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 5. FORCE FEEDBACK

The thing about becoming an astronaut is that no one can tell you how to become an astronaut. Even the people at NASA can’t tell you how to become an astronaut, because the chances of actually becoming an astronaut are so small. Everyone is encouraging, but no one has any ironclad advice. It’s not like being a lawyer, where people can tell you, “Go to law school, pass the bar exam, and you’ll be a lawyer.” It doesn’t work that way. I could get five PhDs and still never be an astronaut, and not every astronaut has a PhD. What people told me was “You should get the PhD because you want the PhD, because having that degree will make you happy in and of itself, and the astronaut dream may happen or it may not.”

Getting my master’s from MIT had nearly killed me, and I knew going for a PhD would be worse. I’d been accepted to the doctoral program; back then, if you completed your master’s, MIT would let you go for a PhD almost automatically. But I was on the fence about it. Is this really how I want to spend the next four years of my life?

Before going to Huntsville I’d sent out résumés to a bunch of aerospace contractors in Houston, thinking that might be the better route. Those contractors work hand in glove with NASA; they’re up at the Johnson Space Center every day. I came home from class one day and found a message on my answering machine from Bob Overmyer at McDonnell Douglas. They were hiring and he wanted me to come down to Texas for an interview. Overmyer was a former astronaut himself, a backup from the Apollo years who later flew on some of the earliest shuttle flights. I called him back and we talked and he flew me down for an interview.

Bob spent the whole day with me. He was a great guy, a former Marine who looked the part with the graying crew cut and a big smile. We talked about becoming an astronaut and he told me I’d be a great candidate and he sold me on everything he and McDonnell Douglas were doing to help build the new International Space Station. He took me down to the NASA cafeteria for lunch and introduced me to a whole bunch of people. It was fantastic. But one thing I learned was that, in the aerospace industry, people with master’s degrees in engineering are not hard to find. There are literally thousands of them crawling around Houston and Huntsville and every other pocket of the aerospace industry, all wanting to be astronauts and all waiting for their shot. It’s hard to stand out. One of the guys who interviewed me for a job in Houston was a frustrated NASA astronaut applicant himself; he had a master’s degree and he wasn’t getting anywhere. At that point I didn’t have anything on my résumé that would give me a leg up over anyone else. I was never in the military; I wasn’t an ace test pilot; my academic credentials were solid but nothing out of the ordinary. Ultimately I decided that a PhD from MIT was not only my best chance of setting myself apart, it was also a remarkable opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. Houston would have to wait.

Once I decided to go for my PhD, I had to decide what it would be. I knew I didn’t want to do straight mechanical engineering. I wanted to be able to incorporate some of the work on human factors that I’d been doing with Tom Sheridan. What I was interested in was robotics and control systems: how robots interface with human operators and, more specifically, how they do it in space.

The title of the thesis I proposed was “Sensory Substitution for Force Feedback in Space Teleoperation.” In English, what that describes is a problem with controlling a robot when you’re dealing with a time delay. Whenever you manipulate an object with your hand, pulling a lever or twisting a knob, the amount of resistance it gives you is something you can feel. It’s instantaneous, and you can react to it right away. The brain knows automatically how to read those signals and adjust to apply more force or less. But if you’re manipulating an object remotely via a robot—for example, communicating with a rover on Mars—there’s a time delay between the signals the robot is sending to you and the commands you’re sending to it. You might push too hard or not hard enough based on wrong information about what’s happening on the other end, and the object you’re manipulating becomes unstable very quickly and you start knocking into things. It’s a problem of force information, force feedback.

At that time, the way robot designers dealt with this issue was by having a display for human operators that showed the levels of force feedback visually, like a speedometer that ratchets up or down. The problem with that was that operators already needed to have their eyes on the display of the object they were manipulating; having another screen to look at didn’t exactly make things any easier. My idea was that you could eliminate that screen and transmit the necessary force feedback through an operator’s other senses: touch and hearing. A slight vibration on your skin or a sound in your ear would indicate the level and direction of force feedback, allowing you to respond accordingly.

Pretty cool, right?

To research my thesis, I’d have to work across three different disciplines—mechanical engineering, aerospace systems, and neuroscience, the latter to understand cognitive brain functions. Tom Sheridan agreed to be my advisor, and I approached three other professors to serve on my thesis committee: Richard Held, a cognitive brain guy; Dave Akin, an aerospace systems guy; and Nat Durlach, an electrical engineering guy who worked with electronics and human perception.

As a PhD candidate, once I started my research, I had to pass a qualifying exam. It included written and oral components that tested basic engineering concepts and a presentation of where I was with my research. It was a way of making sure I was on track to successfully complete my work and also to make sure my engineering knowledge was up to MIT PhD standards: “Quality control,” Sheridan used to call it. Basically, they didn’t want me hanging around, wasting their time, if I was eventually going to blow it.

