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Astronaut Mike Massimino interview: Hubble: Thirty Years of Discovery, and a memoir adapted for kids

Science Channel is bringing its documentary Hubble: Thirty Years of Discovery to the network this Sunday. In it, they feature several experts, including astronaut Mike Massimino.

Massimino is a high profile veteran of two space shuttle flights on Columbia and Atlantis. He is a featured expert to lend his stories to the no miss event.  The Hubble telescope is responsible for bringing us mere mortals the most stunning images from the farthest depths of the universe we have been able to reach, nulling ambient starlight to capture interstellar structures unable to be seen by normal high powered telescopes.

Many know Massimino from his famous first Tweet from space and also his involvement with CBS TV comedy, The Big Bang Theory. He served as a NASA astronaut from 1996 to 2014 and made two space flights service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mike’s book for young readers, Spaceman: The True Story of a Young Boy’s Journey to Becoming an Astronaut, is available now and is an adapted version of his original memoir.

And while we adjust to quarantining, this former astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University shares the lessons he learned growing up in both versions of his memoir and on the Science Channel and BBC documentary airing Sunday.

His recollections underscore the lesson of cultivating your tenacity and never giving up. In doing so, he was able to accomplish two successful missions to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Pop culture fans remember Mike on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory and the IMAX film Hubble 3D, and he has appeared frequently in television documentaries and more.

Now a professor at Columbia and an advisor at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, he can add best-selling author to his impressive CV. He also joins a select group of famous scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson as an engaging and relatable crossover talent who straddles the entertainment and academic worlds with charisma and presence.

Mike spoke with us today and has great perspective for appreciating the fragile earth we live on and for parents suddenly schooling their kids at home. He knows a thing or two about being a parent and for being alone for long periods of time.

What is Hubble: Thirty Years of Discovery about?

This two-hour documentary focuses on the story of Hubble and is previewed in our exclusive clip above. Who built it and who took care of it as this complex engineering marvel was built to last, providing all of us with heart-stopping images from galaxies far beyond.

Thirty years ago, the Hubble Space Telescope was designed to take people to places they only dreamed about and in its success, has changed the world’s understanding of the Universe.

Launched on April 24, 1990, it was serviced by astronauts onboard the space shuttle five times. This TV event will focus on the final Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission, STS-125, which took place in May 2009 onboard space shuttle Atlantis. During that mission, the crew upgraded the telescope through a series of five spacewalks.

The doc features interviews with space’s most notable names, including astronauts Michael Massimino, whom we interviewed today, plus Kathryn Thornton, Story Musgrave, Steven Smith, and John Grunsfeld.

An expertly engineered overachiever, Hubble has far exceeded its original mission goal – having observed the Universe for nearly 30 years while making unparalleled contributions to science.

Science Channel is paying tribute to Hubble’s 30-year legacy, and the incredible effort to bring the true stories to all of us is thanks to a collaboration between BBC Studios, executive producer Steve Crabtree, and Science Channel’s executive producer, Wyatt Channell.

Astronaut Mike Massimino interview

Mike Massimino
Astronaut Mike Massimino is featured on Hubble: Thirty Years of Discovery on Science Channel. Pic credit: Science Channel/Mike Massimino

Monsters & Critics: You’re part of a really interesting fraternity of scientists and people of a certain level of academia who cross-pollinate between science and pop culture. Can you give us an update on the NBC comedy in development with EP Bill Prady?

Mike Massimino: They decided not to move forward on the script. So, it’s on hold for now. We were very excited about it. Great team, but unfortunately, right now it’s on hold, so I’ll have to see what happens.

It was a really good team. We had Matt Groening from the Simpsons as our lead writer and Bill [Prady]. Hopefully, we’ll make it happen.

M&C: It took three attempts for you to become an astronaut. How do you use that challenge of yours as a lesson?

Mike Massimino: For me, I knew I couldn’t force them to take me and that it’s unlikely for anyone just to get picked. Because there are so many qualified people that want to become an astronaut. Just a handful get picked. So you’re really up against it, but also if you don’t try, you know what the outcome is going to be that you won’t get in either.

So, I thought, just try to do what I was going to, and when it came time to apply for the astronaut program, I just did the best I could. And try again. That’s what I did.

M&C: Is it unusual for someone to write a memoir -especially from your world- and to adapt it for children? Talk about where that idea came from when you decided you wanted to do that after you had already penned your memoir.

Mike Massimino:  The adult version…I wasn’t really sure where it was going to go. When we first started writing, Tanner Colby was the co-writer with me who helped me.

But as we started working on it and writing out the stories that I had, we found that it was actually more of an inspirational book, a book of determination.  I had kind of forgotten about a lot of the details and how difficult that it was for me. And how I was medically disqualified. Not just rejected. But on my third try, I was definitely disqualified.

