Reaching for the Stars: Astronaut Inspires at BRCC

By Pete Zamplas

Mike Massimino as an astronaut made challenging repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope a decade ago, and since then he inspires people with his can-do spirit.

He is the first human to tweet a message from space. He did so from the Atlantis space shuttle in 2009. His message to his 1.3 million Twitter followers was: “From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views. The adventure of a lifetime has begun!”

Mike Massimino grips an exterior bar, to secure himself in space in a repair mission. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Mike Massimino grips an exterior bar, to secure himself in space in a repair mission. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

He said his ground control team figured out on the fly how he could “use tools and technique” to repair Hubble in 2009. It remains among NASA’s most dramatic and innovative moments.

His Columbia space shuttle team in ’02 set a record of most time (35 hours, 55 minutes in five walks) spacewalking on a single shuttle mission. Massimino walked twice totaling 14 hours and 46 minutes, mostly to do repairs. That STS-109 team traveled faster and higher than any others in this century. They covered 4.5 million statute miles in 262 hours during 165 orbits of earth.

Mike Massimino tells of astronaut daring. A butterfly nebula behind him is among images from the Hubble Space Telescope he repaired. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Mike Massimino tells of astronaut daring. A butterfly nebula behind him is among images from the Hubble Space Telescope he repaired. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

The NASA Distinguished Service Medal winner’s adventures reportedly inspired George Clooney’s astronaut role in the 2013 film Gravity.
Yet it took Massimino four tries before he was accepted into astronaut training. The inspirational speaker recently told of such challenges, and those on his historic missions.

Massimino was Blue Ridge Community College’s keynote speaker to celebrate the college’s 50th anniversary. His hour-long slide show had striking images of space and his missions, as he told about them. The luncheon on Nov. 15 was after he spoke to BRCC students.

BRCC Pres. Laura Leatherwood noted the college named after Massimino a scholarship fund for its new camp for aspiring engineers to learn about space-related engineering.

His themes resonate amidst the mysterious onset of a new year and decade. Massimino spoke of innovative problem-solving in meeting surprising and sudden crises, planning yet improvisation, teamwork, persistence to overcome obstacles, teamwork, handling danger, future commercial space travel, and raw beauty and serenity of space and earth.

He marveled at the “pure beauty of our planet” while space walking, he said. “Earth looks like an aquarium” with its vast oceans. Its night view was “magical.” He figured “This is what heaven must look like. It’s paradise.”
He tearfully realized “Wow, I’m really out there” spacewalking. He saw 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in 24 hours, in Atlantis as it sped 17,500 mph in flight in May of 2009.

Massimino explained space oddities. When in the airlock between the craft’s interior and outer space, he said there is a “very metallic smell, like of a new rug from its chemical’s gases.” Also, “your voice sounds deeper.” But mostly “there’s no way for sound to get to you,” as it floats away.
Curiously, “you can’t see the stars that (viewed from earth) twinkle in space. Up there, they’re perfect points of light. You do see twinkles from earth.”
He wore a bulky 200-pound suit. Its seven layers included bulletproof kevlar.

A 600-pound control panel he worked with is “weightless in space.” Air pressure is four times less up there — 4.3 PSI (pound-force per square inch) versus 14.7 at earth’s sea level. He trained in his space suit in a 30-foot-deep pool, to simulate floating in space.

The college’s first day of existence — in a small office off of Church Street — was the day after Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Thus the 50th year celebration’s theme was entitled From One Small Step to One Giant Leap.

Massimino, 57, was six years old when Armstrong’s historic feat inspired him to become a space explorer.

Teamwork, Innovation

Massimino was on two space shuttle missions to upgrade or repair Hubble — STS-109 aboard Columbia in 2002, then STS-125 in 2009 on Atlantis’ final solo flight. That was the fifth and latest repair of the giant scope, and required five lengthy spacewalks Hubble has captured space imagery for 30 years since 1990, hovering 340 miles above earth.

In repairing Hubble in ’09, Massimino floated next to the tall cylindrical observatory. The task was to replace the faulty Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph’s faulty power supply. The Spectograph (STIS) diffuses light into a spectrum of colors. It provides scientists with such data as temperature, chemical composition, density and motion of distant celestial objects.

