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

Part V. Russian Roulette

Chapter 19. FEBRUARY 1, 2003

Not long after Rick Husband and I served as family escorts together on STS-87, we were at a dinner in honor of Leonid Kadenyuk, a Ukrainian astronaut who was flying on the shuttle. The subject of family escorting came up. Neither Rick nor I had flown at that point, but Rick turned to me and said, “If I ever fly in space, the person I want to be my family escort is Mike Massimino.” I told him it would be my honor. A few months later, Rick was assigned to STS-96 as a pilot. Kent Rominger—we called him “Rommel”—was the commander. They asked me to be one of the escorts, and I immediately said yes. After everything Rick did for me when my father was ill, it was an honor for me to help his wife, Evelyn, and their two wonderful kids, Laura and Matthew, deal with the difficulties of sending a loved one off on a space flight.

Everything on STS-96 went great. I enjoyed being a family escort. It was, for me, one of the most important things I was able to do as an astronaut. Part of it is just fun. There’s lots of parties. The children are excited about watching their moms and dads going into space. You get to entertain them and see the excitement of the launch through their eyes. It’s also a serious responsibility. You handle the logistics, getting the family checked into the hotel and arranging their rental car, but your main job is to be there in case something goes wrong. The morning of the launch, you’re responsible for going to the hotel and picking up the spouses and the kids. The protocol is that they have to have their bags packed before they can leave. They’ll be coming back to spend another night in that same hotel, but their bags have to be packed and ready to go, because if there’s an accident, those families aren’t going back to the hotel to pack. They’ll be rushed onto a plane and taken back to Houston and somebody’s going to be assigned to collect the bags for them. It’s an eerie moment. You pick them up and you say, “Where’s everybody’s bag? Everybody set?” What you’re actually saying is “Make sure you’re packed in case your spouse blows up in front of your children today.” When someone asks you to serve as their family escort, they’re entrusting you with a very serious responsibility.

When Rick Husband was assigned to be commander of STS-107 on Columbia, he asked me to serve as a family escort again. At the time I was going through CAPCOM training, which was taking up a lot of my time. I checked with Mark Polansky, the head of the CAPCOM office, and was told I couldn’t do it. I needed to be in Houston and couldn’t be going down to the Cape. I was upset. Rick wanted me to be there for his wife and his kids, and I felt like that should have been the priority.

I was close with several of the other people on that flight, too, and I wanted to support their mission. Mike Anderson was probably the crew member I knew the least. Like Rick, he was an Air Force pilot, also very religious, a super-nice guy. I flew with him a few times as a backseater in his T-38. Dave Brown was a Navy pilot and flight surgeon. Dave was a bachelor, so I didn’t see him around as much as I did the astronauts with kids. But he and I happened to be down at the Cape together in 1997 when they were having the wrap party for Armageddon, so together we got to live the life of Hollywood decadence for one night, feasting on lobster and king crab legs. Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-American woman astronaut. We called her KC. She had been the astronaut office robotics liaison when I was at McDonnell Douglas, and we’d worked closely on developing the robot-arm display. She was one of the most brilliant astronauts I ever worked with and a pleasure to be around as a person.

Willie McCool, 107’s pilot, had the greatest name of any astronaut ever. He was a Navy pilot who launched off aircraft carriers in fighter jets in the middle of the night, but he also wore clogs and wrote poetry to his wife. He was like a granola, hippie fighter pilot. One day when Daniel was up at the office with me, Willie put him in an office chair and flew him around the hallways at top speed playing fighter pilot. Daniel loved it. Laurel Clark was a Navy flight surgeon and a rescue diver. Her nickname was “Floral” because she wore bright, flowery clothes and she had a bright personality to go along with it. Laurel and I were in the same class and lived in the same neighborhood. She and her son, who’s about Daniel’s age, moved to Houston a few months ahead of her husband, so we ended up doing a lot of activities together with our kids.

Other than Rick Husband, the crew member I was probably closest to was Ilan Ramon. After his reelection in 1996, President Clinton had announced that the first Israeli astronaut would be flying on the shuttle as a part of the special relationship between our two countries. That was Ilan. He wasn’t a part of any astronaut class, but we made him an honorary member of the class of ’98. There were thirty of them that year, coming in right after our class of forty-four, which meant they were going to wait a long time to fly. We named them the Penguins—the flightless birds. They’ll fly when Houston freezes over.

