The Sensitive Explorer

Forty years ago Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar module onto the moon’s surface. His words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” will be forever recognized as symbolic of that amazing first moment of human imprint on another world. 

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s crewmate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin never took a photograph of him actually on the moon. That is an amazing anomaly even for that time, before photography was ubiquitous as it is today. Aldrin composed many interesting photos, including his own shoe print in the lunar dust. But because getting a shot of Armstrong was not on the checklist and time was so tight, Aldrin says, he just missed it.

Four decades later, Michael J. Massimino’s May 2009 spaceflight marked the 126th mission of the Space Shuttle program, which began in 1981, nine years after the Apollo program ended. And while Aldrin never turned the camera on Armstrong, cameras were pointed continually at mission specialist Massimino. Very little of a manned mission goes undocumented now. Whether it’s successful or not, the world is always watching.

On this mission to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), all the normal still and video photography equipment rode along on the space shuttle Atlantis, as did an extra large IMAX camera. The IMAX film documenting the flight and the crew’s repair of the HST is expected to open in the spring of 2010 and will show not only the mission’s ultimate success but also the rarely publicized glitches, such as when a handle that needed to be removed during one phase of the repair refused to budge because of a stuck bolt.

Massimino, known to his million-plus Twitter followers as “Astro Mike,” was the astronaut who had to implement a solution to that problem. Vision contributor Dan Cloer spoke with him about this and other aspects of his historic journey following an August 2009 program in Hollywood, California, hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in honor of the Atlantis STS-125 crew’s work.


DC What impact do you hope the Hubble film will have?

MM Working with the IMAX people was just wonderful. I am always interested in ways to help people learn more about the space program and to experience, in a way, what we get to experience. This movie will tell the story of the Hubble Space Telescope and our mission, and it should provide some of that experience. I think it will be great.

DC In speaking with you and the other astronauts I was struck by your focus, teamwork, camaraderie, and of course the success it has brought.

MM The thing that makes it an interesting place to work and gives it the success it has, is that people do this type of work because they really love it. Folks involved in it are not chasing money; the reason they’re here is an interest in exploration, and they see the space program as something important. That unifies everyone who works in it. We are all trying to accomplish the same goal. That’s pretty unique.

If you’re doing something that you think is very important, you’re going to approach it as more than just a job. That’s the best recipe for success. Most people in this business see it as a vocation or a calling. Most everyone has a pride in working here and getting people off the planet and exploring.

As to our camaraderie, we get to select people we think will fit in well. We do have a say in who gets to be an astronaut. When you’re doing something important that’s hard and has a danger element involved, it really requires people to cooperate and to pull together. Your individualism has to move aside, because you know that’s necessary to succeed.

DC After your presentation in Hollywood, many in the audience were very impressed with the crew’s enthusiasm and willingness to share the experience on an emotional, heart-to-heart level. This is something that was not initially expected. We all have the sense of an astronaut as a rather stoic, “right stuff” kind of personality. The early astronauts were a rather narrow cross section, honed as military test pilots but not as public communicators. What is “the right stuff” for an astronaut today?

MM When we think of the original seven astronauts, we need to remember that they were all from similar backgrounds, including being active-duty military test pilots. We still have guys and gals from that background, but we also now have much more variation because of the different jobs that need to be done. I do not know the exact statistics, but we are about half and half military and civilian.

So now you have a wider range of people. On our flight, for instance, Megan [McArthur] was an oceanographer, Drew [Andrew Freustel] was a geologist, I’m an engineer, John [Grunsfeld] is an astronomer, and all of us are civilians. The other three guys had the military background.

Right now I think the right stuff for an astronaut is someone who is interested in exploration, who enjoys actually doing the work as opposed to just observing; someone who is not satisfied reading about it but wants to touch it. I think that is what we all have in common. It is also having a strong sense of teamwork and being able to get along with people. Back then, if the right stuff was the steely-eyed-test-pilot kind of guy, now I think it is more like the sensitive explorer.

DC But you still need the steely-eyed guys to “drive the bus to work.”

MM Yes, but even those guys are more sensitive than they were, because they have to work with us. You can’t be too over-the-top. That’s what I was getting at with the teamwork idea: we have various kinds of backgrounds, but whatever the background, we must get along with everybody else in order to be successful.

