Mike Massimino
The Unlikely Astronaut

Like every kid who witnessed the black and white footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping onto the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, Mike Massimino watched and dreamt of one day becoming an astronaut himself.

It was an unlikely ambition for anyone, but the odds were unfairly stacked against Massimino from the start. He was a working class boy from Long Island, who suffered from a fear of heights and had difficulty learning to swim. After studying mechanical engineering at MIT he applied for NASA’s astronaut program and was promptly rejected not once but three times, failing on the third occasion due to his impaired eyesight. This may have been the point at which most people would decide to give up for good, but instead Massimino trained his eyes to improve and was at last accepted by NASA on his fourth attempt.

In 2002 he was blasted into space on the 108th mission of the Space Shuttle program, and then again in 2009 as part of the final mission to the Hubble Space Telescope which was fittingly tasked with repairing the “eyes” of the telescope that was “slowly going blind.” In his new book Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe Massimino writes movingly about how he felt seeing the curvature of the Earth from space for the first time, as well as his long struggle to get there.

These days Massimino enjoys a quieter life, teaching mechanical engineering at Columbia University. But at aged 54 he seems restless for adventure and has admitted to hopes of leaving Earth’s atmosphere at least one more time. Perhaps this is partly why he follows the efforts of private spaceflight companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin so closely, waiting for the day when he can book his ticket back to space.

How important do you think the idea of space exploration is to the public?

I think there’s a huge appetite for it. People see it in the movies and on television, and social media has been huge. I was the first person to Tweet from space and now all the astronauts are doing it. It’s a great way to share their experience and it’s opened up the possibility of everyone being involved at some level.

Let’s talk a bit about emerging super powers like India and China and their space exploration intentions. What do you think is in their sights for the future?

I think they want to explore and send their people into space for the benefit of their citizens and the benefit of the world. I think they probably have similar goals to all the space faring countries and I’d like to see us work together in the future. The US has worked with lots of countries on the international space station, Russia, countries from Europe, Canada, and Japan, and hopefully we’ll get the chance to cooperate with more countries. I think we all share a common hope that by exploring we’ll find out more about other planets, and our planet, and improve life on earth, inspire young people, come up with new innovations, and help with economic development and entrepreneurism. So I think we all have the same goals, I really do.

Is space exploration falling more into the hands of private entities these days, or would you say that it’s a relationship between the governments and private companies?

I do think it’s more of a relationship. The private companies still look to governments to help fund them, for example SpaceX and Boeing are creating commercial space crafts that will be used to carry citizens to space, but it will also be used to carry astronauts. It’s a co-operative effort, so it’s a bit of a different partnership to the government paying a contractor to build a spaceship for their use only.

It would seem like even in the field of space exploration that message of collaboration is more pertinent than ever. It’s no longer like the space race of the 60s but instead we’re all working together.

Yeah we’re trying to co-operate more, especially with the open source part of it. The US government tries to share its technology, primarily with the companies they’re working with, but certainly there’s a lot of information there available to the public. I think that’s what we have to do because it’s getting too expensive and too hard for people to do it on their own.

What do you think will be the effect of Trump becoming president? Does this mean a halt on progress or innovation?

We don’t know yet. I don’t know what his position is going to be but I would expect us to continue doing what we’re doing.

Obama was certainly supportive. He had a lot of things on his plate when he became president and as time went on he became more endeared to NASA. He called us while I was in space and we spoke to him on the phone. Many astronauts have visited him in the oval office, so he’s been very supportive. It’s a good program and it’s really well supported across party lines no matter who is president, or who’s in congress. Generally the space program is at least taken care of so that it can sustain its progress.

"Leaving the planet is unlike anything else...you realise that we’re very lucky, that we’re living in a paradise."

Astronaut Mike Massimino

For someone like me who doesn’t even like to be on a roller-coaster, how do you explain the feeling of being blasted into space to potential space tourists?

I think the deal with these trips is that they’re going to have some training to let them know what they are in store for. But you can only train so much before you’ve got to go, and leaving the planet is unlike anything else. There’s no simulation that can get you used to it. It’s just amazing. The amount of power needed to get you off the planet is unlike anything else that you can experience.

Did that experience of being in space change you at all as a person?

The opportunity to launch into space, to be on top of a rocket and feel that power is incredible. It’s amazing that people can build something that powerful. Then to be up in space and view our planet, and see its beauty. . . you realise that we’re very lucky, that we’re living in a paradise. We were a bit higher than the space station, Hubble goes about 100 mile higher and we could see the curve of the earth, see it as a gigantic globe. . . there are really no words to describe it.

Do you have more of an appreciation for the environment and the discussions going on about climate change because of your experiences?

