The (Not So) Easy Guide To Getting To Space

33:33 minutes

A man in a space suit sits on the roof of a space vessel
Mike Massimino retrieves tools on the SM4 mission. Credit: NASA

If you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, chances are good that among the answers, you’ll hear “astronaut.” But becoming an astronaut can be more difficult than becoming a veterinarian, firefighter, marine biologist, or some of the other common childhood job aspirations. The odds aren’t good: In 2021, NASA selected 10 astronaut candidates from a pool of over 12,000 applicants. And last year, over 22,000 applications to the European Space Agency resulted in 17 job offers.

Dr. Mike Massimino’s application to become a NASA astronaut was rejected several times. However, he persisted in his efforts, and eventually flew twice on the space shuttle, logging over 570 hours in space and over 30 hours spacewalking. On his second trip to orbit, on Atlantis mission STS-125, he participated in the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Massimino joins Ira and guest host Flora Lichtman to talk about his time at NASA. They also discuss lessons he learned at the space agency that he believes can help others achieve their goals, which he has collected in his new book, Moonshot: A Nasa Astronaut’s Guide To Achieving The Impossible.

Read an excerpt of Moonshot: A Nasa Astronaut’s Guide To Achieving The Impossible.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Mike Massimino

Mike Massimino is a former NASA astronaut, author of Moonshot: A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible (Hachette Go, 2023), and a professor of Professional Practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman.

IRA FLATOW: And I’m Ira Flatow. Flora, I got to ask you, what did you want to be when you grew up? Do you remember back?

FLORA LICHTMAN: I can barely remember, but yes, when I still had dreams, I, like many people, wanted to be a marine biologist. I was like, I could imagine myself in the deep sea submersible looking for cool animals, but I think if there’s any profession that gets kids imaginations going more than that, it’s being an astronaut.

IRA FLATOW: Exactly. And for the rest of this hour, for all of you who wanted to grow up to be an astronaut and didn’t make it, which could be 99% of you, we have one astronaut with us who actually achieved that dream. Mike Massimino is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University, a former NASA astronaut. He’s been to space twice on the shuttle, has logged over 30 hours of spacewalking time, and he’s author of a new book Moonshot, A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible. He’s here in our New York studios. Welcome back to Science Friday.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Ira, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: I got to say that it’s not every day that I get to chat with someone who graduated the same high school, H Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, New York, as I did.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Unbelievable, and we both ended up being science people.

IRA FLATOW: Isn’t that amazing?



FLORA LICHTMAN: And if you have a question for Mike about getting to space or his experiences there, give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet us at @SciFri.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s get into the book. Why, an astronaut, do you write a book like this one, which is really a motivational book, if I might say so?

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, it is. I learned so much, as an astronaut, in things like perseverance and teamwork and leadership. Those lessons were so valuable to me in space, but I found that they also apply to what we do here on Earth, whether you’re working for a company in a cubicle, or you’re working in a store, or you’re working from home, or dealing with your family. The same lessons apply, these actionable strategies that we had as astronauts to do our work, I found, were very, very helpful in everyday life, and so I wanted to share these. It was an incredible education for me. The perseverance part, I kind of learned that on my own, trying to become an astronaut. Got rejected three times, including a medical disqualification, and that’s what the first chapter–

IRA FLATOW: For your eyesight.

MIKE MASSIMINO: For my eyesight, right. I failed the eye exam, and then the rest of the book, though, is lessons I learned as an astronaut that I’ve been sharing in my teaching and speaking since leaving NASA 10 years ago, and I’m very grateful I had that opportunity to write them down. So hopefully, it’ll be helpful to people who read the book.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Well let’s talk about your eyesight because this was a part of the book that was almost unbelievable to me. Just set it up for people, what the problem was, and then how you solved it.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, Flora, so the first time I applied to NASA, I was in graduate school, and NASA makes an announcement they’re looking for astronauts. So I sent my first application. Nine months later, I get a rejection letter. A couple of years go by. NASA’s looking for astronauts again, so application number two results in rejection letter number two.