DC You used the word traumatized to express your feelings when things weren’t going as planned in the Hubble repair. Because the mission subtext was to fix the space telescope and reveal “the secrets of the universe,” failing at your task would have been a great disappointment. You didn’t want to go down in the books as the one who closed our eyes to the universe.

MM Yes, the textbooks might have read, “We would know if there was life on other planets except for Massimino, whose children are Gabby and Daniel, and they go to such and such a school. . . .” Know what I mean?

DC Sure, but this was a team effort. How were you the right person at the right time for that situation? How did the repair play out?

MM For some reason that task ended up on my plate, and how that happened I have no idea. It was just the way things worked out. So I was feeling pretty bad at the time, but looking back we were lucky the way things happened.

The way they match us up for a spacewalk, unless there is some other compelling reason, is to put a veteran with a new guy. John and I were going to be split up for sure, but who Drew and Mike [Michael Good] would work with was up for grabs, a flip of the coin. There is no scientific way to form the pair. In the end, Mike had some other duties so he was paired with me, and Drew was teamed with John. I had trained with Drew and we had become good friends over the last couple of years, so we thought that it would have been really cool to spacewalk together.

In retrospect, however, because Drew and I worked together so well—we had practiced that repair task together for hours and hours at a replica of the work site across the hall from the office—it was actually better for him to be on the inside guiding me through the task when the problems arose.

None of the tools and solutions they were coming up with . . . were going to work. I was thinking, ‘We’re dead. It’s over. We’ve failed.’” 

Michael Massimino

At one point, for example, I remember going back toward the airlock, and I looked up at Drew in the window. I was just feeling horrible. I kept saying, “This cannot be happening. It’s impossible that this is happening right now!” I’m thinking, “From a religious standpoint, or karma, or the future of the universe, or whatever it is, this has to work.” Since I was the man on the spot—not that the problem was my fault—I felt responsible that this thing wasn’t working. What could we do to fix it? None of the tools and solutions they were coming up with (before they finally mentioned pulling the handle off) were going to work. I was thinking, “We’re dead. It’s over. We’ve failed.”

And it was dark out; we were over the nighttime of the Earth. So it was depressing and scary and just added to the whole mood. It wasn’t bright and sunny over California; it was dark over Abu Dhabi or wherever we were. I didn’t want to look or say anything to anybody, but when I drifted up toward the front of the cargo bay to get some tools, I saw Drew in the cabin. Everything was dark, but his little head was lit up because the lights were on in the cabin, and he was giving me a smile and a big thumbs-up. He didn’t want to say anything that people would hear, so we were just lip reading.

I’m mouthing a lot of bad things and he just looks down and basically says, “What are you worried about? Everything is going to be fine.” That was very meaningful to me—having Drew’s support was very important. That was one fortunate way that things aligned.

The other was that the CapCom [the capsule communicator at the Johnson Space Center in Houston] was [fellow astronaut] Dan Burbank, who is very good at fixing things. His father was an industrial arts teacher and Dan can do just about anything. He’s one of my best friends in the astronaut office. So he was explaining the way we were going to fix this thing with a very positive attitude.

If we had not had one of those elements in place, the way everyone was situated and how those tasks fell out like that, I don’t think we would have got that job done that day. We never could have planned that ahead of time.

DC This episode seems to make a case for sending people into space. As an engineer working on the human-machine interface, do you think that machines will ever be able to create a solution to an unforeseen problem?

MM The flexibility and adaptability to make changes on the fly is what humans bring; it’s why astronauts are important. It’s also important not to get too down while doing the job. The other thing I was thinking about out there was not to make the situation worse. The tools can easily float away; they’re not on tethers and they just friction-fit in the case. So as bad as things were, I could have made them even harder for us.

When Hubble was first canceled, we were looking at a robotic mission. I was involved in trying to make an unmanned mission to do this fix. It was a very interesting, creative and enjoyable project, but in the end it was going to be too expensive to even attempt and it would not have been able to repair most of what we were sent to do. So in hindsight, even the little adaptive things that humans do would have been impossible. A robot mission here would not have been successful.

