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 6. HUMAN FACTORS

That fall, while Carola and I were unpacking boxes in our apartment on Massachusetts Avenue, I got a call from a flight surgeon at NASA with a question about my application. I knew right away why he was calling.

“Hey, what’s the deal with your eyes?” he asked.

This was the moment I’d been trying to avoid. On the astronaut application there’s a box where you’re supposed to put your eyesight down if you know it. I’d left the box blank, thinking they’d see it and go, “Oh, maybe he’s never had his eyes checked, so he must see fine.” But the reason I’d left it blank is because I’d had them checked, many times, and I knew they were bad.

I’d known since seventh grade when I was in the stands at a Mets game trying to write down the lineup on my scorecard, and I couldn’t read the scoreboard across the field. I got glasses, but I hated them so I didn’t use them that much. I tried wearing them during a baseball game once, and I took a line drive that broke my nose. After that, I went around blind most of the time. By eleventh grade my eyes were bad enough that I had to squint to see the basket on the basketball court. I started wearing contact lenses, and from then on I was fine. Until NASA called.

Since I didn’t come from a military background, I didn’t know how important good, uncorrected eyesight was for becoming an astronaut or a test pilot. As it turns out, it’s very important. It’s a deal breaker. If you don’t make the cut-off, that’s it. Done. Finished. You’re out.

The flight surgeon didn’t know I’d skipped the question. He thought I’d missed the box. I fished out one of my old prescription slips and told him what it was: minus 3.5 diopters on one eye and minus 4.0 on the another eye. He said, “Yeah, that’s no good. That’s about 20/350 or 20/400. We don’t need 20/20, but we do need at least 20/200. We can’t take you.”

I said, “Is there anything I can do?”

This was back before LASIK or any of these other fancy procedures they have nowadays. There was a surgical procedure called radial keratotomy that people did back then, but NASA still wouldn’t accept you with that; they didn’t trust it. “There is this thing you can try,” he told me. “It’s called orthokeratology. Check it out. Maybe you can give that a shot and resubmit another application if you can get your eyes better. But based on what we have now, I’ll have to reject you.”

Then, as we were getting off the phone, he said, “Look, if your application got to me, that means you’re in the highly qualified section of candidates. You’re in the top ten percent, and you should feel good about making it this far. If you can get your eyes fixed, you’ve got a real chance.”

When I hung up I was in shock: the top 10 percent! That was all the motivation I needed to keep going. I wasn’t even that bummed about the eye thing. It was another obstacle I had to deal with, but maybe I could fix it. I was ready to take on anything if I was that close to making my dream come true.

I did some research and I learned that orthokeratology is a process where they use contact lenses to reshape your eye. When doctors first started prescribing contacts to people back in the 1940s, the first lenses they invented weren’t the nice, soft ones we have today; they were pieces of hard glass or plastic. Doctors noticed that, after wearing these hard lenses for a while, people would wake up and see without any assistance.

The eyeball is a lens. Light comes in, hits the lens, and gets bent to hit the retina on the back of the eye. If it hits the retina at the correct angle, you see 20/20. If it doesn’t, you’re either nearsighted, farsighted, or astigmatic, and you get glasses or contacts to bend the light at the correct angle so you can see. What these hard lenses would do was reshape your cornea—they’d flatten your eyeball, basically—and you could see. The problem was that, once you took the lenses out, after a couple days your eyes would go back. The tissue pops back to its natural resting place. But supposedly, if you stuck with it, you could get your eyes to see better unaided for a while.

I decided to give it a shot. I hauled out my humongous Greater Boston Yellow Pages and found a doctor who specialized in orthokeratology. He prescribed me these hard lenses, and my vision started getting better. It would stay better for a couple of days after I took the lenses out. After a few months my vision fell within the standard for the astronaut program and I was ready to submit another application. Surely NASA would want me now. All I had to do was go back to MIT and do the impossible thing that had nearly killed me: pass my qualifying exam.

