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


In my senior year of high school I applied to the engineering school at Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That November I went there for an interview, and the minute I arrived, I felt like I understood what college was. Before that, to me, college was a thing people did to get a job; but walking on that campus on this beautiful fall day, seeing the students hustling around and going to class, standing between Low Library and Butler Library, which look like something out of ancient Rome, I had a revelation: This is where people learn. This is where you become someone. I’d never had that feeling before.

To be honest, I didn’t know if I belonged at an Ivy League school like Columbia. Growing up, I was never the smartest kid in class. I was a good student, but I wasn’t exactly a genius. I liked science and math. I played sports, but I was just okay. My greatest talent was for people. I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but I got along with everybody. I was enough of an athlete to hang with the jocks and the cheerleaders. I played the trumpet in band, which got me in with the band kids. I was in advanced math, so I could eat lunch with the smart kids. I moved in a lot of circles, had pockets of friends in every group, and learned how to mix with anyone.

I’ve always been curious about other people’s lives. I find them interesting. I meet people and I want to know their story, what makes them tick. And the fact that I could hang out with different kinds of people helped make me a well-rounded person. I wasn’t the smartest or the most athletic. I was the most all-around. If anything, it was my talent for getting along that made me stand out in school. At a parent-teacher conference, Mr. Stern, my eleventh-grade social studies teacher, said to my mom and dad, “Mike should think about applying to an Ivy League school. I think he’d do well.” My parents came home and told me what he’d said, and that was the first time it had ever occurred to me to think of going to Columbia.

I submitted my application, but I didn’t think I’d get in. I’d applied to a couple of schools on Long Island and I was convinced that’s where I’d end up. Then one day a few months later I was at home, sitting on the toilet, when my mom came and knocked on the door. “You got a letter from Columbia.” She slid it under the door and I opened it up. When I read the word “Congratulations,” I started screaming. I was going to Columbia as a freshman that fall.

Columbia opened up a new world for me. I was only a few miles from home, but it was as if I’d landed on Mars. There were students from other countries, from fancy prep schools. Even Barack Obama was on campus at the same time I was. (Unfortunately, I never got to meet him, as I imagine being best pals with the future president of the United States would have some advantages.) As exciting as this new world was, I didn’t fully embrace it right away. Whatever potential Mr. Stern saw in me, I hadn’t found it in myself. I didn’t take advantage of everything I was being offered. The summer after my freshman year, when the other kids took internships or went to study abroad, all I wanted to do was go back home. I moved back with my parents and got a job as a laborer in Rath Park, which is the park in Franklin Square where we used to play ball. I picked up trash, mowed the grass, cleaned toilets.

Change doesn’t come easy for me. I liked my hometown. I was comfortable there. It was hard for me to leave, and I think deep down I knew that doing well at Columbia would mean leaving. Being an A student at an Ivy League school would put me on a new path. I was afraid it was going to pull me away from my hometown and my friends whether I wanted it to or not.

For my major I’d picked industrial engineering, which is about optimizing systems and organizations. It’s called the most humanistic of the engineering disciplines. I liked the fact that it had a mix of hard science and traditional engineering courses along with courses in economics and business. Industrial engineering also included something I found interesting: human factors, which focuses on designing machines and systems with human operators in mind.

I did fine my freshman and sophomore years, but junior year the course work got harder and I hit a wall. It was bad. I got clobbered in Circuits and Systems, an electrical engineering course. The midterm counted for a quarter of the final grade. The average for the class was somewhere in the eighties. I got an eleven. On another midterm I got a fifteen.

Failing those tests turned out to be a good thing. It was a wake-up call. I was forced to decide what I wanted. At first I honestly thought about giving up. I contemplated changing my major out of engineering to something less technical; I didn’t think I could hack it. But then I started thinking about my father, working as hard as he did for the city to give me the chance to go to college. We couldn’t afford for my dad to take the Long Island Rail Road in to work. It was too expensive. He took the bus and the subway in to the city every day, over an hour each way, which was miserable. Up before dawn, never getting home before dark. I didn’t want him to have done it all these years just for me to give up. I also didn’t want to end up doing that myself.

So I went back to class and buckled down, studying as hard as I could. I went to a completely different level. My TAs were great. They spent extra time with me going over everything. My friends let me share their notes and spent hours helping me out. On the second midterm for Circuits and Systems, I got an 80. On the third, I got a 100. I went from the lowest score in the class to the highest. That semester I turned everything around. I made the Dean’s List for the first time.

I also started thinking about the space program again. For most of the 1970s, like me, America had lost interest. We’d put up our first space station, Skylab, but it never captured people’s imagination like Apollo had. Now we were entering the shuttle era. NASA had started doing drop-test flights out at Edwards Air Force Base in 1977 and had been flying operational space missions for over a year. The shuttle itself was very cool. It wasn’t some tin can being launched into orbit. It was a real, honest-to-God spaceship. It took off like a rocket with up to seven astronauts, orbited the Earth, and gave the astronauts a place to live and work for a few weeks. We would use it to launch huge pieces of equipment and satellites, conduct experiments, and bring the results back to Earth. It was a sign that the space program was taking its next giant leap.

To me, the most exciting development was the new astronaut corps, which was full of interesting people: thirty-five in the first class, as opposed to seven for Mercury. And astronauts weren’t just military test pilots anymore. The candidate pool had grown far wider. It included women and people of color. There were new faces at NASA, a new story to tell. Sally Ride had been chosen to be the first American woman in space, and her flight was scheduled to happen that summer. The anticipation surrounding her flight was huge. She was on every magazine cover and every news show. We were entering a new space age, and America was excited again.

