Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe - Mike Massimino (2016)
Part III. The Real Right Stuff
Chapter 9. THERE’S MACH 1
Life changes fast when you become an astronaut. On the day NASA called and offered me the job, I was a university professor who spent his days in front of a chalkboard lecturing a roomful of nineteen-year-old engineering students. Six months later I was breaking the sound barrier in the backseat of a twin-engine supersonic jet.
After getting the call and wrapping up my final semester of classes, at the end of July we packed up and drove home to our house in Texas, waiting for us right where we’d left it. When we pulled into the old neighborhood and up our street, Steve Smith, our astronaut neighbor, had decorated our yard with American flags and streamers and a bunch of signs, which was great. One week later, on August 12, 1996, I reported to the Johnson Space Center for work as an astronaut candidate, or ASCAN. I drove up to the north entrance and flashed my badge, and the guard waved me through. It was the best feeling in the world.
The first week or so was mostly orientation, getting an office, filling out paperwork. NASA put on a couple of social events and mixers for everybody to get to know everybody, which we needed: We were the largest astronaut class in the history of the space program, forty-four of us, thirty-five Americans and nine internationals. Every astronaut class gets a nickname. The original Mercury guys were “the Original Seven,” and the second group of nine were called, rather imaginatively, “the New Nine.” Once the shuttle era came, the names got more creative: the Maggots, the Hairballs, the Flying Escargot. The astronaut office takes up the entire sixth floor of Building 4 at the Johnson Space Center. The class before us had fifteen people, and space was already tight. Then they had to cram all of us in there. They called us “the Sardines.”
Once we arrived, NASA didn’t waste any time getting us in the air. Shuttle astronauts fall into two groups, pilots and mission specialists. I was a mission specialist. All mission specialists are trained to fly as backseaters, copilots. It’s spaceflight-readiness training. The different shuttle simulators are great, but they’re not real. Flying a high-performance jet is as real as it gets. You’re controlling a real airplane, working with a real pilot, experiencing real nausea and real turbulence and real gut-dropping, nerve-racking, panic-inducing situations. It trains your mind and your body to feel, react to, and deal with how physically and mentally demanding spaceflight is going to be.
On the first day they measured us for our flight suits. Military pilots wear green flight suits. Astronauts wear blue. The suit comes with the American flag on the left shoulder and the NASA logo on the right breast. Most important, it’s got your astronaut’s wings. You can get white, silver, or gold. Most civilians get white. I ordered gold. They took a mold of my head for my helmet, traced an outline of my feet for my custom boots. Black or brown? Lace-ups or buckles? Everything is custom fit. They also give you custom leather/Nomex gloves and a watch, a Casio Illuminator on a black rubber wristband with a small NASA insignia, informally called the meatball, on the dial. Then you top it off with the cool sunglasses, Randolph aviators, standard military issue, with straight-back frames with no hook so you can slide them on and off while wearing your helmet—the same ones worn by the pilots in The Right Stuff. You can get your call sign printed on your helmet if you want, like you see in Top Gun, with guys like “Maverick” and “Goose” and “Ice Man.” When I was a kid in school, a lot of kids didn’t even know my real name was Mike. Everyone called me “Mass.” Then, at grad school and McDonnell Douglas, nobody called me that anymore. The name just went away. But once I became an astronaut people started calling me Mass again. It fit. Soon it was the only thing people called me, and that became my call sign, mass, printed on my helmet.
To get us ready to fly, NASA shipped us out to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida, for water and land survival training. Then we were off to Vance Air Force Base for parachute training in Enid, Oklahoma, before heading back to Houston for three weeks of ground school, where we learned the aircraft systems, navigation, FAA regulations, how to deal with inclement weather, flight plans—everything we needed to know to assist the frontseater in flying the jet.
Flight operations for the Johnson Space Center were done out of Ellington Field, which is ten miles up the road going toward Houston. NASA has its own facilities there, a two-story office building attached to hangars for our planes: the WB-57 high-altitude research airplane, the shuttle training aircraft, the KC-135A zero-gravity airplane—the famous “Vomit Comet”—and our fleet of T-38s. Astronauts do our spaceflight-readiness training in the T-38, a two-seat, twin-engine supersonic jet. It can go faster than the speed of sound and cruise at altitude around 700 miles per hour. Just imagine a Ferrari as a fighter jet. They’re small and sleek, with razor-thin wings and a sharp needle nose, painted white with a blue racing stripe and NASA’s logo on the tail. It’s one of the coolest flying machines ever built.
