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

Part IV. The Door to Space

Chapter 16. EARTH IS A PLANET

When people ask me what it feels like the first time you spacewalk, what I tell them is this: Imagine you’ve been tapped to be the starting pitcher in game seven of the World Series. Fifty thousand screaming fans in the seats, millions of people watching around the world, and you’re in the bullpen waiting to go out. But you’ve never actually played baseball before. You’ve never set foot on a baseball diamond before. You’ve spent time in the batting cages. You’ve run drills and exercises with mock-ups and replicas. You’ve spent months playing MLB on your Sony PlayStation, but you’ve never once set foot on that mound. And guess what? The Series is tied and the whole season is on the line and everyone is banking everything on you. Now go get ’em. That’s how I felt sitting in that airlock. NASA was trusting me to do millions of dollars in repairs to this billion-dollar telescope…and until that moment I’d never laid a hand on the actual telescope.

It was a moment I’d dreamed of my whole life, something I’d worked toward for years, yet I couldn’t help but worry: What if I was no good at it? What if I didn’t actually enjoy it? What if I hated it? If Mission Control had come over the radio at that moment and said, “Hey, we just realized the Hubble’s fine and you don’t have to go out,” part of me would have been relieved.

I watched the clock tick down, anxiously waiting for it to get to zero. Finally it did. Once the pre-breathe was over, we unhooked our suits and we were floating. Scooter came by for a handshake and then Digger popped in for one last good-bye. During our training, as the only two rookies, Digger and I had become close. In the months leading up to the flight, we talked about dreaming about space since we were kids and what we were most looking forward to. Being weightless and looking out the window excited us the most, but I was going to get to spacewalk and he wasn’t. Right before we launched he’d come up to me and said, “Mass, since I’m a pilot I’ll never get a chance to spacewalk, but you gotta do something for me. I want you to look around out there and, as soon as you get in, I’m going to come to you and I want you to tell me what it’s like. I want a description fresh from your mind. You gotta promise me you’ll do that.” Now he wanted to make sure I made good on my promise. “Good luck, Mass,” he said. “You’ll do great, and remember, I want a full report.”

I told him I would give him one, and quietly I thought to myself: I hope it’s a good one. Then Grunsfeld floated over to the airlock’s inner hatch and pushed it closed. He pulled the handle down and spun it shut. It sounded like I was being locked in a prison cell. WHOMP! CHA-CHUNK! I looked over at Newman like I guess this is it. There’s no going back now.

Newman switched our suits over to their own battery power and oxygen. Then he started to depress the airlock. After a final purge of air from the airlock, we were in a complete vacuum. There was no sound. The cha-chunk I heard when they locked us in, I wouldn’t hear that now. I could bang on the shuttle wall with a hammer and I wouldn’t hear that, either; there’s no way for that sound to travel. The only noise I could hear was the sound of my internal cooling fan and some squeaking from moving around inside the space suit. My voice sounded different, too, because the sound wave travels differently through the lower atmospheric pressure. It’s at a lower register. I sounded like I was about to cut a blues album.

At that point we were clear to go. There was nothing left except for Newman to open the outer hatch. Once he did that, I knew the only thing between me and certain death would be this suit I had on. NASA’s EVA suit is amazing. It’s got its own life support and it’s pressurized and it’s got a Kevlar lining. It’s designed using the most advanced technology known to man. But still, it’s just a suit. I could get a hole in it, either from getting punctured by a micrometeorite or from the sharp edge of a tool. Or sometimes suits can leak. If the hole was large enough and I didn’t get back inside before my suit pressure got to zero, I’d die. My tether might break and I’d go tumbling off into space and my crew might not get to me before my life support ran out. It’s also possible to drown in a suit. If the water and cooling systems malfunction, fluid can leak into the suit, which has actually happened. Luckily the spacewalker got back inside in time. Ultimately you have to have trust in your equipment and the people who built it for you. You say to yourself, The suit will work, and you try not to think about the alternative. That’s a key part of your training, too. You build up so much confidence in your gear and in the people who handle it for you that when it comes time to go out, hopefully you don’t even think about it.

