VERGE MEETS: FORMER ASTRONAUT MICHAEL MASSIMINO

Have you ever watched a movie set in space and thought “if I was in that situation I would have totally freaked out by now?”, well we have. Being able to say you’ve visited space for a while and safely returned back to Earth to make a cup of coffee is not something that everyone can do, but luckily for us, we spoke to a man who can!

To celebrate the brilliant new documentary SPACE LAUNCH: AMERICA RETURNS TO SPACE premiering on the 6th June on Discovery Channel, we had a very special opportunity to ask one of our heroes some deep diving questions about exploring the unknown! Former Astronaut Michael Massimino is one of the very few people on the planet that can say whether George Clooney acted out a moonwalk correctly- and what makes it even better is that he’s been sharing his experiences and findings as a Professor at Columbia University, inspiring the next generation of space explorers.

Although we wish we could sit in all of his classes and soak in every moment of his incredible stories, we were so excited to have a few moments to talk with him about what it’s really like training for a NASA space mission and how mindblowing it is to be the first person to send a tweet from the great beyond!

 

We know that the road to becoming an astronaut and professor must have had some twists and turns – how did you realise that you wanted to dedicate your career to space exploration? 

I think what happened to me was when I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, – before that even, the build-up to it, I realised that it was really important what they were doing. And I thought it was the most important thing going on in the world.  And I learned a lot about it.  I went to the library, went to the museums with my parents, and dreamt about being an astronaut. And then I thought it was impossible.  How do you do that?  I kind of forgot about it.  But it never really left me, and I think what it came down to was me just being honest with myself of what I felt was important.  People can tell you what they think is important in life and for the world and there are things that are more important than space exploration in the world by far. But I couldn’t, I knew that for me the most important thing to was exploring space and I wanted to be a part of it.  And if I could do that as an astronaut, great.  If not, I wanted to be someone who was helping other people go.  But I thought the human exploration of space was the coolest thing going on and that’s where I wanted to spend my life.

From working at NASA’s robotics branch and being a spacecraft communicator, to starting up a new path in your career as a professor at Columbia University; what would you say the biggest adjustment was in that stage of your career? 

I think as I described to you, the astronaut job was something I wanted to do for a very long time and then I got a chance to do it. I could have kept doing it as the possibility to fly again was there and I decided not to, I decided to stop. I think that was what was so tough for me going through that time because it was a childhood dream and how could you give up your childhood dream?  I then started to think “I’m still trying to figure this out”, and I didn’t give up my childhood dream, I just moved on to another one. I think it’s important to have dreams and I think it’s important to go from one dream to the next and I think that’s what I decided to do. 

But it was a hard decision because so many people want to do that job, Drew Feustel is one of my best friends and I talk to him pretty regularly and he’s still in there. I flew in space with him, and he’s still an active astronaut and he was telling me how they’re getting ready to pick another group and they’ve got like 13,000 applications where they’re going to pick about 12 people, and I think “Oh, my, how the heck did I ever get in there?”! I said to him, “how the hell did we ever get in this thing?” and then I say, “you’ve got to really be careful about giving that up”. I mean it’s like you win the lottery and then you feel like you’re giving the money back if you leave.  But it’s not true, you did win the lottery and you have a lot of those experiences; and I think in my case, I wanted to share that in the next phase of my life.  I did it for 18 years and luckily I got in – it seemed like a long way to get in, but I got in when I was 33 years old which is still fairly young. I was in my early 50s when I left and so I still had a few years left to maybe fly in space. That’s why it was so tough I think because it was a lifelong dream and then you get it beyond your expectations and you’re like “I’m going to give this up now”, but I felt like it was time. I didn’t want to feel like I was giving up an opportunity – I got to fly a couple of times.  It was so tough to leave but it was the right thing to do and I’m now glad I did it. 

 You are one of the few people on the planet that can describe what a spacewalk is actually like – what was going through your head during that experience? 

It’s a mix of emotions and thoughts; primarily you’re trying to stick to business and we have really complicated spacewalks on Hubble and that’s all I knew.  When I was assigned to Hubble, I was the first rookie ever given a spacewalking job- it had always been the guys who had spacewalked before or people who had flown in space before, but I was the very first person who had never flown in space who was tasked with spacewalking on Hubble. It was pretty intense and we were doing really complex and challenging tasks out there because it was jam-packed with stuff to do and you had to be really careful with everything.  And so that’s your main job; it is like, “Hey, I’m given this opportunity, I don’t want to mess it up. I want to try to do the best I can,” so that’s what I was trying to do, just concentrate on the job at hand.  But on the other side of it, every time you look over your shoulder, you’re seeing the most magnificent thing you’ve ever seen in your life.

