Spaceflight Insider

Former NASA astronaut Steve Nagel dies after battle with cancer

Steve Nagel lost his battle with cancer and passed away at the age of 67. Photo Credit: NASA

Steve Nagel, United States Air Force Colonel (ret.) and a former NASA astronaut, who flew on four space shuttle missions, died on Thursday, August 21, at the age of 67. He lost a two-year battle with an aggressive form of melanoma, and is survived by his wife, former NASA astronaut Linda M. Godwin, and two daughters.

Steven R. Nagel was born on October 27, 1946, in Canton, Illinois. He attended the University of Illinois and received his Bachelor of Science in aerospace engineering in 1969, graduating with high honors. Nagel received his commission for the U.S. Air Force through the university’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps. In 1978, he earned his Master of Science in mechanical engineering from California State University. The following year he was accepted as a NASA astronaut with NASA’s first group of space shuttle trainees.

Former NASA Astronaut Steve Nagel was the commander for STS-55. Photo Credit: NASA

Former NASA Astronaut Steve Nagel was the commander for STS-55. Photo Credit: NASA

Though he wanted to fly on the shuttle as a pilot, Nagel was assigned as mission specialist for this first flight, STS-51G, which lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida on June 17, 1985. That shuttle was the Space Shuttle Discovery, and the mission’s primary cargo was three communications satellites: the Morelos, for Mexico; the Arabsat, for the Arab League; and the AT&T Telstar, for the United States. Other important payloads included the Spartan 1 carrier module, the Automated Directional Solidification Furnace (ADSF) materials processing furnace, six Getaway Special experiments, two French biomedical experiments, and the High Precision Tracking Experiment (HPTE) for the Strategic Defense Initiative. The crew’s payload specialist was Sultan Salman Al Saud, from Saudi Arabia, the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family to fly into space. Discovery landed on June 24, 1985, at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Nagel did get to fly as pilot on his next trip out, STS-61A, the West German D-1 Spacelab mission. It launched from KSC on October 30 that same year, and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California on November 6, 1985. It was the last successful mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and it carried the NASA/ESA Spacelab module into orbit with more than 75 experiments. The German Space Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, West Germany controlled payload operations, making it the first mission in which payload operations were controlled from outside the United States.

After retiring from NASA, Steve went on to teach at the University of Missouri. Photo Credit: Univ. of Missouri

After retiring from NASA, Steve went on to teach at the University of Missouri. Photo Credit: Univ. of Missouri

Nagel was the commander of his third space shuttle flight, STS-37, the eighth flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. It launched into orbit on April 5, 1991, and landed six days later on April 11. The crew deployed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO), part of the Great Observatories program, to explore the universe’s gamma ray sources. They performed the first successful unscheduled spacewalk for the purpose of freeing the satellite’s high-gain antenna when it did not deploy after six attempts.

His fourth and final space shuttle mission was STS-55, the German D-2 Spacelab mission, during which he again served as commander. It lifted off on April 26, 1993, on the Shuttle Columbia, and landed in California ten days later. The mission emphasized international cooperation and scientific research, as 11 nations participated in some 88 experiments across a variety of disciplines.

Nagel retired in 1995 from both the U.S. Air Force and the Astronaut Office, and he assumed the position of deputy director for operations development at the Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance Office of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. He transferred to the Aircraft Operations Division in 1996 and worked as a research pilot, chief of aviation safety and deputy division chief.

On May 31, 2011, he retired from NASA, and taught at the University of Missouri.

Nagel received a number of awards for his service with both NASA and the Air Force, including the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal (1978), four NASA Space Flight Medals (1985, 1991, 1993), Exceptional Service Medals (1988, 1989), the Outstanding Leadership Medal (1992), and the AAS Flight Achievement Award (1992, for STS-37), among others. He is remembered as an upbeat family man, a devout Christian, and a passionate scientist.

Nagel leaves behind a wife and two daughters. Photo Credit: NASA

Nagel leaves behind a wife and two daughters. Photo Credit: NASA



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Rae Botsford End is a freelance writer and editor whose primary work currently is writing technical white papers, contributing to SFI, and working on a speculative fiction novel that she hopes to have published soon. Rae wanted an opportunity to report on the various space-related events in and around Florida's Space Coast and approached SFI's founder about the possibility. Rae now covers an array of subjects for our growing website.

Reader Comments

Most certainly our hearts go out to his wife and daughters who mourn the loss of their beloved husband and father. He was an American whom we can all take pride in calling “ours”. To have flown four shuttle missions is an achievement most of us can only dream of, apparently it is true that all men die, but not all men live. His life was truly one to celebrate.

Karin Poehlmann (Porter)

I had the utmost pleasure of teaching Steve Emergency Egress and Water survival procedures and worked with him on several safety projects while working at Johnson Space Center. Always a gentle man with a gentle way. Truly an inspiration to so many. My prayers and thoughts go out to Linda who also was a favorite “student”. “He has now trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
reached out his hand and has touched the face of God.” God bless him and keep him in the palm of your hand.

I met Steve when he arrived at Barkasdale AFB, LA He had agreed to come to our Hamfest and be a key speaker. He was a very down to earth fun guy to know. We were very glad he came to our area, it connected us to the space program and gave us a personal stake in it. I still have my autographed photo of Steve in the display case. Thanks Steve for making us feel important.

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