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

Part IV. The Door to Space

Chapter 14. READY TO GO

Joining a shuttle crew takes you into an entirely different phase of being an astronaut. If NASA is like a team, a shuttle crew is like a family. My new family was the crew of STS-109, Hubble Servicing Mission 3B. We would be flying on the space shuttle Columbia, scheduled to launch in exactly eighteen months, in February 2002. Because this mission had so much EVA, the spacewalkers were assigned several months before the rest of the flight crew to give us extra time to prepare. In addition to me, the others were John Grunsfeld, Jim Newman, and Rick Linnehan.

When the teams were assigned, it went without saying that Grunsfeld would be EV1, meaning he would lead the space walks on days one, three, and five. He had the most experience, having spacewalked on Hubble before. Newman was named EV3. He would lead the space walks on days two and four. Linnehan had flown but never spacewalked, and I was the pure rookie. He was named EV2 and paired with Grunsfeld for three space walks. I was named EV4 and paired with Newman for the other two.

For me and Grunsfeld, STS-109 was the beginning of a strong friendship. He was a mentor who, over time, became a partner. Between the missions we flew and the work we did together in between, I’ve probably spent more hours in the company of John Grunsfeld than any other astronaut. Our personalities are very different, but in a good way. We balanced each other. I’m the loud, gregarious people person, and he’s more on the soft-spoken side, a thinker, deliberate and capable. If we encountered a problem, he was the first one to come up with a solution, and most of the time he was right.

Grunsfeld stuck his neck out for me, too. After I was assigned to Hubble, he and I were out for a jog in the blistering Houston heat. He told me that during an EVA branch meeting there was some second-guessing about whether or not I was the right guy for the mission, given how new I was. Grunsfeld was the person who calmed everyone down and said I would do okay. I told him I wouldn’t let him down.

Jim Newman I knew from working together on computers and robotics; he was the astronaut responsible for flying and testing my robot-arm display when I was at Georgia Tech. We’d worked together for almost ten years, and now we were going to be spacewalking together. Newman had some idiosyncrasies. In a place like NASA, which is all about the team, he stood out as something of an individualist. His nickname was Pluto, not after the dog, but because he was in a whole different orbit. He’s one of those guys who’s so smart, he’s often marching to his own drummer. Which is a good thing: You need somebody who tackles problems from a different angle. Newman was a good person to be partnered with because he was very experienced and saw it as his responsibility to bring me along and help me out.

Rick Linnehan was someone I didn’t know that well before being assigned. Rick had an interesting background for an astronaut: He was a large-animal veterinarian. He started out doing research at Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Zoo before going on to do marine mammal research with the U.S. Navy. Very funny, loved dancing to Johnny Cash and doing old Three Stooges routines while floating in space.

A few months later the flight deck crew was announced. Scott Altman—“Scooter”—became our commander. He and I were already old pals from five years of being neighbors and reenacting scenes from Top Gun on T-38 flights. Nancy Currie was named our flight engineer and robot-arm operator. She was and continued to be an ally and advocate for me. She was a real veteran, too. Both she and Newman had flown on the first station assembly flight, so she brought some good experience in dealing with a high-profile, high-pressure situation, which we were going to need.

Duane Carey—“Digger”—became our pilot. Digger was the other rookie on the flight besides me. Like Linnehan, he was someone I didn’t know that well going in. He was your classic Edwards Air Force Base test pilot, loved riding motorcycles—a real Right Stuff kind of guy. He looked the part, too, with the crew cut and everything. The reason I didn’t know him that well was because he was never around much. If he wasn’t working he was home with his family, doing math homework with his kids. But once we were assigned together we bonded quickly as the only rookies.

On a shuttle flight, the commander is in charge of the crew. What he says goes. This was Scooter’s first commander slot, but he took to it naturally. Every shuttle crew is assigned its own office for the months leading up to the mission, and our first task as a team was moving in and setting up. It was such a small thing, but even there I could see how the team dynamic was going to work. Scooter walked into the office on day one and looked at what we were doing and said, “No, this needs to go here, that should go there….” He was calm, confident, and in charge. He fell right into his leadership role, and we fell in right behind him. That, to me, was a good sign.

