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


When I packed up my locker and walked out of Ellington, I had to face the big question: What do you do when you’re an astronaut who can’t fly? Having the “astronaut” title on your résumé is a great way to open doors. You can get a job interview just about anywhere, and companies are usually eager to hire you. But it only gets you so far. You’ve got about two weeks’ worth of telling funny space stories before that wears thin and people start to ask, “What else can you do?”

It was a hard transition for me. I’d been dreaming of going to space since I was a kid. I’d never really thought about what I was going to do afterward. Once you leave active flight status, you’re supposed to transition to a managerial role or say your good-byes. I didn’t want to be management, but I wasn’t ready to leave, either. I hung around the office for a while, making my PR videos, doing guest spots on TV, handling whatever I was assigned to handle. I was in denial for a long time. I knew that things were winding down, but I wasn’t taking any decisive steps to do something else. Part of me felt like nothing I did could possibly top what I’d already done. But part of me knew that wasn’t true. I did want to do other things, tackle other challenges, but it was hard to admit that to myself.

There came a point, looking around the office, when I knew it was time. Kevin Kregel had retired; he was flying commercial for Southwest Airlines. Scorch had left to fly for FedEx. Digger had been gone since 2004; he moved to Colorado and became a motivational speaker. Scooter had left in 2010 to work for an aerospace technology company. Steve Smith and Rick Linnehan and Nancy Currie were here and there serving in different managerial jobs. John Grunsfeld was leaving for an administrative role at NASA headquarters in DC; I’m pretty sure he’ll end up running the whole place someday. Bueno and Drew flew again on station assembly flights and were both still active. Megan was still active, too, but taking time off to have a baby. I was coming up on my fiftieth birthday. Younger people were coming in and stepping up. I needed to make a decision. I thought a lot about the talk Neil Armstrong gave to us my first week at NASA: The important thing in life is having a passion, something you really love doing, and you take joy in the fact that you get to wake up every day and do it.

I began to realize academia made the most sense for me. I’d enjoyed teaching during my time at Rice and at Georgia Tech. In December 2011, Rice University reached out to NASA, looking for someone to be the executive director of the Rice Space Institute. They wanted someone to beef their program up and coordinate its research and activities more closely with the work being done the Johnson Space Center. I applied for the job, got it, and the astronaut office agreed to loan me out; my salary and benefits would still be paid by NASA, but I would work at the university. I led a few seminars, helped to develop the curriculum. It was a great way to ease back into university life. Not long after, my alma mater Columbia started asking if I wanted to come back to the engineering school as a visiting professor, still on loan from NASA. As it happened, Daniel was starting at Columbia as a freshman in the fall of 2013. Gabby was starting her junior year at Sarah Lawrence up in Bronxville. With the kids gone and the shuttle program over, Carola and I didn’t have much keeping us in Houston. After fifteen months at Rice, I took the visiting professorship offer and we moved back to New York.

On October 1, 2013, right after we left Houston, the federal government shut down when the House of Representatives tried to use the 2014 appropriations bill as leverage to defund President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. NASA was shut down almost entirely; only six hundred of its eighteen thousand employees stayed on to support the astronauts on the space station. Along with most of my colleagues, I was deemed “nonessential” and furloughed without pay for what ended up being two very worrisome weeks. I couldn’t believe it was happening. How had we gone from John Glenn being a national hero to a time where astronauts weren’t even getting paid?

The government shutdown started, somewhat symbolically, on the fifty-fifth anniversary of NASA’s charter. In the Mercury and Apollo years America believed in itself. We pledged our public resources to a lofty common goal and we put a man on the moon as a result—a perfect good. The fact that half a century later our elected representatives were willing to jeopardize that mission over some political squabble says a lot about the faith we put in our public institutions today. We owe it to ourselves to be better.

