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


At 10:00 p.m. on March 16, 1993, Carola gave birth to our beautiful baby girl, Gabby. We took her home and it was like this light had come into my life. Everything seemed better. The air smelled better. The trees seemed more beautiful. People sometimes think having a kid gets in the way of pursuing a dream. I think it’s the opposite. Having her made me want to pursue my dream even harder because I wanted her to be able to do the same. I didn’t want to tell her about how to live life—I wanted to show her.

Gabby was born in Houston. Eight months earlier, after finishing my PhD, I’d taken a huge gamble and moved to Texas for a job with McDonnell Douglas. The chance of my becoming an astronaut was still the longest of long shots; I’d applied to the program a second time in the summer of 1991 and been rejected again. But I believed that being a part of the aerospace community in Houston, where I could be close to the space program and get to know the people involved, was the best chance I had. I reached out to Bob Overmyer at McDonnell Douglas again, and the company made me an offer to head up their independent research and development team for robotics. With big government contracts, part of the budget is often earmarked for research. The whole purpose is to think big, generate new ideas, run experiments, get published in scientific journals. My job would be to think up new ways to use robots in space. On August 19, 1992—my thirtieth birthday, as it turned out—my newly pregnant wife and I packed up our apartment in Boston and started a new life. In Texas.

I don’t deal well with transition, and starting a new job in a new state on the day you turn thirty while your wife is expecting is a pretty mind-blowing transition. I was leaving the grad school bubble behind and entering the real world. Real job. Real family. This is it. There’s no going back. Throughout the move doubts were swirling around in my mind, and I couldn’t shut them up. I thought I was going to be an astronaut? Who was I kidding? At the time, the whole thing felt like a horrible mistake. Then Gabby was born, and having her brought life into focus and reminded me why I was doing what I was doing.

We bought a house in Clear Lake, the suburb southwest of Houston where the Johnson Space Center is located. After a lifetime in the Northeast it was a rough adjustment, but we’d stumbled into a wonderful community and we slowly got acclimated. Clear Lake is a company town. Nearly everyone is tied to NASA and the aerospace industry in some way or another. Our neighborhood was right off Space Center Boulevard, about five minutes from the entrance to the Johnson Space Center. It was like living in Astronautville. My whole life these guys were my heroes. Now they were my neighbors.

Steve Smith became an astronaut with the class of ’92 and was on his way to becoming one of the top spacewalkers in NASA history. Steve is one of those people who’s always in a good mood, has a huge smile, is friendly to everyone. He was so generous there were times I thought he wasn’t human. He was also tall and impossibly fit. Those barbells at the end of the rack that are covered with dust because nobody at the gym uses them? Steve would go right for them. He was an All-American water polo player at Stanford and captain of the 1980 NCAA Championship team. He’s one of those guys who’s phenomenal at everything—but you can’t hate him for it, because he’s also the nicest guy you’ve ever met. Steve lived right around the corner and had a daughter about Gabby’s age. He became a close friend, mentor, and confidant.

I started running into astronauts everywhere I went, even at our church, St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church, which was so new it didn’t have a building yet. While that was being built they held Mass in a storefront in a strip mall next to a hardware store. I called it St. Clare of the Shopping Mall. Kevin Kregel and his family went to St. Clare with us. He was a fighter pilot out of the Air Force Academy who did an exchange with the Navy to attend the Navy Test Pilot School. Better than that: Kevin was from Long Island. The first time we met, he’d heard me speaking and walked up to me with a raised eyebrow. “You ever go to Solomon Grundy’s?” My eyes lit up. Solomon Grundy’s was a rock club on Long Island in the eighties; I loved the place.

“Yeah,” I said. “You from around there?”

“Yup,” he said. “I placed you right away with the accent.” Kevin was a bit older than me and already had four kids, but he could easily have been one of the guys on my old Police Boys Club baseball team. Knowing that someone who grew up minutes away from where I did had become an astronaut was a huge inspiration.

