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

Part VI. Worth the Risk

Chapter 23. LINE 28

From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!

That’s what I tweeted once Atlantis reached orbit—the first tweet from space. I continued sending tweets when I could, bringing people along for the journey; but I was busy from the jump, busier than I had been on 109. I was in charge of the post-insertion checklist, converting the shuttle from a launch vehicle to a spaceship. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick this time and was able to get everything done. We also had to perform the inspections that, post-Columbia, were now a standard part of our postlaunch procedure. On day three, Megan successfully grappled the telescope and berthed it in the payload bay while Grunsfeld, Drew, Bueno, and I inspected our EVA suits, went over our checklists, and prepared to go outside.

For the first space walk, Grunsfeld and Drew removed the old Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and replaced it with Wide Field Camera 3, equipping the Hubble to take large-scale, detailed photos over a wider range of colors than ever before. They replaced the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit that had failed the previous September, restoring the telescope’s communication capabilities, and finished up by installing the Soft Capture Mechanism on the bottom of the telescope.

On the second space walk, Bueno and I had to swap out one of the failing batteries and install the Rate Sensor Units. While Bueno was working on those, I started on some get-ahead tasks to help Grunsfeld and Drew repair the ACS the next day. To get the camera working, we had to reroute power around it using what we call a PIE harness, a cable about six feet long. From where we were positioned to work on the RSUs, I was in a good spot to set this cable up for the next day’s work. I went and retrieved it and hooked it to my mini-workstation so I’d have it for later.

The next thing I knew, out of the corner of my eye I saw the PIE harness floating away. Somehow the hook that I’d used to secure it had come undone and it was drifting off into space. The first thought to flash through my mind was: That’s the only one we have. Sometimes we carry spares, like with the RSUs, but there was no spare for this harness. If it goes, that’s it. There’s no fixing the ACS without it, and we’re never coming back here again. I wasn’t watching a harness float away—I was watching the future of astronomy float away.

I was inside the telescope, right next to the star trackers and the super-delicate instruments we’re not supposed to ever bang into or disturb, but I couldn’t let this thing get away. It was already about five feet above me and going fast. I lunged for it. If I hadn’t been tethered to a handrail, I would have been launching myself into space, too, never to return. But I knew that I was tethered. I knew it instinctively thanks to my years of training. I didn’t even double-check before jumping. I leapt up, grabbed the harness, then grabbed my tether and pulled myself back down. Grunsfeld was watching me from inside, and it scared the dickens out of him. He yelled over the comm, “Mass! Watch out!” The whole episode was over in seconds, and everyone at Mission Control was so focused on fixing the RSUs that nobody else took note of the fact that I had nearly sabotaged a key part of the mission.

We completed the RSU swap, and the new battery went in with no problems. The next day Grunsfeld and Drew installed the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and performed the Advanced Camera for Surveys repair. We were watching that repair closely because it was a dress rehearsal for the STIS repair. If Grunsfeld encountered any problems, he might tell me what kinds of challenges I was going to face tomorrow. But there wasn’t a single glitch. Both the COS installation and the ACS repair came off flawlessly. It was as close to a perfect day in space as you can get.

I wanted a perfect day. Every pitcher wants to throw a perfect game at least once. As I sat up that night polishing and buffing my helmet, that’s what I was thinking. For five years, ever since the day Grunsfeld called me about a possible robot mission, I’d thought about nothing besides that telescope. Every Sunday at church I’d sit in the pew and think about Hubble. I’d take my kids to a roller rink with their friends, watch them go round and round, and think about Hubble. Now I was getting ready to go out there. I knew this would be my last space walk on the telescope. I figured there was a good chance this would be my last space walk ever. And I was about to undertake the most complex and delicate operation attempted on any space walk ever. This wasn’t a run in the pool. Everything had to go right.

We woke up that morning to my song: Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” Bueno and I started our routine, eating breakfast, putting on our garments, going over our checklists. The whole time I was thinking, This is it. This is the day. I knew this day would have a story to it, that it would have a beginning and an end. I didn’t know how it would end. I just knew it would be significant one way or another, a day to remember. And it was. Since that day, in every speech I’ve ever given, I speak about that day.

