Larry DeLucas, 72
There are many singular achievements that can be made in sports, but only Larry DeLucas can say he once slam dunked a basketball weightless more than 250 miles above Earth.
That’s one of the interesting facts discovered when we followed up on the rumor that there was an astronaut playing in the 2022 National Senior Games presented by Humana. Sure enough, Larry is a bioresearch scientist and optometrist who beat out 50 others to be allowed to conduct his experiments on Space Shuttle Columbia in 1992.
Larry competed in Bowling at Nationals in Florida and intended to play Table Tennis and Cornhole before he had to leave early for a family emergency. But his first experience there has convinced him to keep Senior Games on his calendar.
In the following interview, Larry gives us a fascinating personal look at his other worldly experience and details his professional path obtaining five degrees over 12 years paired with the grueling astronaut selection process. It’s a picture of perseverance and dedication that evokes a sport comparison of training for years to try out for the Olympics.
The sport reference is especially relevant when Larry says he has been motivated his entire life by Basketball. Larry’s not tall and did not get to play at the college level, but the court still captivated his imagination and he continued to find time to play all the way up to his shuttle launch. In the interview he speaks reverently of his hoops hero John Havlicek and the letter from the Boston Celtics legend that he cherishes.
One thing also became clear from our talk. While there were many factors that led to Larry earning his ride, a lifelong commitment to physical fitness gave him some advantage in the selection process. He also believes that everyone can have an advantage with healthy aging if they simply find a sport or recreational activity they love and never stop doing it. That is a trait for pursuing your own Personal Best, and Larry DeLucas is one fine example of that.
Congratulations Larry. Let’s talk about space first. How did you get up there and what was the work you performed on the Space Shuttle Columbia?
I am not a pilot, I am a scientist. I had been conducting protein crystallization experiments in space for many years. My experiments, I mean, not me. [Laugh] I published many papers and always wanted the chance to fly with my experiments because the weightless conditions often result in a better crystal versus here on earth. We always had to take our best guess regarding what conditions would be best for the space experiments. What I proposed to NASA was that in space I can look at the results and based on what I see, optimize the next solutions I set up to produce a better crystal.
The process of getting selected is like getting an enema with a fire hose. [Laugh] It is not easy. I tried several years to be nominated and I couldn’t even get to the first step. But because of all the publications I submitted over five or six years, I built up a reputation and was finally nominated with about 50 others. The scientists that had experiments on the mission I was hoping to be selected for, each have one vote for who will fly (31 experiments so 31 votes) and based on resumes they narrow it to the top 12 out of 50. The top 12 then travel to Houston to undergo a three-day physical, and provided you pass the physical, the 31 scientists then interview you.
I sat in the middle of a semi-circle surrounded by 31 scientists and they can ask you anything. Most of them asked about their own experiments and they were all over the board – a bunch of combustion type experiments, fluid dynamics experiments, three different types of crystal growing experiments, and several medical ones.
In addition to being a biochemist I am also an eye doctor. By luck, NASA wanted one of the crew to give eye exams to the other six crew members and there I was. So, my reputation, publications and knowledge about the 31 different experiments, allowed me to get into the top two. I then competed with a scientist who was chairman of his department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. We competed for a year.
The 31 scientists whose experiments were selected for the mission came from different universities and two NASA research centers. They would teach us in a classroom the theory behind their experiments and they would film us performing the experiments in the lab to see who was doing it well and who wasn’t. After a year of that, we took a final oral exam that lasted four hours. Questions were like, ‘If this were to go wrong, how would you fix it?’ and both of us could answer those questions. Then the scientists voted who gets to fly and who becomes the backup. I was interviewed first for about 4 hours and at the end of the day, I got a call on my cell phone that I had been selected to fly on the Columbia Space Shuttle, mission STS-50. Right there in the airport I started crying.
Nice. Sounds like it takes the same effort and dedication as an athlete trying for the Olympics.