Looking at the earth through the window of the spacecraft is beautiful, but to not have the window frame your view to be at our altitude and be able to see the curvature of the planet and look anywhere you want out there is just extraordinary and that is the life experience you don’t want to miss.  So it was just kind of a combination of staying focused on the job of repairing the telescope but also making sure that you had time and moments to just look around and appreciate where you were.

 We’ve all seen the movies on astronauts training for missions, but can you give us a real life insight on what it’s actually like mentally and physically to train for these missions? 

There is a lot of things and it’s not like any one of them is more difficult, but I think it’s the combination of all the different things you need to be able to do.  You need to be familiar with the systems, you need to be able to be proficient at least co-piloting aircraft, you need to be able to spacewalk, you need to be able to work the robot arm and you need to be able to converse with press.  You have a lot of things that some of us are good at and some of us are good at other things, but you have to be at least reasonably okay at all of them. You get a lot of help from your friends so it’s like going to school; there are some things you’re going to be good at and some things you’re going to need extra help with. I think the most challenging thing is that there is just so much of it and it’s hard to keep up with it all. You try to decide “well, I really need to understand this spacewalk more than I need to understand the entry procedure, so I’m going to concentrate on that right now” but no, now I got to figure out how we can contribute on the flight deck and entry and oh, we’ve got to set up this, so you’re just trying to manage all of it. The training is great, but you always you want a comfort level where you feel like you’re good at everything or at least good enough that you’re not going to hold back the team. So that was just I think all the things you need to be – all the things you’re responsible for and all the different types of things in different areas that you need to be able to perform in.

You will forever go down in history for being the first person to use Twitter in space! How did it feel sending that tweet whilst looking down at Earth? 

I was really happy to do it as I enjoyed communicating the job and I think that I was more inclined and suited for it than most of my colleagues. When Twitter came along, I had heard about it but I didn’t know anything about it… I mean sort of knew what it was.  But when it became popular, we were training for a flight so I wasn’t paying attention but NASA was, and they thought it would mean something to have a person send the first tweet. They thought I would be the right guy and my commander agreed that that would be okay so I had a chance to do that. What I thought was great about it was that it gave me a chance to share my experiences with lots of people who were interested, and it didn’t take up all that much time as you can get a tweet out relatively quickly. So, I thought it was an ideal way to communicate experiences to people.

Can you tell us what living on a spacecraft is actually like? Is there anything you preferred out there than down here? 

The view out the window, that was really good.  Everything is different and sleeping was fine, but I really enjoyed everything.  The only thing you had to get a little more getting used to was the toilet, but even that you get used to eventually as it’s not so bad but I definitely prefer my toilet on Earth. Other than that part everything was better I thought; food preparation was easy, the view was great, exercise, everything is kind of more fun in space and different.

When writing your book “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe”, which turned out to be a New York Times bestseller, what did you have the most fun reflecting on? 

I think the spacewalks, the launches, and all of those experiences- I also think the path to becoming an astronaut.  I had kind of forgotten a lot of that stuff, I mean I remembered it all, but once I became an astronaut, I didn’t dwell so much on how I got there. I think when I started I had a co-writer help me with the book, and I didn’t have any notes or anything so it all came from my memories. We went through things that had happened as I remembered them, and I started realising how difficult it was to become an astronaut and how lucky I was to get that opportunity.  And so, I think for me, that was probably one of the more interesting parts of it was like, wow, all of these things that had happened! I got disqualified, I got rejected three times, I was disqualified for my eyesight. Back then, they didn’t accept LASIK and it wouldn’t have been an issue at all now, but this was 25 years ago. You had to have fairly well uncorrected vision and I that was it, I was disqualified. But when I decided I was going to figure out a way to see better and I went to some vision training to teach my eyes and my brain to see better, which was not an easy thing to accomplish, I was able to improve my vision a little bit. I hadn’t really talked about that in 20 years so when I was writing the book I started thinking “holy cow, I’m going through graduate school and I failed my qualifying exam at MIT”, like reliving all those moments it kind of turned into what I wanted the book was going to be about- It became more of an inspirational never give up theme.  And then I realised that going through all of that is what really helped me as an astronaut because things don’t all of a sudden get easier, that’s where the hard work really begins- you have to keep that same attitude that got you to that point to be successful after you get there.

