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

Part I. I Want to Grow Up to Be Spider-Man

Chapter 1. A PERFECT GOOD

Your first week as an astronaut is a lot like the first week at any other job. You go to meetings, fill out paperwork, find out what’s covered by the new health plan. In my first week, my astronaut classmates and I got lucky. As we were starting out, an astronaut reunion was being held at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. All the living legends from the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo programs would be there, including Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. My hero. Everyone’s hero.

Our training manager, Paige Maultsby, was the mother hen taking us new kids through the orientation, and she put in a request asking if Neil Armstrong would come and speak to our class. He said that he would, but that he would only speak to us, the new astronauts; he didn’t want some big public event with tons of people showing up.

I’d seen Neil Armstrong once before. In 1989, during graduate school, I’d worked as an intern at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and that summer there was a big twentieth-anniversary celebration of the moon landing. Armstrong and the other crew members, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, were there. From the back of a room full of thousands of people, I saw him give a speech, but I didn’t get to meet him or shake his hand. Now, seven years later, not only was I going to get to meet him, but I was meeting him as an astronaut. This was the coolest thing ever.

Except I wasn’t an astronaut yet, technically. When you first join NASA, you’re an astronaut candidate, an ASCAN. For Armstrong’s talk, the ASCANs gathered in the astronaut conference room, Room 6600 in Building 4S. It’s a very important room. Every NASA flight gets its own patch, commemorating the mission with the names of the astronauts who flew it. On the walls of that conference room there’s a plaque of every patch of every mission going back to Alan Shepard’s first Mercury flight in 1961. You can feel the history of the place when you walk in. The goal of every astronaut who comes through is to get your name on that wall before you leave. We clustered around the conference table like eager schoolkids, and Armstrong came in and spoke for a few minutes. He was older but not ancient, thinning hair, glasses, suit and tie. He seemed warm and approachable, but at the same time he was someone you’d only approach with the utmost respect. When he got up to speak he was very soft-spoken, almost shy.

He talked to us for about fifteen minutes, and the whole time he didn’t say anything about walking on the moon, not one word about being an astronaut—nothing. Instead he talked about his days as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California, flying the X-15, the hypersonic rocket plane that set speed and altitude records in the 1960s by flying 50 miles above the Earth, the outer limit of the atmosphere, the edge of space. That was how Neil Armstrong thought of himself: as a pilot. Not as the first man to walk on the moon, but as a guy who loved to fly cool planes and was grateful for the opportunity to have done it.

By focusing on his test pilot days and not on the moon landing, I think he was trying to tell us that life is not about achieving one great thing, because once that thing is over, life keeps going. What motivates you then? The important thing is having a passion, something you love doing, and the greatest joy in the world is that you get to wake up every day and do it. For him it was flying. He said, “Yeah, I got to fly to the moon, but I also got to fly the X-15.” Just the fact that he got to go out and fly those planes every day, that’s what had made him the happiest.

After he spoke, he took a few questions and said he’d sign pictures for us. He stood at the front of the conference table, and we lined up to shake his hand and get his autograph. I was toward the back of the line, and I noticed as I got to the front that every single person, when they got to the end of the table, did the exact same thing: They told him where they were when they watched him walk on the moon. I was thirty-three when I became an astronaut, one of the youngest in the class, which meant everyone in line was old enough to remember the moon landing, and everybody had a story to tell him: “I was at my girlfriend’s house.” “I was in my parents’ basement.” “I was in the Catskills.” On and on and on. Because everyone on Earth knows where Armstrong was on July 20, 1969, so why not tell him where you were that day? I realized that this had been the man’s whole life for the past twenty-seven years. Every day. Every new face he meets, they tell him the exact same thing, and he listens politely and nods and smiles.

I decided I was going to do something different. When I got to the front and my turn came, instead of telling him my moon landing story, I shook his hand and I said, “So is this what happens every time you meet people? They tell you where they were when you walked on the moon?”

“Yeah.”

“You get it a lot?”

“Yeah, all the time.”

“Does it ever bother you?”

He shrugged. “Nah, it’s okay.”

I never told Neil Armstrong where I was when he walked on the moon; I didn’t want to, even if he said it was okay. But I remember where I was exactly, because it was the moment that changed my life. I was six years old, about to turn seven, sitting around the black-and-white TV in our living room with my parents and my sister, Franny, who was thirteen. She was wrapped up in her pink robe and I was in these baseball pajamas with pinstripes, worn and faded hand-me-downs I’d gotten from my brother. My mother’s parents lived upstairs, and they came down to watch the moon landing with us.

I was glued to the television. Watching Neil Armstrong take those first lunar steps completely blew my mind. But seeing it on TV almost made it seem normal, like it could have been any old TV show. Going outside afterward made me think about how incredible it was. I remember standing in my front yard and staring up at the moon for the longest time, thinking, Wow, there are people up there, walking around. To a six-year-old kid in the suburbs on Long Island, it was the most awe-inspiring thing in the world. Something about it grabbed me down deep in my soul.

