This week, after nearly two decades with NASA, one of the space agency’s most popular astronauts, Mike Massimino, announced his departure to take a full-time position at his Alma Mater, Columbia University in New York.
“Mike has played a significant role within the astronaut office in his time here,” said Bob Behnken, Chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “His technical expertise was extremely helpful in the many roles he fulfilled, not the least of which was his part in the successful Hubble servicing missions.”
A New York native, Massimino logged more than 570 hours in space over the course of two missions, both of which brought him to the highest altitude the space shuttle could fly to service the aging Hubble Space Telescope. After graduating from Columbia University with his undergraduate degree, Massimino went on to earn four additional degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge—two master’s degrees, one in mechanical engineering and a second in technology and policy, and a doctorate in mechanical engineering.
Then, in 1996, he brought his expertise and talent to NASA, but before he ever boarded a space shuttle Massimino first served in the Astronaut Office Robotics Branch and in the Astronaut Office Extravehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalk) Branch.
His first flight, STS-109 on the Columbia in 2002, was the fourth such mission to visit Hubble, and Massimino performed two spacewalks, totaling 14 hours and 46 minutes, while performing various tasks such as installing a second solar array on Hubble, installing a new reaction wheel to help it move from target to target, installing the Advanced Camera for Surveys to replace the original Faint Object Camera, and installing the Electronic Support Module (the first part of an experimental cooling system that was installed on the final spacewalk of the mission).
Following his return to Earth, Massimino went on to serve as a CAPCOM (spacecraft communicator) in Mission Control and as the Astronaut Office Technical Liaison to the Johnson Space Center EVA Program Office, but his first visit to Hubble, however, was just a taste of what his next mission to space would be like. When NASA decided to make one final dangerous servicing mission to Hubble, care of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, they called on Massimino again.
“We really wanted the Hubble’s capability back, so we started working, and for five years, we designed a spacewalk,” said Massimino in an article he wrote for Esquire in 2013. “We designed over one hundred new space tools to be used—at great taxpayers’ expense, millions of dollars, thousands of people worked on this.”
And that was for just one of his two spacewalks on the mission, STS-125.
In his first walk of the mission, on flight day five May 15, 2009, Massimino helped fellow astronaut Michael Good with removing and replacing Hubble’s three gyroscope rate sensing units (RSUs), each of which contains two gyroscopes that allow the telescope to point itself. Although doing so turned out to be much more complicated than most can imagine, all went well in the end and Massimino was ready for his second spacewalk two days later. Once again with Good by his side, the pair went to work to replace Hubble’s failed Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which blew a power supply in 2004.
“It was our last time to Hubble, so we felt a responsibility to do the best we could with the telescope,” said Massimino after the mission. “We put as much work on that mission as we felt we could do. It was a wonderful experience, great crew, some of my best friends, my second family was on STS-125.”
All total, Massimino walked in space on STS-125 for nearly 16 hours, putting his grand total hours walking in space at 30.
Massimino became an easily familiar face to many in the general public for his use of social media, and he grew to become one of NASA’s strongest public relations tools. He was the first person to ever Tweet from space, during the STS-125 mission, with the first official Tweet from space saying: “From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!” Massimino provided the public regular updates and images throughout the STS-125 mission via social media and shared his experiences while racing with Hubble 350 miles above the Earth at 17,500 mph. He has also starred in the popular TV series The Big Bang Theory several times and assisted in research for the Hollywood movie Gravity.
“Mike embraced the opportunity to engage with the public in new ways and set the stage for more space explorers to be able to share their mission experience directly with people around the globe. We wish him well in his new role fostering the dreams and innovations of students just beginning their career paths,” Behnken said.
“I go outside, and I take my tether, and I clip it on a handrail, and I let go, and I just look. And the Earth—from our altitude at Hubble, we’re 350 miles up. We can see the curvature. We can see the roundness of our home, our home planet. And it’s the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like looking into heaven. It’s paradise. And as I looked at the Earth, I also noticed that I could turn my head, and I could see the moon and the stars and the Milky Way galaxy. I could see our universe. And I could turn back, and I could see our beautiful planet. And that moment changed my relationship with the Earth. Because for me the Earth had always been a kind of a safe haven, you know, where I could go to work or be in my home or take my kids to school. But I realized it really wasn’t that. It really is its own spaceship. And I had always been a space traveler. All of us here today, even tonight, we’re on this spaceship Earth, amongst all the chaos of the universe, whipping around the sun and around the Milky Way galaxy.” — Former NASA Astronaut Mike Massimino