I have five college degrees and I spent 12 years getting them. There were times I didn’t see the light of day or weekends or anything. I was getting my Doctorate of Optometry while I was working on my PhD degree in Biochemistry. Optometry is not easy. You are typically taking five or six courses each quarter. Imagine taking neuroanatomy and then running down the street to be in an advanced physical chemistry class required for my biochemistry degree. Then when I didn’t have class at night and on weekends, I was in the lab working on my dissertation research. I almost had a nervous breakdown going back and forth but I made it through.
Was any part of your space experience more challenging?
Everyone is always asking, ‘What was the hardest part of the space flight?’ It was not the launch but coming back. As we’re coming in for landing, I looked down at the monitor for my heart rate and blood pressure and it went off the charts. Normally at that time I was running 6 miles a day and my heart rate was about 55. I was in incredible shape! So, when I looked down at my monitor, my heart rate was about 140 and my blood pressure was something like 180 over 130. There was sweat coming off me because I was about to puke. My heart rate kept fluctuating from 120 to 80 back to 120 in two seconds. It was racing and then would rapidly slow down because it wasn’t used to gravity.
Being physically active and playing sports couldn’t have done anything but help you make the cut to go to space in the first place.
Yeah completely. When I give career talks, I tell how I started out. All I cared about was sports. I first started on the baseball team and the basketball team, and basketball became my true love even though I’m not that tall. I played in high school but never played on a college team. However, all through 12 years of college I played on intramural teams. After college I continued playing intramurals as a faculty member at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).
We had a team at UAB where I received all my degrees and other than me all the other players were physicians. I was the one scientist. The name of our team was the Medicine Balls and we had one heck of a reputation. We won the campus championship five years in a row against all the fraternity teams and everybody else. The Medicine Balls practiced three days a week early in the morning. That’s the only time the physicians could do it. We’d get to the gym when it opened right at 6 a.m. and, play full court for an hour, then everyone went to work. I played right up until my space flight.
It’s good you kept exercising and playing. Your studies must have taken up most of your time.
There was a period for about four years I felt I wasn’t married. I was constantly at the lab or studying. I think I just wanted so much to succeed and make something of myself.
You signed up for bowling and table tennis in the 2022 National Senior Games. But it seems that basketball is your favorite sport.
I hurt my shoulder in space, and when I came back, I couldn’t even reach the goal from the foul line anymore. I had to have a lot of physical therapy, but I still have very little strength above my arms. When I reach up my arm hurts and my whole shoulder starts to hurt. Sadly, I don’t regularly play basketball anymore, but what I can do is bowl, so I took it up bowling just to stay in the game.
This is kind of a crazy story as an example of my passion for basketball. My heroes from a little kid growing up were players on the Boston Celtics, and my biggest hero was John Havlicek. I liked him more than anybody because he never asked for more money, he never complained to the referees, and he stayed with Boston his whole career. He never gave up. They called him the non-stop professional because he ran up and down the court and no one could keep up with him. He wasn’t the greatest shooter, but he got a lot of garbage points by his hustle.
I have a photograph of him in my office and I always thought how he didn’t give up and no matter what I wouldn’t give up either. When I got a little depressed, I thought about him and it made me keep going. I’ve always liked sports and that competitiveness also helped me through the difficult times as I earned all five of my degrees.
I’m not kidding. I met the basketball coach at UAB here in Birmingham and told him about Havlicek being such an inspiration. He said, ‘I know him and I’m gonna get him to send you an autographed picture.’ He tried for six or seven years, and every time Havlicek was supposed to be somewhere for whatever reason he didn’t show up or something happened. Finally, the coach calls Rick Pitino and he goes to lunch with Havlicek and talks about this astronaut that really wants this so Havlicek signs the picture made personally to me.
When the coach brought it to my house he said I should write Havlicek a letter about what it meant to watch him and how he conducted his life. So, I wrote him this long letter about how he got me through so much, and he wrote me back! It’s just a phenomenal letter and I have it framed in my living room.
My Will and Testament says I’m to be buried with it. That’s how much sports and having a hero like him made me get through so many hurdles.
That’s a great story Larry. Basketball is as big as space for you!
