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


When my final semester at Columbia came around, my boyhood astronaut dream was still dormant. Then, on one Saturday evening in January 1984, my whole world changed. I was home in Franklin Square for the weekend, and Carola and I decided to go to the movies to see The Right Stuff. From the balcony of a theater in Floral Park we watched the story of the original Mercury Seven astronauts: Alan Shepard, the first American in space. John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. These fearless test pilots pushing the envelope, risking their lives to help America win the space race against the Soviets.

It was awesome. These astronauts weren’t just doing this big, important thing for their country, they were also having a blast. They were flying fighter jets through the clouds, racing convertibles across the California desert, wearing leather jackets, smiling behind their cool aviator sunglasses. They were risking their lives every single day on the job. They were the baddest guys I’d ever seen. I didn’t take my eyes off the screen for one second.

One scene in particular blew me away. John Glenn is all set to be the first American to orbit the Earth, but his launch is aborted. Vice President Lyndon Johnson is waiting outside Glenn’s house, demanding to bring in TV crews to talk to Glenn’s wife, Annie, on national television. But Annie has a stuttering problem; she doesn’t want to be on TV. So John gets on the phone with her and basically tells her it’s okay if she wants to tell the vice president of the United States to get lost. Some suit from NASA jumps down Glenn’s throat, telling him he can’t blow off the vice president like that. Glenn won’t back down. So the NASA guy threatens to yank him out of the flight rotation and replace him if he won’t toe the line. Then the other Mercury guys step up and get in the guy’s face, and Deke Slayton says, “Oh, yeah? Who you gonna get?”

Finally Alan Shepard tells the suit, “Step aside, pal.” They’ve got Glenn’s back.

That moment, to me, summed it up. That’s how you treat your buddies. You stand up for each other. You stand up for what’s right. I saw that and I said, “I want to be one of those guys.” I wanted to go to space, but more than that, I wanted to be part of that team, to have that camaraderie, that shared sense of purpose that comes from doing something big and important. That’s what was really cool about that movie—that and the view from space. When John Glenn is in his capsule looking down on Earth, the expression of wonder on his face, that floored me. The second I walked out of the theater, I knew: I wanted the whole enchilada. I wanted to be an astronaut.

My next thought was: How the heck am I going to make that happen? I was on the verge of graduating from college, but because my astronaut dream had been dormant for so long, I hadn’t mapped out my education with space travel in mind. Columbia is a great school and it gave me a great education and a solid foundation, but back then it wasn’t a traditional pipeline to the astronaut program. I was also an industrial engineering major, which didn’t seem like the right major for becoming an astronaut at all; I felt like I should have done mechanical engineering or aerospace engineering.

I had made one good decision. Back when I was working at Sperry, Jim McDonald had told me about the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. It concentrates on how scientific progress affects and interacts with other aspects of life, like public policy and how people live; it’s a degree for people who want to contribute to more than just the technical side of things. That sounded interesting. I sent off my application to this program and I waited. I didn’t do it with any thought of being an astronaut; at that point I hadn’t seen The Right Stuff yet, and being an astronaut was still the last thing on my mind. But if you do want to be a part of the space program, MIT is one of the best schools to attend. By total coincidence, I’d taken at least one step down the right road.

While I waited to hear about grad school, I started looking for work. I still wanted to follow my father’s example and work in public service. One week IBM came to campus to recruit students from the engineering school, and I talked to one of the interviewers about their public sector office, which worked with nonprofit institutions to set up and service their computer systems. I felt like that might be interesting and rewarding at the same time.

IBM asked me to come in for an interview, but the day before I was scheduled to go I got a letter from MIT. When I opened it (I wasn’t on the toilet this time) I was shocked: They actually let me in.

The next morning I went for the interview with IBM and it went well; the job was mine if I wanted it. I told the interviewer about the MIT offer, and he said IBM employees took leave to go to school all the time. I could defer school, work for IBM for a couple of years, then take a leave to go to MIT and they would save my job for me. I just had to figure out what worked better: MIT now and work later, or work now and MIT later.

