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 8. YES OR NO

Monday morning I was back at work at McDonnell Douglas and I ran into Bob Overmyer in the hall. He said, “What happened?”

“I got medically DQ’d.”

“Your eyesight?” he said. “Yeah, that happens with everybody. I fought those tests for years.” As a former pilot, Bob knew all about the eye test. For as long as there have been planes in the sky, pilots and astronauts have been running scared from the eye exam—because you can be the best, most qualified pilot in the world and then get benched for this thing that’s 100 percent beyond your control.

Bob was actually encouraging. “This is only your first time,” he said. “Don’t give up. You’ll get another shot and you may get back into this thing.” He told me pilots do all kinds of wacky things to try to beat the test. “You know what I used to do?” Bob said. “I’d dehydrate myself. I’d schedule the exam for Monday morning, and over the weekend I wouldn’t drink anything. I’d run like crazy, get all the water out of my system. That way you dry out the eyeball and make it stiffer and it bends the light better.”

“Okay,” I said. “Makes sense. I’ll give it a shot.”

That same afternoon I was at the Johnson Space Center and I saw Kevin Kregel in the hallway. I told him what had happened. He said, “Those damn eye tests. They’ll kill you every time. But you know what you gotta do, right?”

“What’s that?”

“Drink lots of water. Drink as much water as you can, for days. The morning you go in, don’t even take a piss. It’ll make your eyeball more viscous and it’ll bend the light better.”

It actually made me feel better, knowing that I wasn’t the only guy who’d been through this and nobody else had a clue what to do, either. Bob and Kevin had both faced the same obstacle and they’d overcome it and both had become astronauts. That gave me hope.

The best advice I got came from my neighbor, Steve Smith. He told me, “You have to look at this like any other engineering problem. You have to collect all the information and data you can, figure it out.” He was right. I hadn’t been dealing with the problem in the right way. I hadn’t been to an eye doctor in two years. I’d lulled myself into believing this orthokeratology thing would be an easy fix, but that had been a way to avoid facing my fear head-on. I would have known more about NASA’s stance on orthokeratology if I’d been up-front and asked, but I’d been too scared to bring up the subject of my eyes. I thought I could tiptoe around the problem when what I needed to do was tackle it: admit that I needed help and get help. I went back to JSC and went to see Smith Johnston. “What do I have to do?”

Smith started talking, and I couldn’t tell for sure, but I got the impression that he’d spoken with Duane Ross and Duane had told him: “See if you can make this work with Mike. Let’s not throw him away over a bad eye exam.” The first thing Smith told me was to take the damn lenses out of my head. Not only were they not helping, but because I’d worn the same lenses for so long without getting them checked, they’d gotten old and scratched up and had damaged my eyeball, which was why Keith couldn’t correct me to 20/20. So no contact lenses for six months—only glasses, to give my eyeballs a chance to heal.

I also started looking into vision training. Overfocusing of the eye muscles is one of the causes of nearsightedness. Vision training is a program of exercises that teaches you how to relax your eye muscles in order to improve your unaided acuity. It’s not a miracle cure, but it can give you incremental improvements, which was what I needed. It just takes time. Smith told me to do that and keep getting checked by my eye doctor and send him the results. If I showed that I could pass, they’d consider admitting me in the next class after this one.

I said, “Okay, if that’s what I have to do, I’ll do it.”

Over the course of the next year, about a million things happened at once. Shortly after my flameout on the eye exam, we found out Carola was pregnant again. With two kids to support and the astronaut dream looking shaky, I had to think seriously about what I would do if it didn’t pan out.

I liked the job at McDonnell Douglas, and it had been a great way to work closely with the astronaut office; but if I wasn’t going to be an astronaut, I wasn’t sure it was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. I had started teaching some classes on the side at Rice University, which has a great engineering school and a long relationship with the space program going back to the start: Rice’s stadium is where President Kennedy gave his big speech kicking off the Apollo program in 1962. Teaching brought in a little extra money, and in the back of my mind I always thought if the astronaut thing didn’t work out, academia might be my best fallback option. With the astronaut dream up in the air, I started sending out letters and résumés to different schools for full-time professorships. I got interviews with the University of Maine, the City College of New York, a few other places. Columbia, my own alma mater, sent me a nice letter telling me no thanks.

Then I got a call from Georgia Tech. Bill Rouse, a former student of Tom Sheridan’s at MIT from before my time, was in the industrial engineering school down there and he’d started a lab, the Center for Human-Machine Systems Research. They were doing work with human factors and control systems and were looking to do more space-related work as well. I flew down and interviewed with them and they offered me a job.

