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Mike Massimino is Blessed by the Pope

Astronaut,Space Shuttle,New York City
Brynn Shaffer
July 4, 20224:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

With a fear of heights and a medical disqualification due to poor vision, it seemed like the odds were against Mike Massimino, whose childhood dream was to become an astronaut.

Born in 1962, Massimino grew up in New York City where he fell in love with space travel after watching Neil and Buzz walk on the lunar surface through his television set. Massimino wanted to follow in their footsteps.

After three unsuccessful applications, Massimino was accepted to NASA as an astronaut candidate in 1996 and would go on to fly as a mission specialist in 2002 and again in 2009, to perform maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Today, Massimino is a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, where he also serves as the faculty advisor for Columbia Space Initiative, a student space, technology, and outreach club.

We called him up for a chat.

Less than 700 people have been to space. While that number is growing, how does it feel being one of the few people who to do so?

I feel very fortunate.

Traveling into space was a wonderful opportunity for me, but you know, it was a job. I was an astronaut for 18 years at NASA…So it wasn’t just the experience of flying in space that I loved. It was also the training and the engineering and science that went into it and being a part of the astronaut office and camaraderie. It was a wonderful career. So the opportunity to fly in space is great, but there’s so much more to the job that I had.

What was it about seeing Neil Armstrong take those steps that just made you say ‘I want that to be me?'

For me, it was not just seeing that, but also learning about who Neil Armstrong was and what he did. I was little, you know, I was six years old when this was going on back in 1968. There was just so much attention given to that mission [Apollo 11]. And I must have been in an impressionable age or something because it really hit home with me. I wanted to grow up to be like Neil Armstrong.

I wanted to be one of those guys who dedicated their lives to exploration.

You got rejected from NASA three times. Did you ever doubt your dreams?

Oh yeah, I mean I still can’t believe it happened. But yeah, I constantly thought "is this going to work out?" There was no guarantee of it, I knew there were thousands and thousands of people who wanted the job and only a few spots available. The third time I got rejected, I was actually medically disqualified from my eyesight and I went through vision training to improve my vision. but I was able to overcome that and at least get a chance to be considered again.

But even after going through all of it, I still knew that it was going to be a long shot, just the odds are stacked against you. But what I try to keep in mind is that the odds may be against you, but it’s not impossible. Anything is possible as long as you try.

I think we all owe ourselves the chance to achieve our dreams.

Did your friends and family have concerns for you, specifically regarding safety?

Certainly. I was selected in 1996 by NASA, and the first shuttle accident [Challenger] occurred in 1986, 10 years earlier, but it was still fresh in everyone’s mind. When I was first selected, no one ever discouraged me from it.

I think that they were really proud of me. Though I do think people were worried. When I was actually assigned my first flight, you’re allowed to take some small items. It’s called your personal preference kit. So I reached out to my family and said, "hey, would you like me to fly something for you?"

And just about everything that came in was a religious artifact because they were afraid I was going to get killed. I got Christopher medals, I got Our Lady of Loreto, something about Padre Pio, I got a special blessing from the Pope, believe it or not. I got a baby Jesus from a nativity set in Italy.

They were all worried about me getting killed.

What is your favorite memory from space?

My favorite memory in space was the spacewalks, particularly, those moments where I was able to view our planet. Seeing the Earth and how beautiful it was from up there during the spacewalks in your own little spacesuit, in your own little spaceship really is what the spacesuit is, being able to look anywhere, looking at the stars, looking down at the planet, I just thought, ‘this is a view from heaven.’

And it changed the way I think of our planet.

I do think we’re living in an absolute paradise. I can’t imagine any place being more beautiful than planet Earth. I think we’re extremely lucky to be here. And we need to appreciate it and take care of it. It’s also very fragile, you can see the thinness of the atmosphere.

The other thing that set in at those moments, during the spacewalks, when I did have a chance to look at our planet was, ‘that’s a place we all share.’ There was one point during one of my spacewalks where I looked down and I realized that’s home. That’s where everything is. That’s where every place I’ve ever been, everything I’ve ever known. Anybody that we know of that’s ever lived has lived there. That’s where my children and grandchildren, whoever comes after me, that’s where they're going to be. This is home. I think of home as Earth.

As a kid, my home was Franklin Square, and as I got older, I was a New Yorker. And then when I was an astronaut, I think I identified more as an American as I traveled around the world. But of all those things, I now think of myself more as a citizen of the Earth, which is a place no matter where you’re from.

We all share that same place.

What was it like returning to Earth?

Space requires a lot of training and we were challenged on how to work together, but it’s more orderly. Even when you make mistakes, there are checklists to help you and a control team to help you. I think life on Earth is generally a lot tougher…When I got home from my second flight, one of the first things I noticed was there were shingles missing from the roof in our garage.

I asked my wife what happened and she said we had a storm and some of the shingles and I said, you know, ‘I gotta call the guy,’ and she’s like, ‘well, guess what, you’re the guy.’ So the next day I was on the phone with the insurance company and a roofer figuring out what I needed to fix.

Earth is not easy.

Do you think space should be widely accessible? Do you think efforts from the private sector to open space to the broader community delegitimizes the formal training process of becoming a NASA astronaut?

I think that greater access is better.

In order to become a NASA astronaut, you were pretty much dedicating your life to doing that. And NASA was going to tell you pretty much what you were going to do. But I think what this [space tourism] opens up opportunities for people who have been successful in business, not in just making lots of money, but also scientists who have been entrepreneurs and have made some great discoveries and breakthroughs can now go to space and try some of these ideas that they have out in the zero-gravity environment, I think it’s great for research and for opportunities for people and for people who just want to go out there and experience it.

I do think though we probably need to make a distinction.

When I was selected by NASA, I was selected as an astronaut candidate, as are all astronauts when they’re first selected. And as you go through the years of training, and as you’re given the title, the job title as ‘astronaut’ before you fly into space. So for me, there are things about being an astronaut that are important, but that doesn't necessarily mean you float in a spaceship. It’s understanding the job and what it comes with. It was a job title. It was an occupation. I think now in some cases, it’s more of an experience.

So I think that will all settle out and there’ll be clarity…but I think the more people that get a chance to go, the better.

If you were asked to fly on SpaceX’s upcoming Dragon or Starship missions, would you?

Yeah, I would. But I’m not paying $50 million to do it. I don’t have that much. I probably wouldn’t pay anything. I’ll pay for my airfare though…but certainly, if I had a chance to go to space again, I would love that.

What are your favorite depictions of space in film and TV?

As long as the astronaut is cool, I’m happy. I think Ryan Gosling was a cool astronaut as Neil Armstrong. I think George Clooney was a cool astronaut. I think Matt Damon portrayed a very cool astronaut…I think we need to remember that a lot of these movies are make-believe, so as long as the astronaut is cool, I’m happy with it.

Supercluster previously hosted Massimino and 'For All Mankind' star Joel Kinnaman for a fascinating conversation on being a real-life astronaut and playing one on television.

Brynn Shaffer
July 4, 20224:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)