Professor Mike Massimino Hosts New Series The Planets on Science Channel

Former astronaut Mike Massimino, who is host of the Science Channel's new series The Planets, has made two spaceflights and four spacewalks.

Are extraterrestrials hiding in Saturn’s moons? Does the violent landscape of Venus offer a peek at Earth’s own future?

Mike Massimino BS’84, a professor of professional practice in mechanical engineering, is on the hunt to find out. Already an astronaut, author, and the first person to tweet from space, Massimino adds another line to his CV with his new gig hosting The Planets, an eight-part series that just debuted on Science Channel. In hour-long episodes airing Tuesday nights, Massimino draws on his extensive NASA experience—including two spaceflights and four spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope—to explore alien worlds from our cosmic near neighbors to exoplanets orbiting distant stars.

It’s Massimino’s second hosting gig for Science Channel. This past August, he also anchored its extensive coverage of the great American eclipse, when for the first time in 99 years a total solar eclipse spanned the continental U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina. He broadcast live from Charleston, one of the last places on land to witness the historic phenomenon.

But it’s far from his only television appearance. In addition to teaching at Columbia and advising the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, “Astro Mike” has become a familiar presence on TV, from morning talk shows to a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory. We caught up with Massimino to discuss The Planets, the eclipse, and the next big thing in space exploration:

Q: What do you think made the August 21 eclipse so special? Have you ever seen so much public excitement over such an event?

A: I was at NASA in 1998 when John Glenn went up, which was a very big event, and have been part of some big shuttle launches, but I’d never seen anything like that level of interest. Part of it was that it truly was a great American eclipse, from coast to coast, and also that in this day and age of social media there was buzz for coming together and looking up to the skies. It was refreshing.

Q: Scientists were excited about the unique opportunity the eclipse afforded to conduct studies on the sun’s corona. Social media also played a helpful role in collecting that data, right?

A: Eclipses are the best time to study the corona, the solar activity that’s like the sun’s atmosphere, because it’s usually too bright to see and study. The moon fits right over the sun—which is about 400 times bigger and 400 times further from the Earth—and blocks it out perfectly, it’s quite a coincidence. The key for scientists is continuous viewing, so social media was used [by various institutions] to coordinate observation from balloons, high-altitude jets, and lots of telescopes to string together all of those glimpses and help understand how the sun behaves.

Q: How did you get involved with The Planets TV show?

A: I had done various projects with Science Channel and Discovery and they wanted to produce The Planets series and a special on the eclipse. We shot in a studio on the east side of midtown Manhattan. It can be a lot of pressure but it was fun. Television work is always a team effort and I enjoyed doing the whole thing.

Q: What’s your favorite place featured on The Planets?

A: Probably the outer moons of Jupiter and Saturn. There are possibilities of water and some places that are counterintuitive, that are hotter or colder than they should be.

Q: The eclipse really became a pop culture moment. What do you think will be the next space sensation to capture the public imagination?

A: There’s always interest when we’re launching Americans into space from American soil, which should happen again in the next year or two. There are big stories like Cassini, which was sending back great stuff from Saturn. Private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are doing a lot and I think more big discoveries will be happening regularly. You never know.

-by Jesse Adams

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