Some PhD candidates take their qualifier about six months in. I figured I’d need at least a year to prepare, so I scheduled my exam for the summer after my first PhD year and got to work. My project was going to deal with some serious cognitive brain science—how the brain processes sensory input and information—and that’s where I had the least amount of experience. I signed up for this one graduate-level neuroscience class and it only took two weeks to find out I was in the wrong place. This was a class that third-year medical students from Harvard would come over to take at MIT. We’re talking the cream of the crop from one of the top medical schools in the country. The professor jumped in on day one assuming everyone in the room was a medical genius. Which everyone was, except me. I felt like I was in a foreign-language immersion class—that’s how little I understood what was happening. The words he was speaking and writing on the board, I think it was Latin, but for all I could understand, it might as well have been that elf language from The Lord of the Rings. I knew I was way out of my depth. I dropped the class and took an undergraduate neuroscience course instead. That one was impossible, too, but at least it was in English.

That whole year was difficult. One of the only bright spots was that the shuttle had started flying again. In September, STS-26, the first flight since Challenger, launched from Kennedy Space Center for a successful four-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery, which meant the space program was back in full swing and there would be more astronaut jobs in the future. I’d sent away for an application to be an astronaut and was working on it here and there. I didn’t expect to get in; I knew most people got rejected on their first try. But I wanted to get my name in the hopper anyway.

Other than that, it was a gloomy time for me. Most of my good friends left after finishing their master’s degrees. Carola and I were looking forward to getting married the next summer, but in the meantime we had to be content with seeing each other on weekends here and there. I was working alone, living alone. I’d wake up, trudge through the Boston winter to go sit in a carrel in the library, study all day, work in the lab, and go home to this empty dorm. Looming over me the whole time was this dreaded qualifying exam. I studied and studied and studied, but I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea if I was studying the right material the right way. I’d never faced anything like this. I was just cramming information into my head and hoping for the best.

D-day finally came the week of June 22, 1989. That same week the Mets traded my favorite player, Roger McDowell, and future MVP Lenny Dykstra to the Phillies, one of the worst trades of all time. I took it as a bad omen. It was. The day of the oral exam and research presentation, I woke up terrified. I walked over to Professor Sheridan’s office in the Mechanical Engineering Building, dreading what was to come. Sheridan and the rest of my committee were lined up in chairs around a coffee table and then there was me, alone, standing at a chalkboard in front of them with nothing but a piece of chalk in my hand to show my work.

I needed more than a piece of chalk to save me that day. An oral exam is like a firing squad. It’s their job to tear you apart, challenge your assumptions, force you to defend your conclusions. If they find a weakness in your work, they’ll hone in on it and take you down. Albert Einstein could be up there and they’d tear him to shreds, too.

I won’t keep you in suspense: They destroyed me. It was a massacre. They were bombarding me with questions from every angle. Why this? What’s your evidence for that? I was stumbling through my answers, losing my train of thought, trying to go back and start over. After a certain point, I was completely lost. They could have asked me “What’s two plus two?” and I don’t think I could have given them a clear answer.

There was one question about a system for a human operator to control a robot through a helmet that measured the movement of the human operator’s head; as the person turned right or left, so would the robot. But the way the robot was built, the control system was inherently unstable. If the human turned his head a certain way, the robot would vibrate out of control. I was clueless to this, and I’d gone about modeling the system as if it were perfectly stable—I’d based a huge chunk of my answer on an assumption that was totally false.

Sheridan said, “Mike, what happens if the operator turns his head to the right?”

I said, “The robot turns to the right.”

He said, “Is that all that will happen?”

I had no response. He kept pivoting his head to the right as he asked me this, to demonstrate what he was talking about. He was actually trying to help me, give me a hint. I had no idea what he was getting at or why he kept jerking his head to the side. I stared at him like a confused zoo animal. Then he explained the answer to me, and at that moment I knew it was over. I was toast.

I walked out of that room completely traumatized. I wandered around the campus in a daze. I’d blown my PhD. I’d blown everything. My NASA application was sitting at home on my desk, filled out and ready to submit. Now what was the point in that? Carola and I were getting married in a few weeks. She was already packing up and planning to move to Boston. We had a place picked out, this great one-bedroom by Harvard Square with a big bay window looking out on Massachusetts Avenue. Now that whole future had crumbled. What was I going to tell her?

I went back to Sheridan’s office a couple of hours later. When he opened the door I could tell by his expression that the results weren’t good. “I didn’t pass, did I?”

He looked away, shook his head, and said, “No, Mike. You didn’t pass.”