Newman pulled open the door to the payload bay and pushed the thermal cover aside. Then he went out first to make sure the coast was clear and to secure our safety tethers. He was out there for a few minutes. Finally he said, “Okay, you’re clear to come out.” I put my hands on the hatch frame and pulled myself through. I was floating on my back, looking up and out of the payload bay. The first thing I saw was Newman floating above me, hanging out with this grin on his face like Check this out.

Behind his head was Africa.

According to my suit’s biometric sensors, I have a normal resting heart rate of 50 or 60 beats per minute. The moment I saw the Earth it spiked to 120. Eventually it settled back down to a normal exercise rate of around 75, but for that moment it was racing. Hubble is 350 miles above Earth; we need the telescope as far away from the planet as possible in order to have a longer orbit, see more of the sky, and be farther away from the atmospheric effects of Earth. The space station is 250 miles above Earth. From that vantage you can’t fit the whole planet in your field of vision. From Hubble you can see the whole thing. You can see the curvature of the Earth. You can see this gigantic, bright blue marble set against the blackness of space, and it’s the most magnificent and incredible thing you’ve ever seen in your life. One thing I was not prepared for was how blue it is, how much water there is. Rick Mastracchio, a veteran spacewalker, once described it to me by saying, “You’re always over the Pacific.” And it’s true. The Earth is three-quarters water, and it feels like it. You’re up there and it’s water, water, water. Then there’s Africa and, poof, it’s gone in a few minutes and then it’s water, water, water again.

Seeing the Earth framed through the shuttle’s small windows versus seeing it from outside was like the difference between looking at fish in an aquarium versus scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I wasn’t constrained by any frame. The glass of my helmet was polished crystal clear, and every direction I looked, there was nothing around me but the infinity of the universe. I was really out there, floating in it, swimming in it. I felt like a real spaceman. When you’re orbiting the Earth on an EVA, you’re in your space suit flying at 17,500 miles per hour. You’re moving fast, but it doesn’t feel like you’re moving at all. You’re falling, really. That’s what orbiting is: You’re falling toward the Earth but you’re also moving so fast parallel to the planet that the edge of the Earth keeps rotating away from you as you fall, so you keep going round and round.

Whenever you’re falling, you’re weightless. People often think you’re weightless in space because there’s zero gravity. That’s a common misconception. Gravity exists everywhere, same as friction and inertia or any other property of physics. The moon has one-sixth the Earth’s gravity. In space there’s microgravity. But anytime you’re falling, even on Earth, you are weightless. And whenever you’re weightless, your vestibular system is still, which tells your brain that you’re not moving. Also there’s no atmosphere to create a drag on your suit, which means there’s no sensation of movement whatsoever. The only way to get a sense of how fast you’re going is to look at the Earth. You spend forever over the Pacific and then you hit California and you realize you’re really booking. There’s LA, there’s Vegas, there’s Phoenix, there’s Albuquerque. Bam bam bam bam. They whoosh by. Baja to Miami is a six-hour flight. In space you do it in eleven minutes.

After seeing the Earth, I looked down the payload bay at the telescope, and the thing I noticed was the light from the sun. The sun on Earth is filtered through the atmosphere; it can appear bright yellow or as that golden hue you get at sunset. You get different colors depending on the place and the time of day, which in turn affects the color of objects as we perceive them. In space, sunlight is nothing like sunlight as you know it. It’s pure whiteness. It’s perfect white light. It’s the whitest white you’ve ever seen. I felt like I had Superman vision. The colors were intense and vibrant—the gleaming white body of the shuttle; the metallic gold of the Mylar sheets and the thermal blankets; the red, white, and blue of the American flag on my shoulder. Everything was bright and rich and beautiful. Everything had a clarity and a crispness to it. It was like I was seeing things in their purest form, like I was seeing true color for the first time.