There’s a great story about Bill “Spaceman” Lee, a leftie pitcher who started for the Red Sox back in the seventies. His first day at Fenway Park, he pulled up in his truck and some gruff clubhouse guy tossed a jersey at him and said, “Here’s your jersey.” Bill caught it and was like “That’s it? I’m officially a player for the Boston Red Sox. Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony or something?”
That’s what happened to me the first day I showed up at Ellington. The guys who work for NASA out there are mostly former enlisted guys with lots of tattoos. They pack your chute and check your oxygen and generally make sure you aren’t going to die from something going wrong with the plane or the equipment. One of these gruff, ex-military types was working the equipment room that day, a guy called Sarge. He had an enormous mustache, he wore a NASA ball cap, and his shirt was soaked through with sweat. He was chomping on an unlit cigar that looked like it had been in his mouth since Vietnam. I walked in and told him my name. He went through a pile, pulled out my flight suit, and chucked it at me like a used towel. Then he started going through his checklist, piling my arms up with the rest of my gear. I said, “Wait a minute. Let’s back up a second. This is my NASA flight suit. Shouldn’t there be some kind of ceremony or something? Maybe a handshake?”
He looked at me, walked over, reached out, and shook my hand. “There you go,” he said, and went back to his checklist.
After picking up my flight suit from Sarge, I went into the astronaut locker room to try it on. All around me I could read the names of my heroes on the front of the lockers. There was a locker for John Young. There were lockers for Jerry Ross and Story Musgrave, two of the greatest spacewalkers in the history of the shuttle program. I’ll never forget seeing my locker in there—my locker, right next to theirs, my name tag affixed to the front with Velcro. mike massimino, jsc, houston, with the NASA astronaut wings engraved on it.
I put on my flight suit and slid on the boots. Then the gloves and the watch, finally, in front of a mirror, the super-cool aviators. Putting it all on for the first time felt like putting on a superhero costume. I packed everything up and took it home with me and tried it on again and showed it off for Gabby and Daniel. I must have walked around the house like that for a couple of hours. Fortunately my kids were too young to think I was crazy.
I was crazy, though. A little bit. In a good way. I think you have to be to have the drive it takes to get this job in the first place. The more I got to know my fellow astronauts, I found that they were all characters, every last one of them utterly and amazingly unique. We had guys like Don Pettit, who got the nickname “GQ” during a field trip to NASA headquarters in Washington, DC. A bunch of us decided to go for a run before dinner, but Don didn’t have any running shoes. So he showed up wearing shorts and black dress shoes with the calf-length socks to match—and he was exactly the type of eccentric genius who could pull that off. Don was a PhD in chemical engineering, a bit of a mad scientist. While serving on the International Space Station, he started growing his own vegetables and even invented a coffee cup that works in zero gravity.
Then you had a guy like Charlie Camarda. When I got back to Houston, one of my neighbors said, “Another new astronaut moved in around the corner. I heard he’s from New York, too.” I went over and knocked on the door and my life was forever changed when Charlie walked out. Charlie was from Ozone Park, Queens, the son of a butcher, a guy from the neighborhood like me. Charlie had a thick Italian mustache and a swoop of jet-black hair. He answered the door in flip-flops, a pair of shorts, a white tank top, and a gold chain. Charlie was like Saturday Night Fever Goes to Space, probably the only astronaut in the NASA gym locker room who wore cologne. But he was a brilliant engineer. Absolutely brilliant. Holds seven patents last I checked. Proof that you can take the boy out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the boy. We hit it off immediately. Neither of us could swim that well and we flailed our way through water survival training together. To this day he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.
I loved my fellow civilian egghead PhDs, but thanks to my love of The Right Stuff, I also gravitated immediately toward the pilots in my class, guys like Charlie Hobaugh, a Marine pilot nicknamed “Scorch” who served in Desert Storm and flew Harrier jets, the kind that can take off vertically and hover like a flying saucer. One day I was with him and we heard the deafening roar of a fighter jet overhead. Scorch pointed to the sky and looked at me. “Do you know what that is?” he said. “That’s the sound of freedom.” Yeah, he’s that guy. Scorch was also huge, completely jacked, the guy at the gym who can do endless, effortless chin-ups while you’re struggling just to do two. Scorch was also the nicest person on the planet. You had to be careful what you asked him for, because whatever you asked for he’d give it to you; I was convinced if I asked for his right arm he’d lop it off and hand it over.