One of the first things we did as a crew was go out to dinner together. I could see the family dynamic already starting to form. Scooter was the dad, and I was the little brother. Linnehan and Digger were like the siblings I would goof around and have fun with. Nancy and Grunsfeld and Newman were like the older siblings I’d go to for advice. I was the rookie spacewalker and the only crew member still in his thirties. I was always in the position of asking questions and wanting to learn, and the others had this natural instinct to want to help me and support me.

After 109 was over, Charlie Precourt told me why he chose me. I was good in the pool and proficient in the suit, but so were a lot of people. The thing that set me apart, to him, was my personality. No matter how stressful the situation, I try to keep things light and fun, like I’d done up in Cold Lake, like I’d done going back to my high school sports teams. I was always the glue. This was going to be a difficult mission in a high-pressure situation. There were all these very different, very strong personalities sitting around the family dinner table, and having a fun little brother sitting down at the end broke the tension and balanced everything out. I didn’t know that was my job at the time, but in hindsight it made perfect sense.

Once the team was assembled, we threw ourselves into the mission. We had a full slate of tasks ahead of us. We would be replacing the telescope’s solar arrays with newer, more efficient ones; replacing the PCU—the power control unit, the central nervous system of the entire telescope; swapping out the older Faint Object Camera (FOC) for the exponentially more powerful ACS, the Advanced Camera for Surveys; and installing a new cryocooling system for the NICMOS, the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, which had been dormant since its original cooling unit failed in January 1999, two years after being installed.

These were complicated, delicate upgrades to perform, and we only had eighteen months to prepare. Based on mission priorities and the amount of time each task was going to take, it was decided that on EVA #1, Grunsfeld and Linnehan would replace the starboard solar array. On EVA #2, Newman and I would replace the port solar array. EVA #3 would be the PCU replacement. EVA #4 would involve swapping the FOC for the Advanced Camera for Surveys. And on EVA #5, Grunsfeld and Linnehan would install the NICMOS cryocooling system. In addition to those main tasks, each day we’d also have a number of smaller, routine chores, like adding new insulation blankets and helping prep for the next day’s space walk.

In terms of advancing the Hubble’s capabilities and its scientific mission, installing the Advanced Camera for Surveys was the most important aspect of the mission. It was going to improve the Hubble’s ability to capture images by a factor of ten. It was going to peer farther and deeper into space than any other instrument ever created. But from the point of view of preparing for the mission, swapping the ACS for the older instrument was the relatively simpler task. It wasn’t easy. Nothing in space is easy, but the job itself was straightforward. Both the FOC and the Advanced Camera for Surveys are about the size of a refrigerator; each one is a big metal box. Because the engineers at Goddard and Lockheed designed the Hubble to be serviced, all we had to do was demate the connectors, disengage the latches holding the FOC in place, pop it out, slide the ACS in, and hook it up.

The part of my job that had me concerned—and by “concerned” I mean “petrified”—was replacing the solar array. Hubble’s solar arrays use photovoltaic cells to collect energy from the sun. That energy is channeled through diode boxes that convert it to electrical power, which is then stored in the telescope’s batteries. From the batteries, the power is distributed through the PCU, which acts like the electrical grid that parcels out energy to the different houses and buildings on a city block.

The larger a solar array is, the more energy you can capture with it. The challenge NASA faced when Hubble launched was that photovoltaic technology wasn’t that advanced. They needed arrays with a large surface area, but those arrays needed to be small and lightweight for launch. The array that was used was made out of thin, flimsy metal that stored compactly and rolled out like a window shade. The problem with that design is that, as the telescope orbits from day to night and from night back to day, there’s a 400-degree swing in the temperature. It’s called the thermal cycle, day-night, hot-cold. These flimsy arrays started expanding and contracting with the thermal cycle. They were shaking the telescope and getting bent out of shape and becoming less efficient.