The first thing to do was to visit MIT. I called my dad, who took a day off from work, and we drove up to Cambridge to meet with the director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. He was a weird-looking academic type with crazy hair. We started talking and he seemed confused as to how I had ended up in his office. Apparently I hadn’t read closely enough when I was researching the program. It wasn’t a part of the engineering school. It was a political science degree. We were in the political science department. My father looked at me and said, “What are you doing in the political science department?”

I’d applied to the wrong grad school.

I didn’t even know MIT had a political science department. Science, Technology, and Society, it turned out, was a program for people who wanted to write papers on how science is affecting society. The similar-sounding but totally different program in the engineering school was called Technology and Policy. It was also about how technology impacts society, but it was for engineers and scientists who actually want to design and build things. MIT allowed me to resubmit my application to the engineering school, and luckily I got in there, too.

Even with that sorted out, I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d only applied to MIT because Jim McDonald had told me it might be a good idea. I never expected to actually get in. I had no idea what I would study there, what my research would be. I hadn’t thought about any of that. I didn’t have any way to pay for it, either. I didn’t have any scholarship or fellowship, and I knew my parents couldn’t foot the bill. IBM had a great training program, and working there would keep me in New York near home. Plus I knew I could take the job and earn money to go to grad school later. MIT felt like this huge unknown, a stretch, a risk. IBM felt like the safe choice.

I made the safe choice.

After graduation, I moved back in with my parents and commuted every morning on the train to IBM’s building at Fifty-Seventh and Madison in Manhattan. The job seemed to suit my personality well. I was the technical side of the sales team assigned to the Port Authority account. Once or twice a week I’d go down to the World Trade Center, work with their information technology guys, take people to lunch. The sales team was also responsible for the entertainment at IBM’s monthly branch meetings. We’d put on little skits about the slow elevators and the bad food in the cafeteria. I was making a decent salary and people were treating me like a grown-up. And IBM was a great company: They took care of people. But something was missing. I didn’t have that sense of purpose I was looking for.

Then, on the Fourth of July 1985, The Right Stuff came out on HBO. My parents didn’t have HBO, but my friend Mike Q did. He let me make a VHS tape of the movie off his TV. Every night I’d come home on the train, pop the tape in the VCR, and watch it—and I mean literally every night. I’m not exaggerating. I’d stay up all the way to the end, watching Chuck Yeager push his Lockheed NF-104A up and up and up to the edge of space only to come crashing back down to Earth—and still walk out alive, chewing a stick of Beemans gum. Then the next morning I’d wake up, put on another white shirt, get on the train, and go back and sit at my desk.

Going to IBM wasn’t a mistake. It was something I needed to do in order to realize it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Carola and I were getting serious, and I figured we were going to get married. If I stayed where I was, we’d end up living in New York somewhere, taking the train every day, and that would be it. I was only twenty-two years old, still living at home with my parents, and I could already see my whole life being over, mapped out and done.

That summer, the last week of July, I decided to drop in and see Jim McDonald, my old mentor from Sperry, on the way to a Mets game. We went out and played catch in the street for a few minutes. We were tossing the ball back and forth, and he asked, “What’s going on with you?” I told him about IBM, making the sales calls at Port Authority, doing skits for the branch meetings. He stood there and gave me this look.

“What’s the matter with you?” he said. “Imagine the conversations we’d be having right now if you’d decided to go to graduate school. You’d be telling me about hearing lectures from Nobel Prize winners. You’d be telling me about the exciting new research you’re working on. MIT is the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead you’re telling me about what, doing skits in some office in Manhattan?” He whipped the ball at me and it landed in my glove with a pop. “You need to wake up,” he said. “Don’t blow this.”

Talking to Jim, I realized part of my problem was that I didn’t have anyone to talk to. He could give me pep talks, but I didn’t know anybody who was involved in the space program. I didn’t even know anyone who knew anyone who was involved in the space program. I figured I should go to grad school, but what should I study there? What did I need to learn?

Part of what I loved about The Right Stuff was the camaraderie. Getting to space isn’t something you can do on your own, and I was on my own. I had lots of friends, but I didn’t have any space friends. I needed space friends.

Out in Garden City, Long Island, not far from Franklin Square, they have the Cradle of Aviation Museum. It’s built on Roosevelt Field, where Charles Lindbergh took off for his flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The weekend after I talked to Jim, they were putting on a fair to celebrate space flight. My mom clipped an article from Newsday about it and saved it for me. I decided to go and see if I might meet anybody.

