Former astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering Steven Nagel passed away Aug. 21 from melanoma, a form of skin cancer. He was 67.
Nagel joined the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department in 2011 when he retired from his career as an astronaut for the National Aeronautics Space Administration.
Nagel flew on four spaceflight missions between 1985 and 1993, totaling 723 hours in space, according to his NASA obituary. He served once as a mission specialist, once as a pilot and twice as a commander.
Whether he was piloting jet aircrafts and rocket ships or helping students build them, colleagues said Nagel was an energetic man of action.
Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Gary Solbrekken co-taught a course on aerospace propulsion with Nagel.
“Even though he was eventually a professor, he was more of a practitioner,” Solbrekken said. “He was the guy flying the rocket.”
In addition to an aerospace propulsion course, Nagel introduced an honors course in the MAE department during the spring of 2013 on the history of NASA, which was well-received and is expected to return in later semesters.
Nagel’s wife Linda Godwin, also a retired astronaut, is a physics professor at MU.
During his time as a professor, Nagel was a faculty advisor for the MU student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and assisted students during the process of designing and building rockets for an annual rocketry competition.
“He was just a genuinely nice guy, and he was really great with the kids,” Solbrekken said. “A student told me that he gave them a 100-page-or-so safety guide before a (rocket) launch and told them to make sure they at least retained the important points. He always had time for them.”
In late 2013, the MAE Department was informed Nagel had contracted melanoma.
Yuwen Zhang, chair of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said cosmic radiation is a threat often faced by astronauts.
“The cancer had formed under his arms, so it could not have been caused by sunlight, but rather the radiation from his flights,” Zhang said. “Traveling and chemotherapy caused him to take leave starting in January this year.”
Despite his condition, Solbrekken said Nagel was always an optimist.
“It happened so fast,” Solbrekken said. “We were under the impression he was coming back to teach. He still had energy and his personality when he stopped by… Whenever he would come in to the department he was always in a good spirit, and full of hope.”
Nagel’s funeral was held Aug. 26. More than half of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department attended.
For a man who had spent over 700 hours in space, colleagues said Nagel demonstrated humility and relatability to those around him. Before his work as a professor, he chose to be an academic retention specialist, helping dismissed or struggling students.
“Working for NASA meant Steve was surrounded by high-speed, high-performance individuals,” Solbrekken said. “But he was always ready to help anyone with anything — there was no barrier with him.”
In fact, some of his colleagues said they were unaware of Nagel’s multiple awards and decorations as an astronaut and pilot in the United States Air Force until they attended his funeral.
Although Nagel had achieved enough to boast about in his lifetime, he will be remembered by his colleagues for his humble attitude, helpful spirit and approachability.
“We learned a lot about his life later on; he didn’t talk about himself in that way,” Solbrekken said. “Unless you dug into him or he was introduced by someone else, you’d have no idea he was so accomplished.”
Nagel’s aerospace propulsion course will be continued, and his positive outlook will be missed by his department.
“You could never come across him on a bad day,” Solbrekken said.