And then a few years after that, I got out of grad school, was working at the Johnson Space Center, applied that third time. I answered that third announcement, and then I didn’t get a letter. I got a phone call. They wanted me to come in for an interview.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Do you remember that moment?

MIKE MASSIMINO: Oh, yeah, I certainly do. I was sitting at my desk. I was working at McDonnell Douglas, and the phone rang. And I picked it up, and it was Theresa Gomez from the Astronaut Selection Office. And she said, we’re wondering if you’d be able to come in for an interview, and I was like, absolutely, yes.

And she said, well, we had someone cancel. They had groups of 20 would come in for this, for six weeks over the course of a few months, so 120 people were going to be interviewed. And I guess they had– she said, they had someone who– it was a Friday, I got that call, if I could come in for Monday.

And she said, can you come? We had just– if you can’t come in, we’ll put you in a later group, but I go, no, I’ll take it.

She goes, don’t you have to check with your boss? Don’t worry about it. I’ll quit. I’m like, that’s probably not good to be an unemployed candidate, so all right, yes, let’s assume it’s OK unless I tell you differently.

So I went in for that. That was very exciting. And then the interview week starts on a Sunday and ends on a Friday, and during the course of the week, there’s a lot of medical exams, and I failed the eye test, which was not that unusual. That was the number one reason for disqualification back then.

All this has changed now, but back then, you had to see pretty well to be a pilot, to be a military pilot. You had to see 20/20 back then, and I think that rule has changed. And certainly, to be an astronaut it has changed as long as you’re correctable at 20/20, have healthy eyes, you’re OK. But back then, your unaided visual acuity had to be within their specifications, and I failed.

And they told me I was disqualified not only for that selection, but for future selections, that I could not– they were not going to read my application any longer. And unlike other medical issues that people sometimes popped up, because they really went and looked deep in all these different places in your body–

FLORA LICHTMAN: Every nook and cranny.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, every nook and cranny, and sometimes, they’d uncover something, but it could be fixed, and then you could be qualified again. It could be overturned. In this case, they said, no, it can’t be overturned because your eyesight is your eyesight, and that was pretty bad.

IRA FLATOW: You didn’t take no for an answer.

MIKE MASSIMINO: No, I didn’t. The thing was, Ira, what I felt was that I wanted to at least be able to try, that I was OK with being told no. I know I wasn’t just signing up to do something ordinary. I was trying to, in my mind, become part of this great organization that thousands of people were applying for just a handful of spots, and these were some serious people.

There were very accomplished, high performing people from the military. Military test pilots, the best test pilots in the military, were trying to get that job, and other high performers in the military. And from civilian life, a bunch of really well qualified scientists and engineers and medical doctors and veterinarians and all kinds of science related people were trying to get in there, and I realize this wasn’t going to be something that you just sign up for.

And so I understood that they would probably not take me just because of the sheer numbers and how many great people were applying, but I wanted to at least be able to try. I wanted to make them tell me no as opposed to me just not trying any longer.

FLORA LICHTMAN: But this was pre-LASIK, so–

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, I don’t know if LASIK existed back then.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hard problem to fix.

MIKE MASSIMINO: And they didn’t– there was other stuff. There was other things back then like radio keratotomy, but if you did that, you were totally disqualified.

IRA FLATOW: So how did you get around it?

MIKE MASSIMINO: Well, I thought about it for a while, and I found out about something called vision training, which was done, as I read about it, was done with kids, mainly, who had eye issues. They could do things to strengthen their eyesight and be able to see better as a result of this training, but it was for little kids. But I made an appointment with an optometrist who specialized in this, and I promised her I could be really immature.

I said, Dr. Hopping, you won’t tell the difference between me and any of these 10-year-olds coming. They’ll be they’re more mature than I am, I guarantee. Just give me a chance. And she helped me, and I was able to pick up a couple lines to get that disqualification overturned, so at least the next time they were looking for astronauts, they would read my application again.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255 or 844-SCI-TALK. You can tweet us at @SciFri. So many people want to talk. Let’s go to Mike in Framingham, Massachusetts. Hi, Mike.