By the time we launched Servicing Mission 3B, photovoltaic technology had improved dramatically, and the arrays we were bringing up were much smaller than the originals: one-third the size while producing 20 percent more power. They weren’t flimsy; they were rigid and made out of a strong aluminum-lithium alloy. They didn’t roll out like a window shade; they opened like a book, with two panels that hinged around a central mast—the spine of the book. The mast held the connectors that attached the array to the diode box in the telescope.

For launch, the arrays would be stored in their folded position inside a carrier in the payload bay. One of my jobs would be to remove the array from its carrier, after which I had to rotate it 180 degrees along its long axis in order for the mast to be in the right position to get plugged in to the telescope. I wouldn’t be lifting the array out of its carrier—I would be holding it while Nancy, using the robot arm from inside the shuttle, lifted me and it together out of the payload bay. Once I was clear of anything I might bump into, I would rotate the array to put the mast in the right position. Linnehan had to perform the same task with the starboard solar array on EVA #1.

Here was my problem: This solar array weighed 640 pounds, and even though it wouldn’t have any weight in space, it would still have mass, which means it still had inertia. And because it had this bulky mast on one end, the center of the array’s mass was not in the center of the array; I couldn’t pivot it around the middle. And even though this array was smaller than the old one, it was still enormous. When folded in half, the way it would be when I rotated it, it was 8 feet by 12.375 feet—about one and a half times bigger than a king-size mattress. The center of mass would be far away from me, making the array difficult to control. On top of that, I couldn’t be tethered to it. This thing was big enough and had enough mass that NASA was worried if it got away from me, it might break my safety tether and take me with it or rip a hole in my suit, and they would rather lose a solar array than lose an astronaut.

No astronaut had ever done this before. The first person to attempt it would be Rick Linnehan, who had to perform the same task the day before me. I don’t know if Rick was as anxious as I was, but I was terrified I was going to lose control of this thing. If I gave it the slightest jerk or moved it too fast and it started to wobble and get away from me, it would be “Bye-bye, solar array.” And it’s not like you can say, “Oh, let me pop down to the payload bay and get the spare.” There’re no spares. I would have one chance to do it perfectly.

In space, there are no small mistakes. Every mistake is a big mistake, and I’d seen astronauts make them. One robot arm operator, while trying to grapple a satellite, accidentally tipped it instead, sending it spinning out of orbit. The shuttle commander had to jump into action and maneuver the shuttle to chase the thing down. Another time a spacewalker—and this is a true story—accidentally put his right boot on his left foot and put his left boot on his right foot. Once he got outside, he couldn’t fit in a foot restraint. Another spacewalker accidentally went out with a used CO2 scrubber in his suit; he got a “high CO2” alert in a matter of minutes, and the whole EVA had to be called off.

Mistakes cost time, and time is very expensive in space. The total budgeted cost of STS-109’s eleven-day mission was $172 million—about $650,000 an hour. The solar array that I was petrified I was going to send sailing off into space? It was worth nearly $10 million. The Advanced Camera for Surveys that Newman and I had to install? That instrument alone cost $76 million. And the Hubble itself is priceless. The decades of work that have gone into it, what it does for science and the advancement of human knowledge, you cannot begin to put a value on that. And NASA was entrusting it to me, the guy who’d never been to space.

There’s an old NASA saying that Newman taught me: “No matter how bad things appear,” he said, “remember, you can always make them worse.” It’s true. Once a problem comes up, if you panic or act too fast, you will only exacerbate the problem. The same way I was scared I was going to FOD the jet when I first flew in the T-38, I was in a constant state of worry that I’d be the guy making things worse.

Fortunately, if there’s one thing NASA knows how to do, it’s condition people to deal with fear. No training experience on Earth can ever re-create exactly how it feels to be in space. So what NASA does is, they break the experience of spaceflight and spacewalking down to their constituent parts. You work on each one individually and then piece them together. That’s the way it is for all the elements of the flight, whether it’s working the robot arm or working the shuttle systems or learning how to use the toilet.

