Long before he became a star astronaut, an 18-year-old Story Musgrave passed through Lexington on a cross-country trip and fell in love with the lush horse farms, ancient trees and stone fences.
"I said the first opportunity in my career path that I can return to the Bluegrass, I will," he said in a recent interview. "And I did. I adopted Lexington as my hometown."
The farm boy from Stockbridge, Mass., lived here for only three years, but it was a pivotal time. His career literally got off the ground as a pilot at Blue Grass Airport.
Musgrave, 78, will be back in Lexington on Tuesday to sign copies of a new book, Blue Grass Airport: An American Aviation Story, for which he wrote the introduction. He will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and The Morris Book Shop from 2 to 3 p.m.
Fran Taylor produced the authorized history of the airport, which has more than 400 photographs and chapters by local writers. (For more information, go to Bluegrassairport.com/book.)
Musgrave moved to Lexington in 1964 for a surgical internship at the University of Kentucky. When he read that NASA was thinking about adding scientists to the astronaut corps, he knew he had found a calling.
Musgrave had always been interested in flight, soloing a plane at age 16. But he dropped out of high school, joined the Marines and become an aircraft mechanic before going to college and medical school. After his internship, he stayed at UK to study aerospace medicine and physiology.
He also spent a lot of time at Blue Grass and Cynthiana airports, earning pilot's ratings and becoming a ground and flight instructor. He also took up parachuting.
Musgrave and his family rented a since-demolished historical house on Georgetown Road. "For $100 a month," he said, "I had 40 acres and a 10-room house with fireplaces in all the rooms and a porch big enough for the kids to ride their bicycles on it."
It was a popular place for friends and UK colleagues to picnic. "If there was a big enough crowd, I'd go out to Blue Grass Field (as the airport was known at the time), get in an airplane and parachute into my back yard," he said. "That's the way I would enter the party."
Musgrave left Lexington in 1967 for Houston and an illustrious 30-year, six- mission career with NASA. He is the only astronaut to have flown on all five space shuttle aircraft. He did the first space walk from a shuttle and was the lead spacewalker in the 1993 Hubble telescope repair mission. He has logged 18,000 hours in 160 aircraft and has made 800 parachute jumps.
Musgrave retired from NASA in 1997 after it became clear he wouldn't fly again. He still misses piloting big aircraft.
"I was on an MD-88 on my way out here," he said when I interviewed him by phone from California. "I always go back to the restroom in the back of that airplane because that's the best place to really listen to and feel that motor humming.
"There was no line for the restroom, so I just took my time. I was there too long, and the flight attendant knocked on the door and said, 'Sir, are you OK?' I said, 'Yes, ma'am, I'm just listening to the motors back here.' She looked at me with this disdainful look and said, 'You're a pilot.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am, and, by the way, your engines are out of sync.'"
Musgrave said he hopes to return to space someday with Story, his 7-year-old daughter by his third wife. That is if Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic ever succeeds in offering space flights to tourists.
But there has been much more to Musgrave's life than flight. The high school dropout went on to earn seven graduate degrees — in math, chemistry, medicine, computers, physiology, literature and psychology. He now raises palm trees at his home in Florida, teaches design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and dabbles in writing, art and scientific research.
Musgrave speaks frequently to young people. His message: Follow your passion, take life one step at a time, learn everything you can about everything, and be open to new opportunities.
"The important thing is to continue to go forward," he said. "Think every day, what's the next mountain I'm going to climb?"
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.