We were attempting something in space that had never been done before. How were we going to do it? Could we do it? The reason we run through these tasks so many times on the ground is not simply to learn how to do the job right but to find out everything that might go wrong. Depending on the complexity of the space walk, so many potential problems can occur. The last thing you want is to encounter a problem you didn’t think of or hadn’t prepared a solution for. But you inevitably do. Drew and I would talk about this in terms of cars. “There’s always something wrong with your car,” he’d say. “You just don’t know what it is yet.” Is there a belt that’s about to go bad? A weakness in the front left tire that’s about to cause a blowout? You don’t know, but the demons are out there, waiting for you. Hopefully they only come at you one at a time.

The Hubble was at the back of the payload bay. I wasn’t looking forward to getting back there. As the free floater, going back and forth was always a bit hairy, because you’re on the sill of the payload bay, looking over the edge into space, and you feel like you could flip and get out of control and go flying off. You’re tethered to the ship, but the length of that tether is fifty-five feet, which is a long way to tumble into space before it catches you. The fear is hard to shake.

Since my space walks on STS-109, one thing had changed. The robot arm had always been berthed on the port side of the shuttle, making it difficult to translate along that path. There are some handrails, but it’s tough to get a solid grip in a few places. We’d always gone down the starboard side, which had a clear path with handrails all the way down. Now we had this new inspection boom added after the Columbia accident. It was stored on the starboard side, and I couldn’t go that way anymore. I had to pick my way along this treacherous path around the base of the robot arm, holding on to a hose here, a screw there, always worried I was going to lose my grip and careen out of control. Part of the reason I wanted everything to go perfectly was because I wanted to go out to the telescope once at the beginning and come back once at the end. I wanted to spend the day back in the cocoon of the telescope, where I could concentrate on my job.

Once Bueno and I got to the telescope, Drew started walking us through our checklist and we were knocking off the steps. We were even a bit ahead of schedule. I attached the clamp removal tool. That went fine. I attached the handrail removal tools that would capture those bolts and washers as they came off. That went fine, too. Then I had to remove the four screws that would allow me to drive the guide studs that held the capture plate. These were the four screws that stood the greatest chance of throwing off debris that might FOD the telescope. Slowly, very slowly, I took the drill with the washer-retainer bit and removed the first screw. It came out clean. Then the second. Then the third. As I came to the fourth, I looked at it and thought, One more of you and I can check you off and never deal with you again. That’s how I felt with every little thing ticked off the checklist: I’m done with that. Never again.

The fourth bolt came out clean. Now, before I could drive the guide studs, I had to remove the handrail. I was using the large pistol-grip power tool I’d used plenty of other times—nothing unfamiliar about it. The two top screws came off, no problem. The bottom left came off, no problem. One more and I was done. I engaged the bottom right screwhead with the tool and pulled the trigger like I’d done a thousand times before. It spun and spun. It gave me a red light. I wasn’t getting a good green light. The drill bit was going round and round and nothing was happening. Something was wrong. I looked inside the little window of the handrail removal tool and I didn’t see a hex anymore. I saw a deformed, rounded thing that I’d created because I’d stuck the tool in there and pulled the trigger and ground down the screwhead.

Stripping a screw on Earth, while annoying, is not a game-over situation. You just pop down to the hardware store and they’ve got extractor bits and tools designed to deal with the situation. We were prepared for the small screws to get stripped, but nobody had thought it would happen with the big ones. We didn’t have any of the right tools, and the closest hardware store was a long way away.

I stared at what I’d done. That screw is destroyed, I thought. It’s never coming out, which means there’s no way to get the handrail off, which means there’s no way to get the guide studs on, which means there’s no way to get the capture plate on, which means there’s no way to get the 111 screws out, which means there’s no way to get the old power supply out, which means there’s no way to get the new power supply in, which means the STIS is broken forever, which means there’s no way to discover life on other planets.

And I’m to blame.

