10 Questions with Story Musgrave

A veteran of six shuttle flights, Story Musgrave, 75, talks about the end — and the future — of space travel

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NASA

As someone who has flown on all five shuttles, what do you think we are losing in giving up on the program?

We're not giving up on the shuttle program. I think we've arrived at a decent end. The shuttles have been flying for over 30 years. Other systems, like computer systems, don't stay the same for 30 years. It didn't turn out quite as we expected. We advertised $10 million a flight — it's been $1.2 billion per flight. But I still consider it, even then, to be a huge triumph.

Why did it cost so much?

The shuttle has been massively difficult to operate. It's very unsafe, very fragile. A butterfly bolted onto a bullet, you know.

What do you think of President Obama's plans for NASA?

Obama has no plans. Neither has NASA Washington. They don't have the courage. NASA should create a great vision, communicate it artistically and then ask Congress to execute that.

Would you ever consider heading up NASA?

Ma'am, I am not electable and not appointable.

What is your abiding memory of the Challenger accident?

Well, it's grief. It's tears. I was an airplane mechanic for the Marines in Korea at the age of 18, and that's when I got introduced to things that don't come home. Challenger was not an engineering accident. NASA was told about the problem [of the O-rings in low temperature]. So then the memory turns to solid anger. It turns to rage that people were so negligent. You've got to let launch control do what they do. And when engineers tell you, "Doggone it, you can't launch," then listen, damn it.

You flew two classified shuttle missions — STS-33 and STS-44 — for the Department of Defense. It's been 20 years. Could you tell us what you were carrying?

I cannot. If you really snoop, you'll find out. It's out there. But it's not worth it.

What will you miss most if you never go to space again?

I'm planning to go to space again. I'll go as a tourist with the tourist companies.

Why, when you've already spent a thousand hours there?

I have a 5-year-old child now, and we're working on another one. Would you say, "Why do that?" Little Story is the light of my life. Would you say, "You got a 50-year-old — why do you need a 5-year-old?" Same thing.

What's the strangest thing you ever did in zero gravity?

I'm the only one I know that sleeps floating. It's delicious. You don't know where you are, and after a while, because your limbs aren't touching anything, you lose sense that you even have them.

What should be NASA's goal?

To explore farther out. You need to combine your robotics program with the human programs. You go out there with robots. They mine materials, they manufacture, and they assemble a habitat for humans. That's the most reliable and lowest-cost way to get humans out there. Voyager has now been to four planets. For what the space station costs, we could have had 400 Voyagers. If we'd gone that way, today we would have had 100 satellites sending data back to Earth. That's what we gave up by not having the courage to leap off and go further.