Scott Altman, whose call sign was “Scooter,” was another pilot who immediately became a fast friend. We also called him the WLA, the “World’s Largest Astronaut.” Too tall to fly for the Air Force, he became a Navy pilot instead. Scooter had been selected in the class before me but lived four houses down the street, and we were already close. I spent hours of training time in the backseat of his T-38. Scooter was cut from the Right Stuff test pilot mold, too. He flew missions as a strike leader in Iraq, had been awarded just about every naval aviation honor or medal you can name, and he drove a badass blue 1969 Camaro convertible. Scooter was actually Tom Cruise’s flying double in Top Gun. That scene where Maverick flips his plane upside down and flips the bird at the Russian MiG? That’s Scooter. One of my favorite things to do was get in the backseat of his T-38 and pretend to be Goose and act out scenes from the movie.
My first T-38 flight was on October 30, 1996. It was a beautiful, clear autumn day. Carola and Gabby and Daniel came with me to the airfield. Most of the flight instructors out at Ellington were older, flying well into their sixties. They had flown with the Apollo guys, trained Neil Armstrong how to land on the moon. Bob Mullen, the crew chief, had strapped the original Mercury Seven into their training jets. Bob Naughton, the head of flight operations, was shot down over Vietnam, captured, and held in the Hanoi Hilton POW camp for six years. These guys were the real deal. They weren’t messing around.
I was going up that day with Frank Marlow, one of the flight instructors. The backseater’s main job is to handle the radio and the navigation. You can’t land or take off, but you get to do nearly everything else: fly the route, do approaches, acrobatics. The pilot takes you up and shows you how. He flies and then you fly. He demonstrates and you execute and you get to know what you’re doing.
That day Frank was taking me out to the practice area over the Gulf of Mexico south of Houston. The way it works is, you go up and then radio air traffic control to let them know you’re activating the area. Once you do that, no commercial traffic is allowed in, and it’s yours to do whatever you want. It’s like reserving a tennis court in the sky. NASA’s practice area is called Warning Area 146-Charlie—about a thousand square miles that goes from 10,000 feet up to 26,000 feet. The Texas Air National Guard, with its F-16s, uses Warning Area 147-Delta for practice; it goes from the water up to 50,000 feet and covers an even larger footprint. There you really have room to have fun.
Of course, the one thing they drill into you is that, yeah, it’s a lot of fun, but you’re not there to have fun. Flying is serious business. People die. Two Gemini astronauts, Elliot See and Charles Bassett, crashed in a T-38 in St. Louis in 1966. They flew up to check out the Gemini 9 spaceship McDonnell Douglas was building for their upcoming flight. They got turned around in bad weather, couldn’t find the runway, and crashed into a hangar—the same hangar that their Gemini capsule was in. Both astronauts were killed, and they took out their own spaceship with them. That same year, C. C. Williams died in a T-38 crash over the Everglades before he had the chance to fly in space, and Alan Bean replaced him on Apollo 12.
I wasn’t worried so much about the flying. On that front, I felt good. The thing I was most scared about was that I didn’t want to FOD the jet. FOD is foreign object debris. It’s a big problem. The turbine blades on a fighter jet are razor-thin. Anything that’s loose on the runway can get sucked into the engine and cause trouble: a soda can, a piece of glass. A pen that falls out of your pocket can get you killed. Every day the crew walks the runway and picks up anything they can find. It has to be pristine. Same thing in the cockpit. Anything that gets loose can jam the controls: A paper clip drops on the floor, you have to find it and remove it before that plane can move an inch.
The diligence and the mind-set you need to fly high-performance aircraft—or to fly in space—is totally different from the way you live in real life. There’s no margin for error. At home I can be a bit of a klutz. So I was petrified I was going to FOD the jet. Frank and I were scheduled to go out at 4:30 in the afternoon. As we suited up I kept peppering him with nervous questions, so many that we were running late. The last thing I said to him walking out was “Hey, Frank, I don’t want to FOD the jet.”
He gave me this strange look. I said it again and he said, “Oh. I thought you said you didn’t want to fly the jet.” He thought I was chickening out at the last minute. “Relax,” he told me. “Everything will be fine.
