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

Part V. Russian Roulette


There’s a great scene in The Right Stuff where Chuck Yeager and some of the Mercury astronauts, Gus Grissom, “Gordo” Cooper, and Deke Slayton, are drinking at Pancho Barnes’s Happy Bottom Riding Club, the bar in the Mojave Desert where the test pilots hang out. This Air Force liaison is trying to tell them about the need to get good press. Yeager blows him off. He doesn’t have time for reporters. “Them little root weevils that crawl around poppin’ off cameras in your face,” he calls them. But the Air Force guy has a point: Good press drives public opinion, public opinion drives public policy, and public policy decides who gets the money to fly. He says, “You know what really makes your rocket ships go up? Funding. That’s what makes your ships go up. No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Everyone in the early days of the space program learned that lesson well. The president and NASA and the astronauts did an incredible job of selling the space program to the American people. Kennedy’s address announcing the Apollo program was one of the great presidential speeches of all time. He challenged us. He excited us. We reach for impossible things, he said, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He told us the moon shot would be “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” The space race had everything: good guys and bad guys, us against the Soviets, John Glenn versus Yuri Gagarin. It was Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in an all-out dash to the moon, a story so compelling that it captured the whole world’s attention.

After Apollo, everything changed. We’d won the race. It was time to start a new chapter to get everyone excited again. NASA’s original plan was ambitious: a reusable space plane, a space station in low-Earth orbit, outposts on the lunar surface, a manned mission to Mars. But the support from the public wasn’t there; people thought the story was over, and they changed the channel. A recession hit, budget cuts followed, and the big-spending days of the space race were over.

The reusable space plane, the shuttle, was the only part of the plan that survived. It was conceived as a spacecraft capable of taking crews and cargo to the different space stations between here and the moon. Once those projects were scrapped, we still needed a reason to build it—instead of designing a vehicle to serve a purpose, NASA had to come up with a purpose for the vehicle it had designed. In the end, the shuttle was sold as a one-size-fits-all vehicle that would do a bit of everything: It was a flying space lab, a cargo ship, a way to launch and service satellites. After the excitement of the space race, the shuttle was sold on the premise that it wasn’t going to be exciting at all. It was routine, everyday access to low-Earth orbit, no different from an eighteen-wheeler hauling freight from Indianapolis to Buffalo.

As the budgets got smaller, the story got smaller, too. Fewer bucks, fewer Buck Rogers. With astronauts today, people respect the title, but they don’t know who we are. The Mercury and Apollo astronauts were true celebrities. They defined their era. They were the epitome of cool. In the shuttle era, the culture changed. At NASA today, there’s no such thing as individual accomplishment—there is no “I” in “team.” There’s a pecking order to everything. The commander is the spokesperson for the crew, and everyone defers to him or her. Any individual attention you get, you’re expected to deflect it back toward the crew and the mission and NASA itself. It’s “we” succeed and “we” fail, and that’s that.

On the one hand, it has to be that way. When you’re in space, it’s life and death and everybody’s counting on everybody else. It can’t be about any one person’s ego. You can’t have a crew where one person thinks he’s LeBron James and the other astronauts are only there to support him. On the other hand, heroes make a good story. The way that NASA started telling the story of space after Apollo, we made the mistake of thinking that the public was invested in the mission, in the objectives of science and space travel. That’s not really true. There is a very dedicated community of people who care about “space.” They get excited about the discovery of black holes and throw themselves into debates over whether Pluto is a planet or not. The general public doesn’t care that much about space—they care about people in space because they can identify with them.

The Soviets actually landed on the moon before we did. They had unmanned probes up there years before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin showed up. Does anyone remember? Does anyone care? No. America won the race to the moon because America put people on the moon. People are fascinated by other people. Humans like to watch other humans doing awesome things because it makes us feel awesome about being human. Going to space is awesome. People don’t come to watch the launches at Cape Canaveral because NASA creates jobs. They come because they want to hear the rockets roar and feel the ground shake and watch the night sky turn into day.

