Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe - Mike Massimino (2016)

Part III. The Real Right Stuff

Chapter 10. IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM

When you watch The Right Stuff and see the training that the original Mercury Seven went through, you see those guys were basically treated like lab rats. They were being prepared to go to space, but nobody had ever been to space, so nobody actually knew what to prepare for. It was all a bit haphazard. That’s not the case anymore. NASA’s had forty years to work out the kinks. They know where you need to be, and they know exactly how to train you to get you there.

In addition to spaceflight-readiness training, one of the first things you do as an ASCAN is go on tours of the major NASA facilities. You meet everyone, the key players working across the country, but it’s not just a meet-and-greet. There’s a reason for it. Space is a daunting place. It can be terrifying, actually, and you need to know you’re not alone up there. You need to know that every last NASA employee stands behind you. They also need to meet you so they can put a face to a name and know who they’re protecting up there.

All of NASA’s facilities are cool, but the coolest, hands down, is Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. It’s mind-boggling when you see it up close. The Vehicle Assembly Building, where they built the Saturn V rockets and assembled the shuttle in our day, is the largest building in the world. There’s a giant American flag down the side of the building. An eighteen-wheeler can fit inside each of the stripes on the flag. The interior of the building covers eight acres, and the volume of the space is 129,428,000 cubic feet—nearly four times the space inside the Empire State Building. The building has its own weather system. Clouds form. Birds nest up in the rafters. The crawler-transporter that takes the shuttle out to the launch site is the largest self-powered vehicle in the world. It’s over three stories high and weighs nearly 6 million pounds. NASA takes the ASCANs out there and shows us these things so we get a good sense of the scale of the task we’re about to undertake.

Back at the Johnson Space Center, for the first year, when you’re not up in a T-38 or at the gym, you’re probably in a classroom or a simulator. You learn everything about how the shuttle works, from top to bottom: the propulsion systems, the navigation systems, everything. Flying the T-38s, running simulations, studying the systems—month by month, piece by piece, they’re building you up, transforming you into someone who’s ready to walk out onto that launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center and strap yourself to the top of a bomb. It’s a slow, deliberate, and very thorough process.

I went on the same tours and sat in the same classrooms as the rest of the Sardines, but my education ended up being different from theirs. It came much faster and was way more intense. Just months after joining NASA, I suffered what was then and may still be the most difficult ordeal I’ve ever gone through. It taught me an awful lot about my new job in a very short period of time. It was an experience that had absolutely nothing to do with space and everything to do with being an astronaut.

When I went to work at NASA my father was seventy-three years old. He’d been having serious health problems for a while. He was always a bit overweight, and he’d had a triple bypass eleven years before. In January 1997, about five months after I started, he had to have another bypass and get a valve replaced. When I flew up to see him, he looked terrible. His recovery wasn’t going well. He’d developed a bad skin infection, and he was feeling worse and worse. Then his doctors started seeing problems with his blood work. They diagnosed him with myelodysplastic anemia, a condition where bone marrow fails to make the three types of blood cells: red blood cells, which carry oxygen; platelets, which help your blood clot; and white blood cells, which are a key part of the immune system. In the worst cases, myelodysplastic anemia can lead to acute myeloid leukemia, an aggressive type of cancer. Which was exactly what happened. In July the doctors told us my father had leukemia and he had, at the outside, six months to live.

I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. You get only a few people in life who love you truly and completely and unconditionally, people who will be there for you under any circumstances. My father was one of those people, and I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it. I started flying up to New York as often as I could. Sometimes I’d fly commercial and take Gabby and Daniel with me. Sometimes I’d catch a ride on a T-38 if someone was going that way. I started going with him to his appointments. My dad was being treated at Sloan Kettering, a world-famous cancer hospital, supposedly the best of the best. But his doctors had basically thrown up their hands and said, “There’s nothing we can do.” They said his skin rash and his heart problems made him ineligible for the intensive chemotherapy this type of leukemia required. I asked about experimental treatments, new drug studies, anything. He was ineligible for those, too. They refused to treat him. But my father wasn’t ready to give up, and I wasn’t ready to let him go.

My father had it rough growing up. He grew up in the Great Depression, worked on a farm. That old line about walking twenty miles a day to school in the snow, that was actually his life as a kid. My dad was smart and popular. He was one of the smartest kids in his class. He went out for the football team, was voted class president. But he never got the opportunity to follow his dreams. He could never get too involved after school. My grandfather wouldn’t let him do anything because he had to come home and work the farm. College wasn’t even an option.

My father turned eighteen in 1941. His buddies were enlisting to fight in World War II. He wanted to be a fighter pilot, but the Army wouldn’t take him. With five sisters and an ailing father, he was the only able-bodied male on the farm, and they needed food for the war effort. They deferred him. While his friends went off to Europe and the Pacific to defend the country, he stayed behind, growing carrots and onions to feed them at the front.

