On a late spring night in 1967, an Indianapolis boy couldn't tear his eyes from a TV screen that took him along on Ed White's 23-minute, 6,500-mile "walk in space," making him the first American to achieve that feat.
"Ed White's space walk intrigued me because he was part of this big team, an integral part of this grand system," says Wolf, a 1982 graduate of the IU School of Medicine at IUPUI. "I knew that night that I wanted to do what he had done."
Less than a decade after leaving medical school behind, Wolf had earned his astronaut's stripes; just 11 years after leaving IUPUI, Wolf was orbiting Earth as part of a Spacelab life sciences mission. And by January of 1998, Ed White had company in the list of Americans who have walked the heavens: David Wolf had reached his dream.
Eight years later, the Hoosier astronaut has walked in space three more times, spent the equivalent of five months in various spacecraft, practiced both his professions-engineer and physician-in orbit, and risen to become the chief of NASA's Astronaut Office Extravehicular Activity Branch, supervising the team that develops, tests and supports spacewalks.
Following a different path
Even as a child with a dream, Wolf knew his passion wouldn't come easily. The son of Dr. Harry Wolf-himself a School of Medicine graduate-wanted to follow his father's medical legacy, but apply those skills in new and very different ways. So he earned a Purdue University degree in electrical engineering, shifted to IUPUI and then Methodist Hospital to get his medical training, then set off for NASA as a biomedical engineer.
After his 1993 Spacelab mission, Wolf was chosen by NASA to train as a cosmonaut and fly on the Russian space station Mir in 1997. During that 128-day mission, Wolf got his chance to follow in White's steps. "Of course, it was a bit ironic for someone who idolized the first American in space to make his first walk in space on a Russian space craft, wearing a Russian space suit," laughs the 49-year-old Wolf.
"It's a bit of a leap of faith that first time out the hatch," he admits with a chuckle as he recalls his first "step" into the emptiness of space. "Let's just say you check your tethers-twice!"
It was also ironic that the very thing that launched his dream very nearly proved to be the end of his career. On that walk, Wolf and cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyov were trapped outside the orbiting station by an airlock malfunction.
"That will focus your attention in a hurry," laughs Wolf, though he admits it wasn't amusing at the time. The two men cut short their work to solve the problem, but even with their combined expertise, they still came perilously close to running out of life support.
Teamwork is essential
Though he admits that getting stuck in the void of space still makes him "look back and shudder at times," Wolf says the event drove home a point that NASA considers gospel; teamwork is essential, and everyone-everyone!- is on the team.
"When Anatoly and I were stuck, we had to improvise a solution," he says. "Alone, neither of us would have been able to get back in; together, we were able to succeed."
It also strengthened the bond between two men from very different cultures and backgrounds, but a passion for exploration that unites them.
"We still look at each other with a gleam in our eyes when we run into each other at work," says Wolf. In fact, NASA and the Russian space program still work closely together, giving Wolf a chance to regularly use the language he learned for his mission on Mir, a mission conducted completely in Russian.
The largest project in both the American and Russian space programs is the International Space Station (ISS), which Wolf helped construct during his last space flight in 2002.
"The ISS relies heavily on the combined strengths of both the Mir program and ours," Wolf says. "We found that the best answers often lay on different sides of the ocean."
Similarities to the life sciences
That notion of two different cultures blending to form a stronger whole fits Wolf, a real-life example of how the interdisciplinary nature of the life sciences-in his case, engineering and medicine-can produce amazing results.
"When I went to medical school as an electrical engineer, it was extremely rare. I was considered an anomaly," he chuckles. "Now, it's considered an excellent background to prepare for medicine." The life sciences are critical to NASA's missions in space, Wolf says.
"At NASA, we move seamlessly across the traditional boundaries between engineering and the life sciences," he says. "It's not just medicine and life support systems. We use chemistry, microbiology, physiology-all those related fields that make our missions possible."
The unique conditions available in outer space hold great promise for medical and scientific research. The properties of zero gravity in outer space-a significant variable that cannot be replicated on earth-opens up almost limitless numbers of new hypotheses and the means to test them. Gravity masks many physiological phenomena and interferes with "pure" tests of many systems.
"We quickly realized the value of being able to manipulate gravity as a variable in our understanding of the way the world works, either in human biology, or in our other research, even Einstein's theory of relativity," he explains. "The work we've done to permit human access to the extremely unforgiving environment of space enables such research, while also energizing our inborn spirit for exploration."
NASA life is exciting
The increasing overlap between the fields of engineering, technology and medicine "make life at NASA exciting" to the second-generation doctor.
"The multidisciplinary work we do is a key part of a rich work environment," Wolf says. "Each of the fields involved has powerful tools to offer. It's the ability to apply those different tools that permits us to solve the unique problems we face in spaceflight, as well as producing innovative technology that improves our quality of life on Earth."
Those solutions NASA has developed have shaped modern medicine, technology and many other fields, as well. That's a trend Wolf expects will continue for as long as mankind explores the heavens.
"As we head back to the moon or even longer-duration flights to places like Mars, we'll be seeking solutions to the problems we face in space, but also for those on earth," he says. "On a flight to Mars, for example, we'll be leaving Earth's magnetic field, which means we will have to improve our countermeasures against harmful radiation exposure. It's crucial in space, but those same developments clearly benefit life on Earth, too."
Career has altered perceptions
Life at NASA, whether orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth or working in classrooms and laboratories on the ground, has changed Wolf in ways both practical and profound.
"I'm more patient now," he admits. "There was a time when, as pilots used to say, 'my hair was on fire to ride the rocket.' Now, I'm much more concerned that we at NASA continue to improve the human spirit and our quality of life (on Earth). There are so many useful directions we can go that the problem is which to choose!
"People are thrilled by single, spectacular events," Wolf says. "It inspires young people-heck, all of us-when we walk on the moon or in space, or someday send humans to Mars. The flip side is that the long grind of complex research is made up of many (apparent) failures.
The 'Eureka' moments are hard-earned and far apart. We have to accept those failures as essential steps toward ultimate success. "The important results are often not as we anticipated and don't occur on a convenient, planned schedule-but they do result from the alert eyes of well-prepared researchers," he adds. "The kind produced by our fine Indiana schools."
In the meantime, Wolf goes about his day-to-day tasks.
"I have nicely varied days," he says. "I might instruct other astronauts in spacewalk systems in our underwater facility-we have a whole space station under water. I might spend another day in virtual reality or an engineering laboratory. On still another, I might set up a new tissue culture alongside our biologists, exploiting microgravity to study breast cancer tumors. In all cases, we bring to bear the best and broadest talents of an interdisciplinary team to solve problems." After two decades of intensely challenging work at NASA, the astronaut still loves his job.
"I'm really living a dream here," he freely admits.
"There is a richness to the work we do and an endless series of important challenges to tackle. That is exciting. Innovation is fostered by the collaboration of a broad range of academic disciplines, industrial partners, personalities and disparate cultures, each bringing a unique perspective.
"And even better, we often get to work with the students and professors from IU and Purdue schools," Wolf adds. "That in itself makes it personally worthwhile, exactly how I dreamed it would be."