One of the booths at the fair was for the Civil Air Patrol, the civilian auxiliary of the Air Force. There was this kid working there, this little Italian guy named Mario, all dressed up in a Civil Air Patrol uniform. We got to talking and it turned out he wanted to be an astronaut, too. Only he wasn’t just dressed like a pilot. He was a pilot. He was only sixteen years old and he already had his private pilot’s license. When I was his age I could barely drive a car, and he was already flying airplanes. I started pestering him with questions, and he had his whole plan laid out: his application to the Air Force Academy, what kind of jets he wanted to train on, the whole nine. The twenty-two-year-old Ivy League graduate was desperately hoping to learn something, anything, from a sixteen-year-old kid. I felt like an idiot.

I decided to write a letter to NASA. I had no idea who to send it to, so I sent it to the top guy, NASA administrator James Beggs. He didn’t write back, but I did get a reply from a man named Frank Coy, Beggs’s executive officer. I guess he’s the guy who got the junk mail, like my letter. For some reason he wrote back and said to give him a call. I did. He told me about different jobs at NASA and the different aerospace contractors. The upshot of the conversation was that no matter what I did, if I wanted to have any chance of being an astronaut, I had to go to graduate school.

Every morning I’d pick up the New York Times at the Long Island Rail Road station on the way to work and read about the latest developments at NASA. The shuttle program was going at full steam by that point. Flights were going up every six weeks. They were deploying satellites, conducting Spacelab missions, launching secret payloads for the defense department. My dreams were playing out on the front page of the morning paper every day, and there I was, on the train, reading about it instead of doing it.

Even though MIT had accepted me, I still had a hard time seeing myself there. I think my single biggest problem was that part of me believed I was supposed to be on that train. Even when I was at Columbia, I was a kid who thought I’d live on Long Island for the rest of my life. I was going to hang out with the same guys, watch every single Mets game, and be content with that life. In some ways, part of me still is that guy. But there was also the other part of me, the kid who walked out on his front lawn and looked up at the moon and dreamed of going there. I realized much later in life that the reason this decision between MIT and IBM was so agonizing was because it wasn’t really about choosing a career; it was about deciding who I was, which part of myself I wanted to be, and that’s the hardest decision any of us has to make.

I took a day off from work and drove up to visit MIT. I talked to some students and professors who were designing equipment and experiments to be used on the space shuttle. They were researching how the human body functioned in space, how to control robots on other planets. Once I saw that, I knew MIT was where I had to be. How I would pay for it, where Carola and I would end up, I had no idea. But I knew in my heart I had to at least give it my best shot.

If I had any remaining doubts about grad school, they disappeared the morning of January 28, 1986. I was at my desk and a coworker came by and said, “Mike, did you hear? The shuttle exploded.” Somebody turned on a television in the reception area and we rushed in to watch. It was on every channel, playing over and over again: The space shuttle Challenger had exploded in this giant ball of flames, the debris flying off in a Y-shaped trail of smoke. The O-ring in the right solid rocket booster had failed, leaking burning-hot gas that had caused the explosion. Seven crew members were on board: five astronauts, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judy Resnik; Greg Jarvis, a payload specialist; and Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher chosen to be the first civilian in space.

All shuttle flights were suspended, and would be for the next two and a half years. I was going off to grad school to try to be an astronaut, and the whole space program was more or less on hold. But that didn’t matter to me. It was strange, but after two years of wavering, once the accident happened, I never second-guessed myself. When the Challenger exploded the world stood still. The president came on TV. Everybody paid attention. It reminded me how important the space program is. The world honored the seven people on board the shuttle that day because what they were doing—the sacrifice they made—was so important. They had the Right Stuff.

I knew right then that I wanted to be a part of something that meaningful. I wanted to have something I was so passionate about that I’d be willing to risk everything for it. I wanted to know that if I ever got killed, I got killed doing something worthwhile. The kid who looked up at the moon and wasn’t afraid to dream—I decided that part of me deserved a chance. I sat there in that reception area, watching the crash footage play over and over again on the television, and that was when it hit home for me: You only have one life. You have to spend it doing something that matters.