.”

In Story Musgrave’s case, I think he may be right. You can’t—or don’t—pursue that much knowledge and experience in one lifetime unless you have an innate, unquenchable desire or need for those things, for their own sake.

But what about everyone else? For my own part, I think every person can hone and nurture a sense of curiosity about life. And the more we expose ourselves to a variety of bits and pieces and experience, the greater the chance that something will catch our interest or eye. So even if we’re not a born explorer, we may find ourselves, one day, stumbling into the realm of a curious explorer, at least on that topic. A friend of a friend just took up Dragon Boating at the age of 60. Go figure.

But there will always be those who are born with a fire already burning. Their roads are not destined to be easy, or routine. But then, neither are their life experiences.

Just as an example, to close, I offer an excerpt from one of the 300+ poems Story Musgrave has written about space, from a piece called Spacial Speed:

Minutes mark my Days
Seasons Cycle By
Hot, Warm, Cool and Cold
Blooming Blossoms
Falling Leaves Hemisphere to Hemisphere
Celestial Seasons Passing Here

Pictures Pulsing passed the Pane
Images passed a Magic Mind
Fingers walking on a Globe
Fingers flipping Atlas Pages
Speed the Film
Spin the Carousel
Thoughts racing Images into Thought

Pages blowing in a History Book
Orbiting Pyramids, Heavenly Tombs
The soft long Distances of Yesterday
The sharp Points of Now
The Infinite Films of Tomorrow

Innocent, Intoxicating, Spacial Speed


© Story Musgrave

More information on Story Musgrave, his poems, and his other writings, can be found at www.spacestory.com.

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