Classes started up again at the beginning of September. My next crack at the qualifier was scheduled for the end of November; Professor Sheridan was on sabbatical at Stanford that fall, but he’d be home for Thanksgiving and that was the only time he could do it. I had three months to turn everything around.

I took statistics that fall, and I made a buddy in that class, Roger Alexander from Trinidad. We bonded quickly because we both fell into the hardworking-regular-guy category and not the eccentric-supergenius category. Roger lived in one of the graduate dorms, which was like an apartment with four guys sharing a kitchen and a common area. We’d study there in the evenings. I’ll never forget one night when we had a problem set that was killing us. We couldn’t crack it, and then, around two in the morning, Roger’s roommate, Greg Chamitoff, wandered out into the common area in his underwear, eating this gigantic orange. Chamitoff was one freakishly smart dude. You could tell there was a lot of power in his brain. MIT’s mascot is the beaver, because the beaver is the engineer of nature. Not coincidentally, it also does most of its work at night. Chamitoff fit the description cold. I never saw him much during daylight hours. He walked over to us, looking like he’d just woken up, and said, “What are you guys doing?” We told him this problem had us stumped. He asked if he could see the textbook, and we showed it to him. He looked it over for about a minute or so and said, “Yeah. Do this and this and this, and you got it.” We’d been staring at this problem all night, and Greg solved the whole thing in his head in a few seconds, standing there in his underwear, slurping orange juice off his fingers.

Greg wanted to become an astronaut, too (and he eventually would, a couple years after me). At that point he’d already passed his qualifier. We started talking. He told me what he did to pass was that he pre-practiced the oral exam with his friends. They would grill each other like they were each other’s thesis committee, because passing the exam wasn’t just about knowing the information—it was being able to anticipate the questions and think on your feet without getting rattled. Greg offered to do the same for me: assemble a practice committee of guys who’d passed their qualifiers, who knew what the drill was. They’d put me through the paces and toughen me up.

Talking to Greg that night I realized I’d prepared for my oral exam completely wrong. I hadn’t asked anyone for help, so I hadn’t known what I was doing. Sitting alone in my study carrel, cramming my head with facts and information without learning how to do the actual thing itself, it was no wonder I’d failed.

We have this idea in America of the self-made man. We love to celebrate individual achievement. We have these icons like Steve Jobs and Henry Ford and Benjamin Franklin, and we talk about how amazing it is that they did these great things and built themselves up out of nothing. I think the self-made man is a myth. I’ve never believed in it. I can honestly say that I’ve never achieved anything on my own. Whether it was my parents encouraging me to follow my dreams, or mentors like Jim McDonald who saw something in me, or classmates like Greg Chamitoff who challenged me to do better, I owe everything I’ve ever accomplished to the people around me—people who pushed me to be the best version of myself.

That’s what I responded to when I saw The Right Stuff: the people, the camaraderie, the way that John Glenn and the other guys stood up for each other and looked out for each other. It wasn’t just that I wanted to go to space—I wanted to be a part of the team that went to space, because they seemed like a great team to be a part of. That’s why I fell in love with sports, too. Being a part of a club, having that fellowship, it’s where I feel at home. I think I liked the friendship and the camaraderie of sports more than the actual playing.

The mistake I made with my PhD was that I forgot to find a team. I thought I was running a marathon by myself, and that’s how I’d trained for it. I took Greg up on his offer to run the mock oral exams. Every week my fellow students would grill me. Nick Patrick, a British guy who ended up becoming an astronaut in the class after me, helped a great deal. So did two other guys, Cliff Federspiel and Mohammed Yahiaoui. They were merciless. Every week I’d stand up there alone at the blackboard with my little piece of chalk and they’d tear me to shreds. They made me rethink the weak assumptions I’d put into my work. They made me learn how to think on the fly and express my ideas clearly. They’d pound me and pound me and pound me. Then we’d head over to the Thirsty Ear for a drink.