After taking a minute to soak everything in, my first conscious thought was How the heck am I going to get anything done? How am I supposed to pay attention to my work with this magnificent beauty all around me? But then I turned my head back to the wall of the payload bay right in front of me and there was a handrail. I recognized it. It was just like the handrail I’d seen and worked with in the pool dozens of times. I looked around and everything in the payload bay was right where it was supposed to be. Every tool, every piece of equipment, the winch with the rope on the end of it—everything felt familiar. Even though I’d never been out on that pitcher’s mound before, I knew exactly what I needed to do.

The first thing I did was pull myself up to the window looking out from the flight deck onto the payload bay to get my picture taken. The hero shot, we call it, a nice memento of your first moments of spacewalking. With that out of the way, I spent the next fifteen minutes or so doing what’s known as translation adaptation. When you train for space walks, you’re used to moving around in the pool, where there’s drag on your suit from the resistance of the water. It slows you down and makes you more stable. In space there’s no resistance to any move you make, so you have to go really slow. I moved up and down the forward part of the payload bay. I did some pitch and roll maneuvers, getting a sense of how it felt. I took note of how my tether was moving behind me so I could make sure I wouldn’t get tangled up in it.

Then it was time to go to work. The robot-arm platform was positioned right at the front of the payload bay where we’d come out. I climbed onto the top of the robot-arm platform, slotted my boots into the foot restraints, and they clicked right into place. Flat and go. Perfect on the first try. Now I was ready for Nancy to move me around. For the next twenty minutes or so, Newman and I moved about the payload bay, getting things ready. We had a foot restraint that attached to the Hubble itself, so the free-floating spacewalker could anchor himself to work on the telescope. We hooked that up and did everything else we needed to do.

While we were doing this, we entered our first night pass. The Hubble orbits around the Earth once every ninety-seven minutes. Because it’s so far out from the planet, it’s exposed to the sun for most of that; approximately two-thirds of the orbit is in daylight, and one-third is nighttime. We had egressed from the airlock about midway through our first day pass, and now we were about to leave that perfect white light and plunge into complete darkness. When night comes in space, you feel it before you see it. The temperature swing from 200 degrees Fahrenheit to −200 degrees Fahrenheit occurs in an instant. The amazing thing is that your suit protects you from that; the temperature inside stays within a tolerable range, and you have a temperature control valve you can adjust to warm up or cool down as needed. So the 400-degree swing isn’t harsh, but you definitely still notice it. The best I can describe it is like when you’re in the ocean on a warm summer’s day and a cold current rushes past and it gets you down in your bones. That’s what it’s like. This chill ran through me and then a few seconds later it was like somebody flipped a switch and everything went black. If the sun in space is the whitest white you’ve ever seen, nighttime is the blackest black. It is the complete absence of light. You have some lights in the payload bay, and you have your helmet lights that light up your work area, but you can look around you and all that white, that purity that was there, it’s gone. There’s nothing.

You see the stars, of course. You can see the whole universe. At night, without the sun, space becomes this magical place. In space, stars don’t twinkle. Because there’s no atmosphere to fog your view, they’re like perfect pinpoints of light. Stars are different colors, too, not just white. They’re blue, red, purple, green, yellow. And there are billions of them. The constellations look like constellations. You can make out the shapes and see what early astronomers were getting at with their descriptions. The Southern Cross was my favorite. And the moon feels like it’s right there. It’s not a two-dimensional white disc anymore. It looks like a ball, a gray planet. You can see the mountains and craters clearly. It feels closer than it is. You can see the gas clouds of the Milky Way. You’re in the greatest planetarium ever built.

Using our helmet lights to work in the darkness, our first major task was to remove the port solar array and stow it so that we could install the new one. The photovoltaic panels and their metal frame had already been retracted and rolled up, which left this ten-foot pole sticking out of the telescope. We had to fold it up against the body of the telescope. Then Newman would disconnect the old array’s connectors from the diode box, the device housed inside the telescope that translates the solar energy into electric power. Then we would remove the array, with each of us grappling it from opposite ends, him at the bottom and me at the top.