The real need is to have humans working with machines. In our case, we have the robot arm, which is more like a crane; it does automatic sequences. But it’s really a machine helping the astronaut do his job during the spacewalk. There is a role for each, not just man or machine but both.

DC You have said that seeing the Earth from space is like the difference between looking into an aquarium and scuba diving: looking in as opposed to being in. It’s hard to imagine being in space and not looking back at the Earth, yet you were hesitant to take that first look.

MM My first look at the Earth was during my second spacewalk on my first flight in 2002. I was too busy on my first spacewalk to even pause for a look; the tasks were 100 percent engaging. But on the second one there were some relaxed moments, and I was more relaxed. It seemed okay to take the reward of looking around a little bit.

This was an earlier Hubble repair mission and I was in a foot restraint, so I’m just standing out there. We had just put in the advanced camera for surveys, which is one of the instruments we repaired again on this mission—it takes the cool pictures that “unlock the secrets of the universe” and fill the calendars, and people “ooh” and “aah.” So I was waiting by the storage bin for the old instrument that we had removed, and I had a couple of minutes. More thumbs-up in the cabin, and we were just coming up on the sunlit area of Africa for a day pass. I could see the ocean, and it was just beautiful; so I said this is the time I am really going to take a look.

I was thinking at that moment, ‘Humans are not supposed to see this. This is some sort of secret that is beyond our comprehension. God doesn’t want anyone to see this. Don’t look!’” 

Michael Massimino

But after a short glance I had to turn away. I couldn’t even bear to look, because I was thinking at that moment, “Humans are not supposed to see this. This is some sort of secret that is beyond our comprehension. God doesn’t want anyone to see this. Don’t look!” That was my first reaction. It was just too beautiful, like this little secret—big secret—I was looking at.

DC Why would God not want us to see this?

MM I have no idea! This was just going through my head. It was so beautiful and so unique and such a fantastic perspective; I felt that it was beyond what we were supposed to be looking at. It was kind of like the Indiana Jones movie—when the guy looks into the ark and turns to dust? It was like that; “This is so beautiful that you are going to turn to dust!”

Then when I did look the second time I just started tearing up. It was getting a little emotional out there and I was getting worried that this was going to cause trouble, because water inside your spacesuit is not good. It can short something out; water can mix with the anti-fog on the visor and get loose and cause eye irritation. And I didn’t need any of these problems, and I didn’t want to admit that the way I got the water was because I was crying like a little schoolgirl. That’s when “the right stuff” works against you! Then the tough guys make fun of you.

So I got myself under control and looked for the third time. People can say “awesome” or whatever, but there are no words to describe this thing. My thoughts were, “If you were in heaven, this must be the view.” But then the thought that replaced that was, “This is so beautiful, this must be what heaven looks like.” I do not consider myself to be an overly religious person. I am a religious person, but I do not necessarily relate everything to religious terms. So it was not like this was a big religious moment, but I could think of no other description other than as “heaven.”

While I was out there my other thought was, “How could there be another place this beautiful?” If you think about what Hubble does, it discovers how huge the universe is and all these other solar systems and all these planets—billions of planets potentially out there. And you would think, intellectually, that somewhere there is another place where there is life. I don’t think we’ve found any evidence of that, and there is no evidence (that I would believe) that we have been visited by other people; if there were space visitors, I don’t think they’d go to the middle of South Dakota; they’d go to New York or L.A. to see a show. If you’re that smart to travel here, aren’t you going to see something—take in a movie, at least?

After viewing the Earth, I didn’t think there could be another place as beautiful as our planet. It’s something you want to share but just can’t completely.

DC In a conversation at the academy, someone asked you to describe the most profound thing that you have learned from your experience. You answered, “The Earth is a planet.” You described it as a “paradise in the middle of chaos.” What did you mean?

MM That was another thing that hit me. This was on my first spacewalk, and I remember looking over my shoulder and seeing the moon very clearly. You see stars and the blackness of space out there, and you’re zipping around this Earth pretty quick. And you look out and then back and your perceptions are changed.

