Michael “Rich” Clifford, who flew as a NASA astronaut on three space shuttle missions, including one after his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, has died at the age of 69.
Clifford’s death Tuesday (December 28) was confirmed by the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), a professional organization for astronauts and cosmonauts, which included Clifford as a lifetime member. He died due to complications from Parkinson’s.
Clifford was chosen to become an astronaut in 1990 with NASA’s 13th group of space students (called “The Hairballs”). He joined the corps three years after being assigned by the U.S. Army to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where he served as a spacecraft integration engineer at the time of his election.
After completing his undergraduate degree and spending four months working with the Astronaut Office Mission Development Branch to design and evaluate payloads and crew equipment, Clifford was named his first crew, STS-53. On December 2, 1992, he and four others launched the space shuttle Discovery on a classified mission for the Department of Defense.
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The week-long flight deployed the last major military payload flown on the space shuttle, as well as performed medical studies of the effects of micro-gravity on cells from bone tissue, muscle and blood. The astronauts also released three small metal spheres into space to test ground-based capabilities in low-Earth orbit waste and tested their own ability to observe ground-based phenomena from space as part of a military experiment.
Discovery returned Clifford and his STS-53 crew members to Earth on December 9, 1992 and landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Clifford took off on his second spaceflight 16 months later on April 9, 1994. As a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavor, Clifford worked with its five STS-59 crew members to operate 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.
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Divided into two teams of three astronauts each to work around the clock, Clifford and his crew were able to map more than 400 sites that covered approximately 38.5 million miles (62 million km) of Earth or the equivalent of about 20 percent of the Planet. The astronauts also used a special cell culture system as part of a joint initiative with the National Institutes of Health.
It was after Clifford landed from STS-59 that he was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a chronic nervous system disease that primarily affects movement. As he revealed in a series of interviews years later, he first noticed that his right arm remained slack next to him instead of swinging as usual as he walked.
When Clifford wanted to fly back into space, he kept his condition a secret, informing only NASA’s medical personnel and his chief of this third mission. He was monitored throughout his training, but his symptoms never interfered with his preparation for the tasks he was assigned to perform as a member of the STS-76 crew.
Clifford and his four crew members launched the space shuttle Atlantis and delivered Shannon Lucid to live aboard the Russian space station Mir. While anchored to the orbiting outpost, he and Linda Godwin became the first American astronauts to perform a spacewalk outside a space shuttle anchored to a space station.
During the six-hour, two-minute, and 28-second extravehicular activity (EVA), Clifford and Godwin linked four experiments to the Mirs docking module that characterized the environment around the station.
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, so he withdrew from the astronaut corps and NASA in January 1997, after recording a total of 27 days, 18 hours and 24 minutes in space, while completing 443 orbits around the Earth. .
Michael Richard Uram “Rich” Clifford was born on October 13, 1952 in San Bernardino, California, but he considered Ogden, Utah to be his hometown. He earned his bachelor’s degree in science from the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York in 1974, and his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1982.
After graduating from West Point, he was hired as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He entered Army Aviation School and was top of his flying class when he was named Army Aviator in 1976. He served for three years as division commander in Germany before attending Georgia Tech and then reporting to West Point as an instructor and assistant professor.
In 1986, Clifford graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School and was named an Experimental Test Pilot. As a Master Army Aviator, he logged 3,400 hours flying a wide range of fixed and rotating aircraft with wings.
Clifford retired from the Army with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1995 between his second and third spaceflights.
After leaving NASA, Clifford went to work for Boeing and directed operations for the burgeoning International Space Station. He later served as the company’s deputy head of the space shuttle program until his final mission in 2011.
Clifford was honored for his service to the space program with the NASA Space Flight Medal and Army Commendation Medal, among other awards.
After his diagnosis, he became an advocate for people living with Parkinson’s and served on the Patient Council of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. In 2014, a short documentary about his life with the disease “An Astronaut’s Secret” was released.
“Everyone with PD handles it differently,” Clifford said in a 2015 interview with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. “Do not let it get in the way of living. Life is too good. Remember, go on, heaven is the limit.”
He leaves behind his wife of 45 years, Nancy Elizabeth (born Brunson) Clifford, and their two sons, Richard and Brandon.
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