To do that, Nancy had to fly me on the robot-arm platform to the top of the telescope at the back of the payload bay. This was tricky for two reasons. With the robot arm, the farther it extends its reach, the more it vibrates and starts to wobble at the far end. It’s the same as how your own arm works. When your elbow is bent and your hand is close in to your chest, it’s easy to hold something in one place. With your arm outstretched and your elbow straightened out, it’s harder to hold that thing still without it vibrating—and I was the thing on the end of the arm being vibrated. The higher I went, the wider the amplitude of the vibration, and the more wobbly it got. I was petrified the foot restraints were going to give and I’d go flying out of there…which wasn’t possible, but the fear was still real. I was digging my heels into the platform as hard as I could. I was literally thinking: Feet, don’t fail me now.

The second problem was that the Hubble is forty-three feet tall, which meant I was now standing nearly five stories above the payload bay—and my fear of heights kicked in. I know that sounds crazy for an astronaut. Typically when you’re floating above the Earth the distance is so vast that you lose any sense of height, which cancels out the fear of falling. But looking back down at the payload bay, I suddenly had a very real sense of height, like I was hanging off the ledge of a five-story building, wobbling out of control, about to plummet to my death below.

Rationally, I knew that was absurd. Even if my foot restraints came loose—which I knew they wouldn’t—the worst that would happen was I’d float there. The rational part of my brain was saying, Mike, you’re weightless. You can’t fall. But the fearful, reptilian part of my brain was screaming, You’re too high up! You’re gonna die! And in the human mind, our rational voice doesn’t always prevail. I reached out and grabbed the handrail of the robot arm platform and held on to it with a death grip so I’d be “safe.” After that, I could breathe easier. I knew it didn’t make any sense. I knew I was being an idiot, but having something in my hand made me feel more secure. I felt better after we got back and other astronauts told me they’d had to do the exact same thing.

Throughout the first night pass and the second day pass we worked slowly and deliberately. We removed the old array, translated it back down to the payload bay, and stowed it in the carrier for the flight home. As we went to remove the new array from the carrier, we started to enter the second night pass. Now, not only was I facing the most difficult task of the entire EVA, rotating the array into position, I was going to have to do it in the pitch blackness of night. I undid the latches that were holding the array inside the carrier. Then I deployed the mast and engaged the two bolts that would keep it locked in position. Nancy was holding me parallel to the floor of the payload bay as I worked, like I was floating on my stomach a few feet off the ground. When it was time to remove the array, I held on to the frame of the array while Nancy lifted me and it up and out of the payload bay. Once we were clear, she pivoted me 90 degrees upright.

I looked down and in the flight deck windows I could see the faces of my friends watching me intently and quietly rooting for me to succeed. It was the moment of truth. I was twenty feet above the payload bay, on the wobbly end of the robot arm. Other than the light from my helmet illuminating a few feet in front of me, it was completely black all around. Besides the radio, my breathing inside the suit was the only sound I could hear.

I started rotating the array, this massive, king-size mattress thing. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. For fifteen minutes, that was all I did. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Every ounce of my energy was focused on that array. A minute or two in, I felt the tiniest wobble. I stopped, held myself perfectly still, and waited. I took only the smallest breaths, inhale, exhale. Finally it was back under control. Then I started again: Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Right hand moves an inch. Left hand moves an inch. Another wobble, another pause, then back to rotating again.

Inch by inch, I rotated the array until finally it was in the proper position. Success! In that moment I felt the sweetest relief. I knew I still had work to do, but I’d faced the biggest challenge of the mission and pulled it off. I looked back down at the payload bay window, and the crew inside were all giving me the thumbs-up. I looked over at the telescope and Newman was smiling and pointing at me and saying, “You’re the man!” I was mentally drained. I didn’t want to ever do something like this again. Nancy flew me over to the telescope, where Newman and I mated the array’s mast with the diode box assembly. That went off without a hitch. Then we unfolded the new array like a book and locked it into place. With that, Hubble had a new power source and a big boost added to its life span.

The rest of the space walk went smoothly. In fact, we were doing so well that we were moving ahead of schedule. At one point we ran into a question we needed Mission Control to answer, about whether or not they wanted us to test a latch on one of the telescope doors. As incredible as it sounds, I’d been out in space for nearly six hours and I’d taken only a few moments to glance at the Earth; I’d been doing my best to ignore it in order to concentrate. Now, while Newman and I waited for an answer, I paused and took a closer look.