CALLER: Oh, hi, Ira. Am I on?

IRA FLATOW: You are on, yes.

CALLER: Oh, cool, cool. Thanks for the show, and thanks for taking my call. So I just happened to hear you on the radio, and I understand space has a smell. And I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit, and I’m sure, Mr. Massimino, you’re not sticking your head out the window to get this smell. So if you could just talk about it a little bit, I’d appreciate it.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for the call.


IRA FLATOW: Space has a smell.

MIKE MASSIMINO: I think so. So we’re not exactly sure what it is, but I was a new astronaut and was listening to a debrief of a shuttle flight that had a guy by the name of Sergei Krikalev, who was, at the time, had more time in space than anybody. He was a Russian cosmonaut who had flown on Mir a couple of times. He flew on the space shuttle a couple of times.

And during the debrief, he said that the odor in the airlock on the space shuttle after the spacewalks was the same exact odor that he smelled after the spacewalks on Mir. I was like, whoa, and he just kind of said it, and everyone else was just listening. And after this debrief was over, I went up to Sergei and said, what is going on with this? And he goes, oh, it’s a very distinct odor. It’s kind of like a burnt metal sort of smell.

And I start speaking to some of the other folks in the office about it, and I thought this was kind of interesting, and so I wanted to notice this on my space flight. And what it is, is that, when you go out to do a spacewalk, you go to the airlock, and then you close the doors, the inner door. And then you depress the airlock, get all the air out of there, bring it to vacuum, and then you open the outer door. So the airlock is exposed to the vacuum of space for about six to seven, eight hours, depending how long the spacewalk is.

And then when you come back in you close the door to space and you repress the airlock. And if you open the hatch, and stick your head in right away before all that– before everything’s got mixed up in there, because it goes away after you open that hatch, you’ll smell a very distinct odor, a very burnt metal, metallic smell.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s not like dirty socks or something?

MIKE MASSIMINO: No, it’s not dirty– I’ve heard it been compared to certain cities and industrial cities in the Midwest after a certain weather pattern, you kind of smell– but it’s a very industrial metal kind of smell. And it could just be, if you’re looking for an explanation, a worldly explanation, it could just be the outgassing of the metal because there’s things– when you go to space, it’s just, as things outgas, like the new car smell.

Well, the vacuum of space allows the gases to escape in our gloves and anything, any plastics. You don’t necessarily smell that because you’re in space, but it could just be the outgassing of the metal. But I’d like to think it’s the actual smell of space.



FLORA LICHTMAN: Can we go back to your journey to become an astronaut? Because you mentioned, in passing, that you applied once, were rejected. Applied twice, rejected. Then you did this vision training, which seems like it took a lot of work.

MIKE MASSIMINO: It was like a brain trick, is what it was. It was like focusing beyond what you were looking at, yeah.

FLORA LICHTMAN: So what I’m hearing is determination.


FLORA LICHTMAN: Why didn’t you give up?

MIKE MASSIMINO: I thought about that, and I realized I would not be happy with myself. And the thing I kept in mind, I was up at MIT after I was getting my– I knew I was going to be rejected again a second time at that point because I wasn’t getting– I didn’t get an interview, and they already were done with their interviews, so I knew I wasn’t going to be picked.

And I remember I was watching the Academy Awards are on TV, and Billy Crystal was the host. And they went to a downlink from the space shuttle and I remember looking at that image on the TV and realizing, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. It was so clear in my head and in my heart, that that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to be one of those people.

And then about a moment, a few seconds maybe, after that, another thought entered my head, which was, you’ll never get to do that, Mike. That’s impossible. Real people don’t get to do that, and that’s the way I felt about it. But I was up at MIT luckily, and I started thinking about probabilistic– there’s a guy named Al Drake, who was my– I took his probability class.

