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Interview with NASA astronaut on ‘Gravity’ and the dangers of spacewalking

NASA astronaut Michael Massimino has logged over 30 hours of spacewalking during two missions on the space shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope. He has performed four spacewalks, the longest of which was around eight hours. I was lucky enough to get to talk to him about Gravity, a new movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney about two astronauts and a spacewalk gone badly. Being a true blue New Yorker, Massimino added a flare to the interview one would not expect from a guy with a list of degrees as long as his arm, including a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT. If there was ever an astronaut I would love to hang out with at a bar having a great time listening to stories about his adventures in space, this is the guy.

Txtd-Dom-Drifting-1sht-GVTYRojas: When you are doing spacewalks is there actually sound in space? Are you able to hear things while you are out there?

Massimino: Well, the only thing you can hear is what is piped in through your headset, so in other words if you were to take a hammer and bang on the spacecraft, you wouldn’t hear that. The people inside might hear it, because they have air inside of there, but you have no way to get that sound. So the only thing you hear is the electronic signal that comes in through your headset. So you hear conversations, people talk to you and you can talk to them.

There was a scene, he was listening to music. That is a bit unusual, it is not impossible. It is not like you have a radio you can listen to up there, but your friends can pipe music in to you on occasion and no one else can hear it. We have a way to do that privately, or to get messages to you privately. But, that is what you hear. Everything that comes to you while you are spacewalking, the only thing you can hear is what is delivered to your communications cap.

R: And what is the physics of that? I mean, why is it that you can’t hear something in space?

M: Well it is because there is no air, so unlike light, which can travel in space, sound cannot. Sound needs a medium. The reason we can hear each other, right now we are talking over a phone, that’s different. But if you and I were in the same room, there is air in the room and you can hear. You can hear yourselves, because the sound wave needs a medium to travel along, and it has the air, so it can travel along the air. The sound wave does not travel in space, because it is a vacuum and there is no air, and so the only way you can communicate is over a radio.

R: So when you get out there, that is one sensation that is different than what we are used to experiencing. What is it like? Are there unexpected sensations or other observations you noted when you first got out of the spacecraft?

M: So when you are inside the spacecraft, like you said, it is a completely different experience. When you are inside the space craft you look through the window and you can see space. It is kind of like you are in an aquarium, “oh, look at the pretty fish.” You know, it does not look nice. You are wearing regular clothes, you might be eating something, you can go to the bathroom if you’d like to…When you go outside, and you are in your own spacesuit, it is now like you are kind of like a scuba diver. You are interacting with the environment. You are a part of it. I felt like a real spaceman, and the view is… The thing is you are prepared to do your work, like they show them in the movie.

You are prepared to do your job, but you are not prepared for the view around you. You know, what you see around you is just so magnificent it just kind of blows your mind, and the view of the earth is just incredible.

You know, some of the thoughts that went through my mind was, this would be the view from heaven, and it was replaced with this is what heaven must look like. I felt like I was looking into paradise. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And the stars are incredible, you can see at night you can see the stars, there is no twinkle twinkle little star, because you are above the atmosphere. The reason we have the stars twinkle at night is because the light is being kind of blurred by the atmosphere around the earth, which is thin, but it is pretty dense, so it cuts out a lot of the light, and that is why the Hubble space telescope is so good, because it is above the atmosphere.

So it is kind of like looking at the sun from the bottom of a swimming pool, versus looking at the sun above the swimming pool. You know what I mean? Now you are above that layer, so all of the stars they don’t twinkle they are perfect points of light. You can see the gas clouds, the gas clouds from the Milky Way nebula from our own Milky Way galaxy. You can see the stars, the planets, the moon looks three dimensional like a ball. You know on earth to me it looks more like a disk. The moon looks like it is another planet. It is like the coolest lookin’ thing, because you can see all of the craters really clearly. It is the same size, and it is just hanging out there. When you see it, when you are in part of the orbit where you can actually see it, it is unbelievable.

So, being outside during the space walk, the view of the earth is just spectacular, and getting a chance to do that is just unbelievable, everything about it. You are going around the earth at 17,500 miles an hour, so you have 45 minutes of sunlight followed by 45 minutes of darkness. You do a lap every 90 minutes. You get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets, but when you are outside spacewalking, the light from the sun is like a pure white light. It’s the brightest thing I have ever seen. It is beyond bright, it is just like purity, and the darkness is the darkest black I have ever experienced when you get on the other side of the earth.

R: It sounds amazing.

M:  It is unbelievable. It is so frickin’ cool.

Michael Massimino
Michael J. Massimino, STS-109 mission specialist. (Credit: NASA)

R: Is it distracting? Is it hard to focus because you are so amazed, and trying not to just stare at the wonderful view?

M: I think for our flights on the Hubble, we were really really concerned about, and I think most astronauts are, about getting your job done. So that is the first thing, just getting your work done. So that is kind of fun to. You know, you don’t want it to be a disaster. You want to do a successful job, so you do that and you want to be safety conscious and that’s probably the foremost thing on your mind, but these glimpses of earth you get…. You know you don’t get all that much time to that you are able to look, but when you do you really appreciate it.

