‘Spaceman’ Mike Massimino ’84 Reflects on Epic Journey from Long Island to Earth Orbit

Mike Massimino signs a copy of his memoir for a fan.
—Photo by Timothy Lee Photographers

“This is something I’m not supposed to see,” thought NASA astronaut Mike Massimino BS’84, on a spacewalk orbiting 347 miles above the Earth’s surface, gazing at the astonishingly blue vista below. “This is a secret. I’m not supposed to be here.”

But he was there on assignment, sent up to help maintain and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He had a mission to complete. With one more look at the “fragile, beautiful perfection” stretching beneath him, he got back to work.

The heroic space traveler, distinguished professor of professional practice at Columbia Engineering, and now New York Times bestselling author touched down at Columbia’s Teachers College on November 30 amidst an international tour for his new memoir, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. He spoke of his remarkable journey, read passages from the book, shared some NASA video highlights, and bantered with a rapt crowd of students, faculty, and space devotees.

Growing up in Franklin Square, Long Island, six-year-old Massimino was spellbound by the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong’s historic “small step for man,” but had largely abandoned his dream of going to space by the time he came to Columbia to study industrial engineering. Still, he never lost his passion, and decided to take his chances after he had researched human operator control of space robotics systems at MIT and gotten the education necessary to be eligible for NASA. He was rejected three times, informed that his eyesight would never be good enough, and continued his work with human-machine systems and interfaces. Then, he finally got in on his fourth try, after dogged efforts to improve his vision. 

“No matter how unlikely or improbable, there’s always a chance if you try,” said Massimino, who had worked as a research engineer with NASA, the German Space Center, and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace. “The only way you truly have no chance is if you give up.”

After joining NASA in 1996, he underwent rigorous training—including simulated spacewalks in an enormous swimming pool—and ultimately served on two Space Shuttle missions servicing the Hubble telescope. On STS-109 in 2002, aboard the Columbia, and STS-125 in 2009, aboard the Atlantis, he spent some 571 hours in space, 30 hours and 4 minutes of which were on spacewalks.

On his last STS-125 spacewalk, Massimino’s power tool stripped the final screw connecting a handrail he had to remove from the Hubble to effect repairs. After much discussion with ground control, he was told to yank on the rail the old-fashioned way and snap it off by hand. The solution was less obvious than it might seem, as it was important to minimize the risk of creating dangerous space debris.

“You have to be really deliberate in space,” said Massimino, who carefully broke off the handle without any debris, and successfully completed the repairs. “There’s no atmospheric resistance, and you don’t want to spin out.”

Drawing lessons for the student audience from his own experience, Massimino concluded, “You can’t control the outcome, only the effort.”

Back on Earth, Massimino retired from NASA in 2009, returning to Morningside Heights to join Columbia Engineering’s Mechanical Engineering department and inspire the next generation. He heads up Columbia’s ongoing Extreme Engineering lecture series, serves as a senior advisor to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, has a recurring role on TV’s The Big Bang Theory, and is a much sought-after speaker and ambassador for STEM education around the world.

-by Jesse Adams

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