I agonized over the decision for months. Was it a good idea to leave the Johnson Space Center, the focal point for all human space flight? On the other hand, this was a full-time tenure-track position with one of the best engineering schools in the country, and I wasn’t being offered anything like that in Houston.

Finally, in December, I came to a decision: I would take the job. Georgia Tech wanted me to start right away, in January. I didn’t want Carola to have to move while she was pregnant; she had her doctors and everything in Houston, and we wanted the baby to be born there. Also, my robot-arm display was set to be flown in space on STS-69 in June, and I wanted to be in Houston for that. So I asked if they’d wait until the fall semester. They agreed and let me push my start date to August.

For the next seven months I only had one job: fix my eyes. I found an optometrist who specialized in vision training, a woman named Desiree Hopping. First she gave me a new pair of glasses with undercorrected lenses; they would take the strain off my focusing system and help my eyes to relax. Then she gave me some exercises. There was one where I had to stare at a bunch of marbles spaced out on a string at different intervals, shifting my focus to each one. I had to stare at different eye charts at different distances, the idea being that I would train my eye to relax and focus on an imaginary point beyond where the chart is, causing the letters on the chart to appear sharper. These exercises required deep, deep concentration. I had to do this dead stare for minutes at a stretch, no blinking. I looked like a serial killer giving you the evil eye. Some nights I’d go to bed and my eyes would be bloodshot from the strain of forcing them to relax, which sounds odd but it’s true.

I’d go to the office every day and work on my robot-arm display. Then I’d come home. We’d eat dinner, put Gabby to bed. Then I’d sit up at the kitchen table doing these vision exercises. My mother-in-law, who’d come down to help us while Carola was pregnant, would sit there with me, holding up these charts over and over again while I stared her down like a crazy person.

But it was working. I kept going back to Dr. Hopping every two weeks to get my eyes checked, and they were getting better, bit by bit. Then NASA threw me a curveball. After pushing the class of ’94 back to ’95, instead of waiting the normal two years to do the next selection they were going to move ahead and do two classes back-to-back. They’d be taking applications that summer for a class to be picked in the spring of 1996. I’d thought I was going to have a whole year to get settled in Atlanta and slowly work on my eyes. Now the whole interview and selection process would happen right when I was moving. I resubmitted my application and prayed I’d be ready in time.

We put the house on the market, and 1995 turned out to be one of those years when nobody was buying houses. Our place sat on the market for months. No takers. We lowered the price. Nothing. Lowered it again. Still nothing. My mother told me to plant a statue of St. Joseph in the ground; he’s the patron saint of getting your house sold, apparently. So I did. That didn’t work, either. My display experiment got pushed back to a shuttle flight in September, which meant I was going to miss the last couple months of working on that. The Mets were 23–41. There was a lot going on.

In the middle of all this, on July 5, our son, Daniel, was born. Having a girl was great, and getting a boy rounded out the team. At that point our lives were up in the air and I was racked with doubt about the choices I was making. Daniel’s arrival was just what I needed. It was a perfect blessing. Having those kids opened up a new dimension of love for me that I couldn’t have dreamed existed. Whether I became an astronaut or not, nothing was more important than that.

Finally, our real estate agent came by and told us she’d found someone to rent our house short-term. Fine, we said, we’ll do that. In the back of my mind I was thinking that if I did get picked we’d be able to come right back, which was nice to contemplate. The movers came and started packing us up, and I flew to Atlanta for a long weekend to race around and try to find us a place to live. Our whole lives were up in the air.

Apollo 13 came out that summer, and since I was by myself in Atlanta, I went to see it. That was a mistake. It was the best space movie since The Right Stuff: the astronauts and their families having parties in Houston, the whole NASA team pulling together to save these guys and bring them home…it was everything I was leaving behind, and I had no idea if I’d ever make it back. I sat there in the theater, loving the movie and being completely depressed by it. I flew back to Houston, collected Carola and the kids, and the first week of August we loaded up and headed east on I-10 with our whole lives packed into this moving truck that followed behind us. The house I’d found for us to rent turned out to be horrible. It looked okay to walk through, but the foundation was cracked and leaked whenever it rained. There were bugs. Nothing felt right.

