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

Part III. The Real Right Stuff


In the history of human exploration, there are basically two types of people. On the one hand there are the scientists, men like Galileo Galilei. In seventeenth-century Italy, Galileo developed revolutionary telescopes, and with them he discovered the moons of Jupiter. He was the first person to identify the phases of Venus, proving Nicolaus Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism, that planets of our solar system revolve around the sun and not around the Earth. Scientists like Galileo work tirelessly in their laboratories, asking the big questions, expanding the limits of human knowledge.

Then there are the adventurers, guys like Ernest Shackleton. In 1914, Shackleton launched the third of his Antarctic voyages, the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition—an attempt to cross the entire continent. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed in the Antarctic ice. For over a year, first camping on the ice and then taking rowboats out across the open sea, he kept his men alive and led them safely to rescue on South Georgia Island, off the coast of Argentina. Men like Shackleton risked life and limb under punishing conditions to push the boundaries on the map, to expand our understanding of our world.

Some people dream of being Galileo. Other people dream of being Shackleton. The amazing thing about being an astronaut is that you get to be Galileo and Shackleton at the same time. You’re tackling the big questions of human existence, and you’re doing it in places where human life shouldn’t even be possible. Down in the suburbs of Houston, driving around in our air-conditioned minivans, astronauts spend most of our time in Galileo mode, working on robot arms and other scientific endeavors. So, to learn how to survive in Shackleton mode, we have to leave the strip malls and the fast-food restaurants behind.

Starting with Skylab in the 1970s and then with Mir, the Russian space station launched in 1986, NASA worked to understand more about the effects of long-duration space flight on astronauts. We learned that people aren’t machines; they’re people. They get lonely, they get dehydrated, they’re not sleeping right. You can only put them through so much before they start to break down. Nobody’s ever gone crazy in space and turned into Jack Nicholson in The Shining, but some problems have occurred. The third Skylab crew kind of mutinied and quit working for a while.

When people are put in extreme circumstances for a long period of time, or even just removed from their normal routine, they get angry more quickly, teams split apart, trust and communication can break down. We called it “poor expedition behavior.” With the launch of the International Space Station, long-duration spaceflights were going to be happening more and more frequently, and training astronauts to maintain good expedition behavior became a priority. We started hearing conversations about Shackleton around the astronaut office: How do we keep our crews together and functioning under impossible conditions the way he did?

As part of their contribution to the space station effort, the Canadian government offered to give astronauts cold-weather expedition training at its air force base in Cold Lake, a small town in northern Alberta that’s home to a Royal Canadian Air Force base and weapons testing range. The Cold Lake expeditions started in 1999. Three of them were scheduled for the winter of 2000, one each in January, February, and March.

At the time I was still waiting to get assigned to a shuttle flight. Our astronaut class was huge, and the one before us wasn’t small. There was a bit of a logjam. Then, making matters worse, thanks to forces beyond our control, the launch schedule slowed to a crawl. The assembly of the International Space Station had to be put on hold while we waited for a life support module being built by the Russians. It was a year behind schedule, and missions kept getting backed up on account of the delay.

I had no idea when I’d get flown. I was just working hard to improve in my EVA skills class, while keeping up with my day job in the robotics branch. Nancy Currie had taken over as head of the robotics branch the year before, and she showed me the value of having someone in my corner. She was a U.S. Army colonel with a PhD in industrial engineering who’d recently completed her third flight, flying the robot arm on STS-88 in December 1998. At that point the robotics branch was focused on training astronauts to operate the new robot arm being developed for the space station. Nancy picked me to help her with that, and we ended up working together closely. She was smart and had a great sense of humor. She got to see me up close, to see how well I worked with the arm and how well I got along with the training team. She became one of my biggest boosters around the office.

Around the end of 1999, Nancy started talking me up to Charlie Precourt, the head of the astronaut office. Precourt was an Air Force test pilot, highly decorated, fluent in French and Russian, an incredibly accomplished and, to me, intimidating sort of guy. They needed a robot-arm operator for one of the flights, and Nancy told me Precourt came to her and asked, “Who do you recommend?”

She said, “Massimino.”

He said, “Well, we need someone more experienced.”

She said, “Massimino.”

