NEW ORLEANS – It’s apparently not enough that Mike Massimino is a former NASA astronaut, a best-selling author and an engineering professor. He’s also raring to go back into space, this time as a tourist.
In an hourlong interview with GeekWire at the Collision media and technology conference in New Orleans last week, the 54-year-old Massimino talked about his yen for spaceflight as well as his views on commercial space exploration and the legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope, which he helped repair on two different space shuttle missions.
Massimino, a down-to-earth New Yorker, started with his observations on the state of the commercial space race. He said the students in his classes at Columbia University are deeply enthused over the idea of working at any one of several space companies.
“The top students in the country want to go to work for these places,” he said. “I’m talking about SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic. The cool thing about them is that they’re run by these entrepreneurs, who are some of the best entrepreneurs of our time: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, for example. They’re interested in space travel – they see that as being the future.”
Massimino is happily surprised at how much commercial space ventures have achieved. “I always wondered if the technology was ready to be sort of handed over – or was it just too expensive or too complicated for any company to do – to actually launch things, and particularly people,” he said. “I was afraid that it might be a little early and that it might not work, but they have had some amazing accomplishments.”
He cited recent achievements such as SpaceX’s launch and landing of its Falcon 9 booster as strong examples. And he wondered how many people realize the magnitude of the accomplishments.
“It’s not easy getting off the planet,” he says. “People talk about it like they’re going around the corner … ‘Oh, we’re going to go to here and then we’re going to pick this up and then we’re going to sell you this’… You know, our country, which went to the moon, we have not launched astronauts into space [from U.S. soil] since 2011. It’s not just that you get the keys to the car and go.”
Massimino said astronauts need to have confidence in the organization and team that puts them into space – and brings them back to Earth.
“Even when I was space, floating above the planet, I remember looking down and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I’m pretty far away from home.’ Traveling really fast around the planet, it was like ‘I gotta get back there.’ You know, there’s a lot of possibilities about where you might end up,” he said. “The thought went through my mind after my spacewalk, when I was looking back at the planet, ‘I’m glad someone smarter than me is figuring out how to get [us] home.'”
Looking forward to being a tourist
Massimino says he would love to go back into space, as long as he’s off duty.
“I really want to go as a tourist someday. I want to go and I want to complain. I want to complain about the drinks, I want to complain about everything,” Massimino said with a grin.
“When you’re flying in space as an astronaut, you think, ‘I’m going to get to go into space,’ but really you have like a million things to worry about. You gotta fly the spaceship, you gotta make sure everything’s working, and there’s a lot on your mind,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility … and stress and the danger and all that. Then there’s the euphoria of being there, being able to travel and look at the window and experience all of it, which outweighs anything you have to do to get there.”
Massimino was happy to contrast that experience with what he thinks space tourism could be like.
“I think going as a tourist would be the way to go,” he said wistfully. “You just hang out. You know, it’s ‘hey, don’t bother me, I’m not flying the spaceship. We have an emergency? Why don’t you take care of it?’ Although if you had an emergency, I think I’d probably jump to it and do something. So I hope I get a chance to go back as a tourist.”
Space has to be international
Looking beyond the commercial side of the space effort, Massimino says America needs to work with other countries to push the frontier of exploration outward into the solar system. He recalled the time in 1993 when Congress was one vote away from cutting off funding for the International Space Station.
“I don’t think we can explore space at the level we want to without international cooperation. Maybe the private companies will figure out how we can go to the moon and Mars without the government’s help, but I don’t think even that’s possible,” he says. “With the International Space Station, the key word there, I think, is ‘international.’ The way we were able to get that going – and the way it was saved when it almost got killed – was our commitment to our international partners.”
He said the United States has to continue its leading role in space.
“Our international partners – the countries of Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia as well – they look to the United States for that leadership,” Massimino said. “They’re dependent on us. They want to participate, and they can’t do it without us, and we can’t do it without them.”
That doesn’t mean every space project taken on by NASA, or by commercial ventures, will bear fruit.
“Even when I was an astronaut, we would often get projects started and then canceled,” he recalled. “We had these follow-ons to the space shuttle … the orbital space plane and the X-38 and all these other things. And they would get canned.”
Humbled by Hubble
There was an interesting moment during the interview when Massimino, who served as a spacewalking repairman for Hubble during two sets of spacewalks in 2002 and 2009, asked to see the latest images from the space telescope on my smartphone.
Massimino was as excited and impressed as any parent would be at their child’s college graduation.
“Amazing, that’s incredible,” he said, looking at the pictures. “Hubble was, in my opinion, the best flight you could be on. All spaceflights are great, and getting a chance to go anywhere would have been great, but there’s something special about Hubble.”
That’s not to say the missions were easy. “You go up there, you rendezvous, you grab the telescope so there’s so robot stuff there, and that’s cool,” he said. “You rendezvous with this free flier, this giant free flier that’s about the size of a school bus, and then you spacewalk for five days straight – no days off in between from the spacewalks. It’s complicated, interesting stuff, but that’s what you want to do. So I always felt like anyone who was on that flight would be very lucky indeed.”
Social media pioneer
Massimino made history during his 2009 shuttle mission as the first astronaut to send a tweet from space. Since then, social media has made a big difference in how astronauts and space travel are perceived.
“I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon when I was 6, and wanted to grow up to be an astronaut,” he said. “By the time I was 8 or 9, I realized that was going to be impossible. I wasn’t Neil Armstrong. I mean, who are these guys? They’re fearless test pilots. I was afraid of heights. And these guys go to the academies and they’re tough guys and they fly these really fast airplanes, and they’re fearless. And I was scared of my own shadow. So I was like, ‘I don’t think this astronaut thing is going to work.'”
Thankfully for Massimino and the space program, the astronaut thing ended up working after all, despite his qualms. Today, there’s a new dynamic at work in the interaction between astronauts and the public at large.
“I was the first guy to tweet, but now every astronaut tweets and sends Instagram and all that stuff. People can engage with it and they can see the astronauts and humans, as kind of regular people, and share the experience,” he said. “It’s so accessible – and even the internet now. When I was a kid, I used to have to go to the library and see what books were on the shelf. Good luck there. Now, here we are, Googling a picture of the Hubble image right here. So it’s just the accessibility of information. I think the social media, the interaction with the people that are doing it, it just gives us a sense that we’re all traveling.”