Then, around the first of September, we had barely moved in when I got a call from Teresa Gomez in the Astronaut Selection Office asking me to fly back to Houston. They were looking at applications again, she said. Mine was in the good pile, and the flight surgeon said my eyes had improved enough that they were willing to let me come back and try again. There was one catch: I had to fly back in a month at my own expense and do the eye exam. If I passed, I’d be back in the running. If I failed, I was out of luck.

It turned out that my luck that fall was pretty good. I called my optometrist to let her know what was happening and she had some news for me. At the time, there were only two Landolt C machines in use in the entire United States. One was at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The other one, she had learned, was at the Emory Eye Center in Atlanta. Of all the cities in North America I could have moved to, I’d picked the one with the machine that I needed. She suggested that maybe I call them up to see if I could go down there and use it. So I did. There were two very nice women who ran the Landolt C unit at Emory. I went down and talked to them and asked if they’d let me use their machine to practice. They said yes, and for the next few weeks I went there every chance I got.

The first week of October I flew back to Houston to sit with Keith Manuel and take the exam. He mapped my eyeball and it was healthy. He corrected me to 20/20, and that went fine. Then he had to test my unaided acuity on the Landolt C. With an eye exam they want you to relax. They want to test your eyes at their natural resting state. My problem was that I had to work hard to relax. I had to strain my face to do this evil-eye thing that forced my eyes to relax and focus properly. I was like a kid with a learning disability. I could pass the test; I just needed to work harder to do it.

And I did it. I passed. I passed!

Duane called me and told me I was back in the pool of eligible candidates. I could come back and interview the last week of October. I flew back to Atlanta, taught for two weeks, then flew right back to Houston. The whole month I was going all out. I ran every day. I didn’t eat an ounce of fat. I watched my blood pressure. I kept my cholesterol down. I wasn’t taking any chances. Sunday morning I went in for an intro briefing and took the written psych test. Starting Monday I came back and did the ultrasounds, the camera up the rear end, everything I’d done the last time. On my way out I stopped off to talk to Rainer Effenhauser about something. As I was leaving he said, “We’ll see you tomorrow for the eye exam.”

I wasn’t sure I heard him right. I said, “The eye exam? I already passed the eye exam.”

He said, “Yeah, but that was three weeks ago. Something could have changed. It has to be done at the time of selection.”

“But I just did it.”

“No, no, no. That wasn’t official. I’m sorry, Mike. This is what we have to do.”

I couldn’t believe it. It was like a punch to the gut. But it was what it was. You do what you have to do. The following afternoon I went back to the optometrist’s office to take the test again, only now it was a different setup. Bob Gibson was working off to the side, and two optometry students from the University of Houston were there as well. Bob and his colleague Keith Manuel were adjunct professors at the school, and students would often work in their office prepping patients and performing tests to get workplace experience.

A young woman administered my eye exam. She had to be about twenty-four years old. My whole life had been leading up to that moment. Everything I’d done, day in, day out, for over a decade, was going to be decided in the next half hour. She mapped my eyeball and put me on the Landolt C to test my unaided acuity. I sat down at the machine and started the evil eye to try to relax and focus. She said, “Sir, you need to relax your eyes.” To her it looked like I was straining when in fact I was doing the opposite.

I said “I am relaxing” and kept right on with the evil eye. Because that was how I’d trained myself to do it.

She said it again. “Sir, relax your eyes. We won’t get accurate data if you don’t. Sir? I need you to relax. Sir?”

She would not stop. She kept raising her voice. Inside my brain I was losing it. I wanted to punch something. I wanted to burst into tears. I wanted to yell, Lady! You have no idea what’s going on here! You have no idea how much time and heartbreak I’ve been through. This is my whole life at stake. This is my little-kid, playing-in-my-backyard-since-I-was-seven-years-old dream on the line—and you need to shut up!

Of course I didn’t say any of that. I nodded and said “Okay” and did my best to ignore her, and finally she started losing it. “Sir! Sir! Stop the test! Stop it! You cannot do this!” Finally, Bob Gibson heard us and came over and asked what was going on. “He’s not relaxing his eyes,” she complained. “He’s not complying with the test protocol.”

Bob stopped the test and took me into his office. He said, “Mike, what have you got the rest of the week? Why don’t you come by my office first thing Thursday morning and I’ll administer your test myself.” He could tell I was frazzled, and he wanted to give me the chance to take the test when I was fresh and my eyes were relaxed. I scheduled a new appointment for Thursday and walked out, feeling pretty upset about the whole thing.