She told him I had the hands-on experience and was the right choice. Even with her recommendation, I got passed over for someone else. Precourt didn’t think I was ready. Then Cold Lake happened.

I wasn’t set to go on any of the expeditions that year, but as the March trip was coming up, somebody had to drop out. Precourt was going to be personally leading the group, and he announced at a staff meeting that they were short one person and needed a replacement. Nancy Currie put me up for it. Then she came to me after this meeting and said, “I kind of volunteered you to go to Cold Lake.”

I said, “Are you out of your mind?!” I knew I’d probably have to go Cold Lake at some point, but I wasn’t jumping to volunteer. I’m still a kid from Long Island—natural outdoorsmen we’re not.

She said, “No, it’ll be good. You’re going up there with Precourt.”

I said, “Now I know you’re out of your mind. You’re gonna send me up to that frozen wasteland with the chief? With the boss? This is gonna be a disaster.”

Precourt was the guy who could make or break you when it came to getting assigned to a flight. I was petrified of screwing up in front of him. Nancy said, “No, no. Look, this will be good exposure for you, good training. Charlie’s a great guy, and he needs to know you’re a great guy. This is going to be a good way for you to get on his radar.”

She was right. I didn’t want her to be right, but she was. Then she said, “Oh, and you need to get packed. You leave in two days.”

Cold Lake was given the name Cold Lake for a reason: There’s a big lake, and it’s really, really cold. One night when we were there the temperature went down to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But hey, it wasn’t always that bad. Most nights it was a relatively balmy minus 20.

The expedition crew was Precourt and a bunch of new guys who hadn’t flown in space yet, including me; Lee Morin, a former naval flight surgeon; Frank Caldeiro, who worked at the Kennedy Space Center as a propulsion system specialist before being selected to be an astronaut; and two of my astronaut buddies from MIT, Dan Tani and Greg Chamitoff. Greg had been selected by NASA two years after me, in 1998, and I wrote him a letter of recommendation—which I was glad to do on account of the fact that he saved me from my qualifying exam. Greg was also an Eagle Scout. He lived for this kind of outdoorsy survival adventure. I was glad to have him along.

We flew commercial into Edmonton and then bused another two hundred miles north to the base. There we met our instructors, these four hardcore Canadian Army special forces guys, the equivalent of our Green Berets. For them going camping on a frozen lake in the dead of winter was like going to the beach. Sergeant Colin Norris was the team leader, a total tough guy, big mustache. We stayed in the barracks for a couple of days and they took us through some basic training: how to build a fire in the snow, set up tents, tie knots.

They also set us up with our gear. They gave us these old two-piece long johns that looked like something your great-grandfather wore as a POW in World War I. We had thick wool socks, bulky coats, wool hats. We were issued Leatherman tools, navigation gear, and packs and that was it. But that was the point: to expose you to the elements as completely as possible while only giving you the bare necessities needed to survive. We were in full Shackleton mode.

After a couple of days it was time to head out into the field. Norris and his guys helicoptered us out to the middle of nowhere and left us. They would drop in on us once a day or so to check in and give us new instructions. They kept tabs on us, too. One night I was out on watch and it was pitch-black. I couldn’t see a thing. The next day I found out that this Norris guy was about thirty feet away from me the whole time, watching me. I had no idea. If he’d wanted to kill me, he could have.

We landed late morning in a clearing in a desolate, icy, snow-covered wilderness. It was flat and endless, not a ton of trees but a lot of lakes, all of them frozen solid. We unloaded our packs and our sled and our gear. They timed us setting up our tent and trying to cook a meal for the first time. It was a disaster; we were totally clueless. Once we finally had everything set up, we watched the Canadians take off. As the helicopter flew away, leaving me and my five friends alone in the middle of the Canadian tundra, there was only one thought in my brain: I’m cold. I looked around and that’s when it hit me. This is it, for ten days. I never realized how long ten days could be until I went to Cold Lake. For ten days I was never not cold.