Going to the moon was a perfect moment, for me and for the entire country. Life doesn’t give you many of those. Everybody loved the Apollo astronauts—loved them. My father, my mother, my sister, my friends, my teachers. Nobody, no public figure, gets that kind of absolute, universal admiration. Especially back then. It was the end of the 1960s and everything was going crazy. You had people getting shot. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Vietnam was tearing the country apart. Riots were breaking out every summer. And in the middle of all that, on one night the whole world stopped and watched and shared this one thing, this perfect good.

Even at that age I remember thinking, This is the most important thing that’s happening right now—and not just now, ever. This is going to mark our time on the planet: the fact that we were the first people to leave it. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, they were space explorers. People were going to read about them five hundred years from now the same way we read about Christopher Columbus today. Those men became my heroes. They were the epitome of cool.

I turned seven in 1969, and there’s something about that age that makes it a formative year in one’s life. Two things happened for me that year: Apollo 11 landed on the moon and—even more improbable than that—the Mets won the 1969 World Series. Space and Major League Baseball became my two greatest passions. The Mets’ ace pitcher, Tom Seaver, was right behind my father and the Apollo 11 astronauts on my list of childhood heroes. But on that night of the moon landing, the World Series was still months away. On that night I said to myself, Nothing else matters. This is it. This is who I want to be. Being an astronaut wasn’t just the coolest thing ever, it was the most important thing you could choose to do with your life.

From that moment on, I became obsessed with space in the way that only a young boy can become obsessed. It was all I talked about. At my school’s summer recreation program, we had a space parade in honor of the moon landing. The kids were dressed up in space-related costumes. I wanted to go as an astronaut. My mother was a seamstress. She took a gray elephant costume she’d made for me when I was in the first-grade play, cut off the tail, and added some of my dad’s Army medals and an American flag on the left arm. We traded in the cardboard elephant ears for a plastic Steve Canyon jet helmet, added safety goggles, and we had my astronaut costume.

My brother, Joe, was working in downtown Manhattan that summer, and one day on his break he went to FAO Schwarz and got me this Astronaut Snoopy toy. It was about eight inches high, decked out in a full Apollo space suit: helmet, life support system, moon boots, the whole thing. I still remember watching Joe walking home from the bus stop with this Snoopy box in his hands. I opened it up right there in the driveway. That whole summer, all I did was play spaceman in the backyard, running around in my costume my mom had made with my Astronaut Snoopy. I played with that little guy until his enamel was cracked and worn and one of his legs broke off. (I still have him, only now he’s been to space for real.)

I was obsessed with learning more about astronauts. The public library was right around the corner on Lincoln Road, and I’d go over in the afternoons and read anything I could find about the space program. They didn’t have much, but whatever they had I probably checked out and read four or five times. They had a book about the original Mercury Seven astronauts called We Seven, and another about Gus Grissom, who’d died in the fire that killed the crew of Apollo 1 on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center. I read Time magazine, Life magazine, whatever they had, whatever I could get my hands on.

That fall I started second grade, and all I talked about at school was space. I’d become this total space expert. My best friend back then—and still to this day—was Mike Quarequio, whom we called Q. He remembers me showing up for second grade and walking into class talking about spacewalking suits, the cooling systems they used, how the life support worked. I was known as “the boy in class who knows the most about space.” I knew who the astronauts were, which kinds of rockets were used on which flights. I knew everything about space that a seven-year-old kid on Long Island could possibly know.

Even though I was obsessed with space, I never got into Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers or any of that. Space colonies and multiple dimensions and flying around with rocket packs—it was too far-fetched. What I loved was the science fiction of Jules Verne novels, like Journey to the Center of the Earth20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and From the Earth to the Moon. The thing about Jules Verne’s stories was that he made them feel real. It was science fiction, but you felt like it was plausible, like it was set in the real world. In Journey to the Center of the Earth, they’re digging their way down with pickaxes and shovels. In From the Earth to the Moon, a lot of what Verne predicted about space travel was accurate, from the type of metal they used to build the spaceship to the way they launched with the rotation of the planet to gain extra speed. And he was imagining all of it back in 1865!

I wasn’t interested in the fantasy of space travel. I was interested in the reality of space travel. I was interested in how people got to space here and now, and at that point the only way to get to space was to join NASA, get an American flag on your left shoulder, and strap yourself into a Saturn V rocket. I only had one problem: Where I came from, kids didn’t grow up to be astronauts.

A lot of people, when they meet me, can’t believe I’ve been to space. They say I look like a guy who’d be working at a deli in Brooklyn, handing out cold cuts. My grandparents were Italian immigrants. My father’s father, Joseph Massimino, was from Linguaglossa, near Mount Etna in Sicily, and he came over in 1902 to New York City and ended up buying a farm upstate in a town called Warwick, which is where my father, Mario Massimino, grew up. When my dad left the farm he moved back to the city, to the Bronx, where he met my mom, Vincenza Gianferrara. Her family was from Palermo, also in Sicily, and they lived in Carroll Gardens, an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn. She and my dad got married in 1951. He was twenty-eight, she was twenty-five, which was pretty late in those days.

