A motorcycle helmet sits on Bagian's desk-he often rides to work from his home in Northville. At fifty-seven, he is trim, casually dressed, and blunt. He rolls his eyes at recent medical jargon like "patient-centered." "What other 'centered' would it be?" he demands. "Income centered? Ego centered?"
Though he finished first in his class at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Bagian scoffs at academic pretensions. His father, a hero World War II fighter pilot, was a pipe fitter in civilian life; his mother was a secretary. Yet his parents are "as sharp as they come," he says. "My father always says respect is earned. If you're not hardworking, you don't deserve respect."
Bagian says he dreamed about being an astronaut as a kid, but concluded at age twelve that his goal was unrealistic. Instead he earned an engineering degree at Drexel, then stayed in the Philadelphia area for medical school at Thomas Jefferson University. He was a senior medical student when, during a hospital work break, he thumbed through an Air Force Reserve magazine and saw a NASA ad recruiting astronauts. He wrote down the phone number on his scrubs, applied-and was shocked to be accepted.
After training in Texas, he was originally assigned to the doomed Challenger mission in 1986. He survived only because the entire crew was switched to a later flight. In the aftermath of the disaster, Bagian, a trained diver, helped in the grisly task of retrieving the remains of the Challenger's crew.