Many international astronauts leave their families at home, come to Houston for a couple of years, fly their mission, and then leave. Not Ilan. He wanted the whole experience. He moved his family over: his wife, Rona; his three young boys, Asaf, Tal, and David; and his daughter, Noa. Given the arrangement that Clinton had made with Israel, Ilan was going to fly no matter what. He wasn’t waiting in line with the rest of the Penguins, but he didn’t act that way at all. He insisted on being treated like everyone else. He didn’t want to be a person who flew on the space shuttle one time. He wanted to be an astronaut.

Carola and I got to know Ilan and Rona through Steve MacLean, a Canadian astronaut. There was a group of astronauts who wound up socializing because our wives went cycling together. Willie McCool and his family were a part of that group, too. We would have weekend barbecues and spend holidays together. Willie would organize huge ultimate Frisbee games in the park, fifty people out on the field, parents and kids, playing together. It was a blast.

Ilan was an exceptional person. He was an F-16 pilot in the Israeli Air Force, a colonel. He graduated at the top of his class in flight school and was a decorated veteran of the Yom Kippur War. He also took part in one of the most important military operations in Israel’s history, Operation Opera, a preemptive strike to destroy a nuclear reactor that Saddam Hussein was building in southern Iraq in 1981. A flight of F-16s armed with heavy explosives flew out in an early dawn raid to wipe out the target. Ilan was the last pilot in the formation, meaning he was the most likely to take antiaircraft fire and get killed—the most dangerous spot in an incredibly dangerous mission. I didn’t know any of this about Ilan at the time. He was Israel’s Chuck Yeager, their John Glenn, and their Neil Armstrong, all rolled into one. But I never would have guessed it from talking to him. He was kind and unassuming and respectful to everyone.

A few weeks before STS-107 flew, Steve McClain had a group of us over for a Christmas Eve party. Ilan and Rona were there. He was amped up and excited about his mission. We made a few jokes about getting swapped in the flight order. “You cut us in line!” That sort of thing. It was a fantastic night. Shortly after that the crew went into quarantine. Two days before the launch I ran into Evelyn Husband at the YMCA. I told her how bummed I was that I didn’t get to be their escort, but if she needed anything to let me know. Then on January 16 they flew.

On January 31, their last day in space, I was doing a CAPCOM shift for the astronauts on the space station, Don Pettit and Ken Bowersox, who were up there with the Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin. I got a call late in the afternoon from the flight surgeon, Smith Johnston. The last thing a shuttle crew does the night before they come back is a private medical conference with the flight surgeon to make sure everyone is in good shape for reentry. Smith liked to bring on a “mystery guest” at the end of his calls to say hi and wish everyone well for the ride home. Small things like that are important for making you feel connected while you’re off the planet. Smith asked me if I would be his mystery guest. Carola and Gabby were away on a camping trip with her Girl Scout troop, and I had to get home that night to help Daniel finish his car for the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby, which was happening first thing in the morning, but I said of course I’d be happy to do anything I could for the crew. Smith asked me to stop by around five o’clock, right about the time they would be in their pajamas getting ready for bed.

The flight surgeon does his calls in a private room right off Mission Control. Once Smith had finished the medical updates, he invited me in. The Ku antenna on the shuttle was already stowed, so it was a voice call, not video. The crew had to guess who I was. Smith made it easy. He introduced me by saying, “He’s from New York and he’s very tall.” Laurel Clark shouted the answer: “Mike Massimino!” I could hear them laughing and cheering in the background. “How is it up there?” I asked. Laurel joked, “Oh, Mass. It’s not good. I don’t think you should ever come back. I’ll take your spot next time.”

I spoke mostly to Rick. That’s how it is when you call the shuttle: You talk through the commander. “We really appreciate you taking time out of your day to come talk to us,” Rick said. “Thanks so much. It’s great to talk to you, and we look forward to seeing you when we get back.” That was Rick, grateful and generous. We talked for about ten minutes, chatting back and forth. I could tell they were happy. They’d had a great flight and couldn’t wait to get home. We said good night and I wished them luck. Smith signed off, and that was that. I ducked out to go pick up Daniel, totally unaware of the fact that—along with the CAPCOM who’d be talking to Rick and Willie during reentry—Smith Johnston and I were the last people on Earth who would ever speak with them.