Even with these new people joining the astronaut corps, I still wasn’t thinking I’d ever be an astronaut; that dream was dead and gone. But one of the instructors in my mechanical engineering lab, Professor Kline, started talking to us about how private aerospace contractors—companies like Lockheed, Grumman, McDonnell Douglas, Martin Marietta—were getting big government contracts to work on the space shuttle systems. I thought maybe I could work as an engineer for those contractors, supporting the astronauts as a part of the bigger dream.

Back when the Apollo 11 guys landed on the moon, I believed what they were doing was the most important work of our time: exploring space, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge about the universe. I never stopped believing that. If there’s one thing I got from my father and his job, it was understanding the importance of public service. He instilled that in me. Schlepping an hour into the city on a bus to go around to gas stations and warehouses and inspect fire extinguishers and safety exits may seem like a menial job, but my father took great pride in it. He knew that people’s lives depended on him doing his job well. He knew that firefighters were counting on him to make their jobs safer by preventing fires before they started.

The camaraderie that firefighters have, that brotherhood that forms among them—my father was a part of that, and it came from having a shared sense of purpose. He told me that whatever you do in life, it can’t just be about making money. It’s important that you work to make the world a better place, that you help improve the lives of the people around you. That’s what I thought about when Professor Kline started telling us about the opportunities coming up with the space program. Everybody knows that firefighters are heroes, but they rely on guys like my dad to help them do their job. I thought maybe I could do the same thing with NASA.

Near the end of my junior year, I submitted applications to every engineering company on Long Island, and I got a summer job at Sperry, located in Lake Success, not far from Franklin Square. Sperry made everything from military hardware to office typewriters to electric razors. It was perfect. I could live at home, save some money, and still get some actual, hands-on experience.

That summer, everything was moving in the right direction. I was feeling good about myself. All I was missing was a girlfriend. I hadn’t had much luck in that department, but that had a lot to do with my not having my life together. Now I felt like I was finally in a position where I was ready to meet someone.

My friend Mike Lobaccaro was working as a lifeguard at a pool in nearby New Hyde Park. I went over to pick him up one afternoon, and as I was waiting for him by the indoor pool, this girl, another lifeguard, was in the water giving swimming lessons to a bunch of kids. I thought she was really cute. Mike told me her name was Carola Pardo. A couple weeks later, she showed up at Mike’s twenty-first birthday party at a bar in Mineola. At some point during the night Carola and I started talking. She was the same age as I was, about to start her senior year at Fordham, in the Bronx, where she was studying to be a physical therapist. We were both Sicilian-American, but she was of a more recent vintage. My grandparents had come over at the turn of the century. Her parents had come over in the late 1950s. I remember we were standing by the Ms. Pac-Man machine. She had these red cap shoes on, a jean skirt, and a rainbow-striped sweater with short sleeves. We started talking probably around 9:30 and that was it. By a quarter to midnight we both looked up and the place was empty. The bartender was falling asleep behind the bar, waiting for us to finish. A few weeks later we were officially a couple.

Around the same time, at Sperry I met another important person in my life: Jim McDonald, an engineer who worked a few desks over in the bullpen. I walked up to his desk to ask a work question and ended up hanging out there for over an hour; I don’t think we even got to the work question. Jim had a big crop of straight hair parted to the side and a friendly, whimsical smile. We hit it off immediately, and he became something of a mentor. More than a mentor, really—a guardian angel. He started watching over me, checking in on me when I was back at school, always making sure I was on the right path.

Sperry was my first experience with being an adult. My official job title that summer was “engineering aide,” what you’d call an internship now, except I actually got paid. My team designed inventory systems and conveyor belts for military warehouses. It wasn’t exactly exciting. I had to dress like a grown-up, put on a white shirt and tie, and drive to work. Every morning me and a bunch of guys in white shirts and ties would file into this big building, work at a desk, go home, and come back the next day and do the same thing. Over and over and over again. Lunch was the high point of the day.

Some people want that. They like the routine, the safety of a paycheck every two weeks. But it wasn’t for me. It didn’t give me the sense of purpose I was looking for. As I got to know Jim McDonald better, I realized he didn’t care for it, either. Jim was not a typical engineer. He was very philosophical, more interested in the person he was talking to than the work that needed talking about. He’d just gotten married and had his first kid. At the time I thought he was so old, way older than me: He was probably thirty-six or something, but when you’re in college, that might as well be a hundred. One day he said to me, “You’re not enjoying this, are you?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Look, Mike. You don’t want to end up here. I’ve been here ten years. I’ve got a mortgage, a kid. It’s too late for me. I love my family. I do things on the side to keep life interesting, but you’ve still got a chance. You need to find something that you’re passionate about.”

He pointed to a guy a few desks away who was sitting there, bored, reading some science fiction novel. “You see that guy?” Jim said. “That guy just got his master’s from Cornell. Do you know how smart he is? And look at what he’s doing. You don’t want that to happen to you.”

For some reason, like Mr. Stern, Jim McDonald saw something in me, some kind of potential. I hadn’t thought seriously about being an astronaut since I was seven years old. At that point the dream was dead. Jim opened the door for it to come back to life. That whole summer, right up to the last day I left and headed back to Columbia, he kept pushing me. “Go and do something different,” he’d say. “Go to grad school. Find something meaningful. Find something important. Whatever you do, don’t come back here.”