My impression was just the pure beauty of the Earth, how fragile it is, and how harsh space is. What’s protecting us is our atmosphere and we need to take care of it because if we don’t then we’re in trouble, so yeah I guess it’s made me appreciate how important it is for us to take care of our planet.

What do you think of people like Elon Musk with their own intentions of leaving Earth?

I think those guys are great. Elon Musk is very credible. He’s done some great things, he’s taken cargo to the international space station, and they have had some incredible technology demonstrations. He and also Jeff Bezos with his company Blue Origin, have done some amazing work. They are able to turn their rockets back to Earth and land them on a platform in the middle of the ocean. That precision is just unbelievable. So I think they’re very credible. They’ve had a series of successes in their projects, they’re serious entrepreneurs and serious people. When they set out to do something they do it. I think it’s great that these types of people are setting their sights on space exploration.

One of the things I’ve taken away from this conferences we’re at Web Summit is that with technology these days we can dream big.

Absolutely. That’s the only way to get it done. I think what’s exciting about the space program now is that it’s not just the government. We made a big step going from just individual countries doing things to working together on the international space station. Now the next thing that’s starting to develop are partnerships between governments and private companies and that’s going to be very exciting.

What are NASA’s long term plans now? What would they like to do over the next few decades?

Well the study of Mars is going to continue with rovers and other space crafts. They’ll be exploring our solar system from the various observatories they have. The study of the universe will continue with the Hubble Space Telescope and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, and they’re even starting to plan the follow on to the James Webb Telescope. The Juno mission and the mission to Jupiter a year and a half ago is another example of what they’re doing. So these types of programs will still be going on.

In terms of programs sending men and women to space, I think we’ll continue with the space station programme. Right now we launch with the Russians but I think in addition to that we’d like to launch from the US and partner with Space X and Boeing to develop a space craft to do that. We’re getting close to that now. In the next year or two I think we’ll be seeing astronauts launching from the US.

Really NASA is working on continuing the exploration of the solar system and the universe. They’re also working on getting a commercial crew vehicle to the space station and as they turn more of that over to private enterprises we’re looking to go beyond lower orbit.

Do you think that taking humans to Mars is something that is realistic in the next couple of decades?

It certainly is realistic that we’ll be taking humans to mars in the next couple of decades. It’s been realistic for a long time. NASA has studied this and they know a lot about it. The reason the movie The Martian was pretty technically solid is because they got a lot of help from NASA. They’ve been looking at going to Mars for a long time, but they just haven’t had the funding needed to take a team there and bring them back. I think what’s hopeful is that these entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are starting to talk about going. These are incredible people and they’ve set their sights on doing it, so that increases our chances of making it happen. It will happen eventually. It’s always been a question of when.

Launch of STS-125 space shuttle Atlantis from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2009, Hubble’s last repair mission.

We spoke to the scientist Chris Impey recently and one of the messages is that the idea of space exploration is in our genes. Would you say that venturing into space is something that humans are almost destined to do?

Yeah I do think so in some way. Curiosity, trying to understand what we’re about, how things work, what our place is in the universe. We’ve answered a lot of questions about our planet and we still have a long way to go, but a lot of the answers to what we want to find out lies beyond our planet. Is there anyone else out there? I do think there is life on other planets. We haven’t found anything yet but we have to keep looking and I think eventually we will find some sign of life.

You’ve written this book, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Sure, it’s a memoir. It talks about my journey to become an astronaut and the message really is that when you have a dream it’s important not to give up. I was rejected three times before I was accepted by NASA. The third time I failed my eye exam and was disqualified, but I was able to teach myself to see better.

"I do think there is life on other planets."

Astronaut Mike Massimino on life outside of earth

How did you do that?

Vision training. Nowadays they accept you having procedures to do that but back then they didn’t. I was able to overcome that, and then I was only eligible to apply again, I still had to go through the whole process. So the book is about that idea of having something that is near impossible to achieve and not giving up, and also about how cool space is.

What’s the most difficult part of being an astronaut? Is there something that separates people like you from the masses?

I think the hardest thing about being an astronaut is becoming one. There are a lot of people that want to do it and there are so few spots, so the hardest thing is getting in. Once you’re in you get trained up and you may have trouble with certain things because everyone has trouble with some things they’re not so naturally good at, but you help each other though it as a team.

What movies would you say get space exploration right?

The Right Stuff is a great movie, originally a book by Tom Wolfe that was made into a film in the eighties. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 is pretty factual about what it was like in Mission Control. And although it hasn’t happened yet The Martian got a lot of stuff right. There were a few things that were a little bit off but I think it was a pretty good window into something that could actually happen. So those were great. I also thought Gravity and Interstellar were great.

Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
is out now on Simon & Schuster