Story Musgrave (center), surrounded by his fellow STS-80 crew members, in 1996. Photo: NASA

feature / faculty / industrial-design
April 14, 2017
Writer: Mike Winder

A good story well told: Faculty, former astronaut to receive honorary doctorate

If Dos Equis were truly interested in casting a real-life individual as "The Most Interesting Man in the World" for its popular advertising campaign, they'd be hard-pressed to find anybody more qualified on this planet (or perhaps even beyond) than Story Musgrave.  

The 82-year-old Musgrave has been many things throughout his career. He was an aircraft electrician and engine mechanic for the U.S. Marines in Korea. He's a pilot with 18,000 hours of flight under his belt. And for more than 30 years he was a NASA astronaut, where his achievements include being the lead spacewalker on the Hubble Telescope repair mission.

He's also a faculty member at ArtCenter, where he teaches in the College's Graduate Industrial Design department. At next week's graduation ceremony, Musgrave will receive an honorary doctorate degree from the College and deliver the commencement address to the class of Spring 2017. 

"ArtCenter is my background music," says Musgrave over the phone from Orlando, Florida, where he lives and operates a palm farm. "It's the thing that grounds me."

If you fall from seven miles up, it's going to hurt. If you run into something going 600 miles per hour, it's going to hurt. People have forgotten that.”

Story Musgrave

Story Musgrave participates in a safety tether dynamics checkout procedure for the STS-6 mission, in 1983. Photo: NASA

Among the many topics he teaches at ArtCenter is a concept he calls "multiple domain synergy" which, at its core, is about moving ideas from one company or industry to another.    

"The answer you need exists and it's right in front of you," says Musgrave, who has helped clients ranging from Exxon Mobil to General Electric streamline processes and improve reliability by sharing the expertise he's gained from the military, aviation and space flight. "I have lived in so many worlds that it's natural for me to do that."

Musgrave points to the commercial airline industry as an example of how multiple domain synergy works best. In particular, he believes the impressive safety records of American airlines are a result of the influx of military personnel—whether pilots or mechanics—into an industry which is quite hazardous.

"People say, 'Hazardous?' but if you fall from seven miles up, it's going to hurt,"  he says. "If you run into something going 600 miles per hour, it's going to hurt. People have forgotten that. But when you get into an airplane, there's a one in a billion chance that anything's going to happen to you." 

The military, Musgrave says, values safety protocols and thus the influx of veterans into the industry meant that same attitude towards safety was transferred over. And now companies aspiring to improve their reliability ("There's no organization around that doesn't want the "R word") need simply dissect their own institution, and see where they could inject attributes from the airline industry.

Or, they can look at NASA's Mission Control Center. 

A capsule communicator for 25 missions, Musgrave considers NASA's mission control the best decision-making organization he's ever encountered. "They make timely, mission-critical decisions without hierarchy, without egos and without agendas," he says. "There's only one thing driving the right decision, and that is mission achievement." 

Musgrave has taken processes he's learned from the Mission Control Center and shared them with Exxon Mobil. "A massive drilling platform out there in the ocean is not very different than running a mission," he says. "It's not in space, but it's remote, and you have very critical, high-energy hardware you have to tame and a trained crew that needs to complete a task with proficiency." 

In Mission Control, they make timely, mission-critical decisions without hierarchy, without egos and without agendas. There's only one thing driving the right decision, and that is mission achievement.”

Story Musgrave

Beyond teaching and helping clients implement multiple domain synergy, these days Musgrave also finds himself drawn to augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR). A consultant for Magic Leap, the Florida-based company that has raised more than $1.4 billion from backers like Alibaba, Google and Qualcomm, Musgrave's interest in the field goes back 55 years.    

In the early '60s Musgrave was working on earning a bachelor's in operations research, "a forerunner of systems design" at UCLA, doing "very complex variables, matrix algebra" while working with IBM 650 and 709 vacuum-tube computers. But his studies in that field were interrupted by a brand new interest—neurophysiology—and he decided to transition into pre-med and medical school.  

He followed that path for four years, until the space program came calling, but he is excited to be returning to a world that is dealing with a concept that has long interested him—inputting digital information directly into the user via physiological means, and vice versa. 

"It's been an awful long time coming," he says of computing's move from presenting information via a monitor or screen to the laser projection technology present in devices like Microsoft's Hololens and Magic Leap's forthcoming hardware. By projecting lasers directly into the user's retina, these devices create a convincing illusion of virtual objects coexisting in the same space as real objects.

"Personally, I'd like to stretch beyond that and close the loop by taking physiological output from the user back to the digital," says Musgrave, who then points to a simulation astronauts on Earth use to practice handling an object in zero gravity. 

"I salvaged a mission called STS-49 in which the systems and the machines failed, so I had people go out and grab an 18,000-pound satellite with their fingers," he says, adding that in the past you could only simulate that type of experience in a water tank. "Now there's a simple handhold with strain gauges that can be dialed to simulate any weight from one to 20,000 pounds." 

Being able to supplement that simulation with augmented reality takes it another level. 

Says Musgrave, "You can take this whole world to a lot of places."