Astronaut & Author Mike Massimino

The astronaut and author talks about his unique path to space which he details in his memoir Spaceman.

Astronaut Mike Massimino grew up a working class kid whose seemingly unreachable dream of going to space were realized in an unlikely journey that was driven by determination and commitment and realized with hard work and humor. He shares his unique experiences in a new memoir, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. Massimino was the first person to tweet from space, and he continues to share his insight with his 1.3 million Twitter followers. After two missions to the Hubble Telescope and four space walks to make critical repairs to the telescope, Mike Massimino is now the Senior Space Advisor to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and teaches engineering at Columbia University, his Alma Mater.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Mike Massimino’s childhood fascination with space was born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey was an unlikely one. He was rejected not once, not twice, but three times by NASA before finally making the cut.

Today he is the closest thing his generation has to an Armstrong. He joins us to talk about his new memoir. It’s called “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe”. Mike Massimino, an honor to have you on this program.

Mike Massimino: Oh, it’s an honor to be here, Tavis. Thanks for having me.

Tavis: I was laughing when I saw that you got rejected not once, not twice, but three times. And then what was even funnier than that is that you have a fear of heights [laugh].

Massimino: Yes [laugh]. Yep, yeah.

Tavis: With all that, why be an astronaut, man?

Massimino: Well, it was a dream I had when I was a little boy. You know, for some of those reasons you mentioned like being afraid of heights and being a little bit awkward and not seeing myself as exactly being Neil Armstrong growing up, it was something that I didn’t really think much about until I got older.

And then I realized that all kinds of people can become astronauts. You didn’t have to be a fearless test pilot. You could be a Ph.D. or an engineer, a scientist, a medical doctor. You know, that’s what the astronauts were at the time of the shuttle program. So it gave me a little hope and I decided to give it a try.

Tavis: I can think of any number of reasons to lose hope when you’ve been rejected for anything in life three times, but there’s a lesson in this book that is so, I think, powerful about the simple notion of just not giving up. It’s really not that simple, but this notion of never giving up. Tell me what kept you interested, what kept you applying and going when those rejection letters kept coming.

Massimino: I knew what I was trying to do was near impossible, Tavis. I knew that it was the job I wanted more than anything as I found more out about the job, as I met astronauts. I went through grad school at MIT and was working at NASA in the summer. I realized that this was the greatest job in the world for me, but I also knew it was going to be impossible to get.

So I realized that the only thing I could control was the effort. You know, I could try my best. I could keep asking, keep applying and, no matter what, I wanted to keep trying. And the thought of giving up to me was worse than the thought of being rejected. I could live with being rejected. I don’t think I could have lived with giving up.

But as long as–you know, if you look at the probability, your .0, what’s your probability? .000? A lot of zeroes and there’s a one at the end, Tavis, you know. As long as there’s a one at the end, I said that’s good enough [laugh]. But if I gave up, that one would have been a zero and it would have been no way to that. So I just wanted to keep trying.

Tavis: So that juxtaposition really fascinates me because I think your story is not unlike the story or at least the journey or the reality that many young people feel that they face in their own lives, that there’s something they really want to do more than anything else in the world, but they really can’t see a path there. They don’t think that achieving it is possible, even though they believe they were meant and born to do it.

Massimino: Exactly right, and that’s the way I felt about it. I think a lot of people feel that way and it’s easy to get discouraged because, you know, you start trying. You start these little steps and then you might not even make those little steps. You might get knocked down before you make those little steps. You might go to school and find out you’re not doing well in school. It happened to me.

I talk about it in the book. It was not an easy sailing. Even when I was in high school or undergrad and certainly in graduate school, even beyond that, you just keep getting knocked down because you’re trying to do something that’s important to you. It’s not gonna be smooth sailing.

What I found in meeting successful people, they’re not successful because they never failed. They’re successful because they never let failure stop them. That’s another reason I why think it’s important to find out what you really love.

If something is your passion and you get knocked down, if it’s your passion, more likely you’re gonna get up and continue to do it. If you’re lukewarm about it or you don’t care and, all of a sudden, you get some adversity, you’re more likely to give it up.