We had to have the stove going inside the tent at all times; otherwise it was too cold to do anything, which meant someone had to stay up on fire watch all night. We boiled snow for water to drink and heated up food in a pressure cooker. The tent didn’t have a floor. We’d spread this foil sheet down under our sleeping bags and sleep on the foil on top of the snow. It was dark most of the time, too. Late sunrise, early sunset. We had only a few hours to get things done at zero degrees before it fell back down to minus twenty. We spent most of our time walking. As part of the exercise, every morning we’d break camp, trek to some new coordinates on the map, and set up camp again. Our gear would be loaded onto a sled, and we had to be our own sled dogs, hauling this thing across the frozen tundra. We had a GPS device but it wouldn’t always work, because the batteries would freeze. I could use it for a couple of minutes, and then I had to hold it against my body for it to warm up again. The point of this was to induce stress. Over the course of a normal expedition it might take months for the stress to get to people. But we only had a couple of weeks in Cold Lake, so they had to accelerate the process.

This expedition was rough. Maybe we weren’t stranded at the South Pole, but it was no joke. All kinds of things went wrong. One night the tent caved in on us and we had to tie it to a tree. One afternoon Lee Morin and I went out and got lost. We were so lost, we didn’t even know we were lost; that’s how lost we were. At one point we ended up following our own tracks, thinking they were taking us back to camp, but actually we were taking ourselves in a circle. We barely made it back to the others before dark.

Halfway through, Frank Caldeiro blew out his knee and had to be helicoptered out. I got water in my boot and ended up with frostbite, which gave me this burning sensation on the bottom of my foot. The pain was killing me through all of this trekking around, and it didn’t completely go away until months after the expedition. Cold Lake was so cold, I couldn’t have any skin exposed outside the tent where the fire was. Ever. I forgot that one day when I was trying to tie a knot. I got frustrated with having big, clumsy gloves on. I pulled the gloves off to tie this knot and my skin was exposed for barely a second and it was like someone had taken an ice pick and jammed it through the middle of my palm, just a terrible, searing pain. At that point, I was like, This is ridiculous. This sucks. I’m cold, I’m tired, I’m miserable. I want to go home and watch television and use a real toilet. Why are we even here? Why am I even doing this? That was my own poor expedition behavior. Which meant the exercise was a total success. It pushed me to the point of having those feelings so I’d know how to recognize and cope with them.

One of the things our Canadian taskmasters would do was show up out of nowhere and give us spontaneous tasks. One time we had to move camp in the middle of the night: break everything down, load it, haul it, and set up somewhere else, in pitch blackness at twenty below. Another thing they’d do was drop food and supplies at random points and send us off to find it and bring it back to camp. Sergeant Norris came up to me with a map at dinnertime one night. He said, “Massimino, at 3:00 a.m. you and a team member are going to go to these coordinates across this lake and find a box of food and retrieve it.”

I said, “I have to walk across that lake in the middle of the night?”


“Are you sure it’s frozen? I don’t wanna fall in.”

He looked at me. “You do realize that we’re standing on a lake right now, right?” He stamped his foot. Thump! Thump! Thump! “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine.”

I asked Chamitoff, the Eagle Scout, to go with me. Greg was having a ball; at one point he’d rigged up a shower for himself to bathe in the freezing cold. To me that was crazy, but I also knew Greg was the guy I wanted with me so I wouldn’t lose a leg to frostbite or get eaten by a bear.

In the middle of the night we woke up and set off. We were halfway across the lake when we stopped and looked up. It was a perfectly clear night and the air was crisp and the stars were magnificent. There was no sound other than our breathing. Everything was perfectly still for miles around.

It hit me at that moment: I was having an extraordinary experience. I was out at the edge of civilization. Yeah, I was cold and, yeah, it was hard, but I was doing something amazing in spite of myself. I was learning new things about myself. I was being given the chance to step outside of my everyday life and look at the world in a completely different way. The world that had seemed so small growing up in Franklin Square was now vast and wide-open and filled with incredible, beautiful things. I turned to Greg and said, “Hey, remember how a few years ago we were a couple of kids in a dorm room, dreaming about becoming astronauts? And now here we are.”

“Yeah,” he said. That was the last either of us spoke. We just stood there, two buddies gazing out at the universe from the top of the world.

The whole trip changed for me halfway across that lake. The conditions hadn’t changed, but my mind-set had, and that’s what expedition training is for. I started to enjoy what I was doing. I started to appreciate the opportunities to learn new things, and the days flew by.