For spacewalking, we have the pool. That’s the major training tool because that’s where the experience is as close as it will be in orbit. The shuttle’s payload bay is sixty feet long and fifteen feet in diameter. In the pool there’s a replica of it in the exact same configuration you’ll have for the mission. For STS-109, the Hubble was going to be berthed on a rotating turntable, like a lazy Susan, at the far end of the payload bay. In between it and the airlock were the enclosures that housed our tools and equipment as well as the carriers that held the instruments we were about to install. That payload bay mock-up in the pool is a good simulation of the working environment we have in orbit, but many elements simply aren’t the same. Water creates drag. If you lose control of an object in the pool, it will eventually slow down and stop; if you lose control of an object in space, it will keep going and going and going and going.

Another thing that’s different is the visual. The mock-up is not the same as the actual telescope, because it’s made for the pool. The actual equipment is so sensitive it can’t be put in the water, so it has to be a bit different. To work with the real equipment, we’d go to the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. There they have what’s called a clean room, a room with a positive airflow so that no dust can ever form; it’s tested down to one part per billion. Just to get in I’d have to take an air shower to blow off the dirt and loose skin on my clothes. Then I’d have to put on a gown, a hood, a mask, gloves, and booties over my shoes. Then I’d walk through this airlock into a gigantic, warehouse-size room with guys in bunny suits walking around with clipboards and cranes moving equipment overhead. It felt like a scene out of a James Bond movie.

In the clean room they have a high-fidelity, life-size mock-up of the telescope, a perfect replica: the exact same instruments, how they feel, what they look like. It’s especially accurate on the inside, down to the intricate switches and the latches and the connector pins. The tools we used there were the exact same as the tools we would be using in space. In the clean room, we’d work with this replica, mating the new solar array to the telescope, aligning and installing the ACS. We’d memorize what everything looked like, how the pins and connectors lined up, how they fit together. We’d practice over and over and over again until we could do it blindfolded.

The downside at Goddard is that we were in regular gravity. The EVA suit weighs over 200 pounds. The solar array weighs 640 pounds. We couldn’t actually move any of this equipment around the way we would need to in space. To practice mass handling, we went to a virtual-reality lab. There, we had a machine we called Charlotte because it looked like an enormous spider in a web. It was a box with different handrails and wires coming off it. I’d put on the virtual-reality helmet and move the handrails around; they were programmed to behave as if I were manipulating a 640-pound king-size mattress in the vacuum of space, where the tiniest misstep could send the thing wobbling out of control.

Of course, handling something in virtual reality isn’t exactly the same as handling an actual physical object. For that we had what’s called the air-bearing floor, which works like an air-hockey table in reverse. It’s a floor that’s polished to be perfectly flat and smooth. Instead of the floor shooting air up, it has objects that glide on the surface like a magic carpet by pushing air down, creating a frictionless, weightless environment. I could take an object like the solar array, put it on the air-bearing floor, and move it around in two dimensions, X and Y, and feel how easily I could lose control of it.

Not one of these training exercises comes close to the real thing. Each one mimics a certain aspect of being in space. I’d work with the real equipment in the clean room at Goddard and get a sense of what it was going to look like. Then I’d file that memory away. I’d play out the scenario in virtual reality and get a sense of how the mass handling was going to feel. Then I’d file that memory away. I’d do it again on the air-bearing floor and file that memory away. Then, piece by piece, I was synthesizing that information together into a mental model of what the experience was going to be like once I was in space.

So that’s what I did. I would get in the virtual-reality lab first thing in the morning and slowly, slowly, rotate that array: Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Then I’d rotate it on the air-bearing floor: Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. I’d rotate it in the pool: Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. For months and months and months. Over and over and over.

Grunsfeld used to say that the Hubble knows when it’s about to get fixed, and it breaks something else so you can come fix that, too. Sure enough, on November 10, three months before we were set to launch, one of the telescope’s reaction wheels conked out. It was decided that Newman and I would handle swapping out the old reaction wheel for a new one after replacing the solar array. Our launch date was pushed back one week, from February 21 to February 28, to give us time to train on the new task.