When I watched the moon landing on TV and went to see The Right Stuff in the movie theater, I didn’t dream about going to space—I dreamed about being an astronaut, because they were my heroes, because their lives looked awesome and exciting and fun. That’s what inspired me. And when I finally made it to NASA, I wasn’t disappointed. I was flying around the country in a T-38, hanging out with living legends like John Young and Alan Bean. I was living The Right Stuff every day, but I wasn’t seeing that reflected back to me in the stories being told in the news and in popular culture.

There’s a famous episode of The Simpsons, “Deep Space Homer,” in which Homer goes up on the shuttle. It starts with him watching a launch on TV and an announcer is describing the crew. “They’re a colorful bunch,” he says. “They’ve been dubbed ‘the Three Musketeers.’ There’s a mathematician, a different kind of mathematician, and a statistician.” The joke is that astronauts have become so boring, the public cares so little, and the Nielsen ratings for shuttle launches have fallen so low that NASA is in danger of losing its funding forever. That tells you a lot about the way NASA was being perceived, but nothing could be further from the truth. The people I work with are genuinely funny, colorful, smart, dedicated, brave people—a bunch of eccentric genius PhDs and gung-ho Top Gun–type military test pilots. We love what we do and we get to spend our days doing incredible things that shape the future of all humankind—and we’re having a blast doing it. But if the public doesn’t know that about us, that’s our fault.

I remember watching NASA TV one time. NASA TV is way down on your cable channel guide, if it’s there at all. It provides live coverage of launches, space walks, and other events. I turned it on, and this buddy of mine, “CJ” Sturckow, was being interviewed. CJ is a Marine pilot who flew forty missions in Desert Storm. He used to pit-crew for off-road truck races down in Baja. He’s hilarious, one of biggest characters you’ll ever meet. But this interview was the most boring interview I’d ever seen in my life. The questions were about dry, technical stuff. They weren’t letting any of CJ’s personality through. I was, like, Where is my friend? Who is this undertaker? The lighting was bad. Everything about it was bad. The result is that nobody’s paying attention and the American public doesn’t know why we do what we do anymore.

As an ASCAN, we did receive some media training: how to talk to reporters, how to give a speech and a presentation. Bill Wallisch is a public-speaking instructor who’s done the media training at the Johnson Space Center for years. He was our coach. For my training presentation, I decided to do something personal. I told the story about my dream of becoming an astronaut. I showed the picture of me as a kid in my spaceman costume with my Astronaut Snoopy. I showed pictures of Columbia and MIT and talked about the route I took and how hard I worked and how I never gave up. I threw in a few jokes about myself. Bill liked my presentation so much, he took the videotape of it and started using it to train the classes who came in after me.

I might have been a hit in media training class, but for a while that didn’t mean a whole lot; ASCANs and rookies typically don’t engage with the media. I did little things. A few TV interviews. I spoke at my niece and nephew’s school in Vermont. My first chance to step out came with the postflight awards ceremony for STS-109. After every shuttle landing there’s an awards ceremony where we get our flight medals and then stand onstage to take questions.

Most of the ceremony was routine. I remember one of the questions was “Do you ever think you’ll send kids into space?” But to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention. The rest of the crew did most of the talking; they were the veterans and Scooter was the commander. I was just the rookie. I figured nobody was going to ask me anything. I was mostly daydreaming and thinking about where we were going to eat afterward. Then I heard, “Mike?…Mike?”

I looked over and saw Scooter waving at me. I said, “What?”

“Your story? About seeing the planet?”

“What about it?”

“Can you please tell it?”

I hadn’t heard what the question was, but I obliged and launched into my story about watching the Earth move and telling Digger in the airlock and how awesome it was and how my relationship to the universe changed and the whole thing. Everyone applauded. They really responded to it. Sean O’Keefe, the NASA administrator, wrapped up by saying, “Somebody asked if we’re going to send kids into space. We have sent kids into space. We sent Mike Massimino.”

I didn’t think my story was anything special at the time, but it was a bit of humanity injected into a press conference that had mostly been about launch trajectories and repair schedules. I figured the average person doesn’t want to hear that. We just flew in space on a spaceship. What’s it like out there? What’s our place in the universe? What’s it like to achieve your childhood dream? That’s what people want to know.