I climbed up the ladder and into the cockpit. Bob Mullen followed me up and helped me with my parachute straps and my mask and my helmet and everything else, like a mother bird sending a baby chick out for the first time. Once I was strapped in I looked over at Bob for approval. He nodded, smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Have a good flight. See you in a bit.” Then he climbed down and pulled back the ladder and I was on my own, about to go punch a hole in the sky. I did the radio calls to get runway clearance, and we taxied to line up on the runway, powered up the engines to make sure all was well, and then lit the afterburner. Frank released the brakes and we started accelerating, quickly. We were going over one hundred and fifty miles an hour when Frank raised the nose and we shot up into the sky. I felt like I was riding a rocket ship.
There are a couple things you have to do on your first flight, kind of like your initiation. The first thing is to go weightless. You fly up and push over and plummet straight down. Going weightless is an incredible head trip. I was strapped in tight, but I could still feel myself floating up a bit. My pen was attached by a lanyard to my kneeboard and it floated up for a moment, slowly, like magic. Dust floated off the dashboard, too. The weightlessness only lasted for a few seconds, but it left me with an unmistakable feeling: I wanted more.
The second thing you do is break the sound barrier. Frank flew us up to a high altitude again, because you get more speed flying down. Then you light the burner to get as much thrust as you can. The plane starts to shake and you’re pinned to your seat and you watch the Mach meter inching up: 0.95, 0.96, 0.97…When we reached 1.0, I said, “There’s Mach 1,” in my best Chuck Yeager impression, which was what I’d always dreamed of doing if this day ever came. There’s a boom in the sky as you pass Mach 1, but you don’t hear it. You don’t hear anything, because it’s behind you. You’re moving too fast—faster than the speed of sound. The engines, the roar of the wind, it’s all silent. The only noise is the sound of Air Traffic Control talking to you in your earpiece. And the view. Wow. Unlike in a commercial plane, with the T-38’s clear canopy I could see all around me, a big blue sky spread out in every direction. It gave me the sensation that I was zooming and swooping through the air like a bird.
After going weightless and breaking Mach 1, Frank took me through some loops and high-g turns to work on my physiological training. Anytime you take a hard turn in the jet, the centripetal force will push the blood out of your head and down into your lower extremities. You’ll become light-headed and possibly pass out—it’s called a g-force–induced loss of consciousness, or GI-LOC. You have to grunt and tighten up the muscles in your body to constrict the blood flow so the blood stays in your head. It’s the craziest feeling. You go into the turn and you can feel the light-headedness start. Then your peripheral vision starts to fail—you get tunnel vision. You’re being pinned into your seat. Sweat’s pouring down your forehead. You grunt and you tighten up and the blood pushes back up and your eyes come back. You find your equilibrium. You’re training your body to endure the limits of what the human body is capable of.
I loved flying. I could not get enough of it. Backseaters had to log a minimum of twenty-five training hours in the T-38 every quarter. I was always near the top of my class in hours. I had more hours than any other mission specialist in my group, especially out of the civilians. Some of them looked at flying like a chore. To me it was the ultimate. I used to love putting on my flight suit and my aviators, hopping in my car, and heading over to the airfield. I’d blast rock and roll really loud on the way over, usually something like Smash Mouth or Bachman-Turner Overdrive, whatever was the loudest thing I could find on the radio. Granted, this was no longer the days of astronauts racing Corvette convertibles across the California desert; I was rocking out in our Nissan Quest minivan. But I didn’t care. It was still awesome. I’d park in one of the reserved spots marked aircrew and then stroll through the hangar past the shiny, clean T-38s. I’d stop in the flight planning room and meet my pilot; then we’d map out our flight plan and file it with Air Traffic Control. Then it was down to the parachute room to pick up our harnesses and out to the flight line to get in our plane.
The best part was that you could do it pretty much whenever you wanted. It wasn’t like getting to space, where you were sitting around, waiting to be assigned. You could hop in a jet and go. The instructors were test pilots out of Pax River and Edwards Air Force Base. They loved having eager students because they loved to share the experience of flying, and they had the best stories, military exploits, launching off aircraft carriers, combat flights. Some of the older instructors had stories about showing legendary astronauts the ropes. These weren’t the stories I’d read about in Life magazine. These were inside stories from the people who’d lived it, and I hung on every word. What amazed me was that they accepted me right away. I was a part of their military flying culture now. I belonged there. They were Right Stuff guys and we were flying together in Right Stuff planes doing Right Stuff stuff. They’d take me out and we’d do the craziest maneuvers: cloverleafs, aileron rolls, barrel rolls, Immelmann turns. It was unbelievable.