And one out of a million, if that’s what my chances were, that’s a non-0 outcome. That’s a small number. It’s not very likely, but it’s non-0. It’s a bunch of 0s with a 1 at the end. And then I thought further that the only way that probability of success goes to 0, and I will know the outcome, and I will not be successful, is if I give up.

So I kind of imagined that 1, poof, turn into a 0, and that was unacceptable. I just could not– I don’t think I could be happy with myself if I stopped trying, so the only thing I could control was my effort to keep– I could not force NASA to take me, and that’s the way it is in a lot of things. But I felt like that was what I had to try to do.

And when I got to the point after my third rejection, and I got the medical overturn so I could apply again, and I got another interview, I was with my family during spring break. I was teaching at Georgia Tech, and I was thinking that, well, I might get rejected again. It was about a month before we were going to get the final word, but I felt like I was in a good place. Trying to become an astronaut had given me motivation to get an education, to get a PhD, to get my private pilot’s license, to learn to scuba dive. I had flown a few experiments in space, and I was a faculty member at Georgia Tech.


MIKE MASSIMINO: So even if you don’t get to that ultimate goal, I think you’ll find yourself in a good place.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Mike Massimino, former NASA astronaut, author of Moonshot, A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible on Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Our number, 844-724-8255. So many people have questions. Let me see what’s really something really cool that we haven’t talked about. Oh, this is one that we’ve always talked thought about. Steven, Westfield, New Jersey. Hi, Steve.

CALLER: Hi, how are you? I had a lifetime as an academic in a completely unrelated discipline, and then just out of sheer curiosity, turned to astrophysics late. And the more I pursue it and play with a little mathematics, the more the enormity just keeps coming at me, the enormity of the known and heaven knows what else, universe.

And I just was wondering when someone like you just– when it hits you that– of how enormous the universe is, how does your– what goes through your mind? And how does your mind work? Are you always thinking about that, or do you sometimes, something happens that makes you think, oh, Lord, we are in the middle of an enormous [INAUDIBLE]?

IRA FLATOW: When you look down from up there, and you’ve heard the astronauts who’ve been to the moon looking back on Earth, changing– life changing stuff.


IRA FLATOW: Did that happen with you?

MIKE MASSIMINO: It did. Now, we weren’t as far as the moon. We were 350 miles up at Hubble, which is high for the space shuttle. That’s 100 miles higher than the Space Station, so we could see the curve of the planet.

And the thought that went through my mind was, during my second spacewalk, when I had a chance to really look, is this is a view from afar, a heavenly view, and just so beautiful. And then I dwelled on that for a moment, and I thought, no, no, it’s more beautiful than that. This is what heaven must look like. I felt like I was looking into an absolute paradise, and it changed the way I think about our planet.

I think we are actually living in a paradise. It is so beautiful. You see it from afar, you see, I think, what it truly is, this beautiful place to live. It’s very fragile, the thinness of the atmosphere.

You look in the other direction out at the rest of the solar system, we’ve checked out the neighborhood. We’ve got nowhere to go right now. We have to make this planet work, but it is just beautiful, and I try to keep that thought, this amazing planet, place that we live in, I try to keep that thought from space when I’m here on the planet, whether it’s looking at a beautiful scene in the ocean or mountains or in the park or at a museum or coming here and hanging out with the two of you. This is really amazing, that we get a chance to do this.

IRA FLATOW: Do you feel the frailty? Do you feel the fragility?

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, that’s the other thing that hit me, is that, as I was looking at this scene, I looked down at my hands, and my hands were inside of a inside of a spacesuit with life support, and I could not last without this spacesuit, without my life support, very long. It’s because what protects us and keeps us alive is our atmosphere, and you can see the atmosphere, the thinness of it, just a blue line going around the planet. And the size relationship. If you think of an onion, the top thin layer of the onion is the size relationship of our atmosphere to the rest of our planet.

And we kind of know that intellectually, that we have to take care of the planet, but when you see it, and you’re wearing a spacesuit, and you look out in the other direction, we got nowhere to go here. We got to take care of this place. So yeah, the fragility is a beautiful, fragile home, and it’s a home that all of us share.