Working at McDonnell Douglas, I was back in the sea of beige cubicles again, back in a white shirt. It was everything I’d run screaming from at Sperry and IBM, only now I was in a different world. I was right down the road from the Johnson Space Center and Ellington Field. I can still remember my first Saturday living in Clear Lake. The Texas Air National Guard flies F-16s out of Ellington, and one of them came screaming overhead. Most homeowners wouldn’t care for that, but I thought it was awesome. I was that much closer to where I wanted to be, and that made everything worthwhile.

As for the job itself, I wasn’t sure I’d like it at first, but in the end, it turned out to be the perfect stepping-stone. For my R&D lab, I only needed one idea, like a thesis, something big to sink my teeth into that could get me published in scientific journals. I also wanted to design and build something that NASA needed, something that would make a real contribution to human spaceflight. I convinced the people up at the Johnson Space Center to let me go through some robotics training and work with some real astronauts who could help me understand how the shuttle’s robotic tools could be improved. One afternoon in the spring of ’93, right around the time Gabby was born, I was standing up on a simulator platform, where some astronauts were training to “fly” the shuttle’s robot arm. The arm’s official name was the remote manipulator system, or the RMS. Since it was made in Canada, we also called it the Canadarm. It was a giant crane used to move objects around outside the shuttle, like satellites or space station modules. It was also used to position spacewalkers to perform their tasks; they would ride on the front of the arm in a foot restraint. In the microgravity of space, the arm can manipulate something with the size and mass of a Greyhound bus.

The arm was controlled by astronauts inside the shuttle while they looked outside into the payload bay of the orbiter through the aft flight deck windows. They manipulated it via two hand controllers: a left-handed one for translations (XYZ motions), and a right-handed one for rotations (roll, pitch, and yaw motions). Flying the arm required a fair amount of training and skill and was one of the major jobs an astronaut performed on the space shuttle.

As I observed this simulation, I noticed they were using cameras to track the arm’s movement but they didn’t always have a clear view with the camera, so they were looking at digital readouts to get the arm’s XYZ coordinates or its pitch, yaw, and roll. Then they were taking that data and figuring out what they needed to do on the fly. It was an incredibly convoluted and counterintuitive way to manipulate this arm. It was similar to the sensory feedback issue I’d dealt with at MIT. The control system for this robot arm needed better human factors.

I realized that the solution to this, what they needed, was a visual display that rendered the data graphically in real time, like a video game. There was another engineer at McDonnell Douglas at the time, Jack Brazzell, who had figured out a way to help shuttle rendezvous by getting data to display graphically through a software interface on a laptop computer. At that time, if you wanted to introduce something new for the crew, you’d put it on a laptop. When it came to changing or adding software to the shuttle’s onboard computers, NASA was very conservative. Those systems were so fine-tuned that you didn’t want to mess with them unless you absolutely had to, so they rarely did. Laptops changed everything. They allowed astronauts to make some forward-thinking innovations because now they were free to experiment and try new things. I started working with Jack, piggybacking off some of the work he had done on his laptop rendezvous display, getting his advice on how to get my project on board the shuttle. I found a couple of great programmers, Albert Rodriguez and Mike Meschler, and I brought them on my team to help me create this laptop video game interface to improve control of the robot arm.

Within a few months we had a working demo, and then, much to my surprise, I found my sales experience at IBM coming into play. Because now I had to sell my idea. I had to demonstrate to astronauts and others at NASA the benefits of the new system. If you want NASA to adopt something you’ve built and incorporate it into their program, you need people—astronauts, especially—to get behind you and tell the decision makers, “Hey, we want this. We need this.”

McDonnell Douglas had strong relationships with the astronaut office already in place, of course, and I used those to start knocking on doors. I demonstrated my display system to whoever would listen. I got some polite rejections from a few people who didn’t get it, but I finally connected with a Swiss astronaut named Claude Nicollier, the chief of the Astronaut Office Robotics Branch. Claude was a former fighter pilot, tall and thin with an air of European sophistication, but warm and gracious and quick to make a joke. He spoke perfect English with a slight, very elegant accent. The first time I met him I was getting my display hooked up to a simulator. Claude walked in eating a vanilla ice cream cone. He stood there quietly eating the ice cream in his elegant, European way, and watched me try the display. “I like what you have,” he said. “We should talk more.” He sounded like a Swiss James Bond.