Daniel’s Pinewood Derby race was at 8:00 a.m. up at his school. His car was designed like a Blue Angel F-18 with wings on the back and Blue Angel stickers on it. Daniel got dressed in his Cub Scout uniform. Since I was an assistant troop leader that year, I was wearing my uniform, too. We drove over to the school. In the parking lot as we were walking in we ran into one of the other fathers, Mike Lloyd. Mike was an Army reservist, an enlisted guy. He had a Walkman or some kind of portable radio he was listening to. He saw me and said, “Have you heard anything?”

I said, “Heard what?”

He looked down at Daniel. “Daniel, why don’t you go on inside.”

I told Daniel to go in and that I’d meet him indoors. Once he was gone Mike said, “It looks like the shuttle came apart in the sky. They’re reporting debris over East Texas.”

I stared at him for a moment, dumbstruck. Then I ran and found a phone and called Steve Smith. He answered, “Hey, Mike! What’s up?”

I said, “Turn on CNN and tell me what you see.”

He went and turned his television on. I could hear the muffled sound of the TV, but Steve wasn’t saying a word.

“Steve, what do you see?”

“It’s an accident….It’s bad.”

“What do we do?”

“Go to the office,” he said. “Now.”

I ran and found Daniel and arranged for one of his friends’ moms to look after him and get him home. Then I left and raced to the office as fast as I could. I felt completely helpless. I felt like I should be in Florida with the families. I needed to get to the office to hear what was going on, but at the same time I was dreading it. I wanted to wake up and find that the whole morning had been a nightmare.

As I was pulling in, other astronauts were arriving, too. I remember seeing Lee Morin. He was wearing a suit—8:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and he had on a black suit. Because he already knew. Lee was Dave Brown’s casualty assistance care officer, or CACO. If you get killed, your CACO is the person who handles all the arrangements for your family and helps your spouse with whatever he or she needs. I was still in shock. But Lee was a Navy guy. He knew. He was ready.

When I walked in I saw Kevin Kregel in the hallway. He was standing there shaking his head. He looked up and saw me. “You know,” he said, “we’re all just playing Russian roulette, and you have to be grateful you weren’t the one who got the bullet.” I immediately thought about the two Columbia missions getting switched in the flight order, how it could have been us coming home that day. He was right. There was this tremendous grief and sadness, this devastated look on the faces of everyone who walked in. We’d lost seven members of our family. But underneath that sadness there was a definite, and uncomfortable, sense of relief. That sounds perverse to say, but for some of us it’s the way it was. Space travel is dangerous. People die. It had been seventeen years since Challenger. We lost Apollo 1 on the launchpad nineteen years before that. It was time for something to happen and, like Kevin said, you were grateful that your number hadn’t come up.

We gathered in the sixth-floor conference room, surrounded by the commemorative plaques of all the missions that had gone before. It was packed. Everyone had been called in. There wasn’t a whole lot of wailing and crying. It was more quiet, somber: people sitting around in shock with blank, thousand-yard stares, trying to process what had happened. A few of our leaders got up and spoke. Ellen Ochoa, head of flight crew operations at the time. Kent Rominger, who was now head of the astronaut office. I mostly remember former astronaut Bob Cabana, who was deputy chief of JSC at the time, getting up to speak. He confirmed what we already knew, that the crew had been lost. He said, “This is a terrible day for the astronaut office. This is going to be one of the worst days that any of us will ever have in our lives. But we’ve got to get through it. The families are on their way back from Florida. As devastated as we are, just imagine how they’re doing. The first order of business is to take care of them.”

