Renowned space pioneer dies at age 87

Special Photo. Pioneering medical researcher Dr. David G. Simons died April 5 at the age of 87.

Special Photo. Pioneering medical researcher Dr. David G. Simons died April 5 at the age of 87.

COVINGTON -- Dr. David G. Simons, a Covington man who was a pioneer in space exploration and medical research, died April 5 of congestive heart failure at age 87.

Simons made the cover of Life magazine in 1957, when he became the first person to go to the edge of space. His historic flight happened before NASA, when the U.S. Air Force was heading up space research. A team of doctors, including Simons, studied the effects of cosmic radiation and other hazards of space by using balloons to carry laboratory animals above 99 percent of the atmosphere.

They worked at the Aeromedical Field Laboratory at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and their research eventually included human pilots, becoming known as Project Manhigh.

On Aug. 19, 1957, Simons boarded a sealed capsule attached to a 3-million-cubic-foot polyethylene balloon that was launched from an open-face mine near Crosby, Minn. His solo 36-hour flight set a world record at an altitude of 102,000 feet.

Simons was the first man in history to see the sun rise and set from the edge of space. According to his daughter, Susan Ganstrom, his favorite part of the flight was seeing the curvature of Earth and the stars.

"One thing he instilled in me was a love of stargazing, the constellations, looking at the night sky," she said.

Simons' research confirmed that heavy primary cosmic radiation prohibits manned space flights to Mars.

"I have an incurable disease. I have a pioneering spirit," Simons told the Citizen in a 2008 interview when reflecting on why he said yes to the dangerous flight. "If it's something new, I can't resist the temptation to explore and experience it."

Simons would later bring his pioneering spirit to his medical research to find causes and solutions for myofascial pain. This type of pain is caused by trigger points, sensitive and painful areas between the muscle and fascia, or the soft tissue component of the connective tissue system that interpenetrates and surrounds muscles, bones, organs, nerves, blood vessels and other structures.

Simons co-authored the medical text, "Myofascial Trigger Point Manual," with Dr. Janet Travell, John F. Kennedy's White House physician. It's this research that his daughter believes will be his most lasting legacy.

"He was interested in finding the cause, fixing the underlying problem so people don't have to take pain pills the rest of their lives," said Ganstrom, who decided to become a nurse at age 12 after reading her father's medical books. "When I started nursing 40 years ago, for muscle pain, people got pain pills or surgery, then more pain pills after surgery. Trigger points are basically charley horses. Whether it's TMJ in your jaw or a shoulder that hurts because you fell on it and the muscles were injured or calf pain from running, if you get the muscles to relax and straighten out the pain goes away and you don't need pain pills. He did microscopic research on muscles to find out what would work."

One of the discoveries by Travell and Simons was that alternating cold and heat on injured muscles was beneficial; prior to that, it was thought heat alone was the best treatment.

Simons co-authored five books on the myofascial trigger points, which have been translated into 11 foreign languages.

"He was a very driven man. His work meant everything to him. He was interested in helping people," said Sharon Barker, Simons' assistant for the past 10 years. "He wanted to find out the cause of what was wrong with them. He said, 'Doctors nowadays don't want to do that much work. You come in, they give you a pill to stop the symptom.' He wanted to get to the root of the problem. That's why he was so driven to make people better through his research and through his contacts all over the world."

Simons was known by friends, family and colleagues as a brilliant perfectionist who remained dedicated to his passions even as his health waned.

Often asked to contribute to books authored by other physicians, he spent his last few months writing a chapter for a medical book to be published in Germany. He went through 28 drafts before he was satisfied.

"He was just a brilliant, brilliant man. His mind never stopped working," Barker said. "I would walk in and he would say, 'Fasten your seat belt, I've had this idea.' And I'd say, 'Uh-oh.' And he'd say, 'Well, this one's not too bad.'"

Born in Pennsylvania in 1922, Simons married his high school sweetheart, Mary Heagey Grefe, and graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He served in the Air Force until 1965. He worked for the Veterans Administration from 1965 to 1985, where he pioneered computerized neuromuscular research.

He married Lois Statham and they moved to Covington following his retirement. Statham died in 2004 and Simons married Dr. Carol McMakin.

He continued writing and consulting at the physical therapy department at the University of Georgia, the Emory Department of Rehabilitation Medicine and Georgia State University.

Simons is survived by four children: Susan Ganstrom, Sally Witters, and Scott and Sam Simons.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. May 15, at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Covington. Later his ashes will be spread at his daughter's property in New Mexico, where his children are building retirement homes.

"He wanted to be there because the stars are just beautiful there. They're incredible," said Ganstrom.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to David Simons Memorial Research Fund at Mercer and mailed to Mercer University, Leslie Taylor, PT, PhD, Physical Therapy Program, 3001 Mercer University Drive, Atlanta, GA 30341.