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

Part II. Maybe You’re Not Cut Out for This

Chapter 4. THE SMART-KID OLYMPICS

MIT may be the most intimidating place on Earth. I felt like I was out of my league the day I showed up. The grad students you find at MIT are the ones who kick themselves because they “only” got a 790 math on their GRE. I did not have a 790 math on my GRE. Nowhere close. And it’s not just the smartest American kids. MIT draws brilliant people from all over the world. I made several friends from Algeria. Back then, every year, the Algerian government would take their top two or three engineering students and pay their way to go to MIT so they could come back and become professors at their universities. Algeria may not be the biggest country in the world, but you take the top two engineering students in all of Algeria and those are going to be some pretty smart people. It’s the same with nearly every other country on Earth. It’s the best of the best from Thailand, from Brazil, from Poland. It’s the smart-kid Olympics.

Then there was me: the guy from Long Island who filled out his application wrong.

What helped me to find my place at MIT was the same thing that helped push me toward Columbia: Somebody saw something in me. Once I’d decided on grad school, I started going to the New York Public Library on my IBM lunch breaks to learn what MIT was doing with the space program. I started reading about Professor Tom Sheridan, who was doing important work with human factors and robotics.

Human factors is fascinating; it’s what drew me into studying industrial engineering at Columbia. Anytime you get in your car and you can work the brakes and the steering wheel and read the speedometer and not drive off the road in confusion, that’s because an engineer who understands human factors designed it for you. There’s the engineering side of it, which is designing and building the machines, but there’s also the human operator side of it, which is understanding how the brain responds to different stimuli and how to account for that in your designs.

Tom Sheridan was a professor of mechanical engineering and a professor of applied psychology, and he was like a rock star in the world of human factors. He was also doing cutting-edge work with the space program, designing control systems for telerobotics—how an operator on Earth can accurately manipulate machines and systems on satellites or the space station or even other planets. He also seemed like a cool guy, a good man.

I made an appointment to go up to Cambridge and visit him. His office was cluttered with piles of books and papers everywhere, a bicycle stashed in the corner. He was a bit of an absentminded-professor type, sort of gray-haired and disheveled. But he was warm and friendly and down to earth, a thoughtful, caring person among the crazy hard-driving personalities at MIT; he kept a big poster on his wall with a photo of the Earth that said “Love Your Mother.” When we talked he said he liked the fact that I was an industrial engineer, because it had given me some practical experience with human factors, something that most of the Good Will Hunting geniuses on campus didn’t necessarily have. When I walked into Sheridan’s office he was like Here’s a kid I can work with. He told me if I came to MIT, he’d love to have me in his lab.

Life is funny. I’d applied to the wrong graduate program, but that eventually led me to the right grad program. I’d taken what I thought was the wrong undergraduate major, and that was the thing that set me apart and allowed me to find my niche. I don’t know if there are any lessons to take from that except to realize that the things you think are mistakes may turn out not to be mistakes. I realized that wherever you are, if you make the most of what you’ve got, you can find a way to keep moving forward. I packed up my office at IBM on July 4, 1986, and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts: the first stop, I hoped, on the road to space.

For the next six years I had my head buried in books. That first semester was stressful, but incredible. I got a half-time teaching assistanceship that covered half my tuition and gave me a small stipend. I was taking three classes: Tom Sheridan’s class, which was more of a project class; a technology and policy pro-seminar; and an economics class. It was tough, but I did well: two As and a B. Then, the second semester, I got destroyed. I took my first aerospace class, a satellite engineering class taught by Professor Walter Hollister, a short guy with a gigantic mustache who had flown fighter planes in Vietnam and became a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics. (A fighter pilot and a professor—how much cooler could you be?) The first exam was brutal. When the test came back I got a 35, the lowest grade in the class. Mark Stephenson was a buddy of mine, a really sharp guy from West Point. He walked up to me after the test and he said, “How’d you do?”

I said, “I’m toast.”

I told him about my 35. He had done better than me, but not by a whole lot. We ended up talking to this other guy, Wasif, who got a 38. Wasif was Indian but he’d grown up in Scotland, so he had this thick Scottish accent and he could drink like a Scotsman, too. Somebody said, “Let’s get a drink.” That seemed like a great idea, and we headed over to the Thirsty Ear, the MIT grad school bar. We sat around for hours, commiserating about our grades and how tough it was at MIT. It was a relief to find out I wasn’t the only one struggling. Mark and Wasif and I ended up forming a study group to help each other out. We’d stay up late, ordering pizza, doing problem sets together, and going over the notes night after night after night.

It got tougher my second year. I decided to try to get two master’s degrees at the same time; on top of the technology and policy degree, I was going for a master’s in straight mechanical engineering, which I knew I’d need for the work I wanted to do with NASA and the astronaut program. Fall semester, I had four incredibly tough classes. I took dynamics from Stephen Crandall, who wrote the book on dynamics. I took mathematical principles for engineers from Gilbert Strang, who wrote the book on mathematical principles for engineers. The education I got was incredible, and not just the one in the classroom. I remember Sheridan telling me once, “If you can learn to live with indignities in life, you can go far.” And he’s right. You can learn a lot by getting knocked down, and I got knocked down over and over again. And every time I got up and kept going. I know there were students in my class who were smarter than me, but I don’t know if there was anybody who worked harder than me.

Twelve men have walked on the moon. Four of them went to MIT. If you want to be an astronaut, going to a school like MIT is like going to Hollywood if you want to be a movie star: It’s where you need to be. Your dream might not come true, but you’re there and you’re going for it and nearly everyone around you is going for it, too. You learn from them. You see what works and what doesn’t. Once I got to MIT, my wanting to be an astronaut didn’t seem so nutty anymore. It wasn’t like wanting to be Spider-Man at all. It was the longest of long shots, but it was still something real people did—it was possible.

