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

Part VI. Worth the Risk

Chapter 24. GROUNDED

When you’re in space and you want to set something down, like a spoon or a Sharpie, you don’t actually put it down. There is no down. You set it out at arm’s length and let go and float it there where it’ll be handy if you need it again. On my second day home I was unloading the groceries from the store. I grabbed a bag from the back of the car, took it out, stood up, set it out about shoulder high, and let go. It didn’t float.

Coming back to Earth is hard. It’s an adjustment. After Bueno and I finished the STIS repair, Grunsfeld and Drew had a successful final space walk. The next day we said good-bye to the Hubble, sending it off on its way to unlock the secrets of the universe. We had our normal day off and went through our final inspections. Whenever I could I’d steal a few minutes to go up to the flight deck and look out the window. Outside the window I could see the Ku-band antenna, covered in gold foil, moving and reconfiguring itself. That’s how it works: It locks onto the signal from a communications satellite and tracks it to keep us connected to the ground. Anytime it loses the signal, it pivots and swivels around until it finds the signal again.

Watching the antenna swivel around, with the Earth passing below, I had a feeling I don’t think I’d ever had before: satisfaction. I could relax. I was finished. For five years, the Hubble had consumed my every waking moment, and now all that stress and responsibility had floated away. It was a huge relief not to have to think about it anymore. It was done, and I could feel good about it. And I wasn’t only satisfied with the mission. My whole life I’d been restless. I always had to do more, reach for the next challenge, the next opportunity. Now I could stop and take a breath. I’d done everything I’d set out to do. Which is a wonderful feeling but also a terrifying one. The signal that I’d been locked onto, the thing that had been guiding me all these years, I was about to lose it, and soon I’d be the one spinning around, searching for the next thing.

The morning we were supposed to fly home, there was bad weather over Florida and we got waved off a day. At that point everything was put away. There was no e-mail. There was literally nothing to do. I grabbed some snacks and my iPod and went right back to the window and I stayed there pretty much all day, listening to Sting and U2 and Radiohead and Coldplay and my Thomas Newman movie soundtracks. The next day we woke up and when we passed over the southeastern United States, the storm clouds were so bad we couldn’t see Florida. Sure enough, we were waved off again, and I was back at that window, drinking in the view and savoring every second of it.

Some of the other crew, they were getting bored and started watching movies, ones we had on DVD or that we’d downloaded to our laptops. I skipped the movies. I couldn’t imagine tearing myself away from that window for one second to watch something I could see on the ground. At one point Drew called up from the mid-deck, “Hey! Come down!”

“Why?”

“We’re going to watch Nacho Libre!”

“I’ll see it when we land!”

The next morning Florida was still clouded over, but we couldn’t stay any longer. We were diverted to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Our families would meet us in Houston. This time I was on the flight deck for the trip home, so I got to see everything: the Earth getting bigger and bigger as we flew lower and lower, the shuttle’s nose and tail glowing red-orange hot. There had been an ever-present worry about entry ever since Columbia, but as soon as we came out of the darkness over the Pacific and I could see the California coast lit up in the daylight, I knew Scooter was going to get us home safe.

Two days later I was in my driveway, dropping grocery bags and feeling out of sorts. During your first week back, your hand-eye coordination is completely messed up. Your sense of balance is thrown. Your spine is still settling back together, and that can be uncomfortable. You’re not supposed to drive or work heavy equipment for three days. Part of it is great, of course: seeing your family, having this wonderful feeling of accomplishment. But then you drive up to the house and real life is there waiting for you: Some shingles over the garage need to be fixed, the pool needs to be cleaned. People always ask me if I miss being in space. “Only when I’m mowing the lawn,” I say.

Fortunately for me, even though the flight had ended, the mission was far from over. When we landed at Edwards, one of the administrator’s assistants was waiting for us with a copy of the Washington Post. There was a big photo, above the fold, of me in my space suit with a big smile in front of the telescope in the payload bay; Megan or John or Scooter had taken it during my last space walk. Hubble was a big story. People wanted to hear about it, learn about it. Because of my experiences and thanks to Twitter, I wound up handling many of the media appearances.

Back in Houston, once my postflight duties were wrapped up, I was offered two different positions. I could be the leader for the incoming class of ASCANs or the astronaut office liaison to the public affairs department. I picked public affairs. I knew my time at NASA would come to a close, and working with media—telling the story of space and documenting the end of the shuttle era—was something I wanted to do. I also knew that, with social media, I could start communicating directly with people all over the world. I checked a camera out from the public affairs office and started taping behind-the-scenes videos with my friends around the office. I knew I could talk to them better than reporters could, get them to relax and have fun. I shadowed them in the NBL, in the shuttle simulator. Together we showed people what the lives of astronauts are really like. Then our public affairs team would edit the interviews and post them to YouTube.