With each passing day the size and the scope of the mission grew bigger. The two EVA teams trained together for months. Then Nancy joined us on the robot arm to practice flying us around in the pool. Then Scooter and Digger joined in, and we had the whole crew do stand-alone sims for ascent, entry, and orbit. We practiced different aborts and failures and contingencies. Over and over and over again.

In the early going, during our sims, we usually had an instructor in a chair with a binder, acting like Mission Control. Then, a few months out, we were assigned our flight director and flight control teams; there’s an ascent and entry team and three orbit teams that handle the three eight-hour shifts of the twenty-four-hour day. We selected our family escorts. We were assigned CAPCOMs, the person in the control room who speaks directly to the crew, the liaison between the astronauts and Mission Control. With our extended team in place, we started running integrated sims. Finally, the entire Johnson Space Center is working together: The flight control team is in the Mission Control Center, the flight deck crew is in the shuttle simulator, the EVA team is in the pool at the NBL a couple of miles down the road, and everyone is linked up via radio to execute the sim. Everyone comes together and forms this cohesive, coordinated unit.

On December 17, 2001, Endeavor and the crew of STS-108 landed safely at Kennedy after their International Space Station assembly and supply mission. As soon as they touched down, we were up next. We were designated prime crew. Prime crew gets everything. We were first in line for T-38 flights. We had our own prime crew quarters at Kennedy with our names on the door. From that point until launch, everything revolved around us.

At the end of January, we flew down to Kennedy for TCDT, the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, the final stage of preparation. The TCDT is huge. We flew down in our T-38s. Columbia was out at the launchpad, all decked out the way we were going to fly it, the full stack, with the external tank and the solid rockets. Anytime you fly down with your shuttle on the launchpad, you request a flyby. You get in low and do a 360 around your space shuttle. You bank around, look at it from above, and then land. It’s really, really cool. We went through evacuation drills to prepare for an abort on the launchpad. We suited up and went through a full launch simulation. Except for the fact that there was no fuel in the tank, everything was exactly how it would be for launch.

The press was there, and we spoke to them for the first time. Suddenly everything felt real. The instruments and tools and carriers we’d been working with at Goddard had now been moved to the Kennedy Space Center, ready to get packed into the payload bay. When we went out and inspected the shuttle, I looked at it and I realized: This is my spaceship. There have been spaceships on this launchpad going back to Mercury and Apollo, but this one is mine.

As we got closer to launch I could feel this huge apparatus, this giant NASA machine, coming to life around me. Thousands of people were working nonstop, around the clock, from Houston to Florida to Maryland and a dozen other places. And all that time and energy and effort was dedicated to one task: putting STS-109 in orbit. All eyes were focused on me and my six crewmates. During my space walks, those people would be focused on me and one other person. During some tasks, like rotating the solar array, all eyes at NASA, and the attention of every astronomer and hard-core space enthusiast in the world, would be focused on me and only me. It was both humbling and terrifying.

There were times I felt completely overwhelmed. Going to space had been my dream for so long, sometimes I felt like it might still be a dream, like I was going to wake up and realize I was just an average Joe going to work back on Long Island in my tie and my white shirts. That was maybe the hardest thing for me: accepting that this was real. Physically I was in the best shape of my life. Getting my mind right was far more difficult.

It’s called imposter syndrome, the fear that people are going to figure out that you don’t belong, that you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re afraid that one day somebody’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Mike Massimino? Yeah, there’s been a mistake. We meant to pick the other guy.” It’s natural to have those thoughts, but too often I’d let them get in my way. Because I was the rookie and the youngest person on the crew, I fell into the role of being everybody’s kid brother, asking questions and letting others take the lead and show me what to do. I wanted to be humble, never arrogant, which is a trait astronauts despise. But the downside of that is that I’d slipped into a subordinate role. When it was time to step up and be a leader, I wasn’t prepared.