After the war, my grandmother died and the farm was sold. My father was able to move down to the city and get his job with the fire department. I know he loved the people he worked with and took pride in what he did, but I don’t know if it’s what he would have chosen to do if he’d been able to go to college and follow his dreams. He did what he had to do for his family. And because my dad never got to do anything, he made sure I got to do everything. I was going to get to live out every dream he never got to have. I wanted to go to the moon? Great. I wanted to pitch for the Mets? Fantastic. My dad played catch with me every night in the front yard. He came to all of my baseball games. All of them. Dads didn’t do that back then. When I was growing up, dads were at work. Together, he and my mom gave me the room to dream as big as I wanted. I would never have been an astronaut if they hadn’t done that.

I wanted my dad to see Gabby and Daniel grow up. I wanted him to see me fly in space. I wanted him to see my shuttle blast off into the sky and know that he’d been a great father, that everything he’d done for me had paid off in spades. I knew I had to do something, but I wasn’t sure what. I’d hit a wall with the doctors at Sloan Kettering. I got frustrated with them for refusing to treat my dad. I was like “You can’t treat cancer at a cancer hospital? Where are we supposed to go, the Dairy Queen?” So I said “Adios!” to those guys and turned to the best people I knew for help: my fellow astronauts.

Quite a few astronauts are MDs. Story Musgrave, Dan Barry, Lee Morin. I went to them and asked, essentially, “Hey, my dad’s got this thing. I don’t know anything about it. What can I do?” They did some research and said it didn’t look good. They brought in the flight surgeons to talk about it, and one of them, Smith Johnston, recommended me to Dr. Elihu Estey, a colleague of his at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who specialized in MDA and leukemia. Smith arranged for my father’s records to be sent over and I talked to Estey on the phone. He said, “We’d be happy to try to treat your father,” and he laid out the options of what they could do. It was an experimental protocol and a long shot, but if my father was willing to do it, they would give him a shot.

I said, “But what about his rash and his heart problem?”

Estey said, “Yes, your father does have a bad heart. That’s not good. He does have a skin infection. That’s not good, either. But you know what else your father has?”

“What?”

“He has leukemia. If you don’t do anything he’s going to die.”

That October my mom and dad rented an apartment in Houston near MD Anderson and flew down to start treatment. The difficult thing about his treatment was that he was going to require many blood transfusions. You can get those from a blood bank, but it’s better to have donors. Again I turned to the people I knew, the astronauts. One morning at work I wrote an e-mail explaining my father’s situation, his treatment, his blood type, and what he needed, saying if anybody could help out and donate blood, I’d really appreciate it. I cc’d everyone in the office and sent off the e-mail and went back to whatever I was doing.

My computer made this bing! sound every time I got an e-mail. Maybe thirty seconds after I sent the e-mail I heard it. When I checked my in-box there was the first reply saying yes. For the rest of the day my computer went crazy. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m almost certain every single person in the office who shared my father’s blood type volunteered. And the people who weren’t a match came by to say they were sorry they couldn’t help and was there anything else they could do?

Then my father needed platelets. You have to donate a lot of blood to get very few platelets. That didn’t matter. I sent out another e-mail and the same thing happened. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Then, a few weeks after that, my dad needed white blood cells. Donating white blood cells can be risky. You’re effectively lowering your own immune system by doing it. If your white blood cell count is off, it can affect your flight status; the doctors won’t clear you. Didn’t matter. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Everyone offered to help.

I was floored, stunned, speechless. At that point I’d only been an astronaut for a year and I was still learning what the job was about. I knew that teamwork and camaraderie were an important part of it, but I didn’t understand what that really meant until my father got sick. What it means is that if you have a problem, we all have a problem. If your father is sick, our father is sick. It’s not just a mentality that exists to help each other get through flight simulations and survival training. It’s something that encompasses the way you live your whole life.

All I’d done was go to Smith Johnston to ask for advice, and that turned into my dad getting the finest treatment available at MD Anderson and the entire NASA astronaut corps rallying behind me to get my family through it. Smith checked in with me once a week and kept up with my dad’s records to make sure he was doing okay. I had no idea that would happen.

My buddy Scorch was the first person to volunteer to donate blood. He was like that with everyone. Somebody needed something, his hand would go up. He donated platelets for my dad, and just looking at a guy like Scorch, this huge, ripped Marine, you knew his platelets had to be in phenomenal shape. I’m no doctor, but I swear the day we gave that transfusion from Scorch to my dad, his blood count improved dramatically, like a miracle. That’s when my dad started to turn the corner.