But if it’s something you’re really sincerely interested in, I think that’s important. I think you’ve got to be honest with yourself and I think that helps give you the resilience to keep going when you get knocked down.

Tavis: So you stay committed. Fast forward a few years, you end up making history as the first person to tweet from outer space.

Massimino: Yeah, there you go [laugh]. It all worked out. All that hard work and trying paid off.

Tavis: What was that first tweet?

Massimino: That first tweet was “Launch was awesome. The adventure of a lifetime has begun. I’m feeling fine and enjoying the views.” That was a mixture of a few different thoughts that was the first tweet from space. They made fun of me on Saturday Night Live about that tweet. I thought that was okay, though, because my kids finally paid attention to me being in space.

You know, my kids were very happy I was off the planet and they weren’t answering my email. But once they made fun of me on Saturday Night Live, they sent me an email. I was very grateful for that. So that’s the story of the first tweet from space.

Tavis: Speaking of your journey out there, so this telescope that you were working on, we had previously thought that it was sort of–this is my word–unrepairable. And you went out there and you fixed that thing anyway.

Massimino: Well, there was a series of five servicing missions in total and I was on the last two. And we got more and more bold as we did our repair work to the telescope. One of the instruments that I worked on in my mission, the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, is this wonderful instrument that wasn’t working any longer and there was no replacement for it.

So the only option we had was to try to take this apart, which was never meant to be done in space. In NASA, what we did working with the engineers, we were able to devise new tools and techniques to be able to take this instrument apart in space. It had over 100 small screws and we couldn’t lose any of these screws and washers.

And we had to contain all this debris working inside of the telescope and replace its power supply. It’s a good thing we did because Hubble is continuing to make some great discoveries. Just a couple of weeks ago, this instrument that we repaired is the instrument that’s responsible for discovering the evidence of water on one of the moons of Jupiter on Europa.

So I got a note from one of my buddies that said, “Man, it’s a good thing we didn’t break it.” We weren’t so sure in that repairing that. The discussion in the book, we had some trouble with that repair. I had to actually break a handrail off of the telescope because I stripped a screw. But we were able to do that to get inside of the instrument and fix it.

But what Hubble has shown, you know, when it first launched, it didn’t work that well, but they were able to come up with a fix. Its mirror had an imperfection in it, so it wasn’t seeing clearly and they were able to come up with a correction for that. I think it shows the resilience of what people can do in space.

You know, the idea of just sending a spacecraft out there and hoping it works, that’s one thing. But if you can have people involved, people on the spot still have a lot of value and that’s what the astronauts and our support team was able to accomplish on those missions.

Tavis: And yet one is hard pressed to believe that that’s the direction that we’re still going in. Because when you look at what’s happening to NASA and unmanned spacecraft, etc., etc., I think what you’re saying makes sense to me, but is that where we’re headed? Or have we thrown in the towel on that?

Massimino: No, I don’t think we have. We still have people on the International Space Station. I think the ambitions that we had as a country after the Apollo missions, which inspired me, seeing people walk on the moon, and the ambition we had was, well, we’re going to go to Mars.

Well, we still haven’t gotten to Mars and I think what’s happened is, because of other reasons, it’s become difficult for our country to afford to send people to Mars. I think our great hope right now, Tavis, is that we have these private companies, some of these commercial companies, that are interested in trying to do these things as well.

And I think with combination of the private companies who are smart about doing their work and have this good leadership, the entrepreneurs that want to do these things, the knowledge we have at NASA, the resources we have at NASA plus the international community like we have displayed on the International Space Station, we can work with Russia. We can work with the countries of Europe, Japan and Canada.

There’s other countries out there I think we should work with as well. I think that’s when we’re going to get going to places like Mars. I think there’s always gonna be a role for robotic missions, but I think we want to continue to send people places too.

Tavis: Let me just play devil’s advocate.

Massimino: Go.

Tavis: I’m not even sure I believe this. I’m just pressing.