More and more people started following me on Twitter, too. I was lucky to be the first one to use social media, but soon more and more astronauts on the space station were signing on and taking it to new levels. They started making time-lapse videos of the Earth from orbit that, to this day, have been seen millions of times. My buddy Chris Hadfield grabbed a guitar and made a music video, a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that went viral around the world. Before social media, even when people cared about what astronauts were doing, it was hard to follow along. The Internet’s changed everything. We’ve made the experience of being in space more real for people. They feel connected to what’s going on.

Ten months after we flew, IMAX premiered Hubble 3D. I was invited on The Late Show with David Letterman to promote it. Then the National Geographic Channel saw the videos I’d been posting online and the work I was doing on those other shows and asked me to host Known Universe, an eight-part documentary about mankind’s quest to understand the cosmos. While I was doing all that, Bert Ulrich, NASA’s liaison for film and television collaborations, called me up and said, “Mike, we have an opportunity with this show, The Big Bang Theory. You ever hear of it?”

I hadn’t. “I knew it was a theory,” I said. “I didn’t know it was a show.”

“It’s the number one sitcom in America. It’s a science show. They’re always referring to NASA and they want to send one of their characters to space and they want to talk to an astronaut. Are you going to be in LA anytime soon?”

It turned out that I was going to be out there for my son’s water polo tournament in less than a month. Bert told me all I had to do was drop by the show’s production office, hang out in their writer’s room, and share some stories. So I did. I met the writers and the producers, Chuck Lorre, Steve Molaro, and Bill Prady. I sat around with them and told them stories for a few hours. This was in the middle of season five. The character they were sending to space was Howard Wolowitz. I flew back to Houston and got a note from Prady a few months later: “Hey, we’d like you to do a cameo.” So they wrote me a scene where I give Wolowitz his astronaut nickname, “Froot Loops.” I flew out and filmed it. A few months later I was going back to LA to do The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Prady called and said, “As long as you’re coming out here, we might as well write you into the show again.” They wound up writing me into the season five finale and several episodes of season six as Wolowitz’s partner on the space station. I’ve guest-starred six times to date, most recently giving Wolowitz advice on throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game. (Sound familiar?)

The Big Bang Theory was huge. It averaged over 20 million viewers a week, and it will play forever in syndication. It’s safe to say more people know me from that than from anything I ever did in orbit. The producers and stars of that show were the nicest, most generous people to work with, and they were so excited to weave their show into the story of space. In the twenty years since the “Deep Space Homer” episode on The Simpsons, on the most popular sitcom on TV, NASA went from being the butt of the joke to being the star of the show. Appearing on a sitcom might not seem like a big deal compared to flying 350 miles high in space, but for me it was important. From the beginning, my love of space was shaped by the way astronauts are portrayed in the media and in pop culture. Watching the moon landing with Walter Cronkite, poring through old Life magazines, going to the movies to see The Right Stuff and Apollo 13—those things changed how I felt when I looked up at the sky and dreamed of going there, and I remember that every time I’m given the opportunity to step in front of an audience.

Thanks to The Big Bang Theory, I got to go to the space station on TV, but I never managed to make it there in real life. They say you should treat every flight like it’s your last. Savor it. At the end of my final space walk on 125, floating above the payload bay, watching the planet pass below, I had a feeling I might never be back. There was a voice in the back of my head saying, Take a good look, ’cause this is it. It turned out it was, and that was okay.

For a few months after 125 there was some talk that I might be on one of the final shuttle missions, maybe even the last shuttle mission, but it never materialized. I did have one chance to go back. In April 2010, NASA offered me a spot on a long-duration trip to the station, flying with the Russians on the Soyuz. Being an astronaut is demanding. There’s a lot of time away from family, but at least the job itself is in Houston. I was always around for the important things, like birthdays and coaching Little League teams. When I got offered a long-duration flight, I did the math. My daughter was a junior in high school, and my son was a freshman. For the next two years, more than half my time would be spent overseas, mostly in Russia, and then I’d be gone in space for six months after that. If I had never flown in space or if I was less satisfied with what I had gotten to do on my spaceflights, I would have jumped at the opportunity. I calculated the date of my return as the week before Daniel would graduate from high school. I’d miss seeing Gabby off to college. I’d miss everything. It wasn’t a hard decision to make.

Passing on a flight is something that’s generally not done. At NASA you take what you’re assigned. Once you pass on a flight, you’re sending a signal to management that your days as an astronaut are numbered. I didn’t know it at the time—or maybe I knew it and hadn’t accepted it yet—but my time in Houston was winding down. The end was coming quickly now.

One year later, on July 8, 2011, at 11:29 a.m., Gabby and I were standing outside the Saturn V building at Kennedy Space Center in an area called the Banana Creek viewing site for the final flight of the thirty-year shuttle program. The space shuttle Atlantis was on launchpad 39A, ready to take the crew of STS-135 up to deliver a year’s worth of clothing, food, and equipment to the astronauts on the space station. It was completely surreal that it was happening. When I arrived at NASA in 1996, I figured I’d fly a half dozen times at least. The shuttle program was thriving. The space shuttle was space travel. There was no reason to think it would ever come to an end. But it had, and what did that mean? Were we supposed to be celebrating the shuttle’s achievements? Sad that it hadn’t lived up to its promise? I didn’t know what to feel about it. I don’t think anyone did.