On my first flight Duane “Digger” Carey, the pilot, was a rookie with me; we went through astronaut training together. As pilot, he doesn’t get to do any spacewalks, so he told me that he wanted to hear everything about it when I came back in—“I want to hear everything: descriptions, details—explain everything perfectly right away,” he said. So sure enough, when I come in, Digger takes my helmet off and puts it to the side. He’s staring right at me and says, “What was it like?” He’s right in my face, and I’m stuck in this spacesuit, and all I can answer is “The Earth is a planet.”

He says, “What have you been smoking inside your spacesuit?” But that was my revelation! It is strange what goes through your mind out there. Of course, I learned that the Earth was a planet when I was a little kid; “Every good mother does fine” or “My very educated mother just gave me nine pizza pies,” whatever the planet saying is. Sure, I knew that. But when you truly see it, you realize that it is not this two-dimensional home we think it is.

Right now we are on Earth. I look out my office window, and I have a kind of two-dimensional relationship with this place. It’s home, where you live; you go places, take your kids to a baseball game, make dinner, go to the store, maybe go on an airplane ride once in a while, go running or hiking, go to your house, hang out, or whatever you do. Your interaction with the Earth is this 2D, safe-haven, moving-around, driving-around relationship. That’s how I thought of it.

When I saw it from space, all of a sudden what hit me was “No, that’s not it, man! We’re not protected; we’re in the middle of all this chaos.” We’re out here in the middle of all these other things zipping around really fast; the sun’s right there, the moon’s over there, the other planets are out there, stars and galaxies—and the Earth is part of that. It’s a safe place to live, but it is whipping around in all the rest of the stuff in the universe.

DC Down here we still debate the influence of human behavior on the planet. Looking back from space, do you have this debate?

MM You can see deforestation and lakebeds drying up. You can see how thin the atmosphere is—that’s kind of a classic astronaut line: thin and fragile and blah blah blah blah. Some astronauts really get into global change, but to me it was just “This is unbelievably beautiful—such a cool thing to look at.” We definitely have an impact, and there is definitely fragility, and the Earth is a pretty awesome place to live.

As a father . . . you always want to make things nice for the children. . . . And that’s what I thought when I saw the Earth: The Father made the house nice! Someone took really good care of us. We should not wreck the place as though it’s a frat house on a Saturday night!” 

Michael Massimino

One thing that came across my mind as a father (I have two kids, 14 and 16) has a somewhat religious aspect to it. With kids yourself you know the drill: you always want to make things nice for the children, particularly when they’re little. Everything has got to be perfect—build a nice tree house, and all this other stuff. And we drive ourselves crazy because, of course, they don’t care!

And the father is always to blame. I forgot to ask the movie people, “Why is the father always the bad guy?” But the father always tries to make the house nice. And that’s what I thought when I saw the Earth: The Father made the house nice! Someone took really good care of us. We should not wreck the place as though it’s a frat house on a Saturday night!

From whatever viewpoint—religious, or that the place just happens to be here—we have this really nice house and we should not wreck it. If you do believe in God, and he’s a father looking out for us, he gave us a really nice place. Some of the kids are taking care of it, and some kids are treating it like a frat house.

If you would want to look at it from a religious viewpoint, you could say God really loves us, because, you know, as a father I really love my kids and I want my kids to have a nice place. God really gave us a nice place.

DC Einstein said that religion without science is blind and science without religion is lame. Does that ring true in your experience?

What we are trying to find out through our science and with the Hubble is who are we and what are we in this whole universe? How did it all form, and where did we come from?” 

Michael Massimino

MM It’s funny the things you think at these moments in your life when you have the opportunity to see how everything melds together. I agree with that. What we are trying to find out through our science and with the Hubble is Who are we and what are we in this whole universe? How did it all form, and where did we come from? We really don’t know that. The Bible tells us some religious things and science other things, but we really don’t have a clue about what all this is made out of; dark matter and energy—we don’t even recognize what it is, what the elements that make up most of the universe are. People have curious questions that science tries to answer, but it also has to be open to ways of creating out there that we don’t yet understand.

The space program is for exploration and also for increasing our understanding. In 500 years we might be a lot closer, but right now we don’t know how we fit in. We can build skyscrapers and drive around in fancy cars, but we still don’t really know what we are doing.