I’ll tell you this story of my love for basketball. I was allowed to take 50 personal items into space and those must fit in a very small box. I begged NASA let me fly a basketball hoop and basketball. They wouldn’t do it but did allow a plastic basketball goal with suction cups and a Nerf ball. I put the goal on the wall when I got up there. I first recited a basketball poem, then I spun the ball with my finger on top and said, ‘OK Michael Jordan, let’s see you do this!’ Then I floated upside down, bounced off the walls, slam dunked and ripped the goal right off the wall.
Now, when I make presentations to children, I show the video of me slam dunking the nerf ball and I always say, ‘You’re looking at the only person in the world that beat Michael Jordan’s hang time.’ [Laugh]
When did you start bowling?
I think I started in ‘96. My son was a student at Vanderbilt University, and he was on their SEC bowling team. He’s bowled 300 several times so he got me started. I never did it before then.
I’ve never bowled a 300, but I have scored 290 twice. My average last year was 195 to 198 in three different leagues. But last year I went to the Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale and struggled. I did terrible until I finally figured it out. I changed to another ball and where I was standing on the lane, and I started finally helping my doubles partner. We missed the bronze medal by 11 pins and got a 4th place ribbon. I’m going to win one next time I’ll tell you! So, this year I bowled very well in the Alabama seniors state qualifying tournament and ended up winning gold in doubles, mixed doubles and a bronze medal for singles.
I also participated in cornhole, winning gold in doubles and mixed doubles and believe it or not, I decided to participate in basketball! I still cannot reach the goal if more than 15 feet away, but I practiced with a team for a few months prior to the tournament, lost 45 pounds and our team (age bracket 70-74) won the gold medal! So now I have three different sports that I qualified in for the 2023 Nationals.
We saw a photo of you holding a bowling bowl with the “Poop emoji” on it. What’s that about?[Laugh] Poop Happens. My kids gave me that for my birthday a couple years back. We have this tradition on Thanksgiving called the Turkey Tournament and everyone in my family must bowl. At Christmas, it is called the Santa Tournament. My daughter makes up these little trophies out of paper mache that she hands out. The winning team does snow angels on the bowling alley. I have two sons, and when they got married, during the rehearsal dinner, I presented their wives with scented bowling balls on a platform that was wheeled in so that they know they must learn how to bowl if they are going to be in the family.
You were scheduled for table tennis but did not show up. What happened?
What I told everyone after the Senior Games was, ‘You’re looking at the greatest husband in the world.’ I was scheduled for table tennis and corn hole. My wife was back in Birmingham and is handicapped. She fell down and had to be taken to the emergency room, so I got this text message from her that said ‘I need nurturing’ so I drove for 10 hours that day all the way back home. So, I tell people I gave up a gold medal for my wife. [Laugh]
Now that you’ve been to your first National Senior Games, are you going to continue in Pittsburgh?
Oh yes. When I saw how good so many of the table tennis contestants were in Florida, I decided this year to stick to bowling, cornhole and basketball.
I do have something of a Pittsburgh connection. I am president of a pharmaceutical company I formed here in Birmingham, and I also work part-time for Aerospace Corporation. A public pharmaceutical company, Predictive Oncology Inc., acquired my company and one of their main companies is in Pittsburgh. I’ve never gone and visited the company in Pittsburgh, so I’m looking forward to visiting them when I come to compete.
Is your family following your example with sports?
Yes. My children are all in one sport or another. My son-in-law was captain of the basketball team at Saint Andrews where he got his college degree. He’s from the South and so it’s a tradition of course to ask for permission to marry my daughter. One day he comes into the kitchen and says, ‘Mr. DeLucas, I need to ask for your daughter’s hand. Would you give me permission to marry her?’ I replied, ‘Andrew, if you want to marry my daughter there’s only one way I’m gonna let you do it- you have to beat me in a game of horse.’
I have a basketball goal in my driveway. I said, ‘You know it’s my home court, so I’ll let you go first.’ He’s 6’7” right, so he dribbles up, does a 360 and slam dunks it over the back. I said, ‘OK Andrew, do whatever you want with her.’ [Laugh]
Your experiments are cutting edge science. It’s probably complicated, but can you briefly describe a little more about your mission for us?