Wednesday I had my second selection committee interview. John Young was back at the head of the table again, but there were several new faces as well. I did okay and I could tell they liked me, but there were still a million reasons why I wouldn’t get it: I was up against a completely different group of candidates than last time, they might have hired a better robotics guy the year before, and so on. Also, I could still fail the eye exam and none of it would matter.

Thursday morning came. I showed up at Bob Gibson’s office. Walking in, I felt surprisingly calm, at peace. I’d done everything in my power to make myself eligible for the job, and at that point there was nothing else left to do. Whether I passed the eye exam or not, I’d always be able to say that I gave it my best.

That said, I really wanted to pass.

Bob opened the door, asked me to come in, and said, “You know what, Mike? If you relax and think positive, I’m sure you’ll do just fine.” He sat me in the chair at the Landolt C machine and started to administer the test. I took a deep breath and went for it. When I finished Bob showed me the results. He said, “Congratulations, Mike. You did it.”

I sat there stunned. I couldn’t believe it. I looked up at Bob with tears in my myopic-but-now-qualified eyes and said, “I passed? I can call my wife and tell her I passed?”

He nodded. I think he thought I was going to kiss him.

It had seemed so impossible, so crazy, that I would pull this off, but it worked. It worked. It was a miracle. I felt a relief even greater than the relief I felt after passing my qualifying exam. Because passing a qualifying exam falls in the realm of what’s possible. Getting your eyes to see better than they normally see is close to impossible. It was proof that no obstacle in life is too great to overcome.

The next day I went by Rainer Effenhauser’s office for the results of my other tests. “Everything came back okay,” he said. “Now leave. Get out of here before anybody has a chance to find anything wrong with you.”

I went home to Atlanta and I waited. At that point there was nothing left to do but think positive thoughts, so I concentrated on getting settled in at Georgia Tech. Being a professor gave me the flexibility to spend more time with the kids. Gabby was starting preschool and I picked her up and dropped her off most days. I took Daniel for walks in his stroller. I made breakfast in the morning and read them stories at night. I missed Houston, but in some ways it was nice not to be in the thick of it while I was waiting. I could keep my expectations in check and not obsess over everything. It gave me a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bond with my kids, an experience I would not trade for anything.

By January I knew I’d made the second-to-last cut. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management started my background check. They call everybody: your family, your coworkers, your kindergarten teacher. No stone is left unturned.

During my interview week I’d gotten to know Mark Kelly. Mark was a Navy pilot, and while we were waiting he and the other Navy applicants had put together this e-mail list to share information about the selection process. Mark was kind enough to put me on it. It was gossip, rumors, speculation. We were all trying to read the tea leaves, desperate for every scrap of information we could get.

April 19 rolled around. It was a Friday. An e-mail popped up from a naval test-flight engineer. She had called Houston to check on something and she’d been told that the calls, good or bad, were going out Monday morning. The second I read that e-mail, I shut down my computer, left my office, and went for a walk. I couldn’t sit still. I must have walked the whole afternoon, my mind racing.

It was all I could do to get through that weekend in one piece. I puttered around the house, tried to keep myself occupied, but mostly I obsessed over this call. I was thirty-three years old. For most of that time, the answer to the biggest question in my life had always been “Maybe.” On Monday morning it was either going to be “Yes” or it was going to be “No,” and either way my whole life would never be the same. Sunday night I went to put Daniel to bed. He’d just turned nine months old, and I can remember looking down at him and saying, “Tomorrow we’re going to find out if your daddy is an astronaut.”

I took Monday morning off from work. If it was bad news, I didn’t want to be crying at my desk at the office. I wanted to be home and ready for the call when it came. So naturally I was on the toilet when the phone rang. Carola came to the door and said, “Mike, it’s a guy from NASA.”

I ran out, and grabbed the phone. “Hello?”

“Mike? This is Dave Leestma from the Johnson Space Center. How are you doing today?”

I said, “Dave, I don’t know. You tell me.”

He laughed. “Well, I think you’re going to be pretty good because we want you to become an astronaut, and we hope you’re still interested in coming.”

I said, “Yes! And in case you didn’t hear me: Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

I was screaming into the phone. Carola started screaming, too. Then Daniel started crying. I think Gabby was confused. When I hung up I still didn’t think it was real. I had this panic that maybe they’d called the wrong Mike Massimino. I picked up the phone and called them right back. Duane Ross answered.

“Yeah?”

“This is Mike Massimino again. I just wanted to double-check that you guys made the right call.”

“Yeah. Don’t worry. We did.”