Claude started talking up my idea, and people started to take notice. Jan Davis and Ellen Ochoa, who worked with Claude in the robotics branch, both loved the display and started helping me design and implement it. Jan was from Huntsville, warm and friendly and down-to-earth. She grew up in the shadow of the Marshall Space Flight Center and, like me, had dreamed of going to space for as long as she could remember. She’d actually gone to the launch of Apollo 11 and made a sign that said, LOOK OUT, MOON. HERE COMES HUNTSVILLE.

Ellen Ochoa’s flight crew from STS-96 nicknamed her “E. F. Ellen,” after the slogan from the E. F. Hutton commercials: “When E. F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” She was actually quite soft-spoken, but she was so sharp and capable that she could command a room because everyone knew that her thoughts were valuable. To no one’s surprise, she went on to become head of the Johnson Space Center.

Jan, Ellen, and Claude started pushing to get my robot-arm display flown and tested on a future shuttle mission, and together they made it happen. NASA eventually decided that my display would be flown and tested on STS-69 in June 1995. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to that point: Even if I never made it to space, something I’d created actually would.

Working with the people in the robotics branch the way I did made me thankful once again for my own dumb luck. If I’d had a clue what I was doing as an undergrad, I might have been a more traditional aero/astro guy and specialized in something like jet propulsion, and I’d have been off in a lab somewhere working with a bunch of machines every day. But I hadn’t specialized in jet propulsion. I’d specialized in human factors, which meant I was working with the humans—the astronauts. In hindsight, it was one of the best calls I could have made. Because when it comes time to choose a new class of astronauts, for the most part the astronauts do the choosing. No politician in Washington has any say in who gets to fly in space. Astronauts make up the majority of the votes on the selection committee, and through my work I was getting to spend hours and hours getting to know them.

And I liked them. It was the same with the astronauts I became friends with outside of work, guys like Kevin Kregel and Steve Smith. The more and more astronauts I met, the more I realized that they were my favorite people of all time. They were good people. Smart, dedicated, generous, decent. Everyone was happy to go to work every day. I’d had this fantasy of what astronauts would be like from watching The Right Stuff, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. And it turned out that was the reality; if anything, reality exceeded my expectations, and every time I drove in to the Johnson Space Center I had a voice in the back of my head telling me: This is it. I want to be a part of this. I want this more than anything.

The astronaut selection process takes almost a year. In the summer of ’93, NASA started taking applications for the astronaut class of 1994. I submitted mine. Then there was a problem with funding and the class of ’94 got scrapped. They held on to everyone’s applications and told us they were going to wait a year and pick people for ’95. A year ticked by, and the following summer I updated my résumé and my recommendations, sent them in, and waited by the phone.

I was an old hand at this by now, no longer flying blind. I had people to talk to, and they showed me how the process works. One of them told me, “You do know you can see your file, right? You can file a Freedom of Information Act request and see what they’ve got on you and what they’ve said about you in the past.”

Smart idea. I requested my file and, sure enough, I saw a mistake I’d made, why my application had hit a wall the second time. When I’d worked at NASA headquarters in the summer of ’87, my supervisor was this guy who was a little aloof. We weren’t close, but I’d put him down as a reference anyway because he was a big name. I did that with a couple of the recommendations: I picked people I thought were important instead of people who knew me. That was a mistake. This supervisor and I, we hadn’t interacted much, and he’d checked off “average” or “don’t know” to nearly every question. At one point he’d checked Don’t know, don’t know, don’t know all the way down the page. The last question was open-ended: “What else can you tell us about this person?” He’d written in, “Dammit, I don’t know.”