You’ve shared your experiences on multiple television talk shows, news programs and even played yourself on iconic shows such as The Big Bang Theory, what is the most important message you want to spread regarding your time as an astronaut? 

 I think one is that dreams do come true, but you have to try.  Nothing’s impossible, things are just unlikely and the only things that are impossible are things you never tried to do or things that you give up. Try and don’t give up if you’re pursuing a dream because it can happen. I think another thing is that we share the same planet no matter where we’re from or who we are. We all have the same home and we’re in this thing together, and we live in a paradise. We’re very lucky to be here.

You may get this question a lot but what is your favourite space-themed movie and why? 

The Right Stuff.  I saw that when I was a senior in my last year of college, and  I hadn’t really thought about being a part of the space programme yet, even though I was always interested and I thought it was cool. When I went to see that movie it rekindled my interest in becoming an astronaut and it changed my life. I immediately went out and got the book, and I got the movie when it came out on VCR – we didn’t have DVDs back then so I taped it and I watched it over and over again. I’ve seen that movie probably 200 times.  I flew with it in space as well and I become friends of very good friends with Caleb Deschanel, who is a cinematographer for that movie. I got to meet Tom Wolfe too, the writer of the book.   I still watch it every once in a while, I own a copy on Amazon and I still have a copy of the DVD. 

We ask this to many people we interview but we feel like this may be especially hard for you to answer! If you had to pick a career highlight so far what would it be? 

It wouldn’t be that hard, it was EVA4 on my second mission of repairing the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph on Hubble, the most complicated spacewalk ever attempted. We ran into some troubles that I created with the mistake, but really wasn’t my fault. As it turned out, it was a problem with the way the screw was inserted.  But still, it was a mistake that I had felt like I was responsible for and then the team came together and saved the day with one of the longest spacewalks ever- we simply hung in there and got it done. Running into trouble and overcoming that, that’s a height – I’ll never top that in my life no matter what I do- I can win a Nobel Prize, I can become President of the United States but I don’t think anything will feel as good. I’m very, very happy that I had a chance to do that.

Now for a fairly cliché question but it has to be asked; If you could explore any planet in our solar system which would you pick and why? 

I think the Moon… well, that’s a moon, not a planet, but I think the obvious answer maybe is from what we know about it and we can get feet on the ground there and walk around. I think we can learn a lot about the formation of our planet and the solar system from the moon.  We could dig a little bit underneath and see what’s there, take samples, understand a lot about the space environment.  It’s far away, but it’s not impossible to get to so I think that that would be the place to go and explore.  It would be extraordinary to be able to walk around and explore more so that would be the next place to go that we know of right now. I’m sure there are better places to go, but right now that’s where I think we have our sights set.

You have spent a total of just over 23 days in space, what was spending all that time so distant from the world below you like? 

There are certain things you miss; I think just like the pandemic we’ve been going through there are certain things you miss.  I missed being around a lot of people, I missed being at big events like my kid’s swim meets and going to baseball games, just like we miss these things now. I missed my family, some of my friends although I did have some of my best friends with me. But the positive part of it was that it was just extraordinary, getting that opportunity to fly in space to view our planet and to work on the Hubble Space Telescope was an opportunity of a lifetime that I never would have expected to ever have. So, it was absolutely extraordinary.

Do you have any advice for anyone who would want to get into a career in space exploration? 

I think if that’s what you’re interested in you need to pursue it. You have to pursue it, and always think about what you can do to contribute.  Some people are journalists, and if you’re interested in space, you can write about space. If you’re interested in actually going right now it’s still primarily people who have a background in science, engineering, math, and military or pilots that get to- look at the careers of the current astronauts. I think in the not too distant future we’re going to be looking at filmmakers, journalists, and photographers to go to space- so whatever your passion is, pursue it, and see how you can apply it to space travel.

Be sure to check out the premiere of  SPACE LAUNCH: AMERICA RETURNS TO SPACE with NASA and SpaceX at 8pm Saturday 6th June on Discovery Channel!