Space Walker Maps the Next Giant Leap for Mankind

A perspicacious look at some 'accidents' that made astronaut David Wolf's career

When Dr. David Wolf was a kid, about 10 or 11 years old, he bargained with his parents to buy him a riding lawnmower instead of sending him to summer camp. The self-imposed summer job might not seem like the makings of a compelling first-day-back-to-school essay, but Wolf indeed had plenty of adventures with his Wheel Horse.

“When I was on that lawnmower, it was like I was Calvin,” Wolf said, referring to the classic cartoon strip about a mischievous boy who shares imagined exploits with his stuffed tiger best friend, Hobbes. “I was on a spaceship. I was in a submarine. I was not on a lawnmower. I was in a fighter jet. And I was dreaming everything.”

Wolf marvels how much his grown-up real life eventually fulfilled some of those dreams. “I wound up flying fighter jets. I wound up flying spacecrafts. But I was visualizing it as a kid on a lawnmower first.”

It’s one of many instances in Wolf’s life in which he conceived a scenario that eventually came to pass. A few years ago he became “infatuated” with the way orbital mechanics work. So he boned up on the study of moving celestial objects and even built a little observatory in the backyard of his suburban Indianapolis home. “I stayed up nights for three years doing measurements and understanding the whole thing, even though I didn’t realize how poorly I understood it,” Wolf said.

Now, a large multipurpose sports complex close to where Wolf lives is planning to add a space observatory and name it after him. “The telescopes are the best money can buy,” he said of the Astronaut David Wolf Observatory and STEM Learning Center coming to Westfield, Ind. “We’re going to put more eyes in eyepieces than any other place in the world.”

He added: “I’ve had so many freak accidents like this, where I’ve visualized the future, and it happened just because I started engaging.”

“Freak accidents” are not typically associated with a successful run as an astronaut. For Wolf, however, spacefaring has not so much defined his career as it has augmented a jam-packed life story. With electrical engineering and medical degrees, he became a flight surgeon with the Air Force. Later, he investigated the physiological effects of microgravity while on staff at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Then there were his four trips to space, including three shuttle missions and a stop aboard the Russian space station Mir. Wolf has logged more than 4,040 hours in space and has completed seven spacewalks in both Russian and American spacesuits. But his stargazing days are hardly behind him. Last year he helped draft President Donald Trump’s executive order reestablishing the National Space Council and was later appointed to that panel, which is headed by his former governor, Vice President Mike Pence. Want to know what NASA’s plans are for getting to the moon, Mars, and beyond? Ask Wolf; he’s helping make the arrangements. And that’s not even his day job.

Wolf is a duel-appointed professor of aeronautics and aerospace engineering and bioengineering at Purdue University. He’s also working with two medical startup companies. “One’s designing molecules with a new quantum mechanical proxy so that we can do very highly predictive medicinal molecule design to help the pharmaceutical pipeline,” Wolf said. “The other one is going to produce the first living FDA-approved medicines, the first living medicines.”

Some people just have an ability to see the important parts in a mess and act on it appropriately.

That’s a lot of information to keep straight in his head, one imagines. Fortunately, compartmentalizing and prioritizing info and data is one of the former astronaut’s strong suits. In fact, Wolf points out, it’s a trait NASA looked for in its first astronauts. Wolf said, “By their own words in their circular for early astronaut selections, their highest character qualities that they were looking for — it’s a word I hate but it is the word they used, and even some of you smart people won’t know what it means, maybe: It’s called perspicacity. Does that ring a bell?”

A dictionary might call it “the quality of having a ready insight into things; shrewdness,” but Wolf can hone its meaning even further. “It means,” he said, “when a person is faced with an overwhelming amount of information, most of which is irrelevant, some people just have an ability to see the important parts in that whole mess and act on it appropriately.” Easy to see how such thinking might come in handy in the unforgiving, cold vacuum of space.

Ask Wolf to be perspicacious about the current state of U.S. space exploration, and he exudes optimism. “The vice president has announced clearly and intentionally that we are going to go to Mars,” he said. “And not boot prints and a ticker tape parade. We’re going to go with an infrastructure to stay.” But before Mars, we have to do our homework on the moon. “We’re going to make hydrogen-processing plants and oxygen-producing plants on the poles of the moon that will fuel the rockets that will go to not only Mars but to, let’s say, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn mainly, where there’s a lot of action.

“Then there’s laboratory work in zero gravity,” Wolf added to the list of preparations. “I’m one of the world leaders in that,” he said, sounding more informative than boastful. “I invented three-dimensional tissue engineering in space. I’m world renowned there. And that’s an innovation story in itself. It was a complete accident.” Of course it was.

A successful and interesting career, however, was no accident for Wolf. He expounds on his perceived lot in professional life in a there-are-two-types-of-people analogy. Wolf said, “In one extreme, a person lives their life: They fire an arrow, and they know right where that arrow should go. And it needs to go through all these hoops and then land in a certain spot, and they’re happy.

“Then I see another group of people, which is more like me, where you try to aim it pretty good but you’re not that great a shot. You fire it, but then you draw the target around where it landed, and you go from there. As an astronaut, I am with very high-achieving people all around me in NASA and such, and I see people get into a lot of stress in their lives when they demand that that arrow go right on a certain trajectory. Even if it missed by a hair and they have wonderful lives, they become very unhappy.”

Many Mensans, Wolf suspects, can identify with one arrow shooter or another. And the former astronaut is genuinely eager to share with them the joys and challenges of drawing from such a loaded quiver.