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

Part III. The Real Right Stuff


Other than flying in the T-38, one of my favorite parts of astronaut training was the enrichment lectures. Former astronauts and older NASA guys would come by and give talks about the space program. Chris Kraft, NASA’s first flight director, came in to speak with us. So did Gene Kranz, the flight director played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13. My favorite lecturer was Alan Bean, who flew on Apollo 12 and is one of the twelve guys who walked on the moon. After retiring from NASA, he became a painter. Alan’s lecture was called “The Art of Space Exploration.” He talked about the mistakes he’d made and how he learned to fix them. One lesson that took him a while to learn was that at a place like NASA you can only have an effect on certain things. You can’t control who likes you. You can’t control who gets assigned to flights or what NASA’s budget is going to be next year. If you get caught up worrying about things you can’t control, you’ll drive yourself nuts. It’s better to focus on the things right in front of you. Identify the places where you can have a positive impact. Concentrate there and let the rest take care of itself. The last thing Alan said to us was “What most people want in life is to do something great, and you have been given the opportunity to do something great. That doesn’t happen often. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t be blasé about it. And don’t blow it. A lot of times, believe it or not, people blow it.”

Alan’s lecture meant a great deal to me. I asked for a tape of it and watched it again from time to time. It got me thinking about where I could have a positive impact on the space program. As an ASCAN, you have to learn everything there is to know about how the shuttle works. Flying a spaceship is not like driving a car. If you’re driving a car and something goes wrong, the worst that happens is you pull over and wait for a tow. You can’t do that in space. As an astronaut, you have to understand everything on that machine that could possibly go wrong—anything from a broken toilet to a leaking fuel tank. Even though you can count on help from Mission Control, it’s going to be on you and six other people to fix the problem, whatever it is. So during your training you learn it all. You get a copy of the Shuttle Crew Operations Manual, our textbook. You study handouts and workbooks for each of the individual systems: This is how the fuel tanks work. This is how the pumps work. You run simulations—“sims” in NASAspeak—to test your knowledge of how everything works, how to respond when systems fail. Sims are the backbone of your training as an astronaut. Because there’s no margin for error in space, the solution to every foreseeable problem has to be worked out before leaving the ground. You run through a scenario until you find a fault in your plan. Then you address that and you run through it again. Then you run through it again. Then you run through it again and again and again until every possible outcome has been accounted for.

Once you’ve got the broad overview of the shuttle systems and operations down, that’s when you’re ready to graduate from ASCAN to astronaut. From there, pilots take their training in one direction, learning how to fly the shuttle, and the mission specialists begin to specialize in a variety of particular jobs: spacewalking, flying the robot arm, serving as flight engineers. After my ASCAN graduation, I still wasn’t sure where I’d end up. I’d wanted to be an astronaut my whole adult life. I’d wanted it so badly, I’d never really cared what kind of astronaut they’d let me be. The selection committee had chosen me not for any one particular skill but because they thought I had the general qualities of a good astronaut. I was still most all-around, I guess, same as in high school. For me, finding the place where I fit in was my biggest challenge. I had to find a specialty, my purpose.

Nick Patrick, my MIT buddy who became an astronaut in the class after me, once observed that the tragedy of being an engineer designing tools and instruments for space was that you never got to use them. Any engineer who’s ever designed a car wants to drive it. Any engineer who designs an airplane wants to fly it. But because the odds of becoming an astronaut are so slim, the average aerospace engineer was doomed never to get to play with his own invention.

Luckily, I’d made myself the exception to that rule. I’d worked on the robot arm since my days at McDonnell Douglas, designing the video display that had flown on STS-69 while I was living in Atlanta. Its official name was the RMS Manipulator Positioning Display, and it had become a standard tool for robot-arm operators on shuttle missions. I thought it would be cool to keep working on that—to have the chance to drive my own car. In my DNA, I was a robotics and human factors guy. That’s where I felt I had the most strength and, ultimately, that’s where I felt I had the most to offer my fellow astronauts. That’s where I would make my positive impact.

In addition to our training, every astronaut was tasked to work in a particular branch on a particular project for the shuttle or the space station. When you got assigned to a flight, you’d get rotated out to prepare for the mission. Then, once you returned, you’d be rotated back in to another assignment. Because of my experience I was assigned to the robotics branch. Around that time a new robot arm was being developed for the space station, the Canadarm2. I started logging a lot of hours of work on that. It seemed like the simplest, most direct path for me to get a flight assignment was to be a robot-arm operator on a station assembly flight.

