Michael “Rich” Clifford, a 69-year-old NASA astronaut who flew on 3 space shuttle flights, including one after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, has passed away. The Association of Space Explorers (ASE), which is a professional organization for cosmonauts and astronauts that recognized Clifford as a life member, confirmed Clifford’s death on Tuesday (December 28). He died as a result of Parkinson’s disease complications.
Clifford was selected as an astronaut with NASA’s 13th class of spaceflight trainees in 1990. (nicknamed “The Hairballs”). He joined the corps three years after being posted to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston by the US Army, where he was working as the space shuttle vehicle integration engineer during that time.
Clifford was named to his first crew, STS-53, after graduating from basic training and spent four months engaged with the Astronaut Office Mission Development Branch creating and analyzing payload and crew equipment. On December 2, 1992, he and four others launched on a classified expedition for the (DoD) Department of Defense aboard the space shuttle Discovery.
The shuttle’s final major military payload was launched during the week-long mission, which also included medical research into the impacts of microgravity on the cells from muscles, bone tissue, and blood. As part of a military experiment, the astronauts also launched 3 small metal spheres into the space to evaluate ground-based capabilities for identifying debris in the low-Earth orbit and to test their capacity to view ground-based events from space.
Clifford and his STS-53 crewmates were reunited with Earth on December 9, 1992, when Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base situated in California.
Clifford launched into orbit for the second time 16 months later, on April 9, 1994. Clifford worked as the mission specialist aboard space shuttle Endeavour, where he and his five STS-59 crewmates operated the Space Radar Laboratory (SRL), a payload designed to help scientists discriminate between human-caused and natural environmental change.
Clifford and his crewmates were divided into 2 groups of three astronauts each in order to work around the clock to image more than 400 sites, covering around 62 million km (38.5 million miles) of Earth, or about 20% of the world. As part of a cooperative project with the National Institutes of Health, the astronauts also used sophisticated cell culture equipment.
Clifford was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after he landed from STS-59. Parkinson’s disease is a chronic nervous system ailment that mostly affects movement. Years later, he disclosed in a string of interviews that he first realized his right arm was limp at his side instead of swinging as it should as he walked.