All of this went through my head in a matter of seconds. I looked over at Bueno. He was giving me this wide-eyed look like, What now? I actually had the thought, Hey, maybe Bueno can fix it. But I knew he couldn’t take over the repair. He was my partner, but the damage was already done. I looked back at the cabin. My crewmates were in there, but none of them had space suits on and they couldn’t come and bail me out, either. Then I looked down at the Earth. There are seven billion people down there, I thought, and not one of them can help me. No one can help me. I felt this deep sense of loneliness. And it wasn’t a Saturday-afternoon-with-a-book type of alone. It was an alone-in-the-universe type of alone. I felt separated from the Earth. I could see what they would be saying in the science books of the future. This would be my legacy. My children and my grandchildren would read in their classrooms: We might have known if there was life on other planets, but Gabby and Daniel’s dad broke the Hubble.

I tried the pistol-grip tool again. I was bearing down hard to try to get traction and catch something to spin this screw. I’m a big guy, and by bearing down that hard what I was also doing was pushing with my feet and putting all that force in the opposite direction into my foot restraint, which was attached to the base of the telescope. There are limits to the amount of force that fixture can take. Looking back on it, I’m surprised I didn’t rip the thing right out and put a hole in the side of telescope.

No matter how bad things appear, you can always make them worse.

I was making it worse. Drew came over the comm and told me to stop. “Mass,” he said. “Don’t. Pull. The. Trigger.”

We all froze for a moment, not knowing what to do. Hundreds of test runs with an identical screw and an identical power tool had never once resulted in a stripped screw. We discovered later, during an investigation, that the problem was the staking, the glue put on the threads to hold the screws in place. This one screw had more glue on it than the other three. So when we calculated how much torque it was going to take to unscrew the screw from the handrail, we were off. If I’d been using a manual ratchet, I would have felt the extra resistance better and adjusted. But I was using this big, bulky tool set at 60 rpm, the highest setting, and it didn’t have as much feedback. Which in hindsight was stupid. There was no reason to do it like that. But everyone was so concerned with the 111 very tiny screws on the panel. Those were the ones we were worried about stripping. The big screws with the large interface, they were nothing. They hadn’t even been a topic of conversation.

There’s always something wrong with your car. You just don’t know what it is yet. The staking on that screw was the demon out there, waiting for me. It was lurking, waiting to be found ever since the STIS was manufactured in the mid-1990s and some technician accidentally put a tiny extra dab of glue on the threads of that screw. I didn’t know that at the time. I just felt like I’d messed up. And at that point the origin of the problem didn’t matter. Even if it wasn’t my fault, it was still my responsibility.

We had a backup plan if we couldn’t break torque: Go in with a manual wrench and crank it loose. But we had no plan for a stripped screw. The checklist was useless. Tony Ceccacci, our flight director, was at that moment marshaling everyone in Houston and at Goddard to work the problem. Dan Burbank, our CAPCOM, was relaying their ideas to Drew, who’d then pass them on to me.

The only idea coming up from Houston was to keep trying different tools and drill bits to get that screw out, and the tools they wanted me to try were in the toolbox at the front of the payload bay—all the way at the end of the treacherous path on the port side of the shuttle. Bueno couldn’t fly up there on the robot arm. The free floater had to do it—I had to do it. I couldn’t say I was scared, but I was. I started picking my way along that sill to get to the toolbox, and over the side of the shuttle I could see the beautiful Earth, only it didn’t look beautiful to me. It hadn’t changed, but my attitude had. As I made my way up to the toolbox, the doubts and fears that had plagued me for years—doubts and fears that I’d thought I’d put to rest—they all came creeping back. Why did I screw that up? Maybe Grunsfeld should have been doing this and I should have stuck to the basics. Maybe I wasn’t good enough to spacewalk on Hubble in the first place. Maybe I was a bad choice, and that’s what the postflight investigation would say: “It was Massimino’s fault.”

As beautiful as that view was, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything at that point but fixing what was going on. Then I realized that, as bad as I was feeling, being scared and full of doubt wasn’t going to help. If I didn’t fix this, it was never getting fixed. I got to the toolbox, fetched the tool they wanted me to try, and went all the way back. That didn’t work. “Try this one.” I went all the way back to the toolbox, fetched the next thing, then came all the way back again. That didn’t work, either. Then it was “Try that one,” and “Try this other one.” I must have gone up and down the sill of that payload bay eight or nine times, fetching different tools. With every pass I lost more hope, and I didn’t have much at the start. I knew the repair backward and forward, and I knew there was no way to recover from this. We were grasping at straws. We could keep trying different drill bits, but there was nothing wrong with the bit I was using. The problem was the screwhead. We kept trying things and I kept fetching tools and nothing was working.