The astronauts’ spouses volunteered, too. I was completely swamped, spending nights at the hospital, still doing my astronaut training, but somehow everything got done. The grocery shopping, babysitting for the kids—someone was always right there to help. Before my dad got sick, Kevin Kregel had asked me to be a family escort for the flight he was commanding that year, STS-87, which was going to go up in November. Being a family escort is an important job. Launches are especially tough on spouses and kids. In the weeks leading up to the launch, the escort’s role is to be there for anything the family needs. During the launch you stay with the family every step of the way. Most important of all, you’re there by their side in case their loved one doesn’t make it back home. The launch came right in the middle of my father’s treatment, and as I was flying back and forth to the Cape to serve as a family escort, everyone else in the office was serving as my family escort back home.

Rick Husband, an Air Force pilot from Amarillo, still waiting for his first flight assignment, was the other escort serving with me for STS-87. Rick was a pure soul, a good father and husband, didn’t have a mean bone in him. I don’t think I ever heard him curse. He was very religious, very Christian. He sang at his church, was into Christian music. He quoted scripture and read the Bible to his kids. He even videotaped Bible lessons for his kids to watch while he was in space. Escorting for that flight was especially difficult because of my father’s illness. But Rick was someone you could talk to about anything and who you knew would do anything for you, no questions asked. We spent hours together going back and forth to the Cape. We’d have long talks, about our fathers, about life, about death. One day the hospital was trying to reach me. My father was having a particularly rough time and I was working, nowhere near a phone. The doctors called Carola and she tracked down Rick and he came and found me. We talked, and he asked me, “Do you want to pray about it?” He sat there and took my hand and the words flowed out of him, asking God to help my father and me and my family. With some people, that might seem like overstepping a personal boundary. I wasn’t as religious as Rick, but with him it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all. That’s just who he was.

Kregel pitched in with a few words from orbit, too. He sent me an e-mail from the shuttle: “How’s your dad doing? I’ve been praying for him up here. I’m closer to the Big Guy, and there’s less static, so I think it goes directly through.” I thought that was pretty cool. It’s the way the world should be. Somebody gets sick, you visit the hospital, bring a plate of food, help get their kids to school. At NASA, any crisis you went through you weren’t alone.

If you’ve ever wondered what the right stuff is, that’s what the right stuff is—the real right stuff. It’s not about being crazy enough to strap yourself to the top of a bomb. That’s actually the easy part. It’s more about character, serving a purpose greater than yourself, putting the other guy first, and being able to do that every single day in every aspect of your life. People ask me all the time what it takes to become an astronaut. It’s not about being the smartest or having the most college degrees. The real qualifications for being an astronaut are: Is this someone I’d trust with my life? Will this person help look after my family if I don’t make it home?

After seeing how the office reacted to my father’s illness, I understood better why I’d been selected and how the selection process works. I had the PhD and good experience with robotics, but every other finalist had qualifications as good as mine. What it came down to was that they decided I had the right attitude to be a part of their team. They liked what they saw of my personality. Whether it was on the baseball field or collaborating with my friends at MIT, I’d always been a team-oriented guy, and the only way to put a spaceship into orbit is if everyone’s working together. Very few jerks have been to space.

Astronauts are exceptional in terms of what they’ve accomplished, but in terms of where we came from we’re regular people. What we have in common is this shared goal, to serve the people and push the boundaries of knowledge for all mankind. And the best thing about joining this club is that it comes with a lifetime membership. John Young may have been the only Apollo legend still on the active roster, but all those guys—Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell—they were still a part of NASA. Many of them still live in Houston and come by often for business or personal reasons. These guys are our heroes, but there’s this connection that’s passed down with our group. A good story one of my friends tells is that when he got back from space, Armstrong was visiting. Neil stopped to talk to him and said, “You know, I haven’t been up there for a while. Tell me what it’s like these days.” My buddy was like Are you kidding me? This is Neil Armstrong, and he’s asking me about my trip to space.

That shared connection, that bond, is especially strong among the astronauts, but it extends to everyone at NASA. They took on my problem as their own and pulled my father back from the brink. He’d started this long-shot, experimental treatment in late October. In March the doctors looked at his blood levels and they were 100 percent normal. He was in remission. He was cancer-free.

For the first time in a year my family was able to take a breath and relax a bit. My dad was able to get around. I took him to the rodeo with the kids. Then, in April, the Sardines were ready to graduate from ASCAN to full astronaut. There was a ceremony up at the Johnson Space Center. Everybody had to dress like a grown-up: suit and tie, the whole bit. We were awarded certificates and each of us got our silver astronaut pin.