Then I went to another enrichment lecture and I found the purpose I was looking for.

In the spring of 1997, Story Musgrave came to talk to us about spacewalking, or extravehicular activity—EVA in NASAspeak. Story Musgrave served as the lead spacewalker on the first repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope and was probably NASA’s most experienced spacewalker at the time. He was an amazing guy, an MD with a master’s in biophysics and another master’s in literature that he went and got after becoming an astronaut, just because.

Developing the ability to put a human being outside of a spaceship was one of those giant leaps that made space exploration possible. Without it we couldn’t service the Hubble Space Telescope, assemble space stations, or walk on the moon. There wasn’t a great deal of EVA done in the early shuttle era. For the most part, those missions were deploying satellites, conducting Spacelab experiments, things that didn’t require working outside the shuttle. All that was about to change. More Hubble servicing missions were on the books, and those would involve extensive EVA. Space station assembly flights were about to get under way, too. Astronauts would be required to actually get out in space and put that whole thing together, module by module, piece by piece. We called it the Wall of EVA, and it was coming up soon.

Up to that point, rookies (first-time fliers) rarely spacewalked. For your first flight you got the contingency training and that was it. But with the amount of work that needed to be done on the station, the astronaut office realized that they would need rookies who could handle six- and seven-hour space walks on their first flights. A whole EVA skills program was being developed to train people for that. If you were a mission specialist interested in spacewalking and you showed an aptitude for it, you were likely going to get the chance.

At one point during Story’s lecture, one person raised his hand and asked what you should do to be in the best shape, physically, to be good at spacewalking. Story said that weightlifting and building up stamina were all important, but the main thing you needed was to be big. “You need to be tall,” he said, “with really long arms.” The space suit is pressurized, which means there’s resistance to every movement you make. The longer your arms, the more leverage you have; you’re not fighting the suit. It’s the same thing with your fingers in the gloves. Every time you make a fist or grasp the handle of a tool, you’re working against resistance.

You also want someone with a long reach. Getting around in the suit is painstaking and exhausting. You want to be able to park in one place and be able to reach as far as possible without having to shift your whole body. Most important, if your partner is having a problem—if his or her suit has failed and they can’t breathe—you have to be strong enough to get them back inside to safety. If you’re a smaller person, with short arms and tiny fingers, you can go to the gym all day long, but that’s only going to get you so far. “It’s like the NBA,” Musgrave said. “Every once in a while you get a little guy who can make a go of it, but generally the bigger you are the more of an advantage you have.” I’m a big goon, six foot three. I have a long wingspan, hands that can palm a basketball. I sat there listening to Story and looked down at myself and I thought, Here’s something I was made for.

My body was built to be a spacewalker. My mind, on the other hand, needed some work.

Most of the training for EVA takes place in the NBL, the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, which is a fancy name for an enormous swimming pool: 202 feet long, 102 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. In there we worked with full-scale mock-ups of the space shuttle, the Hubble, and the space station. You get in the suit and you’re lowered into the water, attached to flotation devices that counterbalance the 200-pound suit you’re wearing, making you neutrally buoyant and allowing you to move in an approximation of weightlessness.

As part of the ASCAN training, every astronaut had to get certified in the basics of EVA by doing four runs in the pool. Before we could get in the water in the space suit, we had to pass a high-grade scuba certification. I had a civilian scuba license, but this was a more difficult test. The hardest thing for me was the unassisted ditch and don. You had to swim down to fifteen feet, ditch your mask and flippers, go back to the surface, tread water, then dive back down, don the gear, clear your mask, and get back to the surface with no water inside your mask. I couldn’t do it. I’d get halfway through donning my gear and I’d start to panic and need a breath and I’d have to shoot back to the surface.

Fortunately, I was at NASA, and my weakness wasn’t seen as an opportunity to weed me out. It was a chance for the team to get behind me. Because helping my father battle leukemia wasn’t enough, when Scorch saw I was having trouble he came by my office one morning, totally unsolicited, and said, “We’re going to take care of that today.” He found an astronaut with a backyard pool we could use and we drove over there. He sat in the pool with me and showed me what to do, showed me how to relax and get through it. All afternoon he dove with me to the bottom of that pool, up and down and up and down. We started in the shallow end and gradually moved down to the deep end. He took me through it over and over until I got it. A week later I passed the swim test.

