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

Part IV. The Door to Space

Chapter 17. MAYBE THIS IS HEAVEN

During the pre-breathe for my first EVA, I nervously eyed the door to space, pondering the mysteries waiting for me on the other side. During the pre-breathe for my second EVA, I fell asleep. Doing a seven-hour space walk is as physically taxing as running a marathon. Here we were doing five of them back to back to back, and on the alternate days you don’t get to rest; you’re going all day to support the team outside. After a long, long day and a short night’s sleep, Newman and I were back in the airlock, waiting to run our second marathon. So I took the opportunity to catch some rest.

My second EVA, installing the Advanced Camera for Surveys was going to be different for a few reasons. Newman would be on the robot arm and I would be free-floating, which was going to give me more opportunity to move around like a spaceman; I was excited about that. It was also my turn to go out first and be the team leader. A motto at NASA is “train the new guy to be your replacement,” and that’s how we ran the EVAs. Newman was still the lead spacewalker, but he’d shown me how to do everything and this time it was his job to observe me as I took on those responsibilities. After opening the hatch and heading out, I took a few seconds to look around. For that brief moment I was the only human out in space. Anywhere. In the universe. That felt really cool, and I took a moment to let it sink in.

Start to finish, replacing the Faint Object Camera with the Advanced Camera for Surveys took several hours, but we didn’t hit any major snags and the installation was a success. Once we knew the ACS was in and powered up, we breathed a big sigh of relief. We were proud of what we’d accomplished. Maybe we hadn’t walked on the moon, but that day the crew of STS-109 made a giant leap for mankind. Getting that new camera in was a big deal. Installing the new solar array had been the more difficult task for me physically, but the Advanced Camera for Surveys is one of those things you can point to and say, “This is why astronauts exist. This is why we go to space. This is how we serve the public good.” If the ACS did what the engineers said it would do, it was going to unlock the secrets of the universe and help us answer a lot of the big questions about How We Got Here.

There is the one thing EVA training can’t do, and that’s prepare you to answer big questions like that one. Working in the pool doesn’t prepare you for the emotions that can overwhelm you when you’re actually out in space. Newman went to fetch the FOC from its temporary stowage location so we could secure it for the ride home, and while I waited for him I took a moment and turned and glanced over my shoulder at the Earth again. As I looked down, the thought that entered my head was This is something I’m not supposed to see. This is a secret. I’m not supposed to be up here. I turned my head and tried to go back to my work, but I couldn’t help sneaking a second look. I stole a glimpse, and the planet below was so beautiful that I actually started getting emotional. I had to look away. I was afraid I was going to tear up, and if you get water floating around in your suit, that could be a big problem. There would be a postflight investigation and I would have to admit that I was crying in space. After I’d collected myself, I looked a third time. When I did, the thought that went through my head was If you were in heaven, this is what you would see. This is the view from heaven. Then that thought was immediately replaced by another thought. No, it’s even more beautiful than that. This is what heaven must look like—maybe this is heaven.

I know that might sound strange. There are so many horrible problems here: war, hunger, killing, suffering. But heaven is supposed to be this beautiful, perfect place, and from up there I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful, more perfect than this planet. We might discover life in other solar systems someday, but for now there’s nothing but chaos and blackness and desolation for billions of light-years in every direction. Yet here in the middle of all that is this magnificent place, this brilliant blue planet, teeming with life. It really is a paradise. It’s fragile. It’s beautiful. It’s perfection. You have to stop and ask yourself: What in creation could possibly be better than this?

When I flew on that mission, Gabby was eight and Daniel was six. Looking down on the Earth from space, I started thinking about the planet as a father, as a parent. When you have kids, you want to give them everything. You try to find the best house in the best neighborhood. If you can afford to give your kids their own room, you try to fix it up as best you can. You get those blackout curtains so it’ll be dark when they need to nap. You put nice toys in there for them to play with. You give them a home. And my thought looking down at the Earth was Wow. How much God our Father must love us that he gave us this home. He didn’t put us on Mars or Venus with nothing but rocks and frozen waste. He gave us paradise and said, “Live here.” It’s not easy to wrap your head around the origins and purpose of the universe, but that’s the best way I can describe the feelings I had.

