Mayo Supporter Leads Research Mission Aboard the ISS
Larry Connor's career might have started in sales, but when asked about his life outside of work, he’s quick to undersell.
"I’ve been fortunate to do some pretty interesting things,” he says.
His definition of “interesting” includes an auto racing career spanning more than 70 wins, summitting two of the world's most significant mountains, exploring the Earth’s deepest ocean trench, and winning aerobatic stunt plane competitions.
The avid aviator has experience piloting more than 16 different aircraft, including F-5 fighter jets and helicopters. His biggest test as a pilot, though, is coming in April 2022. Larry will pilot Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1). It's the first all-civilian private spaceflight to the International Space Station.
And he's bringing Mayo Clinic along for the ride.
"I was very clear when I got involved in this, I had no interest in being a space tourist," Larry says. "I wanted to go there to do worthwhile research. And what better organization than Mayo Clinic to do it with?"
'Go Sell Something'
Larry, a Dayton, Ohio-area entrepreneur and nonprofit investor, graduated with two degrees from Ohio University in 1972. But a neighbor gave him a piece of sage advice — if he wanted to learn about business, "Go sell something."
So, Larry did, starting with cars. From there, he also gathered experiences in a multitude of industries —from travel to restaurant to technology — learning from successes and failures along the way. In 1991, he decided to invest in real estate with a few partners and became successful in that industry as well. In 2003, he bought out his partners to create The Connor Group.
Today, The Connor Group specializes in luxury apartment communities in 16 different markets in the United States, including Minneapolis. Larry also owns two tech companies.
Larry first came to Mayo Clinic when his son was diagnosed with a potentially serious disease while in college. Local physicians suggested going to a center of excellence for the condition, and a friend mentioned connections at Mayo Clinic.
Within days, the Connor family was at Mayo Clinic, where physicians performed a complicated — but successful — surgery.
"I became a lifelong advocate and believer in the Mayo mission and people after that experience," Larry says.
Already giving back through his firm’s nonprofit arm, The Connor Group & Community Partners, Larry took a keen interest in Mayo Clinic's leading-edge research. Larry and his wife, Christine, became Philanthropic Partners, supporting Mayo initiatives to combat problems associated with aging and using regenerative medicine approaches to promote the body's ability to heal from within.
"Larry Connor is a particularly generous individual who is very intelligent," says James Kirkland, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at Mayo Clinic. "I ask him for advice about not only science, but administrative issues."
Dr. Kirkland, who is also the Noaber Foundation Professor of Aging Research, says Larry's nonprofit work helps Mayo Clinic conduct clinical trials that target the fundamental aging processes — the so-called pillars of aging — that appear to be the root cause of multiple diseases, disorders and conditions.
Bringing Medical Research to Space
Larry became interested in space travel in 2014 when American astronauts began using other space programs to reach the International Space Station.
"I thought at the time, wouldn't this be unbelievable? Not only to explore, but to do research,” Larry says.
He found an opportunity with Axiom Space to take part this April in Axiom’s first private mission to the International Space Station. Axiom is building the first commercial space station in low-Earth orbit, with its first module scheduled to dock the ISS in 2024. Larry will be one of four civilians from around the world to take part in the flight.
"I was obviously thrilled to get selected," Larry says. "I was even more thrilled to be designated as the pilot. The way I think about it, it's opportunity. But along with that comes real responsibility."
With that, Larry worked with Mayo Clinic to identify important research projects in the fields of aging and regenerative medicine to conduct in the microgravity environment of space. He'll wear a patch with Mayo Clinic's logo on his sleeve to represent the organization's support of the mission. The patch will represent the first time Mayo Clinic's logo has gone to outer space.
"Larry Connor will contribute to the clinical side by providing information about his own cardiac function. He will also participate as a scientist in the mission by actually taking these humanlike cardiac cells and cultivating them in space," says Andre Terzic, M.D., Ph.D., the Marriott Family Director of the Comprehensive Cardiac Regenerative Medicine Program in the Mayo Clinic Center for Regenerative Medicine. "Larry Connor is one of the pioneers in this space, and we very much cherish his trust in us and our whole team. The excitement is very palpable."
Preparation and Execution
Larry has participated in roughly 1,000 hours of professional astronaut training, as well as Mayo Clinic instruction for the mission’s research component. That preparation, he feels, will contribute to a successful 10-day mission. In addition to the research materials, he's also bringing a few trinkets along with him to space on behalf of others.
"I live in Ohio, the birthplace of aviation. The Wright Brothers National Museum has asked me to take a piece of the actual cloth from the Wright B flyer up there. I'm honored to do that," Larry says. "There's also Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the moon. His museum has asked me to take something, so I'm honored to do that as well."
Additionally, Larry plans to communicate from the International Space Station with a variety of audiences, including students from Dayton Early College Academy, a K-12 school that produces first-generation college graduates.
Larry's hope for how the Ax-1 crew is remembered in this pivotal time in the future of space exploration is simple.
"That we were in a position and had the opportunity to do some things that were truly going to help other people," he says. "And we did it with a commitment — a real belief — that helping other people actually matters."
Eds Note: The individual featured in images was following social distancing guidelines, and in compliance with Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 safety guidelines while unmasked.