Retired Astronaut Launches Teaching Career at MU

September 2012


Steven Nagel’s story isn’t one where he was dreaming of being an astronaut since he was just a little kid. This is because when he was “real small there weren’t astronauts.” NASA’s astronaut program didn’t begin until he was in junior high, in 1959.

“I started thinking about it since at least high school days,” Nagel said, adding that his passion for being an astronaut waxed and waned as his career went on.

Nagel retired from NASA in July of 2011 and came to work at Mizzou as an instructor and retention specialist with MU’s School of Engineering. He came to Mizzou with his wife, also a retired astronaut, who works with MU’s physics department.

But the path to becoming an astronaut is not an easy one. NASA has only selected 339 astronauts since the program began.

Nagel says when a person first gets to NASA they are only just a candidate and are required to go through basic training. After the basic training, a person becomes eligible for a crew assignment.

“Because I got there before the shuttle even started flying, it was a few years before I even got assigned to a crew,” Nagel said. “Like five, I think, or so, and I didn’t fly until I’d been there seven years.”

If a person is assigned to a crew, then they begin training with the crew. Nagel said the amount of training varies for each position, but there’s a minimum of about a year of training.

After all these years of training, it’s time to blast off.

“The launch is very impressive,” Nagel said. “It’s about eight and a half minutes, if you want to count that as take off, where the engines are running if you want to get up to almost orbital speed.”

Nagel said his thoughts during takeoff were, “I hope this thing keeps working right!”

During training, Nagel said there were many failures and problems inserted into the simulator to help prepare the team. During the actual takeoff, the crew focused on everything that could potentially go wrong.

“We were just watching everything really close.” Nagel said. “I didn’t do much looking out the window during ascent. Everybody breathes a big sigh of relief when you get main engine cut-off, because that’s probably the riskiest part of the flight right there.”

All of Nagel’s flights made it up into space safely. He has been to space four times for a grand total of about 30 days. His shortest mission was six days and his longest was 10. He said his trips were pretty short, but astronauts that go up to the space station are there for months at a time.

“I was on two science flights where we carried laboratory on each of those flights,” Nagel said. “One flight we deployed satellites, communication satellites, and another flight we deployed a scientific observatory, the gamma ray observatory, which is the second in line after the Hubble.”

Nagel said although he has been to space several times, he’s never been out of the shuttle. All astronauts receive training to go outside of the shuttle, though, in case of problems.

“I didn’t really want to hope for a problem to go outside,” Nagel said. “You kind of do, but you don’t. You don’t want problems.”

But just because he didn’t go outside the shuttle doesn’t mean he didn’t experience the effects.

“If you took gravity away from this room and we were floating around in the room, it would seem like a totally different place to you,” Nagel said. “Your whole living surroundings become totally different.”

Nagel said the lack of gravity gives a lot of people space motion sickness and makes people much less efficient.

“The mundane things of going to your locker and getting your food out, or getting your gym clothes out to go exerciser on the ergometer seem to take forever,” said Nagel.

Since the crew didn’t have to focus on watching all the machines and engines that they had to monitor during takeoff, they finally had a chance to enjoy the view.

“The second big thing is the view out the window is just absolutely gorgeous,” Nagel said.

Nagel said the whole experience “was just a terrific adventure.”