Even being the junior spacewalker, I still had to be in charge of my own tasks. I had to be confident and comfortable making decisions on the fly, telling my crewmates what I needed them to do when I needed them to do it. That kind of leadership didn’t come easily for me. Sometimes during sims I would get caught up in something and I’d be so worried about making a mistake or a bad decision that I’d end up making a mistake or a bad decision. I was so concerned about being a rookie and accidentally breaking something that I tried to make up for it by studying and asking questions constantly. At times I went overboard in that regard. Asking too many questions betrayed my lack of confidence and gave some people the impression that I wasn’t prepared and didn’t know what I was doing. I might have sabotaged myself completely but for the great friends and mentors around me. Grunsfeld told me as much during one of my evaluations. He said, “Mass, I believe in you, and I believe that you can do this. Your problem is that you don’t believe in yourself.”

One evening right before launch, Steve Smith came over to my house to talk. I’m sure he could tell what I was feeling. He said, “Mass, I want you to remember two things. One: Know that you’re prepared. You may not feel like you’re prepared, but they wouldn’t let you go if you weren’t. And two: Space is an open-book exam. You’re not alone up there. This is a team, and you can always get help if you need it.”

That night was a real turning point for me. John and Steve were both right. I had to stop thinking of myself as a rookie. I was not a rookie in the eyes of Hubble engineers and astronomers and management and instructors—I was one of the guys who was going to fix the Hubble. I couldn’t leave my responsibilities to my crewmates. I was fully capable and, more important, during eighteen months of training, I had demonstrated that I was fully capable. Everyone from the NASA administrator to our janitorial support in the NBL had confidence in me; now, for the sake the team, I needed to have the same confidence in myself. Accepting that and knowing that was probably the hardest part of preparing for the mission.

Once you’ve got your body and your mind right to go to space, there’s only one thing left to deal with, something you don’t hear engineers and scientists talk about a whole lot. You have to prepare your soul. Being ready to go means being ready to go. You’re not just preparing to leave the Earth for two weeks—you’re preparing for the possibility that you might be leaving forever, and you have to be at peace with that.

Most days, you don’t think about being killed. You go to work, go shopping, go home, and it doesn’t cross your mind. But spaceflight is still a dangerous business. As we were counting down to launch, I thought about death constantly. I found myself having random moments. I’d linger in rooms more than normal, looking around, wondering if this was the last time I’d see those people. I took care of the will and the life insurance. I made sure the cars were washed. I made sure Carola knew where the spare key to the garage was.

Every day I was reminded of my mortality in different ways, big and small. People love having stuff that’s been flown in space, and every astronaut has a kit in which we’re allowed to take items up to give away. I took a photo of the students from my kids’ elementary school, an FDNY patch and hat to honor my father. The Mets gave me a jersey. I was going around to my relatives and in-laws, too, asking if people wanted me to take anything for them. I was expecting them to offer a watch or some cuff links or a family photo or something. Not my family. They’re Italian-American Roman Catholics. Every single one of them came in with some religious object. I’m going to space and I’ve got a statuette of the Madonna and child. I’ve got a baby Jesus from a nativity set of some cousin over in Sicily. I’ve got a St. Christopher medal, a St. Michael medal, a picture of Padre Pio, one of Our Lady of Loreto. I’ve got crucifixes, rosaries, prayer cards, all these trinkets. It got to be funny, but there was a reason behind it: Everyone was worried I was going to die, and if it turned out this was my time, they wanted to make sure I was covered.

I’ve always been a decent Catholic. Not the best, not the worst, but middle-of-the-road. In those last weeks I became the most devout Catholic in the state of Texas. I probably went a little overboard with it. As the launch got closer, I started going to confession a couple times a week. Right before quarantine I went to our priest, Father Dominic. “Father,” I said, “I’ve been coming here because I need a clean soul, but now I have to go into quarantine and I won’t see you anymore. What happens if something happens after I go in but before I go up? Can I send you confession via e-mail?”

I’m sure he thought I was losing my mind. He was like, “Sure, Mike. If you want to send me an e-mail, that’s fine.”