So that was bad. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. I asked Ellen Ochoa to write me a letter of recommendation, and she did. At McDonnell Douglas I had Bob Overmyer. He knew me well and wrote me a great recommendation. I had my PhD, I’d published several papers, I was building this display for the shuttle. It had taken me ten years. Exactly one decade after walking out of The Right Stuff at the Floral Park theater, I’d put together an astronaut application about as strong as I was ever going to get.

On August 4, I got the call. It was a Thursday. I was sitting at my desk at work and the phone rang. A woman’s voice said, “Hi, I’m Teresa Gomez from the astronaut selection office. We’re wondering if you would be interested in coming in to interview to be an astronaut candidate?”

Yes,” I said. I was practically jumping up and down.

She said, “Okay, this is a bit of short notice, but we have someone who canceled for next week, and we’re trying to get someone local so we won’t have to arrange travel. But if you can’t make it next week, you can wait and come in week five or six.”

“I’ll come next week,” I said. “I don’t want to wait and take any chance that you’ll change your mind.”

She said, “Don’t you need to see if you can get off work?”

I said, “I’m coming. I’ll quit my job, I don’t care.”

“That may not be a smart thing to do.”

“Okay. I’ll ask and call you back.”

I checked with Bob Overmyer and Mike Kearney, and of course they were supportive. They were rooting for me. Places like McDonnell Douglas actually want you to leave and become an astronaut. It’s a feather in their cap. I called Teresa back and told her I was in, and she had me come by the Johnson Space Center to pick up an information packet. I went home and read it, and it was fairly basic: where to be, how to dress, etc. Then I came to the part about the eye exam. It said, “You will be given a series of intensive eye exams. We ask that those of you who wear contact lenses do not wear them for two weeks leading up to the test.” When I read that, I knew I was in trouble.

They insist on that because they want your eyes as close to their natural state as possible for the exam; contacts can cause edema, a swelling of the eye, and they want you to be completely free of that. But I was going in on short notice. I didn’t have two weeks to let my eyes rest. And I was still using those orthokeratology lenses to flatten my eyeballs. I’d been wearing them for four years now. I knew if I took them out, within a couple of days I wouldn’t be able to see anything. I called my eye doctor and he said, “Your lenses won’t cause any edema. I wouldn’t worry about it.” So I thought about it and decided it would be okay for me to leave the contacts in.

At that time, NASA got anywhere from three thousand to five thousand applications per class. Out of that, they go through everyone’s qualifications and check references and cull it down to 120 semifinalists. Over the course of six weeks, they bring those people down to Houston in groups of twenty for interviews and medical evaluations. From that pool they make their short list, anywhere from ten to twenty to twenty-five, depending on what they need that year. Then, if you make that cut, they put you through an exhaustive background check. Out of the people who pass the background check, the committee makes its final selections.

To start off, you show up Sunday morning for a week of tests and interviews and evaluations. The other nineteen candidates in your week’s group are there. It’s like a Hollywood audition where everyone’s there for the same part; you’re all friendly and professional, but everyone’s quietly sizing up the competition. First thing you go through is a lot of written tests: IQ tests, personality tests. There’s an ethics test with weird questions like “It’s okay to kill someone if…” Then over the course of the week you have a series of medical exams. They check you out from top to bottom. You’re like a lab rat. They look in your ears, in your throat. There are brain scans. CAT scans. Blood samples. Urine samples. Stool samples. They do an ultrasound of your internal organs, looking for tumors or aneurysms. They stick a camera up your rear end and check in there, which was new for me. On one day they give you a heart monitor to wear for twenty-four hours to track you for any irregularities in your heart. They’re looking for anything they can find wrong with you anywhere. By the time it’s done you’ve been poked, prodded, and picked over in ways you didn’t know were possible.

For the psych evaluation, you have to sit with two shrinks for a few hours and talk about your mom and dad to make sure you can handle everything mentally and emotionally. They also put you through different stress tests. In one of them, to see how you deal with claustrophobia, you’re zipped up inside this dark canvas bag, a personal rescue sphere. They leave you in there and don’t tell you how long it’s going to be. I fell asleep. That was easy. Then came the part I’d been dreading: Thursday morning, August 11, I was scheduled for my eye exam. I kept my orthokeratology lenses in until the appointment, took them out, said a prayer, and went to meet my fate.