The single most fun thing to do was to go cloud surfing. When you’re flying cross country in a commercial jet, you have to fly at the altitude allowed by Air Traffic Control. There might be clouds or there might not, and it’s hard to tell how fast you’re going without any physical points of reference. In the practice area you can do whatever you want. You find the cloud deck and dive down and nestle right in and glide along the surface, wisps of vapor whipping by your head, giving you the sensation that you’re really moving.
The best was coming up on a big cumulus, a giant, puffy marshmallow cloud. You’d come up on the side of it and then roll into it and it’s pure white all around. Sometimes the sun would break through and you’d see rainbows. And it’s perfectly quiet. You keep the radio on low and only communicate when it’s absolutely necessary as you soar through the sky. It’s the closest thing to heaven you can experience on Earth.
We’d usually stay out until Bingo time. On some military jets, the fuel indicator has a warning sound that goes bing-o, bing-o, to let you know you’ve hit a certain fuel level. So you’d say “It’s Bingo time” and head in. The coolest thing to do on landing was a touch-and-go. You’d make your approach and come in and tell the tower, “Touch-and-go, request closed pattern.” They’d come back with “Touch-and-go, closed pattern approved.” You’d touch down, wheels down, nose down, then BOOM! you’d jam the throttle and WHOOSH! you’d take off again. Then you’d get your speed up and make a tight turn at high speed and go back into your pattern. Then you’d go back and do it again. Then you’d go back and do it again. It was like riding the world’s best roller coaster over and over without ever waiting in line.
In addition to spaceflight-readiness training, the added bonus was that we got to use the T-38s for transportation. NASA’s operations are spread out all over the country: the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland; the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena; Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Astronauts don’t fly commercial to those places if they don’t have to. If you’re a mission specialist who needs to visit Huntsville, you grab a pilot and you go. If you’re a pilot who needs to go to Ames, you grab a backseater and you go. We get our training hours and we save the taxpayers the cost of an airline ticket.
Right after my first flight, Scorch came by my desk and said, “Come on. I gotta go to Yuma, Arizona. Let’s get you some hours.” That’s how it worked. People were always heading out for one reason or another, and I purposefully tried to be the best backseater I could be so I’d be at the top of everybody’s list to fly with. Flying these training jets cross country, you’d usually have to refuel. The wind might favor you going down to Cape Canaveral, but then you couldn’t one-hop it home. You’d have to stop off someplace, and one of the best places was Acadiana Regional Airport in New Iberia, Louisiana. It was in the middle of nowhere and mostly serviced helicopters going out to oil rigs in the gulf. They had an FBO, a fixed-base operator, which had a contract to sell fuel to the government. It was run by a guy named Al Landry, and he catered to the military. He had a food concession at the airfield. Every day he had incredible Cajun food that he made right there. Crawfish étouffée, fried catfish, gumbo, jambalaya. He’d have tuna melts during Lent. Al was legendary. All the astronauts loved him. You’d go and sit around and eat while he fueled up your plane. Then you’d head home. This wasn’t just allowed; it was required. You needed the twenty-five hours. You only got in trouble if you didn’t fly enough.
Those first couple of months in the air were like a dream. I wasn’t commuting to work on the Long Island Rail Road anymore. I was commuting to work in a high-performance jet. I knew flying was a dangerous, serious business, and I gave it the respect it deserved. But at the same time there was never a minute in that plane where I didn’t feel like a kid, with that pure joy and exhilaration I used to get when I was playing make-believe in my backyard. Only it wasn’t make believe. It was real. It was my job.
Carola and I were part of a parents group in the neighborhood, and every year they had a Christmas cookie exchange, something fun to do with the kids. That first December, one afternoon I ran over straight from Ellington after a flight, and I still had my flight suit on. I picked up Gabby and Daniel, we got our cookies, and went home. It was a beautiful sunny day in December, which in Houston is still warm, and I can remember lying out on the front lawn with my kids in my custom-made superhero flight suit, eating blondies and looking up at the sky and thinking: I was just there. I just flew. I can fly.
I wanted to grow up to be Spider-Man—and I did.