O’Keefe loved it. He had just joined NASA—he had been appointed by President George W. Bush—and STS-109 was the first flight on his watch, so he was there for our launch and for our landing. After the ceremony, he came over to me and said, “That was a fantastic story. We’re getting you on the circuit.” From that day forward, I was his guy. I started getting assignments direct from his office. Whenever NASA needed a public face somewhere, O’Keefe would say, “Send Massimino.” I started speaking at different conferences and events. I did a public service announcement. Apollo 13 premiered that year on IMAX, and I was sent to represent the agency and talk to reporters and take pictures with Jim Lovell and Ron Howard.

Traveling back and forth to these events, I had a realization. When it came to the work of being an astronaut, I was good but I wasn’t the best. I wasn’t the best guy with the shuttle systems. I wasn’t even the best spacewalker. But maybe I could be one of the best at telling the story of space. Maybe I could make it fun and lively and adventurous like it used to be. I had an interest in and a talent for communicating with people and helping them understand what our jobs are like. I didn’t want to go out and be self-promoting, but I wanted to help promote the other people in the program and the program itself.

While O’Keefe was busy sending me out, my baseball obsession turned into a massive public relations event of its own. It started months before my flight when I ran into Ellen Baker, one of my fellow astronauts, in the gym. Ellen is from Queens and her mother, Claire Shulman, had been Queens borough president a few years before. Ellen knew I was a huge Mets fan and asked if I’d thought of flying anything from the team. I said sure, but I didn’t know how to get in touch with them. So she reached out to her mom, who reached out to the Mets’ owner, Fred Wilpon. That same day Ellen sent me a note: The owner of the New York Mets is expecting your call. Here’s his number.

Getting the owner of a Major League Baseball team on the phone in less than a day—that was one of those moments when I realized how much leverage astronauts could have in getting the public’s attention if we used it more. I called Wilpon and he put me in touch with the team’s media affairs officer, Jay Horwitz. I asked if I could fly John Franco’s jersey. Franco was a relief pitcher. Team captain. A hometown guy. He grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. My father worked for the fire department. His father worked for the sanitation department; he wore an SDNY T-shirt under his jersey. Jay sent me a signed Franco jersey. I flew it on the shuttle and took pictures wearing it in space.

That April, the Mets were in Houston for a series with the Astros, and Jay invited me to come out on the field and meet the players before the game. I remember being out on the field at Minute Maid Park and Jay told me that Bobby Valentine, the Mets’ manager, wanted to meet me. Valentine walked over with this big smile, grabbed me by the shoulder, and said, “I love what you do! What you guys do is the greatest thing in the world! What a pleasure to meet you. I’ve got a favor to ask.”

“What’s that?”

“Can I have your autograph?”

He already had a print of my official NASA photo ready for me to sign; he said he wanted to put it up in his restaurant. I had to stop for a second. This was the manager of the New York Mets, and he was asking me for an autograph. My whole world had shifted 180 degrees. How many times had I been in the stands, one of thousands of people holding out a ball, trying to get a player to sign it, with this curtain between me and my heroes? Deep down I was still the same kid who idolized these guys, but now that curtain had lifted and I was on the other side. Maybe NASA wasn’t as exciting to people as it used to be, but there was still a lot of love for the space program out there.

I signed Bobby’s picture for him, and then he and Jay hit me with their big idea. They wanted me to come to Shea Stadium and present the flown jersey to the team by throwing out the first pitch at a game. Now my world had really shifted. I’d dreamed of standing on that pitcher’s mound more times than I’d dreamed of walking on the moon. I started talking to the team about what games would work and we went back and forth and the only day that fit everyone’s schedule was June 15: a Saturday day game in a Mets-Yankees series, one of the biggest rivalries in baseball.

When I walked into Shea that Saturday it was like walking into the Roman Colosseum. MLB Game of the Week. Sold-out stadium. Fifty thousand Mets fans screaming “Screw you, Yankees!” and plenty of worse things laced with profanity I had to explain to my nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son.