NASA had two optometrists, Bob Gibson and Keith Manuel. Their job was to conduct the eye exams and report the results to the flight surgeons who made the final recommendations on medical fitness to the selection committee. Rainer Effenhauser was the flight surgeon overseeing my group of applicants, but Smith Johnston was another flight surgeon on staff I got to know, and he helped talk me through parts of the process as well. Keith Manuel was running the eye exams that day. He ended up being my neighbor, a great guy, but that day I walked in hating him. I knew the eye exam was the biggest thing between me and a clean bill of health, and I went in thinking of him as my nemesis.

The first thing Keith had me do was the standard eye chart to test my unaided acuity and to see if he could correct me to 20/20. He put me through the paces. “Read line one.” “Read line two.” He started using different lenses to try and correct me to 20/20, and he got frustrated. He couldn’t do it. He said, “I don’t know what the problem is. You’re not seeing 20/20 no matter what I do here.”

Then, to test my unaided acuity, he put me on the Landolt C machine. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s way more sophisticated than the eye chart. It’s a machine that flashes the letter C in front of you over and over again, randomly, in rapid succession, projected at different depths and with the open part of the C facing in different directions. It’s fast. You can’t sit there taking your time. You have a joystick and you have to move it up, down, right, or left in response to which way the C is facing.

They say the Landolt C is the most accurate vision test ever created. Needless to say, I did not pass. It was a disaster. I can’t remember how many I missed; it might have been all of them. Finally Keith said, “Okay, the last thing I have to do is map your eyeball.” Map my eyeball? I didn’t even know what that was. With all the crazy things I’d had done to my eyes, no one had ever brought it up before. Basically it’s exactly what it sounds like. They use this machine to take a 3-D topographical map of your eyeball; it’s a way to determine the shape and health of your corneas. Keith hooked me up to this contraption and futzed with it for a few minutes. He said, “You’ve got a flat eyeball.”

“That’s from the orthokeratology,” I said. “One of your flight surgeons recommended that to me as a thing I could do.”

“Yes,” he explained, “but orthokeratology lenses are a special case. You were supposed to stop using them six months in advance to let your eyeball revert to its normal shape.”

I hadn’t known that. I wouldn’t get the official results until the next morning, but I knew they’d be bad. Even worse, I still had the most important part of the week ahead of me: the interview. I had to sit down at a conference table with the entire astronaut selection committee. Some of the biggest names at NASA were on this board. John Young was the head of the selection committee. An Apollo moonwalker, commander of the first space shuttle flight, and one of my all-time personal heroes, Young was a character, a true original. He had a thick Southern drawl, and he used it to say exactly what was on his mind. He’d gotten in a bit of trouble when he smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto Gemini 3 in 1965 (still the world’s first and only corned beef sandwich ever flown in space). Young was at the head of the table. Seated around him were Hoot Gibson, the head of the astronaut office; Ellen Baker, an astronaut from New York; Steve Hawley; Brian Duffy; Tom Akers; Duane Ross; and a few other people. I had to sit down across from them and put my best foot forward and sell myself, knowing full well that I’d probably already bombed out.

In the end, strangely, I think it worked out in my favor. I walked into that conference room with nothing left to lose. I couldn’t blow it in the interview because I’d already blown it with the eye test. I decided to go in and do my best and let the chips fall. There was a professor I knew at MIT, smartest guy in the world, the top of his field, and I remember the first thing he had listed on his résumé was “Astronaut Candidate Finalist.” He never became an astronaut, but he considered the fact that he’d made it that far to be the most important achievement in his career. I’d made it that far, too. Whatever else happened, I knew that these people considered me good enough to sit at that table with them.

I’d talked to my astronaut friends about how to handle the interview, and every single one of them told me, “Just be yourself.” You don’t have anything left to prove at that point. They want to get to know you and see who you are. I’d run into Kevin Kregel outside church the Sunday before and told him about the interview. He said, “Don’t try and BS anybody. Don’t make anything up. If they ask you something and you don’t know, say, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Because that’s the right answer.”