When the meeting broke, it was chaotic. We had protocols and contingencies in place to deal with the loss of a shuttle, but the truth is, no one really knew what to do. You did what you thought was needed. Some people were already talking about the investigation and volunteering to help with that. I knew that I needed to be helping with the families. I was still upset that I wasn’t in Florida right then. I should have been there like Rick had asked me to be. Andy Thomas, deputy chief of the astronaut office, was coordinating the family support. Even with the escorts and CACOs already assigned to the crew, they were going to need extra help. I went to Andy and told him I was available. Steve Lindsey was Rick’s CACO, and Andy more or less told me to go with Steve and do whatever was needed. The families were scheduled to arrive at Ellington from the Cape at 3:00 p.m., and it was decided we would meet there.

I called Carola. She and Gabby were cutting their camping trip short and coming home. I asked her if she needed anything before I disappeared for the rest of the day. She said we needed milk. Life doesn’t stop, even at moments like this one, so I went by the store to pick some up. This was around one in the afternoon. I was in a fog. I was a zombie. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I got the milk and a few other things and I was standing in line to buy them when I completely zoned out. The next thing I remember is the groceries being bagged up and the cashier saying, “Sir? Will that be cash or credit? Sir? Sir? Hello?!” I had my wallet out, but I’d forgotten why I was in the store. I just stood there staring into space. One of our neighbors, Theresa Harrigan, was behind me in line. She reached over and took my wallet and paid the cashier for me. She said, “Be nice to this man. He’s had a rough day.” I thanked her and took the groceries and left. It’s funny what you remember.

I dropped the milk at home and drove to the airfield. The CACOs and a bunch of other astronauts were there. When the plane landed from the Cape, we helped everyone get their luggage and pack up their cars. Rick’s wife, Evelyn, was in the passenger seat of a minivan. She put down her window and I told her I was sorry. She took my hand and said, “You know how much Rick loved you. He loved you so much.” It was like she was the one comforting me. But that’s how Rick and Evelyn were.

At 1:00 p.m., NASA made a public statement confirming the total loss of Columbia and its crew. An hour later President Bush gave a speech from the White House. At 3:20 p.m. it was announced that all future shuttle flights were suspended pending the accident investigation. We knew that would be the case, but now it was official. Don Pettit and the other astronauts on the space station were, at least for the time being, stranded. I was Don Pettit’s CACO. Don and Willie McCool were tight. Don had invented a chess board with Velcro pieces that you could play in space, and he and Willie had had a game going, e-mailing their moves back and forth to one another.

After I left Ellington, I went over to Don’s house to spend a couple hours with his wife, Mickey, and their twin boys, who were only about a year old. Her husband was 250 miles up in space, and his ride home had just been canceled. We knew we could get them down on the Soyuz, but it still had to be a terrifying moment, wondering how long he’d be stuck, if it was safe to fly back now. And getting those astronauts home was only the immediate problem. Everything about the station—assembling it, supplying it, transporting the crew—was predicated on the shuttle being operational. Now the fate of the whole project had been thrown into question.

The next morning I was on a plane to Phoenix to pick up Rick Husband’s mother, Jane, and his younger brother, Keith, to escort them back to Houston for the memorial. I spent a night out there with them, tried to comfort them as best I could, and told them what I knew about the accident, which wasn’t much at the time. I flew back to Houston with Rick’s family and made sure they were settled in to their hotel. On Tuesday we held the memorial at the Johnson Space Center. The turnout was so big we had to hold it outside on the lawn. So many flowers and wreaths were piled up at the entrance gate that cars could barely drive through it. President Bush came down and spoke, and we had a missing-man formation, where airplanes fly over in formation and one of the jets veers off straight up to the heavens to indicate that you’ve lost someone. There was a missing-man formation in The Right Stuff, too, but that was one part of the movie I would have been happy not to have lived through. After the public memorial came the individual funerals. I went to Mike’s and to Rick’s. There were so many funerals coming so close together I actually couldn’t make it to all of them.

Ilan’s funeral was going to be in Israel. A handful of us were asked to go and represent NASA. Steve MacLean was Ilan’s CACO. He and his wife went. Carola and I went as well. On the day we arrived in Tel Aviv, a public memorial was held at the Israeli Air Force Base adjacent to Ben Gurion Airport. All the big Israeli politicians were there: Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu. The next day Ilan was buried in Moshav Nahalal, a small village near Nazareth. The cemetery there is up on a hill, and Ilan’s grave was at the top looking out over the valley, a place of honor. The service was conducted by the chief rabbi of Israel, and at the end we walked up and placed stones on Ilan’s grave.