That’s the other thing that got me. We’re both from Franklin Square, and I’ll always be a kid from Franklin Square and a New Yorker and an American, but I think of myself as a citizen of Earth. And everyone on the planet shares the same home.

IRA FLATOW: You can read a lot more about Mike Massimino in his book. We’re going to have to take a break and come back and take your questions with Mike, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK. Flora and I will be right back after this break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

FLORA LICHTMAN: And I’m Flora Lichtman. We’re talking this hour about getting to space, what the experience is like, and what you can learn from it with former astronaut Mike Massimino. He’s the author of Moonshot, A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible. You can read an excerpt from the book at sciencefriday.com/moonshot. Ira, I know a lot of people are calling in. Should we go to the phones?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the– yes, there’s so many people. Let’s go to Patrick in Rochester, New York. Hi, Patrick. Patrick, go ahead. Are you there? Can you hear me? Oh, that’s too bad. His question was, if you could bring anyone into space, who would it be and why? Who needs to have– maybe some political leader, a actor.

MIKE MASSIMINO: I don’t know. The only thing I can think of is you.


MIKE MASSIMINO: And maybe Flora could go. I think you guys would be great, the both of you.

IRA FLATOW: I had a chance. I had the chance.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Both of you should come. You had the chance to go to space?

IRA FLATOW: They had the journalist in space program.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, I know about that.

IRA FLATOW: Before the Columbia.

MIKE MASSIMINO: I heard about that. Yeah, I’ve been told by many journalists about that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and I was going to apply for it. And an old friend of mine is Jeff Hoffman, the–

MIKE MASSIMINO: Oh, yeah, great guy.

IRA FLATOW: Jeff Hoffman, yeah. I said to Jeff, what’s the test that I– the toughest test to pass? And he said, back in those days, we put you in a garbage bag and tie it up, and you have to be able to survive that, and I said, I have claustrophobia. I’ll never, ever pass that. Why would you do that? He says, it’s a backup, backup, backup, backup thing in case we have to rescue somebody.

MIKE MASSIMINO: He said that was the toughest thing?

IRA FLATOW: That’s the toughest thing.

FLORA LICHTMAN: What was the toughest thing for you?

MIKE MASSIMINO: I took a nap when they put me inside. I was relieved that they were leaving me alone.


MIKE MASSIMINO: Just go inside of this thing for a while.

IRA FLATOW: Well, when you have claustrophobia, that’s not a nap.

MIKE MASSIMINO: I fell asleep inside of it. It was a small little– they called it a rescue sphere.

IRA FLATOW: That’s why you have the right stuff, and I don’t.

MIKE MASSIMINO: I don’t know. Yeah, I can go to sleep anywhere, I guess. It was not– that wasn’t a problem. The toughest thing– well, the toughest thing about being an astronaut in general is getting selected, and for me, the eye test was tough.

But I think the toughest trial for me was passing a swim test. I talk about that in the book because I wasn’t a very strong swimmer, and we had to pass. We had to pass a swim test in order to go through water survival training, and we needed to go to water survival training because flying in a T-38 jet trainers, we had an ejection seat, and if you had an emergency and ejected out of the aircraft, you might– very good chance you might land in the ocean, and someone’s got to come get you.

So you have to survive in the water, and the shuttle also had a bailout scenario for one of their aborts, and you would bail out and land in the ocean. They’ve got to come get you for that, so you’ve to keep yourself alive until they can find you. So in order to fly in the shuttle, fly in our airplanes, and do our training, we had to go through parachute training, and we had to go through water survival training.

In order to do that, we had to pass a swim test, and I wasn’t looking forward to this because I wasn’t a very strong swimmer. Ira, did you learn to swim? You almost became a lifeguard.