Survival training was not the point of the trip. We had food and water; they gave it to us. The goal was expedition training, learning how to deal with harsh, extreme circumstances. Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition was a disaster. His ship was destroyed. He never reached the South Pole. Yet today he’s revered because he kept his men together through such a catastrophic situation. He kept them focused on what needed to be done. He kept their minds active. He kept morale up. Shackleton was a great leader, and in any remote, difficult situation, leadership is key.

In Cold Lake, during our different tasks and exercises, we took turns leading the group. Before going up there, I was never comfortable in leadership roles. Now, for two out of the ten days of our expedition, I had to be the guy in charge—which was especially awkward because I was far and away the least experienced guy out there. Chamitoff was the Eagle Scout. Morin was older than me and a highly decorated officer who’d served in the Gulf War. Precourt was my boss. But I had to give the orders. I wasn’t comfortable with it, so I handled it the way I try to handle most things: by telling jokes. The whole day I kept trying to get everyone to laugh so they’d be distracted from the fact that I was in way over my head.

At the end of each day the Canadians would grade us on how we did. What Sergeant Norris told me was something I never would have thought of: Humor is a great leadership tool. Most leaders, even if they’re naturally funny, they’ll get serious in front of the group and try to motivate people either by inspiring them or by cracking the whip. But if you can keep people laughing while they’re freezing their butts off, that’s good, too. My team completed its tasks and ended the day ready to go back out and do it again, which meant I’d done a good job. Precourt even took me aside and said he thought I’d done well. Nancy Currie was right. I was nervous about going out with the head of the office, worried that he’d see me screwing up. And he did see me screw up, but he also saw me work hard and get better. He saw what my strengths were.

When we first landed in Canada, Precourt and I went to exchange some money. I didn’t know how heavily the exchange rate was in our favor. I handed the lady at the counter $50 and she gave me back $70. I said, “Hey, this is better than going to the racetrack.” Precourt thought that was hilarious, and from that moment on we were cracking each other up. I got to see that he was a regular guy. He’d gone to the Air Force Academy and learned all these languages and flew F-16s, but he was also a kid from Boston who loved hockey. We’d have picnic lunches and sit around shooting the breeze in the freezing cold. We both loved The Godfather and we cracked each other up quoting it the whole time.

At one point the two of us were lashed to a sled, with Precourt right behind me, pulling a couple hundred pounds of gear together. That sort of thing gives you a bond you can’t get anywhere else. You don’t get it playing golf together or even going to a ball game. Before we left, Precourt had been up on this unapproachable pedestal. When we got back to the office, he was definitely still the boss, but we were colleagues, friends. I’d see him in the hallway, talking to some of the other higher-ups, and he’d say, “Hey, Mass, I was just telling these guys about that time in Cold Lake….”

About a month after my Canada trip, Nancy Currie and I went to Japan to work with a team of engineers with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) at their facility in Tsukuba Science City, a couple hours outside of Tokyo. The Japanese were working on a different robot arm, one to help conduct experiments outside the station and bring them into an airlock. It was incredible to go to a place like Japan and be there as an astronaut and not as a tourist. For American astronauts to visit the Japanese space agency was a big deal. We were treated like big shots, VIPs. They wanted to hang out with us. Neil Armstrong and John Glenn still cast a long shadow. When it came to the work on the robot arm, my opinion was very, very important to these engineers. Every point I made or problem I pointed out, they were hanging on every word. It was another reminder of how much power and responsibility comes with the position.

The experience was similar to when I first became an astronaut and people started treating me with deference and respect because of my job title. Back then I didn’t feel like I’d earned it. This time it was different. This time I felt like an astronaut. I had been working and training for almost four years. My knowledge of the space program had increased a hundredfold. I was a part of a team of extraordinary people. I’d overcome challenges and obstacles and proven to myself that I was capable of doing things I never would have thought I could do. It’s a funny thing. In the beginning, I felt like an imposter telling people I was an astronaut because I hadn’t even been to space. Then I eventually realized that I was thinking about it all wrong. Going to space doesn’t make you an astronaut. Being an astronaut means you’re ready to go to space.