Because my father was in town and doing better, he was able to go to my graduation. By that point he was a bit of a celebrity around the astronaut office. Everyone wanted to say hello and shake his hand and congratulate him on pulling through. He met everyone who’d donated blood and platelets and thanked them for saving his life. After the ceremony we went out for this dinner with Charlie Camarda and his big New York Italian family from Queens. The service was terrible and our mothers complained so much that we got a ton of free food. It was horribly embarrassing, but I was happy that dad was finally back in good health and could be there to see me graduate. I wanted him to see that those early mornings and late nights taking the bus to work had paid off, and I wanted him to know how grateful I was for everything he’d sacrificed for me.

At the beginning of May, my father was doing well enough that my parents left Houston, moved back to New York, and started settling back into their old lives. He’d cheated death. Then, in late July, my father went in for a checkup with his New York doctors, and everything fell apart. It fell apart fast. Whatever the experimental protocol had done, the effects were temporary. The leukemia was back, full blown, and his condition was worsening by the day. He decided to come back to Houston to try treatment again. I’m sure he knew it wasn’t going to work; he said he wanted the hospital to keep trying so the results might be used to help other people. He flew down at the beginning of August.

The day my father died, I was asked to be John Glenn’s family escort for his return to space on STS-95. Glenn was seventy-seven years old, three years older than my father, and he was going to go back up for the first time since his original Mercury flight in 1962. It was going to be a big, high-profile deal. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad about it. I drove down to MD Anderson that night after work. He wasn’t in good shape. The problem with those chemo and radiation therapies is that the drugs that kill the cancer kill pretty much everything else, including the immune system, leaving you susceptible to infection. The doctors put him in this special sealed-off critical-care unit, but it didn’t make much difference. He’d developed pneumonia and he had a terrible fever. His heart was giving him problems. He was dying. There was no more avoiding it.

We sat there in his room and we talked. I told him about the John Glenn flight. He smiled and he stared me right in the eyes and he said, “Do you know how proud I am of you?” I think he knew when he said it that we wouldn’t be seeing each other again. We talked for a while longer, but he was tired and I let him get to sleep. I went home and was only there a short time when I got the call. I turned right around and drove back in, but I didn’t make it in time. My father died on August 28, 1998.

The next day I was at home making arrangements to have my father’s body flown back to New York for the funeral. Kevin Kregel called. He said, “I still need my flight hours this month. So I’m taking you home. You’re in my backseat. I’ve already arranged it with Ellington. The jet’s ready. You want to go now, we go now. You want to go later, we go later. You tell me when you’re ready.” At the funeral, my entire astronaut class sent flowers. The head of the Johnson Space Center sent flowers. Rick Husband sent flowers. Everyone knew what was happening and everyone wanted to help.

Getting selected to be an astronaut was amazing. Graduating from ASCAN and getting my silver astronaut pin, that was cool, too. But my father’s illness and the way everyone in the office rallied around me—that was the thing that told me: Mike, you’re a part of this team. You’re a part of this family, and what an incredible family to be a part of.

A couple of months later, while I was serving as escort for John Glenn’s family, his daughter Lynn told me an interesting story. John Glenn was so famous for being an astronaut that people forget he went up only one time in 1962. One flight, three orbits, four hours and fifty-five minutes. That’s it. The story was that President Kennedy gave an order that Glenn was never allowed to fly in space again. He was a national hero. He was too valuable to lose if anything happened.

Glenn was being encouraged to use his stature to run for office, and after JFK was assassinated, Glenn left NASA to do just that: He ran for U.S. senator from Ohio. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Deke Slayton, Wally Schirra—they stayed and flew missions with Gemini and Apollo. They were part of building NASA into what it is today. Glenn didn’t stay with the team. His star was too bright.

After years in the Senate, in 1984 he decided to make a run for president. Lynn was managing his primary campaign. It was a grueling experience; it didn’t go well. One morning they were driving into the Senate Building, where he had his office. It was early. The streets were empty. She was following him in a separate car. All of a sudden he started making strange turns and going off in a different direction. She thought he was lost. She followed and caught up to him outside the Air and Space Museum, which was closed, but Glenn had parked, gone up to a window, and was looking inside where they had his Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, on display in the main gallery. He was standing there at the window, looking at his old spaceship. Then he turned to his daughter and said, “Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake.”

Here’s a guy, he’s world famous, he’s a U.S. senator, he’s running for president, but none of that gave him what he had when he was a part of this team: the feeling that he was a part of something special. When he went back up on STS-95, NASA justified it by saying it was to study the effects of weightlessness on aging or something or other. If you ask me, he just wanted to come back. He wanted to be with us. Leading up to his flight, he wanted to work out with us in the gym, tell some old war stories. The whole time he was so happy to be here. Being on this team, it’s the same as anybody who’s ever played on a Major League Baseball team. For the rest of your life, that’s who you are. That’s how you’ll identify yourself. Long after you’re gone, you still want to come back and hang in the dugout for a few innings and watch, because nothing in life compares to being a part of this.