IRA FLATOW: I was almost– yeah, I failed the last test, the last part.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, I wasn’t a very good swimmer. I would never have gotten close on a lifeguard test, but I had to become a pretty good swimmer in order to pass this test to go to this water survival training with the Navy and wasn’t feeling good about it. I show up for work. My first week as an astronaut was mainly just administrative stuff, and the second week, we were going to start our training together. And I was around all these superhero type military, smart, high performing people, and I was kind of dreading this embarrassment that I was awaiting for me once we got in the pool.

And Jeff Ashby, a Navy pilot who was from a previous class, comes in to address our group, and he says, I want to– it was the end of the week on that first week. And he says, we’re done for this week. I want to remind everyone training starts on Monday in earnest, and we’re going to start with the swim test. And I was like, really? How about a math quiz? Can we do that instead? The party’s over. I’m just going to be embarrassed by this.

And then he went on to say, who are the strong swimmers in the group by a show of hands? And then he said, who are the weak swimmers in the group, and I raised my hand? And he said, everyone else can go home, but the strong swimmers and the weak swimmers stay after class. You’re going to find the time to meet at a pool over the weekend. When we go to the pool on Monday, no one’s going to leave that pool until everyone passes the test.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Mike, this part of the book actually made me a little teary because I would have– it was an a-ha for me. I would have expected that NASA might be a competitive or macho place because there’s these really high achieving people in one room. But it sounded like there was more collaboration, camaraderie–


FLORA LICHTMAN: Than I would have guessed.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, and I had this in my mind. I was a little boy, Ira, when we were watching Neil Armstrong. Flora’s way too young for that, but when we were watching Neil Armstrong and those guys, to me, they were superheroes, and I wondered, what would they be like, these guys, these superhuman people?

As I started meeting them, the current astronauts that I started working with before I was selected, I found out they were the nicest people I’ve ever come across. They were high achieving people, but there was a purpose about them. They were there to do it for science, for exploration, for their country. It was like a perfect good, and I felt like I fit in very well.

I didn’t see myself being this superhero, and neither did they. They were very grateful for the opportunity and were there to help everybody out, and you cannot be successful in a job like that– just like any job. Here, we’ve got so many people helping us here, doing the radio show today.

You can’t do it alone, and certainly in space, you can’t do it alone. And you can get hurt. It gets dangerous unless you’re working together, never mind also achieving the goal of the mission. So I think a lot of that culture, a lot of the lessons I share in the book come out of this military culture that was kind of changed in some ways.

I think our culture at NASA, in the astronaut office, took the best of both military and civilian life and gave us these great guidelines to live by, and teamwork was one of them. And I can’t remember what the question was–

IRA FLATOW: That’s OK, you’ve answered it. You were answering it. Let me go to Annika in Fremont, California. Hi, Annika. Annika?

CALLER: Hello?

IRA FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

CALLER: Hi. Hi, my name’s Annika. I’m a high schooler. I’m from Fremont, California, and I had a question for you. So as I’m a teenager, I wear glasses, and I’ve also done scuba diving certification, so I thought that was pretty cool that you did it, too.

I was wondering if you, as an astronaut, have you learned anything about extraterrestrial life? And if you’ve learned about how things can be– as you said before, in the 19– extraterrestrial life in another solar system can hear radio waves in the 1920s? So do you know any more information on that, or if there even is extraterrestrial life?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, do you think there’s extraterrestrial life, now?

MIKE MASSIMINO: I do. I don’t know anything. Sometimes, people think that– here’s the secrets, guys. But no, we really haven’t– as far as I know, and there is no evidence that we’ve been visited or that we’ve discovered any life out there yet. But I do think that day is coming, and what the Hubble has shown us is that there are– the telescope [INAUDIBLE] missions that I worked on.

The Hubble has shown us that there are billions of galaxies, each of which have billions of stars, most of which have multiple planets orbiting around them. In your lead up today, you talked about this new system of six planets and maybe more in this one. So there’s lots of possibilities. To think that we’re the only life form here in the whole universe, I think that’s very unlikely, but we haven’t found each other yet.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Martin in Southington, Connecticut. Hi, Martin.

CALLER: Hi, how are you?