Over the course of five servicing missions, only sixteen people spacewalked on Hubble. Just as the twelve Apollo moonwalkers were the only people ever to walk on the moon, the Hubble spacewalkers are the only people ever to get out and walk around at that altitude, the only people ever to see the Earth from that vantage point. I was fortunate to experience something that day that only fifteen other people in human history have ever experienced. You can go to the Galápagos Islands or climb Machu Picchu or dive to the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t know that there’s any experience on Earth that could ever be as extraordinary as being in space. Those first space walks changed my relationship not just with the Earth but with the universe. Forever.

The next morning we executed our fifth and final space walk. The NICMOS cryocooling system installation was a success, and soon the Hubble was ready for redeployment. All satellites experience orbital decay, meaning they gradually slip closer to Earth and eventually burn up in the atmosphere. So once the final space walk was over, Scooter and Digger flew us four miles farther up in order to boost Hubble’s orbit and extend its life span.

On Saturday morning, we prepared to say good-bye to the Hubble. The telescope’s antennas were remotely redeployed. We maneuvered Columbia into a position where the new solar arrays could be exposed to the sun and fully charge up; then a few hours later the umbilical was disconnected and the telescope was switched back to its own power supply. Then, at 4:04 a.m. Houston time, Nancy used the robot arm to lift Hubble from its cradle high above the payload bay. She let go, Scooter slowly backed us off, and the Hubble was on its way. As I watched it grow distant from the window I felt a sense of gratitude and relief. We were sending Hubble off in better shape than when we arrived: mission accomplished.

Sunday was our day off, a day to rest and recuperate, and we needed it. STS-109 had set a new record for space walks on a single shuttle mission. We spent a total of 35 hours 55 minutes, beating the previous record of 35 hours 26 minutes held by STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission. By Sunday we were exhausted and ready to blow off steam.

Commanders and pilots hate the last couple of days on shuttle missions, because everyone else gets to relax, but they can’t because they still have to land safely on Earth. Scooter was going around saying, “We haven’t landed yet, guys! We still have to land!” while the rest of us were taking pictures, listening to music, and dancing around in midair. After months of carefully watching every calorie I ate, I was stuffing my face, eating macaroni and cheese like it was going out of style. I took pictures with my Mets jersey and some of my other personal items. That’s always fun—you float the object in the air and take a picture of it and the folks back home get a big kick out of it. We took our crew photo. We took turns doing private video conferences with our families. I did some tricks for them, like eating floating M&M’s and doing somersaults in the air.

I spent most of my day off on the flight deck, floating at the window, listening to music, and staring out into space. When we first got to orbit I was obsessed with looking at the Earth during the day, seeing the Himalayas and the Sahara Desert and all these amazing formations from 350 miles up. Out at the edge of the planet, you can see the line where our atmosphere meets the stars, and it has this bluish-greenish hue to it that’s absolutely beautiful. By the end of the mission I’d grown to enjoy the night passes more. You’d see shooting stars, meteors burning up in the atmosphere below. You’d see fishing trawlers lit up off the coast of Japan. But the lights of the cities are the main thing. You’re looking at them through the atmosphere so they have this diffuse, orangey glow to them. You’d look for the different patterns in them. Los Angeles sprawled out. New York burning like a jewel. At night, even compared to other developed countries, the whole United States is lit up like a Christmas tree, especially along the coasts. Cuba and North Korea are total blackouts.

Lightning storms at night are amazing, too. You’d be over the ocean looking down on total blackness. Then lightning would flash, illuminating the features of the clouds from within. You’d see a flash, and then another flash, then another. There would be three or four of them in a row. Then a lull. Then three or four more. It was like a form of communication, like a sequence, like the clouds are alien creatures speaking to each other in code.

The music is a key part of it. You have to have the right sound track for space. My first flight we had CDs and Discmans. My second flight we had iPods. That was better. Some music works during the day pass, some works better at night. Sting, Phil Collins, Coldplay, and U2 are fantastic during the day. Radiohead is perfect at night. It’s possible that Radiohead’s OK Computer was recorded specifically to be listened to in space, and that everyone who’s heard it on Earth is missing the full experience. Movie soundtracks work well at night, too. John Barry’s Dances with Wolves soundtrack. Thomas Newman’s Meet Joe Black soundtrack. I listened to those over and over again, floating at that window, watching Earth spin below.

It was good to have some time to myself to unwind. That first flight was incredible, but looking back on it I have to say it was more intense than enjoyable. Our sleep schedule was way off, waking up at ten at night and going to bed at two in the afternoon. We were always working to catch up. I recognized the feeling from Cold Lake. It was poor expedition behavior. Everyone was exhausted and stressed out. Weirdly, after thirty-nine years of trying to get to space, part of me wanted to hurry up and get home. I wanted to get the first flight out of the way so that I could come back again as a veteran. At the time, astronauts were getting five and six flights each. I said to myself, This was just to get my feet wet. I’ll be back. I sort of discounted the experience in my mind. I took it for granted. It never occurred to me that anything would change.