Gabby and Daniel were going to go out on the field with me and hold the jersey for the crowd to see while I threw the pitch. I also invited my uncle Romeo, who used to go to the games with me and my dad and my cousin Paul. Franco was going to catch my pitch. He and I talked a bit about what I was going to throw. My childhood buddy Mike Q and I had been practicing all week. He actually went and dug out his old catcher’s gear from high school and we went to the park out in Franklin Square. I threw pitch after pitch after pitch, the same way I used to throw the ball against the steps of my house over and over and over, pretending I was pitching at Shea—and now I was.

Right before the game started, Bobby Valentine came over to say hi. I asked him if he had any advice. “Two things,” he said. “First, throw it higher than you think you need to. Johnny’s a professional baseball player. If you throw it anywhere in the air, he will catch it and make it look like a strike. If you bounce it, he cannot help you. Aim it high.”

“Okay,” I said. “And the second thing?”

“Yeah, your pants are filthy. You been playing in the dirt? Clean ’em off.”

had been playing in the dirt, writing “Go Mets!” in the ground in front of the dugout with my kids. I brushed myself off and got ready to go out. The announcer came over the PA as we walked out: “Astronaut Mike Massimino is a lifelong Mets fan from Franklin Square, New York, who just flew John Franco’s jersey on the space shuttle!” The fans went insane, screaming and yelling. It was like, Take that, Yankees. You think you’re so great, but our guy’s been to space!

I walked out and stopped at the mound. As I looked around I saw the camera out in center field and I started getting choked up. How many times had I seen the view from that camera as a kid and dreamed about doing this? Franco was looking at me from home plate. He could tell I was having a moment, and he gave me a big smile.

I stepped up on the mound. Franco got down in the crouch and was pounding his mitt. I tuned out all the noise. I couldn’t hear a thing. John Franco was the only other person in that stadium. The focus and concentration I had rotating that solar array in space? This was that intense. My mind was racing: Higher than you need toHigher than you need toMassimino, you are NOT bouncing this pitch. I went into my windup, let go, and wham! Right in his glove. From the mound I could tell it was a bit low, but Franco snapped it up and tucked it in and made it look like a strike. The second he caught the pitch it was like somebody flipped the sound back on and I could hear the whole crowd roar. I realized they’d been going crazy the whole time.

Which was a better moment: Seeing the Earth from 350 miles in space or throwing a pitch at Shea Stadium? I honestly don’t think I could pick. From the age of seven, other than my dad, my two biggest heroes were Neil Armstrong and Tom Seaver. Those were the guys I wanted to be, and here I was, living both of my childhood dreams at the same time. How lucky was I? In my mind, I imagined that maybe there was another seven-year-old boy or girl out in the stadium that day. Maybe it was a formative moment in their lives and they saw me throw that pitch and thought, Wow, there’s a job where you get to fly in space and walk out on a major-league ball field? Being an astronaut is pretty cool.

That same trip home I went back and visited my elementary school and my high school. They threw a parade in my honor. It was so gratifying to see kids light up when I told them about being weightless or what the stars look like in space. From that point forward, other than actually being in space, sharing the story of space became one of my favorite things to do. I wanted to inspire young people to follow their dreams the way my heroes inspired me. O’Keefe kept sending me out on more press assignments, and I was always happy to go and talk up the space program and get people invested in seeing our journey as a part of their journey.

That September was the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. All of the different government agencies were doing something in observance. Along with 60 police officers, 343 firefighters died when the Twin Towers collapsed. O’Keefe knew about my connection to the New York Fire Department through my father, and he asked me to come up and speak to the staff at NASA headquarters for the occasion. I didn’t go up with a script or anything. I just shared some of my personal experiences. I talked about what the fire department meant to me growing up, how my father had taught me about the value of public service. Astronauts and ball players may have been my idols, but because of my dad, I always knew firefighters as the heroes next door, the everyday people who risk their lives to keep us safe.

Thousands of people died on 9/11, but we especially remember the cops and the firefighters because they died serving the public good. They ran into the towers when everyone else was running out, and that makes them exceptional. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first responder charging into a burning building, a man walking on the moon, or two ballplayers locked in a grudge match. People identify with other people. We celebrate them in their moments of triumph, and we mourn them when tragedy strikes.