Five Astronauts Touch Down at Columbia Engineering

Nov 19 2014 | By Jesse Adams | Photo: Timothy Lee Photographers

Floating silently in space, 347 miles above sea level, NASA astronaut Mike Massimino BS’84 struggled to focus fully on the task at hand. Immediately before him was instrumentation of the Hubble Space Telescope; everywhere else, infinite vastness, but for the stunning blue orb that he and his crewmates called home.

(L to R) Professor Mike Massimino BS’84, Michael T. Good, Dean Mary C. Boyce, Megan McArthur, Gregory C. Johnson, and Scott “Scooter” Altman

“My first reaction seeing the Earth was to turn my head away,” said Massimino, now a professor of professional practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Engineering School. “This was too beautiful, humans weren’t meant to see this. And then I changed my mind.”

He couldn’t gaze for too long, though—space walks can get grueling, and he faced an unexpected challenge.

“I started tearing up and, if you don’t know, moisture is really bad in a space helmet!” Massimino said. “I thought, ‘if you were in heaven this is what the view would be.’ Our planet is a paradise that’s beautiful beyond words.”

Massimino and four fellow astronauts from STS-125, the record-setting final Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission, convened Nov. 13 at Columbia’s Rennert Hall for a special look back at their incredible journey as the Hubble approaches its 25th birthday in space and Columbia Engineering celebrates 150 years. To a packed room of more than 300 students, the crew narrated compelling footage from their flight and reflected candidly on their experience.

In May 2009, the astronauts blasted into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis to upgrade the Hubble, including the first-ever in-place repair of its science instruments. A series of five space walks, spanning an unprecedented 36 hours and 56 minutes, painstakingly optimized the space telescope one last time—overcoming challenges including frozen bolts, stripped screws, and stuck handrails to achieve all mission objectives. The refurbished Hubble, still going strong, now includes four new or enhanced scientific instruments, replacement batteries, new gyroscopes, and a new computer.

“We are very close,” said Massimino. “After years of training and a couple of weeks in space, we are now a band of brothers and sisters. We know each other very well, we’re really like a family.”

Captain Scott “Scooter” Altman was a veteran of three previous space flights and, as his crewmates gleefully revealed, not only the winner of a pancake eating contest (36 in 30 minutes) but the pilot who flew all of Tom Cruise’s F-15 flights filmed in Top Gun.

“I was scared about getting the gyros on because the cameras needed them and I didn’t want to be the team that killed Hubble,” he deadpanned. But, in the end, “We let go of Hubble at the apex of its abilities, and it was an incredible moment to see it for the last time, and to have been part of this continuing voyage of discovery.”

Megan McArthur, the oceanographer, robotics expert, and ascent and entry flight engineer who operated the Atlantis’ robotic arm to clamp the Hubble, reminisced on what the mission meant.

“It’s a thrill to get the call to go up and be part of the crew that saves the Hubble,” she said. “You are there representing all the people that make the science happen.”

Gregory C. Johnson served as pilot of the mission. He is not to be confused with Gregory H. Johnson BS’85, his classmate in the 1998 NASA Group, who served as ascent/reentry capsule communicator (CAPCOM) for the STS-125 mission.

“Seeing the Nile and the Amazon, no vegetation versus so much, made me much more environmentally conscious,” Gregory C. Johnson said, to roaring applause. “Watching the stars is probably the most memorable part, because without the atmosphere you see at least 50 times the amount of them.”

After describing the unique privilege of watching an entire Kenyan thunderstorm from orbit, mission specialist Michael T. Good offered sage advice.

“Study hard, dream big, and don’t be afraid to have a dream,” he said.

Massimino encouraged students not to let earthly bounds limit their ambitions.

“I made more memories in one week than in years doing anything else,” he said. “Follow your bliss.”

In introductory remarks, Dean Mary C. Boyce linked the astronauts’ amazing voyage to the long legacy of flight and space engineering at Columbia, including Electrical Engineering cofounders Professors Michael I. Pupin and Francis Bacon Crocker. Pupin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cofounder of the Department of Electrical Engineering and developer of telephony and X-Ray technologies, was a charter member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which became NASA, while motor expert Crocker developed one of the world’s first operable helicopters.