Sheridan truly cared about his students; it wasn’t easy for him to deliver that news, but he had to do it.

I had the option, if I wanted it, of coming back and taking the exam again in six months. But I’d failed so utterly and completely that he said to me, point-blank, “You should think about whether or not it’s worth your time to do that.” Sheridan had always been so supportive, a wonderful man. Without him I wouldn’t have made it as far as I did. But here he was telling me, in so many words: Maybe you’re not cut out for this. Hearing someone who had been so supportive be so brutally candid now was difficult to take. I sat there in his office, completely and totally demoralized. A year earlier I’d been walking on air: working at NASA, meeting my childhood heroes. Now everything had come crashing back to earth, and I had no idea how to get back up.

When I got home from blowing my qualifying exam, my completed NASA application was sitting there on my desk, like salt in my wound. My first thought was Well, that’s done. Then I thought about it and decided to send it in anyway. I’d failed the test, but they were offering me another crack at it, and until I decided what to do I was still a PhD candidate at MIT, and many astronauts with only a master’s degree do get picked. So I mailed it off without telling them, “Hey, and by the way, I just failed my qualifier!” I figured by the time anybody looked at the application I’d have another crack at the test, if I felt it was worth taking it again. I was all but sure it wasn’t.

Then I went back to Huntsville. I owed them three more weeks of work for my graduate fellowship. The summer before I’d been excited, confident. Now I was totally down in the dumps. The three weeks I was there happened to coincide with a celebration for the twentieth anniversary of the moon landing—twenty years since I’d stood out on my lawn and looked up at the moon and dreamed about going there someday. They were having lectures and symposiums, and all the Apollo guys were coming through to give talks and be recognized. Neil Armstrong was there. Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins and Pete Conrad were there. But instead of being inspired I was more like Great, this will never be me. I’m never going to be one of these guys.

One of the Apollo astronauts there that week was Charlie Duke, who flew with John Young on Apollo 16. He was also one of the four moonwalkers who came through MIT. I attended the talk that he gave, and after it was over he was signing autographs for people. I picked up an Apollo postcard and got in line to go up to the table where he was sitting. While he signed the postcard for me, he said, “So what do you do?”

I said, “I’m a research fellow here in Huntsville, and I’m a student at MIT.”

He said, “MIT? Man, that place kicked my ass. I never thought I’d make it out of there, but somehow I did.”

I stood there, thinking, Wow. This guy walked on the moon, and even he barely made it out of MIT. And he might never have made it to the moon if he hadn’t made it out of MIT. I realized that Charlie Duke and the other Apollo astronauts, before they walked on the moon, had all walked a mile in my shoes. The journey to space wasn’t easy, but if I gave up, it would be over.

In that moment I learned how much power astronauts have to inspire people. I walked away from that table and I knew: I had to go back. I had to try again. Maybe I wasn’t a failure and an idiot. Maybe a PhD from MIT is something that’s really hard and it knocks everyone down and forces them to get back up. And this wasn’t only my PhD at stake; my whole space dream was on the line. I decided that, as bad as I went down in flames the first time, I had to turn it around and pass the test. That was the only happy ending to this story. The chances of my doing that successfully were pretty much zero, but if I didn’t at least try I’d always look back and be disappointed with myself.

Carola and I got married the next month in New York, and we took a three-week honeymoon in Portugal and Spain. As part of the trip we wound our way down through Portugal to the town of Sagres, which is on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape St. Vincent; it’s the southwesternmost tip of the country and the whole European continent. It’s an incredibly special place, with 250-foot cliffs that plunge down into the sea, and for a long time people believed it was the end of the world. A Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, had a school there; you can still visit the ruins. He had the latest nautical charts and celestial maps and navigation equipment. It’s where explorers would meet and share knowledge and information before setting sail across the ocean. Being there made me think about Columbus. Magellan. Vasco da Gama. The guys who took great leaps into the unknown to discover new worlds. Sagres was the Johnson Space Center of its day.

During the day we visited the ruins of Henry the Navigator’s school, and that night we went to an outdoor concert in Sagres, out on these cliffs that plunged 250 feet into the sea. It was one of those perfect nights, listening to the waves crash, feeling the warm summer breeze, watching the sun set over the ocean as the moon rose up in the sky. I looked out over the cliffs and I thought about the explorers who had sailed from places like this, what they’d accomplished, mapping the known world, charting our place in the universe. How many times had they failed and fallen down only to get back up and try again? How many times had they sailed out on an impossible voyage and made a successful return home? I sat there with Carola looking out over the endless horizon. It was strange, but I felt like everything was going to be okay. The end of my story was not yet written, and I still had the chance to make it extraordinary.