The whole crew is grappling with the same fears. Everybody deals with it in different ways. Some people throw themselves into the work. Some people go to the gym. Different people need different things. For me, I needed to spend time with my family. That’s what was important to me as the clock ticked down in those final weeks. I made sure I was home for dinner. I took Gabby camping one weekend. Their school had a Skate Night fund-raiser where we went roller-skating. I could have spent that time going over EVA checklists for the thousandth time, but I decided to have confidence in my training and trust that I was ready so I could have that time for myself. But as the launch grew closer, family time was harder and harder to come by.

To rendezvous with the Hubble, we had to catch it when it passed directly overhead; if you get to space and your target is on the other side of the planet, good luck catching it. For STS-109, that meant we had to launch in the middle of the night; we’d be going to bed at 12:30 in the afternoon Houston time and waking up to start our day at 8:30 at night. In order to acclimate our bodies, a few weeks out from launch, we started a sleep shift, pushing bedtime back a bit each night and waking up a bit later each morning. The further the sleep shift moved us off a normal nine-to-five schedule, the harder and harder it was to spend time at home. I was sleeping through getting the kids ready for school in the morning. Crew activities were running into dinnertime at night. It was frustrating for me.

One week before launch, the crew goes into quarantine. Nobody wants to be dealing with a head cold or a virus in space. Adults can visit you in quarantine once they’ve been screened by the flight surgeon, which means you can still see your spouse and your fellow astronauts. But children under the age of eighteen can’t come in. That’s it. Kiss ’em and hug ’em and say good-bye. We were scheduled to start quarantine at 9:00 p.m. on February 21, a Thursday night, the same night as the annual Blue and Gold Banquet for Daniel’s Cub Scout pack. It was a big deal, the last thing I would get to do with my kids, and I didn’t want to miss it. It started at seven, and I could leave early to make the cutoff. I told the flight surgeon, Smith Johnston, that I was going. He said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me. Two hours before quarantine, in the middle of cold and flu season, and you want to walk into a room with a hundred six- and seven-year-olds blowing snot and germs everywhere? Are you out of your mind?”

I said, “I’m going.”

He was skeptical, but I think he understood why it was so important. “Just don’t get sick,” he said.

Around 8:30 we got up to leave. I wanted to slip out quietly, but the scoutmaster got up and made an announcement: “Mike Massimino is leaving because he’s going to fly in space next week. Mike’s going to Hubble. Let’s wish him the best of luck!” The Cub Scouts and their families gave me a cheer. That was my big sendoff. We drove home, and I dropped Carola and the kids off so she could put them to bed. I gave my wife a hug and a kiss. I grabbed Gabby and Daniel and held them as close as I could and said good-bye.

I checked into quarantine at 9:00 sharp, but while I was unpacking and getting settled in, I realized I’d forgotten my watch. It wasn’t that big a deal. I knew Carola could bring it to me the next day. But I realized maybe I could use that to ask to go back and get more time. I only lived five minutes away. I went to Scooter and said, “I need to run home real quick. I forgot something.”

He said, “Mike, it’s 9:30. We’re officially in quarantine. Nobody’s supposed to leave.” I leaned on him pretty hard. He knew why I was really asking. He said, “Go. Get what you need. Come right back.”

I raced home and ran inside. Carola heard me coming back in after we’d just had this big good-bye. She gave me a confused look. I said, “I just need to get something.” I don’t remember if I even got the watch. I went down the hall and I slipped into Gabby’s room. She was in her bed in her nightgown with flowers on it. I sat down in this little chair next to her bed and I watched her sleep. I stayed there for as long as I could. Ten, fifteen minutes maybe. Then I went over to Daniel’s room. He was wearing his baseball pajamas. I sat and watched him, too. I was trying to memorize their faces. I couldn’t make myself go down and get back in the car. Every part of me was saying, Don’t leave. Don’t go. I knew I’d see Carola again the next day, but was this the last time I’d ever see my kids? I’d been given this amazing gift, going to space, my childhood dream come true. But what if that dream cost me everything else?

I stayed for as long as I could. Then I knew it was time to face facts. I left and drove back to quarantine. Once I got there, I was okay again. I looked around at my crewmates and I remembered: I have a second family here. They’re counting on me, too, and it’s time to go to work.