Massimino: That’s fine. Go.

Tavis: So I have nothing against Sir Richard Branson or Elon Musk. I just wonder whether or not money is the proper motivator because that’s not what motivated Kennedy and NASA, etc. You take my point.

Massimino: Yeah, I see your point. I agree with you. I don’t think money–I don’t know if those guys are actually all motivated by money. You know, one of the guys I spoke to is Jeff Bezos who’s the Amazon guy. He’s got a company called Blue Origin. He is a bigger space nut than I am–well, maybe not. About even with me, I would say…

Tavis: I doubt that, yeah [laugh].

Massimino: He’s not as big a space nut as I am, but he is a space nut. His goal is to try to open up the opportunity to fly in space to more people and he wants to make it affordable. Now they also want to make money on it, but I think that’s okay. I think that, in the essence of it, what really is going to drive us is that we do want to explore.

There are economic benefits that you can point to in today’s space program, that it develops technology that can be used in other areas. International cooperation. You know, we can’t along on a lot of things with other countries, but when you have a scientific goal in common, you can attack it in inspiring young people. I think these are all things that come as benefits.

But really what we’re trying to do, I think, Tavis, is we’re trying to see what’s around the corner. Answer the big questions. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is our place in the universe? How much is out there? Hubble just found out earlier this week, it was announced there’s 10 times as many galaxies in the universe that we thought were there, all right?

So now there’s evidence that there’s many more galaxies, 10 times as many as we thought, and we’re discovering all these new things. You know, we think we’re so smart, but we’re not. There’s a lot of unanswered questions out there.

I think that’s gonna be the underlying motivation, but it might take commercial–look at commercial airplane travel. It really has done a lot because people have figured out a way to make money on it. I think that’s fine, but I think at the core it’s still gonna be we do it because we want to explore.

Tavis: Speaking of telescopes, everybody got a kick out it. I certainly did. Your Snoopy…

Massimino: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: Your Snoopy in outer space. Not just the Snoopy thing, but just the photos. I mean, when you were up there, you sent back some really fun stuff to look at.

Massimino: Tavis, when you’re getting a chance to fly in space which is one of the reasons I want to write the book, and we talked about the journey to it that’s unlikely and you’re not giving up, but also just the wonder of flying up there. It is just an extraordinary experience. I think it’s the greatest thing.

I recommend it for you. I think you would love it. I think it is the most extraordinary thing that people can do. You get above the atmosphere, you can see the stars, the perfect points of light. You can see the universe in front of you and you can look back and see our planet. It’s unbelievable.

Tavis: Is it Cuba or North Korea or South Korea?

Massimino: The dark! They stay dark…

Tavis: North Korea.

Massimino: Blackouts, yeah.

Tavis: They stay dark all the time.

Massimino: You know, when I first got to space, I wanted to look out the window during the day so I could see stuff. And then going into nighttime, every 45 minutes you’re getting a change. 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a 24-hour period, and we’d come into dark and I’d go, oh, there’s nothing to see. It’s night out. They turn off the lights, you know.

But then I started to hang around the window when I could at nighttime, and it becomes this magical place. And you see things like the stars, the perfect points of light and the constellations. You see shooting stars coming into the earth. You see lightning storms lighting up the clouds below. You can see the veins in the clouds and you can see not just one lightning strike, but many of them communicating.

And you can see the city lights. The United States looks like a Christmas tree, right? You’ve got the east and west coast and Chicago and down in Texas. The big cities are all lit up. The rest of the world, there are some places that are lit up, but there are some places that it looks like a blackout.

You know, Cuba, get ready to get lit up because right now it looks a little dark, but hopefully pretty soon, they’re gonna be lit up just like a lot of other cities are.

Tavis: The new book from Mike Massimino is called “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe”. And the same enthusiasm you hear him express on the show tonight is the way the book is written, so I think you’ll enjoy it. Mike, congratulations. Good to have you on.

Massimino: Tavis, thanks. It’s really been a pleasure.

Tavis: My pleasure, my friend.

Massimino: Thanks so much for having me.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm