Mike Massimino on tweeting from space and breaking into the Hubble Telescope
By his own admission, Mike Massimino wasn’t the smartest kid in the class. Sold on becoming an astronaut after watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, he overcame academic failures and poor eyesight to achieve his dream.
Over the course of two missions to perform vital repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope, one taking place after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, he spent over 14 hours walking in space and has played a key role in unlocking the secrets of the universe.
THE RED BULLETIN: In your book, Spaceman, you describe standing in a hangar amid the wreckage from Columbia. What’s the importance of preparation in avoiding failures?
MIKE MASSIMINO: What we learned from Columbia was that we’d focused too much on elements such as launch and space walks as the most dangerous parts of the flight, and we’d begun to view re-entry and landing as fairly benign. You have to be vigilant, because you can’t foresee everything that can go wrong. Failures and accidents generally don’t come about because of one thing – more often it’s a collection of little things. Columbia was an avoidable accident.
How much of your success has been down to sheer determination?
Some setbacks do feel like ‘game over’. In graduate school I failed my qualifying exam and failed badly. But I could take it again, even though it seemed unlikely that I’d pass that second time around. Ultimately it was valuable, because if I’d passed first time, I wouldn’t have had to face the challenge of coming back from that failure.
It wasn’t easy, but I discovered I had it in me. The lesson from that is that no matter how bleak it seems, there’s always a crack in the door. Also, it’s important to recognise when you need help and to go and get it – and to give other people help when they need it. I was fortunate to have great mentors, and teachers who believed in me.
We’ve talked about the importance of preparation – but some of that had to go out of the window in your second Hubble mission…
You spend a lot of time imagining what can go wrong then finding a workaround for it. That part of the Hubble hadn’t been designed to be re-opened once it was built. We knew it would be like trying to crack a safe while wearing oven gloves. But you can’t think of every possible thing, so we trained as a team to problem-solve – when we ran up against something unexpected, we knew how to work together to get around it.
You appeared on the TV show The Big Bang Theory – what were you expecting to get out of that?
The writers wanted to send one of the characters up into space and got in touch with NASA, and our public affairs guy put them in touch with me. I went and sat with them and told a few stories – they’re very funny people – then about six months later I got an email from an executive producer asking if I’d do a cameo. I had a couple of lines and it went well, and they asked me back a few more times. I’m probably better known for that than for anything I’ve ever done in space. People think I’m an actor!
Was seeing the Earth from space a profoundly life-changing experience?
The thought that went through my mind was that this must be what the view from heaven looks like. And then I thought, ‘No, this is what heaven must look like.’ I felt like I was looking down on a paradise, and it’s how I still feel about our planet. We’re very lucky to be here and we should enjoy every second of our lives. Becoming an astronaut is like winning the lottery. It’s this impossible thing. But eventually it’s going to end, and after that it’s important to do something that you really love. For me, the opportunity to share what I’ve learned in the space programme through teaching, and inspiring other people to follow their dreams, has made me tremendously happy.