I felt like I was living a nightmare. I didn’t think we stood a chance. My best and only option was to go out gracefully. I just needed to keep it together and do everything that was being asked of me until we ran out of time, and very soon we were going to run out of time. I’d been going back and forth and trying different tools for over an hour. We were in a night pass when I stripped the screw, and the day-night cycles were passing. I knew that time was ticking down and they couldn’t keep us out there forever. Ultimately, it was the flight director’s call. I knew he was watching the clock, watching our biometrics, and doing the math. Bueno and I could get more oxygen if we needed it, but our CO2 filters were filling up. Eventually they’d hit their limit. Typically we plan to be out for six and a half hours max. You can stretch it to seven, but you can’t go much longer than that. People start to make mistakes from fatigue. Your life support starts to run out.

At a certain point the question for the flight director becomes: Even if we fix this now, do we have time to finish everything else? Because it’s not like we can leave the telescope hanging open all night and pick up and finish in the morning. As long as the answer is “Yes, we can finish,” we keep going. As soon as the answer is no, even if we have three hours of life support left, the flight director makes the call, because there’s no point in continuing. As the clock ticked down, every minute we were getting closer and closer to Bingo time. I thought we had already reached that point. I was trying everything Dan Burbank was telling me, but my expectation was that Ceccacci was going to tell us to throw in the towel at any moment.

Then Burbank came over the comm and said that they were working on something and I needed to go to the toolbox and get vise grips and tape. Tape? Seriously? I didn’t even know we had tape on the shuttle. I thought to myself, Wow. We are really running out of ideas. We’re down to the office supplies now? Are we going to try paper clips next? A three-hole punch? I translated back up to the toolbox at the front of the payload bay and started digging around for tape. It was dark. I was not happy. I was completely demoralized. At that moment I was as low as I had ever been in my life.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Drew trying to get my attention from the flight deck window, maybe ten feet away from me. I didn’t want to look up. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want anyone to see how upset and ashamed I was. Finally I looked up, and Drew had this huge smile, almost like he was laughing. I couldn’t say anything, because the ground crew would be able to hear it, so we had to communicate with gestures and facial expressions, like a game of charades. I shot him a look. “What’s with you?”

“You’re doing great,” he mouthed back, giving me a big thumbs-up.

I thought, What is he talking about? Is there some other space walk going on right now that I’m not aware of? Because the one I’m involved with is a total disaster. But Drew kept smiling. He started rocking his thumb and pinky finger back and forth, pointing between the two of us as if to say, “It’s me and you, buddy. We got this. You’re gonna be okay.”

If there was ever a time when I needed a friend, that was it. And Drew was right there, just like I’d seen in The Right Stuff, the camaraderie of those guys sticking together. I’d been feeling stranded and all alone, but I’d forgotten that my team was right there with me—my crewmates and everyone at NASA on the ground. If this thing kept going south, no one was going to point the finger at me and say, “Massimino did it.” We would fail or succeed together, and that’s the way it should be. Now, I did not believe Drew for a minute that everything was going to be okay. I still thought all was lost. But I did think, Hey, if I’m going down, at least I’m going down with my best pals.

It was at that moment that Burbank radioed in to tell me what was going on with the vise grips and the tape: They wanted me to rip the handrail off. The thought of doing something like that hadn’t occurred to me; it ran counter to everything I’d ever been taught about the telescope, which was to treat it as gingerly as possible. But while I was running back and forth like a crazy person trying to fix this thing, Jim Corbo, a Goddard systems manager working out of Houston that day, started wondering if it was possible to yank the thing off. He called Goddard and spoke with James Cooper, the mechanical systems manager for the telescope. It was a Sunday. Only a handful of people were working, but Cooper and Jeff Roddin and Bill Mitchell and the Hubble team up there started running around trying to rig up a test to see if this would work. In less than an hour they had the backup handrail from the clean room hooked up to a torque wrench and a digital fish scale to measure how many pounds of force it would take to break the handrail loose with one screw holding it in.