When it was my turn to get in the pool wearing the suit, I was paired up with my buddy Charlie Camarda from Queens. Anytime you put me and Charlie together, we were like a couple of class clowns, like a two-man Three Stooges routine. We’d cut up and have fun. One of the things drilled into us during training was that spacewalkers had to stick close together on a run, which led to me and Charlie on the test standing next to the pool, dancing in our full-body propelyne underwear, and singing “Together Wherever We Go,” an old Ethel Merman show tune from Gypsy.

The instructors loved it. Outside the pool Charlie and I were a hit. Inside, not so much. Your first run is what’s called the Introduction Suit Qualification, a few hours in the water to get used to the suit and demonstrate your ability to maneuver in it. They lowered me and Charlie in, and it was a disaster. I tried to move around and felt like I was completely out of control. The suit is massive. I was stiff, clumsy. I felt like a Thanksgiving Day balloon, like the Michelin Man, the Pillsbury Doughboy. As I tried to translate down the side of the mock payload bay, inching my way along, I was thinking, I’d better brush up on my robot-arm training, because this is not going to work.

When ballplayers are having problems, their coaches always tell them, “It’s all in your head.” That’s how it was with me and spacewalking. The human body can do amazing things, but only if the brain stops getting in the way. The first time you go in the water in a space suit, it’s a totally disorienting experience. Everything is different. Your brain gets flooded with new and different stimuli. You get overwhelmed and start to panic. Your body is perfectly capable of doing it, but your head isn’t doing a good job of telling your body what to do.

On a space walk, one astronaut is the free-floater and one astronaut is attached to the end of the robot arm. That way the arm operator can move them around to wherever they’re needed. You attach yourself to the robot arm with these foot restraints by working your feet into toe loops and then spreading your heels to engage the locking mechanism. Your boot clicks into place. You can’t spacewalk unless you can do it, and for the life of me I couldn’t do it. When you’re wearing the space suit, you can’t see your feet; and since you’re in the water, if you lean forward to try to see your feet, you pivot around your waist and your feet go up behind you. You have to do it blind. I could maneuver into the toe loops, but I could never get my heels into the locks. I’d try and try and try until I reached the point where I was so frustrated and overworked that I couldn’t get anything right. A few times the divers had to come over and put my feet in the restraints for me so that the exercise could continue.

I ended up going to my neighbor Steve Smith, who had spacewalked on both of the last two Hubble servicing missions. “Steve,” I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Like Scorch, Steve had total confidence in me. He said, “Don’t worry about it. We’re gonna take care of this. You’re gonna be great at it.”

Steve volunteered to do a run with me. We went out to the NBL an hour and a half early. We went over everything outside the pool. Then we got in the water and he showed me how to use the foot restraints. The problem was that I wasn’t getting my foot flat. I was getting my toes in the toe loops, but I wasn’t pushing my heel far enough down. Steve worked on that with me, too. He’d tell me, “Try it quick one time. Flat and go! Flat and go! And you’re in.” I practiced it over and over again until I could finally do it on autopilot. Steve showed me how to use the tools, how to translate up and down the payload bay. I learned to stay calm and in control of my movements. By showing me what to do, Steve gave me the confidence to not panic in the pool.

Becoming proficient inside that suit was a challenge—and that was a good thing. If there’s one thing I learned about myself as an astronaut, it’s that I need a challenge in order to do my best. If I already know how to do something or if it comes easy, I don’t always give it my best effort. But if you tell me something is impossible—if you tell me I can’t pass my MIT qualifying exam or that I’m medically disqualified from becoming an astronaut—then from that point forward, for whatever reason, I’m incapable of giving up. I cannot let that problem go until I know I’ve done everything in my power to try to solve it.

EVA training didn’t come easily for me, but once I got the hang of it, I loved it. If putting on a NASA flight suit is like putting on a superhero costume, putting on a NASA space suit is even better than that. It’s like having your own spaceship. Between the Hubble servicing missions and the assembly of the International Space Station, we were entering a new era when spacewalking would be at the forefront of everything NASA was trying to do. If they needed somebody in the pool, I was there. If I had a free afternoon, I’d go and scuba dive alongside other spacewalkers to observe their technique. If I couldn’t do that, I’d volunteer to work outside the pool and support whoever was going in. I knew that this was where I’d make my positive impact, and I wanted to be ready when the opportunity came.