NASA astronaut Michael ‘Rich’ Clifford dies at age 69 due to Parkinson’s complications

Michael ‘Rich’ Clifford, a NASA astronaut who flew three space shuttle missions, died late Tuesday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 69 years old.

Clifford’s death was announced by the Association of Space Explorers, a professional organization for astronauts and cosmonauts, on Twitter around midnight ET.

He was selected in 1990 to join NASA’s 13th group of space students and in 1992 he was launched into space aboard the Discovery space shuttle.

The astronaut was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1994, but he did not let it ruin his life: he completed his third mission and first spaceflight two years later, telling only NASA doctors about his illness.

Michael ¿Rich¿ Clifford, a NASA astronaut who flew three space shuttle missions, died late Tuesday from complications of Parkinson's disease - he was 69 years old.

Michael ‘Rich’ Clifford, a NASA astronaut who flew three space shuttle missions, died late Tuesday from complications of Parkinson’s disease – he was 69 years old.

Parkinson’s is a progressive brain disease that mainly affects body movements for which there is no cure.

“So many things went through my head when I started learning more about my condition, but I was resolute and determined not to let it affect my vision,” Clifford told Parkinson.org.

‘The medical community respected my privacy and only the senior NASA executives with a need to know were informed.

‘They asked me what I wanted to do and my response was quick: I wanted to stay on flight status and stay in the queue for a future space flight. I wanted to remain an astronaut. ‘

Clifford leaves behind his wife of 45 years, Nancy Elizabeth Brunson, and two sons, Richard Benjamin Clifford and Brandon Brunson Clifford.

Clifford leaves behind his wife Nancy Elizabeth Brunson and two sons, Richard Benjamin Clifford and Brandon Brunson Clifford

Clifford leaves behind his wife Nancy Elizabeth Brunson and two sons, Richard Benjamin Clifford and Brandon Brunson Clifford

Clifford was selected in 1990 to join NASA's 13th group of space students, and in 1992 he launched into space aboard the Discovery space shuttle.  A few months later, Clifford took off on his second spaceflight in April 1994 (pictured) as a mission specialist.

Clifford was selected in 1990 to join NASA’s 13th group of space students, and in 1992 he launched into space aboard the Discovery space shuttle. A few months later, Clifford took off on his second spaceflight in April 1994 (pictured) as a mission specialist.

Parkinson’s: An incurable disease

Parkinson’s disease affects one in 500 people, including about one million Americans.

It causes muscle stiffness, slow movement, tremors, sleep disturbances, chronic fatigue, impaired quality of life and can lead to severe disabilities.

It is a progressive neurological condition that destroys cells in the part of the brain that controls movement.

Patients are known to have reduced supplies of dopamine because nerve cells that do so are dead.

There is currently no cure and no way to stop the development of the disease, but hundreds of scientific trials are underway to try to change it.

Although the astronaut was born in California, he considered Ogden, Utah as his home – he moved there at a young age.

He received a bachelor’s degree in science from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in 1974, and a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1982.

Clifford served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and then graduated from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in 1986, allowing him to become an experimental test pilot for the military.

He withdrew from the arm in December 1995.

Clifford’s first flight, which took place on Discovery, lasted a week and included four other astronauts. They returned to Earth on December 9, 1992.

A few months later, Clifford took off on his second spaceflight on April 9, 1994 as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor.

Clifford worked with its five STS-59 crew members to run the Space Radar Laboratory (SRL), a payload designed to provide scientists with the data needed to distinguish man-made environmental changes from other forms of natural change.

Shortly after returning home, Clifford was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“Fortunately, the NASA aviation surgeons, NASA management, and my family supported me, and I was given return-to-flight status on the condition that I would be closely monitored by the aviation surgeons,” Clifford shared in a blog post about Parkinson .org

Clifford worked with its five STS-59 crew members to run the Space Radar Laboratory (SRL), a payload designed to provide scientists with the data needed to distinguish man-made environmental change from other forms of natural change.

Clifford worked with its five STS-59 crew members to run the Space Radar Laboratory (SRL), a payload designed to provide scientists with the data needed to distinguish man-made environmental change from other forms of natural change.

Clifford was launched in his third spaceflight, STS-76, on March 22, 1996 (pictured), but none of the other four crew members knew of his diagnosis.

Clifford was launched in his third spaceflight, STS-76, on March 22, 1996 (pictured), but none of the other four crew members knew of his diagnosis.

‘I also knew I could not reveal my condition in public.’

Clifford launched in his third spaceflight, STS-76, on March 22, 1996, but none of the four other crew members knew of his diagnosis.

“I informed management that I wanted to perform EVA (extra vehicle activity) and that I did not know there were limitations to my abilities,” Clifford said.

During the six-hour, two-minute, and 28-second extravehicular activity (EVA), Clifford and Linda Godwin linked four experiments to the Mirs docking module that characterized the environment around the station.

During the six-hour, two-minute, and 28-second extravehicular activity (EVA), Clifford and Linda Godwin linked four experiments to the Mirs docking module that characterized the environment around the station.

‘I think they were actually surprised by my desire to perform the spacewalk, despite my condition.’

During the six-hour, two-minute, 28-second EVA, Clifford and Linda Godwin attached four experiments to the Mirs docking module that characterized the environment around the station.

“Looking back, I recognize the difficult decision NASA’s top management made by awarding me the STS-76,” Clifford said.

“They presented my capabilities to the NASA Headquarters Space Flight Medical Review Board, and I know it was not an easy decision for the board and senior management to clear me for flight.

‘I’m grateful for their support in realizing the risk they took with me, as there were dozens of other qualified astronauts who could have accomplished this mission.’

After landing back on Earth on March 31, 1996, Clifford decided he would not seek another spaceflight. He did not know how fast his symptoms would develop, and so he withdrew from the astronaut corps and NASA in January 1997, after logging 27 days, 18 hours and 24 minutes in space while completing 443 orbits around Earth.

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