Steven Nagel, former astronaut and MU professor, dies at 67

Monday, August 25, 2014 | 10:56 p.m. CDT; updated 6:05 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 26, 2014

COLUMBIA — Years before Steven R. Nagel launched into orbit — or even drove out of his garage — his dad had him in the cockpit of small planes. There was the Piper Cub his dad rebuilt at their house; there were the almost daily trips to the airport; there was his first solo flight, which he landed before he'd earned his driver's license.

Mr. Nagel would go on to become an Air Force flight instructor, command two space missions and earn more than a dozen medals for his service, but what his friends and family remember most about him is his generosity and sense of humor.

“He was always smiling, always, and always eager to get you to smile,” said Kevin Glenn, a senior pastor at Memorial Baptist Church.

Steven R. Nagel died Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, of advanced melanoma. He was 67.

He was born Oct. 27, 1946, in Canton, Ill., to Ivan “Pete” and Helene Nagel.

Mr. Nagel studied aeronautical engineering and participated in ROTC at the University of Illinois. After graduation, he received his commission to the Air Force and entered pilot training at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas.

Mr. Nagel served for a year as a T-28 instructor for the Laotian Air Force at Udorn, Thailand, before returning to the states in October 1972. In 1975, he attended the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. At the same time he earned his master of science degree in mechanical engineering from California State University in Fresno.

In 1978, he was selected to be a member of the NASA Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston. While there, he flew on four space shuttle missions, including two as  commander. He was serving as commander of shuttle flight STF-37 when Linda Godwin was assigned as mission specialist for his crew. Four years later, they went on their first date: an airplane museum in Galveston, Texas.

Mr. Nagel and Godwin married in 1995.

They were the type of couple others wanted to be like, Glenn said. “Their love for each other was contagious.”

After retiring from the Air Force, Mr. Nagel served as deputy director for the Safety Office at Johnson Space Center. He worked for many years as a research pilot and shuttle training aircraft instructor.

In total, he logged about 13,000 hours of flying time. He earned the Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with seven Oak Leaf Cluster, the Commander's Trophy, the Flying Trophy, the Academic Trophy and Orville Wright Achievement Award, the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, four NASA Space Flight Medals, two Exceptional Service Medals, an Outstanding Leadership Medal and the AAS Flight Achievement Award — but those close to him said he was modest about those accomplishments. His family and his faith were most important to him. 

"For him, it wasn't about the big stuff. It was about living his daily life in the right way, all the time," Godwin said.

Mr. Nagel retired from NASA in 2011, and the Nagel family moved to Columbia. He and Godwin became professors at MU, where he taught mechanical engineering.

"It's a hard job to go back and teach, and we both enjoyed the challenges of doing that," Godwin said. "He was a real people-person anyways, and I think it was just an expansion of his personality."

Mr. Nagel was a devout Christian. He served as a deacon and sang in the choir at Memorial Baptist Church.

“You wanted to be a better person when you were around Steve,” Glenn said. “That’s the kind of effect he had on you. He brought out the best in people."

Mr. Nagel is survived by his wife, Linda Godwin; two daughters, Whitney Pasquini, and her husband, Alex, and Lauren Nagel; two aunts, Gladys Pfau, and her husband, Bob, and Juanita Snell; a sister-in-law, Judy Green, and her husband, John; five nieces, Stephanie Churchill, Jenny Churchill, Laura Green, Kristin Green and Tiera Claudin; a nephew, Patrick Green; and two great-nephews, Peter Hebison and Sam Hebison. 

His parents and a sister, Janice Churchill, died earlier.

Visitation will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday at Memorial Funeral Home, 1217 Business Loop 70 W. Services will follow at the same location.

Donations can be made to National Patient Travel Center, 4620 Haygood Road, Suite 1, Virginia Beach, VA 23455; ChildFund International, 2821 Emerywood Parkway, Richmond, VA 23294;or Memorial Baptist Church ,1634 Paris Road, Columbia, MO 65201.

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