It was a night pass. We were over the Pacific, and everything was totally black but for the city lights on Hawaii and a few other islands below. As we came up on California I felt a slight warmth and I knew the next day pass was coming. I looked across the country to see Atlanta all bright and lit up with everyone getting coffee and going to work, but right below me Phoenix and Los Angeles and San Diego were still in complete darkness. I could imagine the tourists at the Grand Canyon, patiently waiting for sunrise to get their perfect golden shot.

The way we experience sunrise on Earth is so gradual. The black outside your window slowly turns to gray. You see a few glimmers of light reflecting off the buildings across the street. In space there is literally a line that bisects the Earth. On one side of it there is darkness. On the other side there is light. The line sweeps west, swiftly and steadily, coming across Europe, across the Atlantic, across Florida, across Texas. I watched this line coming toward me. Then I looked past it up toward the sun. Then I looked back at the line again and realized: The line isn’t moving. The sun isn’t moving. We are.

At that moment I realized that, for my entire life, my perception of reality had been wrong. Every morning you wake up and sit and have your cup of coffee and you watch the sun rise. You don’t have any sensation of the Earth moving beneath you. You think you’re sitting still as the sun rises in the east and crosses above and sets in the west. But the sun isn’t moving. Yes, the sun and the solar system are flying through the galaxy at 45,000 miles per hour. But relative to you and me and the Earth, the sun isn’t going anywhere. The whole way we talk about our place in the universe is wrong. “Sunrise” and “sunset” are words that don’t make any sense. It’s like the song from Annie: “The sun’ll come out / Tomorrow.” No it won’t. The Earth will rotate toward the sun tomorrow. That may not be as poetic, but it’s reality.

And you know that. Anyone who’s taken third-grade science knows that the Earth rotates and revolves around the sun. You understand it intellectually, but you don’t feel it until you’ve seen it from in space. Columbia had spent the last half hour flying away from the sun, doing a slingshot pass around the Earth, and now our orbit was throwing us back toward the sun again. But the sun had not moved. That’s the other thing that hit me: Our sun has been there for a bazillion years, and this has been happening for a long, long time and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. People are going to come and go, live and die; bad things are going to happen and good things are going to happen. But nothing we do is going to change this cosmic dance that’s been going on since the beginning of time.

My whole life I’d thought of Earth as this place where we’re in control of our lives. I’d wake up, go to the grocery store, take my kid to a baseball game. It was this safe, stable cocoon. Now it wasn’t that anymore. In space I could see the Earth in relation to the stars and the sun and the moon. The Earth is a planet. It’s a spaceship. We’re zipping around the universe, hurtling through the chaos of space with asteroids and black holes and everything else, and we think we’re safe but, boy, we are right out there in the middle of it.

Once Newman and I finished up and ingressed back into the airlock, I was not the same person I was when I went out. Newman did the depress, the pressure equalized, the inner hatch opened, and before I could get my helmet off, Digger was right there, like he said he’d be, waiting for me to tell him about it. He wouldn’t even let me get out of my suit. He was right there in my mug. “What’s it like? What’s it like?”

“Digger,” I said, “you’re never going to believe it.”

“What?”

“The Earth is a planet.”

What?” He looked confused. “Mass, are you okay?”

“It’s a planet,” I said. “It’s not what we thought it was back home. It’s not this safe cocoon, man. We’re out here spinning in all this chaos. The Earth is a planet. The Earth is a spaceship, and we’re all space travelers.”

That’s the truth, and that’s still how I think of the Earth today. I walk out my front door in Manhattan in the morning. Everyone else around me sees the street in front of them and the buildings around them and none of that stuff is moving, but they look up and see the sun flying from east to west overhead. I walk down that same street and I know that sun is staying right where it is and it’s me and these buildings and this street and this planet that are spinning round and round and hurtling through the void. And the fact that that happens every day, the fact that we exist, is an astonishing thing.