Although my dad never went to college, while he was working he started taking fire safety courses at NYU and eventually became an inspector for the New York City Fire Department. His job was fire prevention. He would go into apartment buildings and businesses and make sure they had the right number of extinguishers and sprinkler systems and safety exits. He was a smart guy who did a good job and kept moving up to eventually become the chief of fire prevention for the entire New York City Fire Department. My mom stayed home with us kids, for which she deserves a medal.

My parents lived in the Bronx, which is where my older brother and sister were born, but soon after that my parents decided to leave the city. They bought a house at 32 Commonwealth Street in Franklin Square, Long Island, which is where I came along. I was born on August 19, 1962. My brother was ten years older than me and three years older than our sister. I was the mistake—or, as my mother would say more lovingly, “the surprise.” She used to tell me that I must have come for a reason because she thought she was done having kids after my brother and sister.

Franklin Square is right outside Queens on Hempstead Turnpike. When I was growing up, the neighborhood was filled with Italian-Americans—the Lobaccaros, the Milanas, the Adamos, the Brunos. Ours was a big, extended Italian family. My mom only had one sister, Connie, who stayed in Brooklyn, but my dad had five sisters, who all settled somewhere in Queens or Long Island. My uncle Frank and aunt Ange lived right across the street from us, and my uncle Tony and aunt Marie were around the corner. My uncle Romeo and aunt Ann were nearby in College Point, Queens. I had aunts and uncles and cousins around all the time.

Franklin Square was blue-collar. Lots of guys worked for the city. A few guys you didn’t quite know what they did, but they drove a big Lincoln and would stick wads of money in your pocket at weddings. Some kids went away to college, but most of them enrolled at the local school while living at home. A lot of guys became policemen. Your dad was a cop, so you became a cop. That was the mentality people had. My cousin Peter is crazy smart, and when he got into Princeton my aunt Sally burst into tears and cried and wailed and begged him not to go because she didn’t want him leaving the family to go to school…in New Jersey.

My world was very small. People didn’t think about leaving Long Island, let alone going to space. My buddy Q’s dad was a pharmacist and his mom was a schoolteacher; he was one of the few friends I had whose parents had been to college. My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, but—being a fire inspector and a seamstress—there wasn’t much they could do to help me become an astronaut.

I wanted to go to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History more than anything; it was a big deal when my mom and dad finally took me. I brought home pictures of the planets and books on astronomy. But that was my only exposure to the world of space. How you got to join NASA or what college you should go to in order to get there—I didn’t know anyone who could answer those questions. There was no science club at school where we could build and launch rockets. None of my friends were into space; it was something I did on my own. I had my spaceman costume, my Astronaut Snoopy, and my library books, and that was it. I didn’t even know anyone who had a telescope.

Even if I had, I wasn’t the most obvious candidate to become a guy who gets launched into orbit. I’d never been on an airplane. Part of the reason I idolized astronauts was because they were everything I wasn’t. They were fearless adventurers, and I was an awkward kid. By the time I hit junior high, my vision was bad. I wore glasses. I was so tall and so skinny I could have been my own science experiment: If you wanted to know where the bones are on the human body, all I had to do was take off my shirt and I could show you.

Astronauts coming back from space had to splash down in the water, and I hated the water. I didn’t know how to swim that well. Because there was no fat on my body, whenever my parents took us to the beach or to the local pool, it was like getting into an ice bath. I was scared of heights, too. Still am. Standing on a balcony four or five stories up and looking over? No, thank you. I didn’t like roller coasters, either. They’re scary. Hanging upside down? It makes you sick. Who wants to do that? I wasn’t any kind of thrill seeker at all.

I had this fantasy about going to the moon, but that’s all it was: a fantasy. The whole idea of actually joining NASA and going to space was so far-fetched and so far removed from my life that it was hard for me to stay interested in it. None of my friends seemed interested, and I wanted to be hanging out with my friends. What they cared about was baseball. Back then there were two leagues you could join in Franklin Square: Little League, which cost $15, or the Police Boys Club, which cost $5. In Little League you got the nice jersey and played on the nice field. In the Police Boys Club you got a T-shirt, and you played on the field that was mostly weeds and dirt. The kids with money played Little League. Me and my friends played in the Police Boys Club.

Soon I was as deep into baseball as I’d ever been into space. I was always throwing a ball. If I didn’t have anyone to play with, I’d throw it against the stoop for hours, pretending I was pitching in a big game. The moon was 238,900 miles from Earth, but Shea Stadium was only twenty minutes away down the Long Island Expressway. My dad and I went to a lot of games, usually with my uncle Romeo and my cousin Paul.

As I got older the whole astronaut fantasy went away. It burned bright and burned out, like many childhood dreams do. It was the same for the rest of the country. The Apollo program stopped in 1972. By then the thrill of the space race was over. America had won and people moved on. I did, too. The astronomy books went back to the library, my Astronaut Snoopy went on a shelf, and by fifth grade I’d mostly forgotten about space. For a kid like me, being who I was, coming from where I came from, saying “I want to grow up to be an astronaut” was like saying “I want to grow up to be Spider-Man.”

How the heck do you do that?