Between 1996 and 2011, Mike Massimino fulfilled his childhood dream of being an astronaut. Like many of his generation, his dream began with the moon landing in 1969. That “One small step for man . . . ” is a deeply embedded memory to those who witnessed it. And for those of us now 50-somethings, as for Massimino, that early encounter with space exploration and technology became an unfinished canvas, full of potential, calling out for completion.
In Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, Massimino writes of that pivotal moment. “On that night I said to myself, Nothing else matters. This is it. This is who I want to be.” He continues, “Being an astronaut wasn’t just the coolest thing ever, it was the most important thing you could choose to do with your life. From that moment on, I became obsessed with space in the way that only a young boy can become obsessed.”
The “Unlikely” of its title is the theme of Massimino’s autobiography. This is an against-the-odds story. “A lot of people, when they meet me [and he is ubiquitous across YouTube and has a large following on Twitter], can’t believe I’ve been to space. They say I look like a guy who’d be working at a deli in Brooklyn, handing out cold cuts.”
And so he does. Massimino is personable, down-to-earth and—by all accounts—generous and true; the best everyman one imagines. He is Old World. His grandparents were immigrants from Italy, his father a farmer turned New York Fire Department inspector. From the blue-collar Franklin Square area of the Bronx, to Columbia University, jobs at Sperry and IBM, and finally to MIT for a PhD in mechanical engineering, Massimino achieved far above his expectations. How did he do it? Mostly in spite of himself, he says.
“There were times I felt completely overwhelmed,” he writes. “Going to space had been my dream for so long, sometimes I felt like it might still be a dream. . . . It’s called imposter syndrome, the fear that people are going to figure out that you don’t belong, that you don’t know what you’re doing.”
The motivation to keep going, he shows time and again, came from the encouragement of others. Family, neighbors, teammates, fellow students, professional colleagues and mentors: they all had a role in propelling him forward. His message from cover to cover is simple: if you are surrounded with good people, the sky is literally the limit. Just as Proverbs 18:24 suggests, “Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family” (The Message Bible).
It was that kind of relationship he had seen between his father and the first responders of the fire department; among his teammates when participating in sports and—especially—in the movies he was drawn to that featured astronauts. “The more and more astronauts I met, the more I realized that they were my favorite people of all time,” he writes. “I’d had this fantasy of what astronauts would be like from watching The Right Stuff, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. And it turned out that was the reality; if anything, reality exceeded my expectations, and every time I drove in to the Johnson Space Center [in Houston] I had a voice in the back of my head telling me: This is it. I want to be a part of this. I want this more than anything.”
Bounding hurdle after hurdle and getting up after each fall or setback was possible, he says, because others believed in him. “If you work hard and get help from good friends, together you can overcome almost any challenge, no matter how great,” Massimino writes. “And as I pursued my dream, long after I became an astronaut and even when I was floating by myself 350 miles above the Earth, it was a lesson I would return to again and again and again.”
After being accepted into NASA’s astronaut academy, Massimino trained for six years before his first flight in 2002. This was STS-109, the fourth Hubble telescope repair mission. Seven years later, following the crash of Columbia and the reworking of the shuttle system to improve safety, he flew again on the final visit to Hubble in 2009 on STS-125. In an interview with Massimino following that mission, I commented on the camaraderie that was so evident among the team of astronauts. He explained, “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.”
Massimino retired from NASA in 2014 and now teaches at his alma mater Columbia. He is back down to earth for good. Even so, he writes, we are all spacemen. “The Earth is a spaceship, and we’re all space travelers.” Likewise, a lesson he takes from the Columbia losses also applies to each of us: “You only have one life,” writes Massimino. “You have to spend it doing something that matters.”
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