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

CALLER: Yes, Michael Massimino, Martin McCarthy from Commonwealth Street.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Oh, my gosh, he lived down the block.

IRA FLATOW: He lived down the block from us.



CALLER: I know.

FLORA LICHTMAN: It’s like a high school reunion.

CALLER: How are you?

MIKE MASSIMINO: I’m doing all right, man.

CALLER: Good for you. My wife and I passively follow your career, and I just figured I’d give you a phone call, see if I could get on it and let you know what an amazing job you’ve done. When you consider us playing under the trees on Commonwealth Street, [INAUDIBLE]


CALLER: To be a man of the cosmos–

MIKE MASSIMINO: No, that’s amazing. Yeah, it’s great to hear from you. I remember– used to, we’d spend our summers watching– remember, we watched Frankenstein movies and stuff like that and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That was the days in the summer, Mart. It’s great to hear from you.

IRA FLATOW: Before air conditioning. Thanks for calling. Let’s go to another phone call. Let’s go to Robin in Mandeville, Louisiana. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.



CALLER: I am here.


CALLER: I have two questions, and number one, I just looked up his book, and I lived in Titusville right on the river from 95 to 2002. And I’m almost certain I saw him go up in March because I saw every space shuttle go up between those times.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Thank you. Thanks for watching.

CALLER: Yeah. Oh, you’re welcome. I couldn’t help. The windows rattled, and there’s a lot of noise going on, and people. Also, my 12-year-old grandson wants to become an astronaut. He’s always had that idea in his head. He’ll be in seventh grade next year. What’s a good– let’s see, how do I put it?

IRA FLATOW: Game plan.

CALLER: What should he do? Yeah, what’s a good plan to get him to where he wants to be?

MIKE MASSIMINO: Well, I think the best thing he can do is keep dreaming and doing the best that he can in school and listen to his parents. Did you say he was your grandson?

CALLER: He’s my grandson, yeah.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Listen to his grandma, I think, would be a good idea because you seem to be caring about him. So listen to the people that care about you. Try to live as best as you can. Try as hard as you can, and do the best that you can. And I think that’s really, at this point, that’s what’s important.

As far as like what he might go into or study, it’s really what he likes. I flew in space with military test pilots. I also flew in space with engineers and astronomers, and that makes sense.

But I also flew in space with a geologist. Drew Feustel was a field geologist. He liked rocks. He was working for an oil company, looking for oil because he liked rocks.

I flew in space with Megan McArthur, was an oceanographer. She wanted to become an astronaut at an early age, studied aerospace engineering, and then because she was the smallest person on the submarine team, they made her be the driver, and she learned how to scuba dive. And she went into oceanography because that’s what she loved.

And then I flew in space with a veterinarian. Rick Linehan loved animals, and he became a veterinarian. He really loved dolphins. He was taking care of dolphins when he became an astronaut, so I think it’s really–

CALLER: I didn’t realize there were so many– so much diversity [INAUDIBLE].

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, it really is what whatever he might be interested in, so I think science, engineering, math, the STEM fields, are the key, and find something you like. Follow what you love doing, and don’t worry so much about being an astronaut. That might sound strange, but I think I always try to think of– I didn’t want to do anything just to become an astronaut because then you start doing things that maybe aren’t right for you because there’s so many pathways to go at it. And I think if you follow what you love and work as hard as you can at it, I think you get led to a good outcome.

IRA FLATOW: I hope that helps.

CALLER: That’s very good advice. Thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks for the call.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Mike, speaking of diversity in space, you described yourself as not the typical astronaut, not the Neil Armstrong. How do we open up space even more for people who are even less like Neil Armstrong?

MIKE MASSIMINO: Well, I think it’s happening. I think that the NASA program has been– was, at first, just military test pilots. And then when the shuttle program opened up, it changed, and that’s what– when I was in college, I started looking into this when I went to see the movie The Right Stuff, and I read the book by Tom Wolfe, and it kind of changed my thinking, that maybe this is something I can do because, looking into what astronauts were in the 80s, it wasn’t just the military test pilots.

