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How setbacks and failures shaped an improbable astronaut

November 16, 2016 at 6:25 PM EST
It's completely improbable that Mike Massimino actually became an astronaut. With a fear of heights, impaired vision and difficulty with swimming, he calls his achievement a miracle, but his is a story of overcoming setbacks. In his new book, “Spaceman,” Massimino details his long and difficult journey. He talks with science correspondent Miles O’Brien.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now some lessons from time spent in space from a man who seemed like a most unlikely candidate to become an astronaut.

Miles O’Brien has a conversation about a most unusual career, part of our weekly series on the Leading Edge of science and technology.

MILES O’BRIEN: Mike Massimino went to low-Earth orbit twice aboard the space shuttle, both times to repair the Hubble space telescope. In his new book, “Spaceman,” he details the long and difficult journey he took to become an astronaut.

So, you’re afraid of heights.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO, Author, “Spaceman”: Yes, I still am. I don’t like this right here, Miles. I’m a little worried.

MILES O’BRIEN: You don’t swim very well.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: No. The hardest thing for me as an astronaut was to improve my swimming skills.

MILES O’BRIEN: Vision was a problem, a real problem.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Imagine being D.Q.ed because I couldn’t see well enough.

MILES O’BRIEN: And you barely got through the program at MIT.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes. Yes. Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, really, it’s completely improbable that you became an astronaut. Right?

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes, yes, absolutely.

MILES O’BRIEN: We met beside the shuttle Enterprise display at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City, his hometown.

It occurs to me, though, that the lessons you learned all along the way, then, dealing — coping and dealing with those setbacks, those failures, the resilience, are exactly what you need to go through to become an astronaut.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Aha. Now we’re getting at something.

I think you’re right, yes. It’s not a question of being the best at something or things coming easy to you, but it’s being a person that can work with others and not give up. And, for me, that was part of it too.

At every step of the way, when I had trouble, there were people that came in, in my life that helped me. It’s important to go seek help when you need it, and to give help when other people need it. And that is really more important than coming in with a gigantic brain into the astronaut program.

MILES O’BRIEN: That’s an important lesson for all of us, I think.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: I think so, especially when doing things that are really hard.

MILES O’BRIEN: It occurs to me that this book, to some degree, it’s about space, but space is almost a backdrop for a completely separate story. Is that the way you view it?

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: I applied to be an astronaut four times. I was rejected three times before I was accepted. So, it’s about that, not — following your dream and not giving up.

MILES O’BRIEN: If you hadn’t persevered and become an astronaut, what would you be doing today?

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes, I would probably be working on my next astronaut application. I think — that’s what I think.

(LAUGHTER)

MILES O’BRIEN: You always made an effort to connect with and try to relate the experience to others.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: But I don’t think I have ever heard any astronaut put words to that experience that really do it justice.

Is it possible to explain especially what it’s like when you’re on an EVA, on a space walk?

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: It’s very emotional.

So, the way I try to describe it is what I was feeling. And viewing our planet was so compelling. Words like beautiful and awesome just don’t do it justice.

I felt that I was looking at a paradise. I was looking at heaven. I can’t imagine any place being more beautiful than our planet and how lucky we are to be able to live here. And that’s what I felt. That’s what I was thinking at the time, which I think is a better way for me to explain it than trying to think of words that don’t exist to explain to people just how beautiful it is.

MILES O’BRIEN: That’s pretty good. Not bad.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Well, thanks.

MILES O’BRIEN: There was a moment on that flight where you might have ruined your stop-and-smell-the-roses moment, and that was when you almost broke the Hubble.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes. We were trying to do a repair of the space telescope imaging spectrograph, but, before we could do that, we had a very easy task, which was to remove a handrail with big bolts on it. But I went and stripped one of those bolts.

So, the solution that came up to take the handrail off was to see if I could just tear it of the telescope. I don’t know if that ever would have crossed my mind. That is so counter to the way we do things. But, luckily, we had smart engineers that thought of it on the ground.

I’m inside the Hubble space telescope doing this million-dollar repair on this billion-dollar telescope.

Houston, you ready for this?

MAN: Yes, we’re ready.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: I grabbed that handrail and gave it a couple of tugs, and, wang, it came right off.

It’s off.

MILES O’BRIEN: Final thought. Think about how fortunate we were to be alive on that day in 1969…

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes. Yes.

MILES O’BRIEN: … they walked to the moon. We were kind of sprinkled with moon dust, our generation.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes, we were very lucky.

MILES O’BRIEN: And it inspired a whole generation of astronauts of your generation.

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Yes. Right.

MILES O’BRIEN: Do you worry that young people today don’t have a similar inspiration?

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: I talk to a lot of high schools students around the country. They still have that same interest, but it’s just different. It’s not like we had.

It’s a way — what was given to us, it’s different. Now we can engage with the astronauts that are in space. I was the first person to tweet from space, but now every astronaut tweets from space and does Instagram and Snapchat and Face — they have Facebook going.

So, I think it’s more of a personal relationship they have with space now. They see it as more obtainable than me watching my superhero Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. It’s like, there’s no way I can do that.

I think it’s more engageable, and it’s just different than what we had. But they still think it’s very, very cool. And I don’t see that interest waning. I see it — I see it as growing.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right, Mike Massimino, thank you very much.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL MASSIMINO: Thanks, Miles.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s a pleasure. Enjoyed it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Online, find a review of “Mars,” a new six-part miniseries that premiered Monday on the National Geographic Channel. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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