They did it. Successfully. They called Corbo in Houston with the results. Now Ceccacci and his team had to decide whether or not to give this a shot. If we didn’t get the handrail off, the worst case was that the STIS stayed broken but everything else worked fine. But if we yanked this handrail off and debris got loose inside it might FOD the telescope, compromise the mirror. Also, in space, flying shrapnel is a bad idea generally. What if I yanked this thing off and it kicked back and punctured my space suit? Then this might become a matter of life and death.

Ceccacci decided to go for it. It was a gutsy call. But like everything else with Hubble, it was worth the risk. Burbank radioed up and explained it to me. “This was just done,” he said, “just now, at Goddard on a flight equipment unit, and it took sixty pounds linear at the top of the handhold to fail the single bolt in the lower right position at the bottom.”

Drew said, “Okay. Mass, you copy that? Sixty pounds linear at the top of the handrail to pop off that bottom bolt. I think you’ve got that in you.”

I knew I had it in me. I was a big guy in the best shape of my life. I was nervous about damaging the telescope, but for the first time since the whole problem started, I felt this surge of confidence and hope.

The reason for the tape, I now learned, was to tape up the bottom of the handrail to try to contain any debris that might go flying. I made my way back to the telescope, and Bueno and I taped that handrail up. The whole time Drew and Burbank and I were talking this through. We decided I should start by rocking it back and forth, give it a few tugs to yield the metal a bit, and then give it one clean yank once the metal started to give. If I tried to do it in one go, all that power would be in one motion and it would snap and debris might go flying everywhere.

Right as we got the handrail taped up and were ready to go, Mission Control called up to say they’d lost the downlink from my helmet camera and wouldn’t have any video for the next three minutes. I didn’t want to waste another second. And if they couldn’t see what I was doing, even better. Let’s have the party now while Mom and Dad aren’t home. “Drew,” I said, “I think we should do it now.”

He said to go for it. “Just real easy, okay?”

I took a breath, braced my left hand and my feet, and looked at this handrail in front of me. When I was growing up back in Franklin Square, there was one day when I was outside throwing my ball against the front steps, and my uncle Frank came over. This was my uncle who lived across the street. He was covered in oil and grease. My dad came out, they disappeared inside the house for a minute, and then they came back out. My dad had this giant three-foot-long screwdriver with him and he said, “Stop throwing that ball. Come across the street and maybe you’ll learn somethin’.”

I got up and followed them. Uncle Frank had his car, a 1971 Ford Gran Torino, parked in the street out in front of his house with the hood open. Some mechanic had screwed the oil filter in wrong. Uncle Frank had practically destroyed the thing trying to get it out, and now it was stuck. It was a physics problem, the same problem currently staring me in the face 350 miles above Earth. The amount of torque you can generate is related to the amount of force you apply times the length of the lever; applying force at the end of a long lever gives you more torque than applying the same amount of force on a short lever. So my uncle jammed the end of this long screwdriver under the lip of the filter, wrapped a rag around the handle, and started yanking down on it as hard as he could, grunting and cursing under his breath with each tug: “Ungh! Ungh! Ungh!” He did that for nearly a minute and finally the filter broke torque and popped out.

As I looked at that handrail attached to this $100 million instrument inside this $1 billion telescope, after fourteen years of highly specialized training from the most advanced minds in the history of space exploration, all I could picture was my uncle Frank, under the hood of his car, covered in grease, cursing and grunting and yanking on the end of that giant screwdriver. I grabbed the top of the handrail and I rocked it back a couple times and I said to myself, “This one’s for you, Uncle Frank.” I yanked it hard and bam! It came off. Clean. No debris. No punctured space suit.

“Awesome job,” Burbank said. “We’re back in with the regularly scheduled programming.”

Bueno took the handrail, put it in a disposal bag, and we were back in business. I felt like I’d been given a reprieve by God, like I was resurrected from the dead. I felt like this whole episode had been Him giving me a warning to be careful with the rest of the repair. I didn’t care what else happened, I was fixing that thing. Nothing in the world—nothing in the universe—could stop me.