It was also scientists and engineers. The first people of color were picked. The first women were picked to be astronauts for the shuttle program, and as Ira said earlier when we were talking, that he was almost was going to try out to be a journalist to fly in space.

So NASA was trying its best to open up the doors to more people. Even the eye problem I had is not an issue anymore, so the medical qualifications have changed. The height limit has gotten bigger and smaller, and so now, more and more people can go.

But I think what’s even more possible for people is the chance to go as a non NASA astronaut with some of the private missions they have that are available now. Now, they cost a lot of money, but still, we’ve had some interesting people go that are not your career astronauts. Some with non-technical degrees are able to go in space now.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Flora Lichtman and I are talking with Mike Massimino, author of the great new book Moonshot, A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible. Mike, we just have a couple of minutes left. What’s your message to people in this book? What do you want them to get out of this?

MIKE MASSIMINO: I think that I would like them to know that anything is possible in life, and if it can happen to me, it can happen to them. There’s nothing– we just heard from Marty McCarthy. I know Marty was not impressed with me when I was a little kid. He was a bit older than me, and I was just a skinny, scrawny kid. We were talking about learning science back in Cary High School. I didn’t do very well in Mrs. Katz’s– did you have her, Mrs. Katz?

IRA FLATOW: No, I didn’t. I had–

MIKE MASSIMINO: You remember her?

IRA FLATOW: I don’t remember her, but I did not do well in high school chemistry. I got C’s and never achieved that, and even in college chemistry, I was awful. But I picked it up years later.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Yeah, and you get through those trials. I did not do well. I got a D in one. Don’t go out and start failing stuff and blame it on me now, kids.

But that was a wake up call. I was in the eighth grade, and I really had to start working harder, and I had– there was a Student National Honor Society that I signed up to get some tutoring, and I got the help I needed, and I was able to pull out a very good grade by the end of the year.

So there’s going to be obstacles and roadblocks, whether it’s the vision test for me. That’s no longer a roadblock for people, but there’s always going to be things in the way. Successful people are not those that never failed. They are they that never let failure stop them.

And I had bad eyesight. I’m afraid of heights. We haven’t even talked about that. I still don’t like heights. I’m not a thrill seeker, but I had this desire, this dream of wanting to be a part of the NASA team and flying in space, and doing that as a career.

And I was able to make it happen, and that’s what I share in the book. So if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, Ira. There’s nothing special about us growing up in Franklin Square, and we’re sitting here together, both of us with really cool jobs here, with Flora next to us, and it’s possible. Your dream can come true, and I would encourage people to give it a try. You owe it to yourself to try.

IRA FLATOW: NASA used to say failure is not an option, but failure is an option.

MIKE MASSIMINO: It is. It’s going to happen, and I think you learn from that. You make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s another thing I talk about.

There’s a rule I learned, a 30 second rule, where you fail at something, or you make a mistake, you’re not going to be mistake free. We try to be. We try to be mistake free, but things are going to happen that we don’t plan on, and we don’t like. And it’s OK to be upset about it, but limit it to 30 seconds, and then leave it in the past and move on. That’s another rule that I talk about.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we have run out of time. I’d like to thank Mike Massimino, an old–

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thank you, Mike.

IRA FLATOW: Neighborhood friend of mine.

MIKE MASSIMINO: From around the corner.

IRA FLATOW: Around the corner.

MIKE MASSIMINO: This is unbelievable. What’s the chances of that? That’s less than 1 in million that we would end up here together all these years later.

IRA FLATOW: Author of a great book, Moonshot, A NASA Astronaut’s Guide to Achieving the Impossible, and you can read an excerpt from the book at sciencefriday.com/moonshot. Until we meet again.

MIKE MASSIMINO: Great to see you, Ira. Thank you, and Thank you, Flora.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

About Flora Lichtman

Flora Lichtman was the host of the podcast Every Little Thing. She’s a former Science Friday multimedia producer.

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