Monday morning we woke up and started getting ready to go home. I wasn’t particularly concerned about reentry. The biggest worry in spaceflight is launch. Rockets blow up on ascent. On Hubble, our second biggest worry, from a safety standpoint, was the EVAs. We were concerned about losing somebody on a space walk. That same vigilance didn’t apply to reentry. It’s not that we were blasé or complacent about it. We knew that it posed serious risks, but we felt like we’d mastered it. The Russians had lost some people on reentry with the Soyuz, but we never had. Going all the way back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight, no American astronaut and no American spacecraft had ever been lost coming back from orbit. The fear that gripped me on the launchpad going up—I didn’t have that coming down. It never occurred to me that Scooter and Digger wouldn’t get us home in one piece.

Returning from space, the shuttle normally hits the Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 25, producing enormous amounts of heat and friction. Coming back from Hubble, because we were higher, we actually hit Mach 26, which means that the Hubble astronauts have flown the highest and fastest of any astronauts in the shuttle era. Since I was on the mid-deck, I couldn’t see anything. I could feel it warm up a bit, but nothing unbearable. I had a bag of M&M’s tethered to my seat. It was floating above me and then suddenly it fell to my lap. I felt heavy. I felt my body being pushed down in my seat, my arms and legs having weight again.

Minutes later, Scooter and Digger brought us in for a perfect landing at Kennedy Space Center at 4:42 a.m., capping off a ten-day, twenty-two-hour and ten-minute mission that covered 3,941,705 miles. Once we came to a stop, the ground crew came in and helped us out of our harnesses. When you first stand up, not only are you weak and wobbly from being in space for almost eleven days, but your spine is crunching back down to its normal height and the sensory inputs from your inner ear that weren’t there before come rushing back into your brain. You have to stand up slowly, and you feel like you’re going to fall flat on your face. For a while you’re walking around like Herman Munster, trying to get your bearings. We hugged and took some photos and then went inside to the crew quarters, where our families were waiting.

The single best thing about coming back to Earth was seeing my kids again. As soon as I walked in, they ran over and gave me big hugs. The flight surgeon had stressed to us that we weren’t supposed to pick them up, since our bodies were still adjusting to gravity, but I couldn’t resist. I grabbed them up and held them as tight as I could. Daniel’s Little League season was about to start. I was going to be a coach, and I couldn’t wait to hit the field with him. I was so grateful to be home alive.

After seeing my family, I went back to crew quarters to get changed into my civilian clothes. My room was exactly as I’d left it. Everything was the same, but I was not the same. So much had happened in between. It was the first time I had really been alone in nearly two weeks. That whole time I had been around my crewmates in close quarters, staying focused on the mission, keeping my emotions in check. But there, alone in my room, I started thinking about the journey I had taken, the incredible beauty I had seen. I started to cry uncontrollably. They weren’t tears of sadness or even happiness, really. I was overwhelmed. It was a release of all these different emotions I’d been keeping pent up inside: the joy and the exhilaration and feelings of childlike wonder. I sat there for ten, fifteen minutes and cried and cried and let it all out. Then I pulled myself together, took a real shower for the first time in weeks, put on my jeans, and re-entered the Earth.

Out on the tarmac, the ground crew was already hard at work, taking the Columbia orbiter through its postflight inspection. Soon our spaceship would go back into the Orbiter Processing Facility to be readied for its next flight, STS-107. Shuttle missions are numbered in the order they’re assigned, not in the order they fly, which is why we went first despite having the higher flight number, 109. What had happened was this: The crew for 107 was assigned about six months before we were. Theirs was a routine science mission, doing experiments in the Spacehab research module in the shuttle payload bay. Columbia needed to be overhauled, and there were some issues that forced 107 to delay. After that initial bump, they kept getting pushed. The experiments they were doing weren’t time critical, but the station assembly flights were. So those missions kept taking precedence, pushing 107 further and further back until eventually they ran up against us, the next crew assigned to fly on Columbia. Since Hubble was the higher priority, management looked at the flights and said, “Okay, let’s swap ’em,” and 107 got bumped again. NASA flipped us in the flight order. We got their spot. They got ours. We came back. They didn’t.