I dove straight in and went to work. There was no stopping to celebrate; we weren’t even close to being finished. I drove the guide stud anchors. One, two, three, four, they all went in flush. Perfect. I put the capture plate on. It fit, and I cinched it down. Perfect. I took the foil cutter and I sheared off the label exposing the screws underneath. Perfect.

Now I’d reached the big moment: 111 tiny screws and washers to remove without making a single mistake. I grabbed my mini–power tool, I pulled the trigger, and…nothing happened. I pulled it again. Still nothing. It was dead. I said, “Aw, for Pete’s sake.” Bueno and I looked at each other. What else could go wrong? Fortunately this wasn’t a big deal. Either the battery had died or we’d charged the wrong one the night before, but the spare was in the airlock and I needed to get more oxygen anyway, so it was one more trip across the payload bay for me.

As I was making my way back, two things happened. First, the sun came out. The cold and the darkness had passed and everything was warm and bright and clear again. Second, as I was moving along that edge and looking over the side of the shuttle, I realized that I wasn’t scared. I’d been back and forth so many times that this treacherous path wasn’t so treacherous anymore. I realized that my doubts and fears had been totally wrong. I was a spacewalker. I was the right guy for the job. They had picked the right person for this. Because being the right person isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being able to handle whatever life throws at you. I’d faced every astronaut’s worst nightmare, and with the help of my team I pulled myself out of it. And if that problem with the handrail had never happened, I never would have known I had that in me.

I zipped down the side of the shuttle, put a new battery in the mini–power tool, pumped up my oxygen tank, and went back out like a superhero to fix that telescope. And we did it. We hit a couple of bumps, but the rest of the day just went. The screws came out, the panel came off, the old power supply came out, the new power supply went in, and we closed it up.

Once we were done, the team at Goddard performed an aliveness test to see if the STIS was operating again. It was. Everybody started cheering and high-fiving each other, saying “Great job” and “Way to go.” I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. Then, while the big celebration was going on, I glanced down at my glove and noticed something: There was a tiny rip in my space suit glove. It was only in the outer fabric. It hadn’t gone through the other layers yet, but if we’d seen that rip earlier, that would have been it. Ceccacci would have aborted the EVA and brought us in immediately. The whole space walk would have been over before it started. I suppose that rip was the other demon out there waiting for me. But it didn’t get me that day.

After we closed the telescope doors, Bueno was at the back of the payload bay finishing up, and I went back into the airlock to do an inventory and stow things away. Scooter came over the comm.

“Mass, what are you doing?”

“I’m getting the airlock ready.”

“Is there anything you’re doing now that can’t wait?”

“No.”

“Well, why don’t you go outside and enjoy the view?”

This was the commander ordering me, so I figured I’d better do as I was told.

“Okay.”

I went back out, up to the top of the payload bay, clipped my safety tether to a handrail, and I just…let go. I stretched out and relaxed, the same way you’d float on your back in the ocean on a warm summer day, and looked at the Earth below. We were coming over Hawaii, a few tiny islands alone in this brilliant expanse of blue. It was beautiful again. Magnificent. I wasn’t stealing a glance at the planet while I was supposed to be working, and I wasn’t inside, craning my neck to look through a window. I could turn my head in every direction and drink it all in.

We hit Southern California and San Diego, then Las Vegas and Phoenix started whipping by. When I was twenty-one years old, I watched The Right Stuff from the balcony of the Floral Park theater on Long Island and saw a sliver of the Earth through the tiny window in John Glenn’s capsule. I decided I wouldn’t be happy until I saw it for myself, and here I was, except that the view was a thousand times more spectacular than anything he witnessed on that flight. Life doesn’t give you many perfect moments. This was one of them. This was my reward, my gift, a few precious minutes to lie back and look at the most perfect, most beautiful thing in the universe. Then, as we came up on the East Coast, I felt that chill in my bones telling me that night was on its way. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark line creeping toward me westward across the Atlantic, and I knew it was time to go back in.

It was time to come home.