With my copilot, Snoopy, July 1969. Backyard adventures in space. Credit 1

Controlling the robot arm in my lab at MIT, with a 1980s hairstyle. Credit 2

With Mom and Dad at my Columbia graduation. They are smiling because they thought my formal education was over; little did they know… Credit 3

I’m on the left with (left to right) Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier and colleagues Mike Meschler and Lonnie Cundieff during a test of our manipulator position display at the Johnson Space Center in 1994.

With one-year-old Gabby on my shoulders and space shuttle Columbia on top of a 747 at Ellington Field, 1994. Credit 4

A very happy pose for my first official astronaut photograph.

Flying at what we called “the speed of heat” in a NASA T-38 above the Gulf of Mexico.

With eight-month-old Daniel at Jekyll Island, Georgia, Spring Break 1996. Credit 5

All dressed up and about to be lowered into the water for a challenging day of spacewalk training at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).

The NASA astronaut class of 1996. The Sardines—thirty-five Americans and nine international astronauts, the largest (and best-looking) astronaut class ever. (Can you find me?)

With Dad, Mom, Carola, Gabby, and Daniel, at the Sardine astronaut class graduation, from astronaut candidates to official astronauts, April 1998.

With Mike “Bueno” Good (on robot arm) training in NBL. Divers on the right are holding an IMAX camera and filming the documentary IMAX: Hubble 3D.

Checking out the payload bay of space shuttle Columbia with Rick Linnehan (behind me). Our spacewalking instructor Dana Weigel is next to Rick and apparently falling asleep after a late night at the Cape.

Team photo of Cold Lakes, Canada. Back row of astronauts: Greg Chamitoff, Lee Morin, Frank Caldeiro, Charlie Precourt, Dan Tani, and me. Front row of Canadian Army instructor tough guys: Sgt. Colin Norris (with impressive facial hair) is on the left.

The STS-109 taking a break from emergency training at the Kennedy Space Center. Space shuttle Columbia on the launchpad is in the background. Top row (left to right): John Grunsfeld, Scott Altman, Nancy Currie, and Jim Newman. Bottom row (left to right): Duane Carey, Rick Linnehan, and me.

The Hubble Space Telescope on the shuttle’s robot arm as seen through an overhead window in the space shuttle. Beautiful planet Earth in the background.

With Jim Newman (on left) to exchange an old for a new reaction wheel during our first spacewalk together.

Trying to look relaxed and cool for my spacewalking hero photo taken just minutes into my first spacewalk on STS-109. Notice the Earth in my visor.

Happy moment with Jim Newman after successfully completing our first spacewalk.

Rick Linnehan on the arm rotating a solar array and trying to not be distracted by the view of the Earth in front of him. My turn came the next day during nightfall, so there was no worry about such distraction.

Another boyhood dream fulfilled: ceremonial first pitch from the mound at Shea Stadium before the Mets versus Yankees subway series game, June 15, 2002. Credit 6

The crew of STS-107 on orbit just days before they did not make it back to Earth onboard space shuttle Columbia.

Two space shuttles ready to go on the launchpad for the first time in history. Our spaceship, Atlantis, is in the foreground, and our rescue spaceship, Endeavour, is in the background along with a lucky rainbow in the sky.

The crew of STS-125 outside our ride to the launchpad on launch day (left to right): me, Mike Good, Drew Feustel, John Grunsfeld, Megan McArthur, Greg Johnson, and Scott Altman.

At the computer sending one of the first tweets from space to planet Earth.

With Drew Feustel in the airlock of Atlantis, wishing each other a last-minute good luck.

Space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on its mission to unlock the secrets of the universe, May 11, 2009, at 2:01 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time.

Going into a sunrise during the fourth and final spacewalk of my astronaut career.

Having mixed feelings as I prepare for entry and landing on my last day in space, May 24, 2009.

With my copilot, Snoopy, May 2009. Same Snoopy, but now with real adventures in space.