The launch of the final shuttle mission came with the usual editorials and news segments about why we go to space and whether the expense of the shuttle was worth the return. When USA Today published a look back at the shuttle program’s triumphs and tragedies, a friend of mine brought me a copy. The tragedies it listed, of course, were the Challenger and Columbia accidents and the fourteen lives that were lost. As the triumph of the shuttle program, the article cited this:

On May 17, 2009, floating 353 miles above the surface of the Earth, astronaut Michael Massimino put his gloved hand around a balky handrail obstructing repairs and ripped it off the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope. Only an astronaut could have done this.

Flattered as I was, the point the article was trying to make wasn’t really about me. It was about the importance of astronauts. It was the same conclusion we came to after researching the robot mission to Hubble. Unmanned space travel is a great first step; lunar probes and Mars Rovers are excellent tools for scouting a path to explore—but you still need people do to the exploring. What was accomplished on those Hubble servicing missions—upgrading the instruments, repairing the STIS, yanking off that handrail—would have been impossible without astronauts, and we couldn’t have done it without the shuttle.

There’s an ongoing debate about the most important legacy of the shuttle, whether it’s deploying and servicing the Hubble Space Telescope or building and supplying the International Space Station. Whenever I’m asked, I say the greatest thing the shuttle did was that it put a lot of people in space—fifty, sometimes sixty people a year when the program was at its peak. Every person who goes to space, every person who gets to peek around the next corner, is someone with the potential to help change our perspective, change our relationship to the planet, change our understanding of our place in the universe. Which is why we go to space to begin with.

I knew I was never going back, but a few weeks after STS-135 launched, it was made official. I was pulled off active flight status. I didn’t want to be taken off. I was sad about it, but the shuttle program was done and I’d made it clear I didn’t want to fly on the Soyuz, so a decision was made. I was still an astronaut, but I wasn’t going back to space again—and no more hours in the T-38, either. I was grounded. After his one flight on 125, Ray J had left the astronaut office for Ellington, where he became head of flight operations. He called me up one day and told me he’d seen that I was being taken off the flight list at the end of September. “What do you want to do?” he asked.

“I want to fly.”

So, for my last couple weeks, Ray J took me flying. We went out and did acrobatics in the practice area over the Gulf of Mexico. We went cloud surfing, did loops and barrel rolls and touch-and-goes on the runway at Ellington. I flew as fast and as high as I’ll ever fly again.

My first year as an astronaut, Carola and I both had relatives in for Christmas. I was on the last T-38 flight before the holiday, and I told them, “Hey, I’m flying today. Why don’t you come by and I’ll show you some airplanes.” A bunch of folks came out and I showed them around. Daniel was seventeen months old at the time. I was a brand-new astronaut with this baby boy with curly golden hair. I remember he was wearing this goofy jumpsuit with dinosaurs on it. He was getting the hang of walking and had just started forming real words and he was all over the place, baby talking, “Ba ba ba ba ba,” like he was the one giving the tour of the airplanes.

When it was time for everyone to go, I still had to change. Daniel wanted to stay with me, so I said, “I’ll take him home.” I brought him back to the locker room and he toddled around, getting into everything while I changed. Once I was ready, I called him over and bent down and gave him my little finger. He took it and we walked out together, past all the planes in the hangar, saying “Bye-bye” and “Merry Christmas” to everyone. Then we got in my car and drove home.

For my last flight, Daniel was grown. He was sixteen, almost a man now, his sister away at college. He and Carola and my mom and my sister came out to Ellington for the occasion. It was September 30, 2011, a Friday, the last flight of the day. Ray J took me out for some acrobatics and a quick trip over to Lake Charles. Everyone was going to go out to dinner afterward, but I still had to change and clear out my locker. “Whatever you leave here we’re going to throw out,” they told me. I said to Daniel, “Why don’t you stay and help me clean out my locker? Then I’ll drive us to dinner.”

Daniel sat with me while I packed up some maps and old boots and a couple of flight suits. There was some chitchat here and there, but it was mostly me and him at the end of it just like we were at the beginning. I closed the locker, spun the combination, and locked it. Right in front of me on the locker was my name tag, mike massimino, jsc, houston. During my time there’d been so many names on those lockers. John Young. John Glenn. Rick Husband and Ilan Ramon. At one point or another all those names had come off, and now it was time for mine to come off, too. I looked at my name tag and thought, This is the coolest thing I’ll ever do. I got to fly with my heroes, and now it’s done. Then I ripped it off, leaving an empty locker with a strip of Velcro on the front for them to give to the next guy. Then Daniel and I headed out, making the same walk we’d made fifteen years before. Only it wasn’t Christmas this time. It was late at night, the sun going down and everybody gone for the day. We walked out through the empty hangar, past the rows of quiet planes, climbed in our car, and went home.