My experiment was to grow better crystals and bring them back to earth. You expose them to an X-ray beam at a synchrotron and you can determine where every atom is in the protein. It’s important to understand how proteins work in our body or in bacteria or viruses, but it’s also important because once you see where all the atoms are then you can design a little tiny drug to go in and block the action of a protein if it’s causing some disease or important for the replication and spread of a bacteria or a virus. This is the way many of the AIDS drugs were developed. Many new drugs today are developed using a protein’s structure, even to develop vaccines like the COVID vaccine. The structure of a protein, also called the epitope on the surface of the Covid virus was used to design the vaccine.
So structure is very important when you develop drugs. The weightless environment of space often produces higher quality protein crystals, and this leads to more accurate structures. That was the purpose of my protein crystallization experiments, but I also grew semiconductor crystals used for all kinds of electronic purposes.
Another crystal growth experiment is used as one of the final processes to purify gasoline. I also performed several fluid dynamics experiments. Without gravity, everything fluid sticks to surfaces due to surface tension. You can design surfaces that will pull the liquid where it needs to go just by taking advantage of surface tension. So, I performed experiments with all kinds of funny shaped containers and then photographed how the liquid moved along the surfaces.
I also gave eye exams and that was unbelievable. I dilated four crew and when I looked at their retina everyone had petite hemorrhages. When you go to space, the lack of gravity causes a shift of fluid upward increasing pressure in your head and the little retinal capillaries start to leak. After we landed everything was normal again within a day or two, no harm but if you stay there for six months or longer, we have now learned that it causes a permanent loss of astronaut’s peripheral vision, similar to patients who have glaucoma due to excessive intraocular pressure. This has happened to several astronauts that have been up there for extended periods on the International Space Station.
What message do you share with others about your experience?
I think the message they get from me is do something you have a passion for and do it with perseverance. I use the connection to my time in space and just my whole career. It’s a combination of hard work and never giving up. But the first slide in my presentation shows Bob Cousy, the first pro basketball player I met personally. My uncle was a coach in summer camps with Bob, and he brought the whole team to our house. That was fun.
I also talk about some of the roadblocks. I’ll never fly in space again, but I almost didn’t go at all. I was playing basketball two years before I got selected and did something I don’t usually do. I’m only 5’9” but I went in for a rebound and this big guy elbowed me right in the eye and detached my retina. I had an ophthalmologist tack it down with a laser but thought, ‘OK there’s no way I’m getting selected now.’ I was so scared they would kick me out because of a detached retina in my medical report.
Oh my! But you got in anyway.
I got lucky. When I went for that big NASA physical the guy comes in to give me the vision exam and I started to say, ‘I need to tell you…’ He looked at my medical record and said, ‘Larry, you don’t need to say another word. You’re an optometrist. I’m an optometrist, and by God you’re gonna be the first one to fly in space!’ He took this gorgeous photograph of my macula but not the periphery where I had the retinal tear and that’s all the big shot medical guy at NASA ever saw. Can you believe that? [Laugh]
Amazing! What a lucky break came out of that adversity.
My point is that many people probably would have said, ‘I’m not even going to try’ but I just had to. Everyone asked why I studied Optometry at the time I was getting my PhD in a field called crystallography. People had just learned how to use crystallography to determine large protein structures. Because it was so new, only a handful of universities were doing this kind of research. I thought at the time I’m never going to find a job after graduation.
I used to go exercise at the gym and play full court basketball. One night I’m running down the court and I knocked over this older guy. Turned out he was the Dean of the School of Optometry! I helped him up and we talked. I told him what I was doing and that I was thinking of dropping out of Graduate School. He said, ‘Optometry needs someone to understand how the visual system works and all those proteins involved in vision. You go get your PhD degree in crystallography and at the same time go to school to become a Doctor of Optometry and we’ll hire you immediately.’ It just so happened because of my love for basketball, I was lucky there too.