The year I joined NASA, in the astronaut class of 1996, there were forty-four of us. In the astronaut class of 2013, there were eight. That number should be going in the opposite direction. Our space program is in a period of transition. Some doors are closing and others we’re still trying to open. But the difficulty of our present moment should inspire us, not discourage us. There’s so much for us to achieve if we decide, as a nation, to commit ourselves to it. The James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, is set to launch in 2018. Private companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are putting rockets into space, creating a whole new range of exciting opportunities. The international cooperation behind the space station has put a wealth of resources at our disposal that the Mercury and Apollo teams never had. The Constellation Program announced by President Bush in the wake of Columbia was canceled, but it was replaced by the new Space Launch System. Once it’s operational it will be the most powerful rocket ever built. It has the potential to give us a permanent presence on the moon, to take us to Mars and back.

Despite the short-term challenges we face, one way or another, I have faith that we’ll make it. Humans will never stop going to space. We’ll go because we have no choice but to go, because it’s what we’ve always done, since the day we left the caves. I have faith because I’ve seen the men and women of NASA endure tragedy and adversity and come through it more determined to complete their mission than ever before. I have faith because I see the excitement in the faces of young people every day.

In the fall of 2014, I left NASA to become a full-time professor at Columbia. My main class, and my most popular one, is Introduction to Human Space Flight. The way I see it, I’m training my replacements. My job is to inspire them, to show them what it takes to live and work and accomplish great things under brutally difficult circumstances. I take them from the story of Ernest Shackleton to life on the International Space Station and cover everything in between. Not all of my students will become astronauts—most of them won’t—but they may help the environment or cure a disease or create some life-saving technology. The same lessons still apply. I try to teach them to be socially useful, to put their talents in the service of the public good. And I’m not only talking to the students in my class. I travel to high schools across the country, talking to young people by the thousands, encouraging them to go to college, to challenge themselves, to follow their dreams.

When I was living in Atlanta, teaching at Georgia Tech and waiting to see if I was going to be chosen to be an astronaut, the Atlanta Olympics were a couple of months away. They were already running those Olympic commercials on TV nonstop: Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and all that. It was a Friday afternoon when I found out that the call from NASA would be coming on Monday. That whole weekend I was up, pacing, anxious. It was everything I could do to get through it in one piece. There was this one commercial I saw that weekend. It had this kid. He starts out a little guy, and he’s running around in his yard. Then they cut to the next scene, and he’s a bit older, still running. He’s on a track now. He’s jumping hurdles, and with every hurdle he jumps he’s older. He’s running for his high school team, his college team. He’s training and he’s training and then, at the end, he’s an Olympian. He’s got U.S.A. on his chest. He’s running hurdles in the Olympics…and he wins. He takes the gold. Then, from the finish line, he turns and looks back down the track. He sees the little boy he used to be, standing there looking at him. The whole weekend, that commercial was all I could think about, this kid seeing his dream come true. Was that going to be me?

Still to this day I look back over the obstacles and hurdles I’ve overcome, and I see that seven-year-old boy standing there with his Astronaut Snoopy in his little spaceman outfit that his mom made for him, and I’m so glad he never gave up. Kids today, they don’t have any one big thing like the moon landing to inspire them like I did, but in a way they have something better. They can go on YouTube and watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon whenever they want. They can follow the Hubble on Twitter, go online and scroll through mind-blowing images from galaxies millions of light-years away. For years, all I had was a grainy VHS copy of The Right Stuff. These kids have the entire universe at their fingertips.

My childhood dream came true, but now I have a new one. I dream that some of these young people, while they’re out there clicking around, maybe they’ll find out about this book and find a way to get their hands on it—and when they do, they’ll know that even if you’re a skinny kid from Long Island who’s scared of heights, if you dream of walking among the stars you can do it. They’ll know that finding a purpose, being dedicated to the service of others and to a calling higher than yourself, that is what’s truly important in life. They’ll be able to close their eyes and imagine what it’s like in space, and when they open them again, they’ll look up at the sun and the moon and the Milky Way and see them with the sense of awe and wonder that they deserve.

And those young boys and girls, whatever their space dream is, they’ll go for it. Whatever hurdles are in their way, they’ll get past them. When they fall down, they’ll get back up. They’ll keep going and going, working harder and harder and running faster and faster until one day, before they know it, they’ll find themselves flying through the air. The hand of a giant science fiction monster will reach down and grab them by the chest and hurl them up and up and up, out to the furthest limits of the human imagination, where they’ll take the next giant leap of the greatest adventure mankind has ever known.