It seemed like every other day at MIT you were running into former and future astronauts: Franklin Chang-Díaz, an MIT grad who holds the record (in a tie with Jerry Ross) for flying the most space shuttle missions. Byron Lichtenberg, an MIT grad student who’d actually flown as the first payload specialist on STS-9. The first day of school I met Dava Newman, one of my fellow classmates; Dava never applied to the astronaut corps, but she went on to become a full MIT professor and serve as deputy administrator of NASA, the number two person in the whole space program. There were two students in my lab who wound up being astronauts with me, Dan Tani and Nick Patrick—and my lab only had about ten people total at any given time.

Those were the kinds of people you’d run into walking up and down the halls. MIT’s Human-Machine Systems Lab was also where some of the world’s most important academic work for robotics and the space program was taking place. These were experiments looking forty, fifty years down the line in terms of the future of space flight. Some of the work was out there. People at MIT had wacky ideas, but they were good wacky ideas, grounded in real science, not science fiction. Students in my lab were working on the human-operated control of deep-sea submersibles, like the robots they sent down to find the Titanic. Some were doing work on controlling robots on other planets, pioneering the technology that would allow us to land a rover on Mars in 2012, nearly twenty-five years later. And now I was in the mix with these people. Every day my dream felt more and more real.

At the end of my first year I went back to New York for a few weeks. Carola and I got engaged, but we decided not to get married for a couple of years, and she stayed in New York. I wanted to get some real experience with the space program that summer, so I wrote to Frank Coy again, inquiring about a summer job at NASA headquarters in DC. Most of what goes on at NASA headquarters is bureaucratic, administrative work, not much research or actual building of hardware. But I wanted to get a general introduction to the space program, and headquarters seemed the best place to do that. I applied for and got a position cataloging the human factors work NASA was doing and compiling the information in a report for the NASA administrator.

I spent that summer in DC drinking everything in. NASA headquarters is close to the National Air and Space Museum. I’d go on my lunch breaks to walk around. They had a brand-new IMAX theater that was showing The Dream Is Alive, the first IMAX film shot aboard the space shuttle. I think I went to see that movie at least fifteen times. But the most valuable thing I did was meet people. I met everyone. I’m sure I was the youngest person in the building by a good fifteen years, so I stood out to begin with, and I made a point of shaking hands with and talking to every single person I could. I met the then-current NASA administrator, James Fletcher. I met J. R. Thompson, the director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. Many former astronauts wind up working at NASA headquarters, too. I wrote to them and asked if they would meet with me to talk about becoming an astronaut. Bob Crippen, the first pilot of the space shuttle, encouraged me to write to George Abbey, the head of flight crew operations in Houston, to get my name in front of him as well.

People could see my excitement, and with me being a Columbia graduate and an MIT student, they knew I had potential. My dream didn’t feel so crazy anymore, but the reality was sometimes mind-blowing. One afternoon I walked into the cafeteria and Michael Collins was there having lunch; he was in town for a meeting to discuss a possible mission to Mars, where I’d seen him earlier that day. Here was one of the Apollo 11 astronauts, a guy I’d read about and idolized for years, and he was sitting at a table eating by himself. I was beyond intimidated, but I knew if I didn’t approach him I would regret it for the rest of my life. I took a deep breath and walked over and asked if I could join him. “Sure,” he said, “have a seat.” He asked me who I was, what I did. I told him I was an engineering student at MIT, that I wanted to be an astronaut. He was friendly, chatted with me awhile, asked what I was doing in school. I asked him if he had any advice. He told me if I was serious I should look at working in Houston or Huntsville instead of Washington, which turned out to be useful information.

The more I talked to people like Bob Crippen and Mike Collins, the more I realized that they were once the same guy I was: a young person with an impossible dream. Two years earlier I’d been clueless, lost, watching a grainy VHS tape of The Right Stuff. Now, here I was, having lunch with one of my childhood heroes, and we were just having a conversation. He didn’t talk to me like I was some delusional idiot who was wasting his time. He talked to me like I was someone who was supposed to be there in that cafeteria. That alone was worth the whole summer in DC.

In the spring of 1988, I graduated from MIT with two master’s degrees: a master’s of science in mechanical engineering and a master’s of science in technology and policy. Now it was time for my next great challenge: driving to Alabama. I’d more or less begged my way into a fellowship from the NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. At the time I was driving this 1976 Ford Grenada—the Ford Disaster, I called it. This thing could barely make it around the block, let alone all the way to the Deep South. It had been in a flood, and the floor was rotted out; my father and I had to nail roofing shingles to the underside of the car to cover the holes. I loaded it up and prayed I didn’t break down in the backwoods of Appalachia along the way.

I made it—barely. I found a cheap place to live and went to work in the Human Systems Integration Branch. My summer in Huntsville was pure fun. I assisted with some very cool robotics work. I was on the softball team. I met a lot of people my age, and we took road trips to Atlanta and Tennessee. In my free time I started building out my résumé with the kinds of things people told me I needed to be a good candidate for the astronaut program. I got scuba certified. That was challenging; I still wasn’t a good swimmer. I started taking classes with a flight instructor to get my pilot’s license, and I ended up soloing a plane by the end of the summer.

After two years at MIT and two stints with NASA, I felt like I was plugged into what was going on in the space program, not stumbling around in the dark. As I packed up my Ford Disaster and drove home from Alabama, there was only one cloud on the horizon, something I knew I had to go through but I’d been doing my best not to think about: my PhD.