Up until that day, Ilan was a great friend and colleague and a guy I played ultimate Frisbee with. It was only when I saw the scale of his memorial and the entire nation in mourning that I fully realized what he meant to the people of Israel. I saw why he’d been chosen. He had all the qualifications as a pilot and an engineer, but he was also someone who represented the best of his countrymen. He had the personality and the temperament to use his position for good.

Ilan’s dream was to have peace in his homeland. He always made it clear that he was flying for the state of Israel, not only Jews but Muslims, Christians, everyone. Going to space is one of the few things that unites us as human beings. The Americans, the Russians, the Japanese—once you sign up for this mission, it doesn’t matter what flag is on your shoulder. We work together because the goal we’re striving for is more important than whatever the politicians are fighting about that week. Before Columbia broke apart over East Texas, Ilan was headed home to a hero’s welcome. He was going to use that fame to tell the story of space to his own people, to give them a common purpose, something to unite them. When we lost Ilan, we lost more than a great pilot, family member, and friend: We lost someone who could have made a difference in a very difficult part of the world.

After a couple of months, the memorials were over and the public mourning ended. People moved on. But inside the astronaut office nobody moved on. In the weeks, months, and years after, we stayed in touch with the families and loved ones of the crew. Kent Rominger and I would go for T-38 runs up to Amarillo to have a piece of pie with Rick Husband’s mom. I would call her every few weeks to check in. Other astronauts did the same with the other families. That sense of brotherhood and togetherness I felt when my father was sick, that really kicked in, especially for the kids. The Girl Scouts’ daddy-daughter dance was scheduled a few weeks after the accident. I went with Gabby, but Mike Anderson’s daughter suddenly found herself without a dad. Steve Robinson, one of the astronauts in Mike’s class, was a forty-something bachelor with no kids. He dressed up in a suit and tie and took her to the dance. I remember telling him, “Steve, it’s great of you to do this.”

He said, “Are you kidding me? This is the best date I’ve ever had. I’m honored to be here.”

That was the way we all felt. Nothing we did could make up for losing a parent, but we were going the make sure those kids had people there for the school plays and baseball games and birthday parties their mothers and fathers had to miss. Carola and the kids and I stayed especially close to Rona Ramon and her children. Rona stayed in Houston for a couple of years, not wanting to disrupt the kids’ lives any more than they already had been, but that meant she was now raising four kids alone in a foreign country. The second-oldest boy, Tal, had his bar mitzvah a couple of months after the crash, and we all went to help out and support him. When Ilan’s oldest son, Asaf, won an academic award for being one of the top students in the ninth grade, Rona couldn’t make the ceremony, so Carola and I went and watched him get his medal and took him out for sushi afterward. In moments like that we tried to be there and pitch in as much as we could.

After a few years Rona and the kids moved back to Israel. After high school Asaf enrolled in the Israeli Air Force Flight School to become a pilot just like his father. In 2009 he graduated first in his class, just like his father, the first time a father and son had done so in the history of Israel. Flying was in their blood. Asaf said he hoped to become an astronaut one day, too. Then, only a few months later, while flying a training mission in the Hebron Mountains on a Sunday morning in September, Asaf suffered a g-force–induced loss of consciousness in an F-16 at a low altitude. He crashed and was killed instantly. He was twenty-one years old.

I couldn’t make it to Asaf’s funeral because of my second space flight, but I called Rona. She wasn’t doing well. Losing a son was harder than losing a husband. I finally made it over to visit in 2010, and Rona took me to visit Ilan and Asaf in their graves. They’re buried side by side in the two plots Ilan and Rona had intended for themselves. Standing over Asaf’s headstone, Rona said, “This was supposed to be me.”

Asaf’s death put an end to flying in the Ramon family. The younger children, Rona grounded them. She went straight to the prime minister and said, “No more.” All three of them served, but they never flew. That family had sacrificed enough. David, the youngest boy, still wanted to fly. When she told him he couldn’t, he said, “Don’t you think I would make a good pilot?”

“Yes,” she told him. “You would be a great pilot. Better than your father. Better than your brother. In our family we are very good in the sky, but the sky has not been good to us.”