Its supply unit was not designed to be replaced. So the crew brought various tools to try, with many extended by robotic arms.
Massimino used a “hard drill” to remove three of the four screws that held a handrail “latch” onto an instrumental panel.

But the fourth and final screw screwed up plans. That bottom right screw would not budge. The drill bit spun around. It had stripped the screw. Massimino altered bit sizes to to to loosen the screw. That did not work. The latch had to come off, to get at 111 screws of the panel and then the power supply behind it.

Four hours later a young control engineer thought of a simple, possible solution. It was a first.

“They told me to tear it off!,” Massimino said of the latch. “This was the first time (for an astronaut ever) to take that instrument apart. They were never made to be taken apart.”

To rip off the Hubble part Massimino used a pole tool, a “robot arm” with a battery module control. He braced against the panel for leverage, tugged with all of his might, and yanked off the handrail. He was careful to avoid metallic sharp edges that could puncture his suit, and any floating loose pieces.

The Spectograph was accessed and repaired. “You get help when you need it,” Massimino said of the improvised tactics, “and you give help when you can.”

Two other astronauts wrestled with a stuck bolt, before undoing it to replace a Hubble camera with a higher-resolution one. The next day, Massimino and a colleague installed fresh nickel-hydrogen batteries and rate sensor units.

The seven-person crew faced mishaps from the get-go. Debris came off of an external fuel tank of Atlantis. “It’s like a giant thermal bottle,” Massimino said. “A piece flew off, on the launch, and hit a wing. More debris came off later.” No one was struck by debris.

Repairing the fuel tank was hazardous. Massimino noted the liquid fuel is as explosive as “giant sticks of dynamite” that produce “three G’s of force which equals three times body weight of force against your chest.” He said, “You have six seconds to make up your mind.” A wrong move can be a deadly one.

This perilous mission was recently cited as the most intricate spacewalk and repair challenge that NASA undertook in decades. Its heroics were noted, when a recent space mission was scrapped. Just before Christmas, an unmanned test mission failed. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner cone-shaped capsule burned fuel too soon due to a timer’s error, and did not reach orbit let alone the space station.

Engineer, Professor, Author

Michael James Massimino has taught at Columbia for five years. He instructs Intro to Space Flight, mechanical engineering (M.E.), and Art of Engineering (social projects). He has a PhD in M.E. from MIT in 1992, a B.S. from Columbia, and masters of science from MIT in M.E. and also technology and policy.

He is senior advisor of space programs for the National Air & Space Museum’s Intrepid Sea. He has hosted the Science Channel’s The Planets and Beyond.

His best-selling book is Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe.

Massimino played himself on six episodes of the CBS hit comedy The Big Bang Theory. Saturday Night Live lampooned Massimino’s assembling lunch in zero gravity. Seth Myers on SNL’s Weekend Update quipped the “giant leap to lunch is awesome!”

Long Island native Massimino kept his childhood Snoopy doll with him on space missions. He worked as an engineer at IBM in ’84-86, NASA in summers of ‘87-89, then McDonnell Douglas Aerospace (MDA). He taught human-machine systems engineering and researched space systems interfaces, at Georgia Tech in 1995.

Fourth Time is the Charm

He finally made it into astronaut training in 1996, on his fourth try and at age 34. He long had a “fear of heights,” and had to deal with that as a start. He failed the vision test which required 20/20 vision without glasses.
Disillusioned at first, he realized his odds were long but not impossible. He overcame them. He exercised and strengthened his eyes. He passed the vision segment, to legally re-qualify for another week-long application. He made it in, on that fourth try. He felt more resilient after several “disappointments and failures of (NASA) rejections.”

He trained two years as an astronaut. He qualified as a mission specialist, in robotics. As an MIT grad student, his research on human operator control of space robotics systems resulted in two patents. With MDD, Massimino developed the Manipulator Position Display to remotely operate space shuttle systems. It is thus very fitting Massimino used robotic arm to help repair Hubble.

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