Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey
© 2016 Mike Massimino
All his life, Mike Massimino wanted to be an astronaut. He was six when he saw Neil Armstrong’s famous small step, and he wanted to be out there with the men of Apollo and those who followed. But the way to the stars, then as now, isn’t a straight line: unlike, say, becoming a lawyer, there’s no flagged path, with obvious intermediate goals to aim for. “Mass” was unlikely to ever be an astronaut, anyway – he was a working-class kid from Long Island who had had barely left his neighborhood. He couldn’t even see that well – so how did he not only find his way into the astronaut corps, but distinguish himself to the point that he was chosen to work on the Hubble Space Telescope – twice? Spaceman is a memoir of dogged persistence in the face of adversity and mistakes, followed by moving reflections on his time in space, and the meaning space exploration has for the human spirit. It is far and away the best of the post-Apollo astronaut memoirs, will be remembered as one of my favorite astronaut books, period, and is a must-read for any space enthusiast, or those who want to be reminded of the fruits of discipline, determination, and sheer stubbornness.
“Mass” in his early years is a Joe Average: liked by everyone, but not particularly distinguished in any other way. Although he wanted to be an astronaut, it wasn’t a likely possibility – and so he pursued studies as an industrial engineer, but never forgetting his original desire. He thought perhaps working as a contractor supplying NASA with equipment might be an ideal marriage of the attainable and the dream, and from there he stumbled his way closer to space — falling often, but always picking himself up and moving forward. Massinimo inspires the reader throughout the book – in the beginning, through his constant work to recover from mistakes (enrolling in the wrong program, failing tests), soldiering through with help from mentors and frequent viewings of The Right Stuff, — and in the second half, through his work as a bonafide astronaut.
Mass offers a detailed ridealong through his application and training process as he rose from Astronaut Candidate to Mission Specialist. All this is of enormous interest to a space junkie, of course, but Mass makes it clear that what he values most about NASA is its sense of camaraderie, the intensity with which astronauts support one another. The same spirit of brotherhood that was displayed when the Mercury 7 supported John Glenn when higher-ups threatened to remove him from the roster after he refused to compel his wife to speak with Johnson, was still strong during Mass’s time with NASA. It was never more clearly shown than in 2003, when Columbia broke apart in the atmosphere while returning to Earth. The destruction of Columbia especially moved Massimino, because that flight could have been his, as his flight was swapped with 109’s given the higher priority of the job.
Massimino has a gift for communicating the itch that drives the adventurer, the explorer on – the itch that has led humans to glory and death for millennia, driving us to launch ourselves into the winds, to struggle up mountains actively attempting to kill us, and even to launch ourselves into the void of space. He sees the astronaut life as a unique blend of scientific and physical exploration — Galileo meets Shackleton. When Massimeno saw the Earth for the first time – seeing it from the distance of the Hubble, and so able to see the full globe in all its splendor — he was struck with reverent awe. It’s one thing to be told the Earth is a planet, a fragile bit of dirt hurtling through space, and quite another to see it. The dreadful weight of its beauty has a profound effect on Massimino, and through him we experience pure, overwhelming wonder. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the magisterial A Man on the Moon, by Andrew Chaikan, long my favorite astronaut book and still the king of Apollo memoirs; it’s just that moving.
I can’t imagine Space Camp getting better than this, but next up is Scott Kelly’s Endurance, followed by a little classic SF, and more.