What amazed me was that Greg and the other guys didn’t have to help me. They were carrying full doctoral course loads, too, and they’d already passed their qualifiers, so it’s not like I was doing anything to help them in return. But they did it anyway. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s how a team works. You help the people around you, and everybody’s better off for it. The crazy thing is that most of those guys wanted to be astronauts, too, but they never saw it as a competition. We were on the same team, where you want everyone around you to be as successful as possible, because in some way or another their success will become your success. It’s good karma—what goes around comes around.

When Thanksgiving week rolled around it was time for me to face the real firing squad again. On Wednesday morning I went back down to Sheridan’s office. It was the same setup as before, my advisors seated around the coffee table, me with my little piece of chalk standing in front of the chalkboard. They got settled in and went to work on me.

They hit me with a ton of tough questions in a row. Bam, bam, bam, switching back and forth from control systems to spacecraft systems to neuroscience, jumping around to try and trip me up. Then they came after me on my research. The first time I went in my research wasn’t solid. Now, thanks to my weekly grilling from Greg and his crew, I’d thrown out my weak ideas and assumptions. My work stood up and I was able to defend it. The whole experience was every bit as brutal as before. I didn’t breeze through it by any means, but I wasn’t stumbling and stuttering through my answers. I stayed calm and focused and on my game for the whole two hours.

When it was over they asked me to leave the room so they could decide my fate. I stepped out and closed the door behind me. Then, quietly, I turned and put my ear to the door to try and hear what they were saying. I heard one of them say, “Well, he’s obviously got a lot of skills, but…”

When I heard that “but” I turned and walked away. I didn’t want to hear what came after that. I left the building and walked around campus and tried to ignore the questions racing through my mind. Did I pass? Did I fail? Am I staying? Am I going? Am I going to have a good Thanksgiving or a crappy Thanksgiving? Whatever happened in that room was going to alter the course of the rest of my life.

I knew, walking around, that there was still a decent chance that I’d failed. Weird as it sounds, I was ready to fail this time. I’d failed the first go-round because I wasn’t prepared and had made a bunch of stupid mistakes. That I couldn’t live with. But if I failed this time, at least I’d know I went down swinging and giving it everything I had. If you’re going to fail, that’s how you want to do it.

After a half hour I went back to Sheridan’s office to get the news. They started off with this long list of things I needed to work on. You did well on this, but you need to work on that, all very vague. I was good in control systems, Sheridan said, but I needed help in basic engineering concepts. Then one of them said maybe I should be a TA, that teaching undergrads would help me work on the areas where I needed help. That set off this whole discussion. “Maybe he could TA such-and-such course.” “No, I think maybe he should TA this other course.” And on and on.

They kept going back and forth with each other in their absentminded-professor way, talking about me like I wasn’t even in the room. I thought they were saying I was still a student at MIT, but I couldn’t actually tell. None of them had actually said the words “You passed.” This dragged on for what seemed like forever. It was driving me crazy not knowing. Eventually I jumped in and said, “Um, can I ask a question? I’m going to go home for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and my mother is going to ask me if I passed my qualifying exam. What do I tell her?”

Sheridan stopped and gave me this look. He said, “Oh. No, no. Yeah, you passed. We’re just trying to figure out what you need to do next.”

That was all I needed to know. The rest of the conversation I nodded and smiled and said yes to everything. I told them I would teach whatever they wanted me to teach, I would take whatever they wanted me to take. I didn’t care: I’d passed.

The first thing I did was find a telephone. I called my wife. I called my parents. Everyone was thrilled, but I think they were more relieved than thrilled. They said “Thank you, God” and “Maybe now we can finally have some peace around here.” That night Carola and I drove down to New York to see our families for the holidays, and they had a champagne toast waiting for us. When I went to bed that night, I was actually afraid to go to sleep for fear that I’d wake up to realize I’d dreamed the whole thing.

If you work hard and get help from good friends, together you can overcome almost any challenge, no matter how great. More than aerospace systems or neuroscience or anything else I studied, that life lesson was the most valuable thing I learned at MIT. And as I pursued my dream, long after I became an astronaut and even when I was floating by myself 350 miles above the Earth, it was a lesson I would return to again and again and again.