The interview went well. We had a friendly chat, and it was great. They asked me about what it was like growing up on Long Island, my playing the trumpet in the school band, my dad being a fire inspector, random things. They asked a few questions about my work and my research, but mostly it was get-to-know-you type questions. I told a few funny stories, got a few laughs. We got so wrapped up in talking that the hour flew by. Finally, Steve Hawley said, “Hey, we’re out of time. Is there anything you want to add?”

I said, “No, just that I appreciate the opportunity. This has been the highlight of my life coming in here, and whatever happens happens.” We stood up and everyone shook my hand. Everybody was happy and smiling. I felt good about it. I felt like I belonged in that room. Those were my people. This was the team I was supposed to be on. But I knew that when I woke up the next morning it was going to be the worst day of my life.

On Friday, August 12, 1994—before I even got to the news waiting for me at NASA—Major League Baseball went on strike. They’d played the last game of the season the night before, and then that morning the players of every single team walked out in protest over the salary cap. The rest of the season wound up canceled, and there would be no World Series for the first time since 1904. The strike was bitter and it was ugly and the whole future of the sport looked grim, much like my chances of being an astronaut. It was the mother of all bad omens.

On the drive over to the space center I was actually hoping for something else to be wrong other than my eyes. I was praying for an aneurysm or a tumor, something so far out of my control that I could throw my hands up and say, “Well, that’s life. Nothing I can do.” No such luck. I was clean as a whistle. My organs were good. My rear end checked out. My hearing was pitch-perfect. My psych test came back with good results: 100 percent sane. They said I was off the charts for happiness. I was basically a happy person who got along well with almost anyone, good traits for an astronaut. I had met and surpassed all the medical criteria for the job—except one.

I sat down with Rainer Effenhauser and he gave me the news about my eyes. “Your unaided acuity is beyond our limit,” he said, “so we have to DQ you on that. We couldn’t correct you to 20/20, either, so we have to DQ you on that. And you’ve got a flat eyeball in your head. We’ve got to DQ you on that, too. I’m sorry, but we can’t take you. With these results, there isn’t a chance you can be considered. You’re medically disqualified.”

The words hung there in the air: medically disqualified. Not “underqualified” or “in need of more experience” but physically and genetically unfit for service. I was crushed. It’d been ten years. Ten years of my life I’d been working toward this goal. I didn’t know whether to feel angry or sad or frustrated or what. My whole body was numb.

After I got the news, I called up Duane Ross, the head of the Astronaut Selection Office, and asked if I could come by and talk to him. I wanted to know if there was anything—anything—that I could do. Duane had been head of the selection office since the shuttle program began. He was the warmest, most gracious guy, the kind of guy you wanted in your corner because you knew he’d do whatever he could for you. He told me to come by and we sat down and he couldn’t have been nicer. He said, “Mike, I want you to know we were all disappointed when those results came back. I can’t tell you we would have picked you, but I can tell you that you were one of the people we were talking about. Maybe you wouldn’t have gotten it this time, but you might have gotten it in a future selection.”

To hear him say that broke my heart: They wanted me. I was so close. It was right there in front of me. I called some of the astronauts on the selection committee and asked them if they minded giving me their feedback, too. They all took the time to speak with me and not one of them said, “Hey, this isn’t worth your while. Good luck.” If they had, I think I might have given up. But they didn’t. Every single one of them took me aside and told me, “You know, if you can do anything about your eyes, you should give it a try.”

At that point I decided if I was going to be told no, I wanted to be told no. I didn’t want to be told, “We wish we could have.” After everything I’d invested, for me to walk away the door had to be closed and closed forever. As long as it was open, even just a crack, I knew that I couldn’t bring myself to stop trying. I’d made it too far and come too close to give up, and I had nothing left to lose. There was only one thing I had to do to get back in the mix: I had to learn how to see.