It was not just the disappointment but dealing with it and an overcoming [of these obstacles]. Then when I got through and into my astronaut career, when I finally was picked, a lot of those lessons that I learned as a young person came through.

Especially in applying to become an astronaut which came to good use because being an astronaut wasn’t always the easiest job either. And there were a lot of challenges then, things happening in space where it didn’t go as well as I had hoped.

I had to overcome obstacles and get help from my teammates and instructors. Just like I did when I was a kid. So the original book became a way of showing how I persisted, never giving up… and it turned into an inspirational book.

It was also written for all ages. Primarily the audience was intended to be adults, but I also had children read it, and a lot of parents had started writing to me about how it was very helpful for younger people to read this book.

And I got very nice notes from parents about how the book made a positive difference in their kids. I got this one note from a 9-year-old girl. Her parents had sent it to me.  She said my book was her favorite, so she wrote a book report on it at a school and got a good grade. That it really has taught her a lot of good lessons.

She said that in a couple months she was going to move and she was really nervous about moving in the fourth grade to a new city. But after reading my book, she knew that as long as you try hard and don’t give up, things can be scary, but you can end up being okay.

So I was like, wow, this is a really great note. I showed it to my agent and publisher, and they were like, ‘yes, we get it.’

That lead to us talking about trying to convert the memoir to a young reader version, but we waited a while. And I’m glad we waited because it gave me a chance to see how people reacted to the book, and what stories I think really would resonate with younger people.

I continued my teaching at Columbia, and I [also] work at the Intrepid museum where I’m around a lot of young people. I do a lot of outreach at schools in New York, and I get a sense of what would resonate with kids. I talk about stories in the book, and I can see the ones that are more helpful, I think, for the younger audience.

I was able to add [some content], but it’s really a rewrite of the first book where there’s a lot of new stuff. I pulled a lot of copy from the original book, just changing some of the stories was were in there to be more appropriate and really helpful for the younger kids.

M&C:  One of the things that you wrote that really resonated with me was your observations of the earth and how fragile it is keeping us alive and how fragile our lives actually are. That it is a miracle that we’re even alive, your observations of earth’s atmosphere and the fragility of your own life when you are in space. Because so many things can go wrong…we know about the Mir fire. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Mike Massimino:   Well, as far as the observations of the planet from our altitude from the space station, we don’t see as much detail, but we can see the curve of the planet, and it’s overwhelming.  Particularly from the spacewalk, seeing the beauty of our planet.

You can see it in its entirety. And in a spacewalk, you are looking through a window that would filter out some of the light. You just see it as it is, and it is just extraordinarily beautiful. I had this sense that it is a paradise, and that’s how I felt about it, and I still do. I think we’re really lucky to be here, and as you said, it’s miraculous.

However you believe we got here, it’s pretty amazing that we’re here and all the life exists around us. It’s just beautiful. When you look to your left, you see the darkness of space, and it looks… not scary…but we’ve [astronauts] checked out the neighborhood, and there’s nowhere to go.

There’s no sign of anything or that we can go live anywhere close. And then look back at our planet, and it’s incredible. I mean, right now at my home I am looking out the window at a tree that’s starting to bloom, that one tree if we found that tree on some planet, we’d be pretty excited about it, to find a tree.

We got animals of all types and insects and birds and people and all kinds of things growing all over the place. A place just teeming with life, in the ocean, and on the land and everywhere. So it’s really an amazing place we live on.

M&C: The 30th anniversary of the Hubble space telescope is amazing. What is special about the Hubble documentary in your eyes?

Mike Massimino: Yes. Both of my missions were to Hubble. I’m included in the documentary. I’m in there along with five other astronauts, but also a lot of scientists and engineers and people that worked on the telescope.

I’ve seen bits and pieces of the special, and it is really well done. They did a great job of it. The production company, Science Channel and BBC together.

So I think that they really wanted to get the story right and pay tribute to it accurately.

I think there are three things about Hubble in general that come out in the documentary that people are going to enjoy.

One is the science. I think it’s the greatest scientific instrument ever built, not only with its discoveries that it’s made, not only did it answer questions about the universe, but it formed questions.

Things like dark energy, which resulted in the awarding of a Nobel prize, and amazing science that can be appreciated by anybody.

You don’t have to be an astronomer to be a fan of the Hubble. Just look at some of those images just to share the beauty of the universe that Hubble has shown us. We can’t get anywhere near these places at this point with anything else. Hubble can see this stuff, and it has shown us the beauty of the universe everyone can enjoy.

I think the science part of it is spectacular. The engineering feat of making this instrument that could travel 17,500 miles an hour, 350 miles above our planet, the extreme temperatures in the sun, and then the cold and the darkness varies by 170 degrees. And it goes through that cycle every 45 minutes because it’s orbiting the planet every 90 minutes.

Hubble can point so accurately that if you had a laser pointer on the Empire State building and you could point as accurately as Hubble could, you would hit a dime on the Washington monument. That’s how accurately it points, and it was built by these men and women who built it so it could be serviced by astronauts, not by mechanics in a shop.

Which is hard enough to build something that is easily serviceable, but in space? By visiting astronauts with not that much time?  That are working with big space gloves and can’t see very well?

They made this thing so you could take it apart and put it back together again. So it could be serviced and upgraded over the years. Amazing! It was supposed to last 15 years. It’s lasted for over really over 30 years if we get by next week.

To me, the really special part of it is just the story of the telescope itself. It was dreamed by astronomers over a hundred years ago. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a telescope in space? Some people wanted to go to the moon, and astronomers wanted to get a telescope up there above our atmosphere so that they could see into the heavens.

Because no matter where you are on the planet, even at a very high altitude, or on a really clear night away from city lights, you still can’t see the universe the way you would want to, because you’re looking through the atmosphere. It’s kind of like being in the water in a pool and looking at the sky where you can’t really see anything.

You get out of the water, and everything’s clearer, and that’s what the atmosphere does. So our ability to see the stars, it clouds it. As soon as you get above the atmosphere, the dream was if we can get a telescope above it… astronomers were dreaming about this… boy, wouldn’t it be great?

We get to see into the heavens, and that’s what Hubble does.

It was a great dream. It was delayed. It was built but delayed. It was supposed to launch many years before it did. Then an accident happened in 1986 with Challenger, and it was delayed. Then it was delayed until 1990. Then it was launched. Hubble didn’t see very well. They mismanufactured the mirror, as it couldn’t see very well, and the first service mission fix gave it glasses, more or less, to correct the optics.

Then all these wonderful things started coming out of the telescope. It was serviced by five different missions. The last mission was canceled as a result of the second space shuttle action. We had the leaders of NASA who said it was too dangerous to go to Hubble. So they canceled that mission,

But, there was a groundswell of support and the mission- after a year and a half – was turned back on, and we were able to launch that last mission to keep Hubble going.

Hubble was kind of like the little engine that could. And if Hubble was a person, it would be a great comeback story.

And I think the thing that the documentary shows is the people who made it happen, a wonderful team that built it and uses it, the astronomers and those who kept it going.

It was really the will of the people, and not just the astronauts and the people that worked on a telescope, but really the whole world. Especially when they weren’t going to service it again, to turn that mission back on was really something that the whole world was behind.

Just the story of that telescope coming to be is great.

M&C: People are homeschooling that never thought they’d be homeschooling their kids. I think that your book would be an incredible addition to a lesson. What advice would you give to a parent trying to educate their child and using your book, what would you advise them on how to break up in little lessons for kids to absorb the information in your book?

Mike Massimino: The first part of it is that I had difficulty in school and that learning is hard. So I think the first thing is that the kids should realize that sometimes it IS hard to get your homework done or to just learn things.  And it’s not because you’re stupid, it’s because it is hard and that sometimes you need help.

So the whole idea that learning is hard and that help is needed in this case, whether from your parents or from whoever’s helping you, your teachers, or wherever you can get help is vital.

Sometimes you need help with your schoolwork. And that’s what I needed. And sometimes you can help other people with their schoolwork, and that is important too.

But to realize that everyone struggles in school, no matter how smart you are, you just have to stick with it. And so that’s one of those lessons there.

Another is figuring out what you are interested in life, and I’m not necessarily looking for the book to inspire kids to go into STEM or engineering or science or space. It’s more of trying to discover what YOU think is important and what YOU love and want to explore…and not give up on it.

Even if you think you’re not suited for it. I was afraid of heights and a lot of stuff as a kid. I couldn’t see very well, which is why I was medically disqualified one of the times that I applied to be an astronaut.

You can go on for lots of reasons why you can’t do things, but that doesn’t matter if it’s what you’re interested in, you should pursue it and do your best at it, and don’t give up.

And then we get into some more of the chapters about the Hubble telescope and how it works and the discoveries it has made, and then how we worked on it and the tools we use and what it’s like to get up and exist and live in space.

Some life lessons about learning in school and teamwork, following a dream, and not giving up. The wonder of the science behind the Hubble space telescope. And then the engineering that goes into a space mission in the space shuttle and the operation of a spacecraft.  I would look at it at those four major lesson groups to follow in the book.

Hubble: Thirty Years of Discovery premieres Sunday, April 19 at 8/7c on Science Channel.


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