I actually remember the very first time that I went spacewalking. I was the rookie and the veteran guy, Jim Newman, went out and made sure the coast was clear, and set up all of our tethers and all of that stuff. Then it was time for me to come out and I stuck my head out. I could see him hanging off the top of the shuttle and behind him was the earth and we were coming over Africa. I was like, “If I stare at that too long I am not going to get anything done.” It just blew my mind, you know? It is much different than what you see inside the spaceship, especially at the altitude of Hubble, which is 350 miles up. You can see the curvature of the earth and you can see it in its entirety. It takes up your field of view and you can see that it is a planet. It’s big, it takes up your whole scene, but I was like “I won’t be able to get any work done.” I looked straight ahead and I saw these handrails in front of me and I knew what I needed to do. It kind of reminded me, and made me feel comfortable that I could get my job done and all of that.  But yeah, you don’t want to just gawk at it, but there are times, you can’t help but notice sometimes the amazingness of what you are doing is just unbelievable. So it is trying to make a balance, you don’t want to get carried away one way or the other. You don’t want to miss out on the experience, but you don’t want to screw up your job.

I had some very lucky things happen to me. My last spacewalk, my fourth one, the most recent one, I was done before my spacewalking partner. My buddy was still coming in and my commander said, “hey, just go outside and enjoy the view,” and that’s what I did. I hung there for about 20 minutes. It was a day pass. We were coming over Hawaii, hit the coast of California, 11 minutes later we were over Miami more or less, then out over the Atlantic and it was time to come in just as the sun began coming down on us, and that was just amazing.

R: Four spacewalks, and the longest was about eight hours, is that correct?

M: Yeah, some of the longer ones. At Hubble we were there for a longer time. Our crew has the records for the most amount of spacewalking on space shuttle flights combined. We did five spacewalks each flight. We had a couple different teams working, so we split them up. But we did a lot of spacewalking, but I was outside for four of those spacewalks on my flights.

R: Do you know about how many hours you have spent on those walks?

M: Yeah, I have about 30-31 hours something like that, but I have over 30 hours spacewalking. I think two of my spacewalks are in the top ten longest. Yeah, we had some pretty long ones.

R: So, the dangers. This movie, it’s a thriller, it almost feels like a horror, I mean the fear of what happens, and I think it highlights some of the danger that people don’t realize is out there, and you in particular are pretty close to it, given that you were on the last successful flight of the Columbia. When the Columbia disaster happened, how did it make you feel in that you were the last one to have flown on that craft?

M: Yeah, if you notice Alejandro, do you know the number of the flight that we lost. It was STS-107, right? We were STS-109. So 109 comes after 107, so we were supposed to fly after that and what happened was is that Columbia came back from the shop, they overhauled the shuttles every few years back then, and it came back from the shop with a bad paint job, and they had to redo it, and they were concerned about getting us to the Hubble, because 107 was a science flight. You know, space lab, so they thought they could hold on to that one longer. They were worried about the telescope, so they swapped us. They let us go before them.

So we got their tank and they got ours, and they ended up having trouble with it. So, it was really crappy. It was like a nightmare, mainly because we were friends with all of them. It was just a living nightmare when that happened. It was hard. It was strange too. It attracted a lot of attention. I mean the next day the President was at the [Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center]. There was a lot of outpour of sympathy and we were trying to help out the families that were still there along with dealing with this and trying to understand what the heck happened. It was a lot of attention in a good way. The media, and the country, and the whole world, there was an Israeli onboard and it was really an international issue, an international tragedy. It was a strange time. It was really sad losing all of our friends like that.

R: Did it make it even harder then, a few years later, when you got on another ship in 2009?

M: The strangest thing. You would think so, right? But the truth of it is, Alejandro, is that we knew this could happen. I remember walking in to the office and seeing one of my mentors, a guy who had been in the program a few years before I was, and was a really good friend and a mentor. His name was Kevin Kregel. That Saturday when it happened, I remember going into the office and seeing him, and we just kind of shook our heads and were going, like we knew this could happen, and you just are hoping it doesn’t happen to you and you are sad it has to happen to anybody. It is like playing Russian roulette, eventually something like that is gonna happen.

So it wasn’t like I could add any new information and I remember speaking to my wife when the dust settled a little bit, after a couple of months, and I was like you know, “how do you feel about me flying again?” At that point I thought I was in line to get assigned another flight. We are not a military family or anything, and she looks at me and she goes, “You’ve only flown once. Don’t you want to go again?” I was like, “Yeah.” [She said] “I think you should go.” So it was kind of weird. I don’t think even for my family it didn’t add anything. I think the kids were a little bit different. I think my kids were 7 and 9 and they knew the kids of the families that were killed. I think my daughter was a little more sensitive to it, but I think in general it wasn’t like it was anything new. It was like, hey, this could happen. You sure as hell hope it doesn’t happen to you, but we also know that it is going to happen again.

I remember people talking about after the Apollo fire, some of the people back then saying, “you know it’s a dangerous business, but that’s flight business and it’s going to happen again.” After Challenger, this was really bad, but you know what? We probably are gonna have another one. I don’t think it is over by any chance. Things…crap can happen. It is a dangerous business. I think that is what the movie shows. The movie kind of sensationalizes it. It is kind of like a bad day in space on steroids, but it is really a dangerous business.

We were very concerned, I don’t want to give away the movie, but my flight, the Hubble, that is kinda where they start out. Our flight was actually canceled before I was ever assigned to it after the Columbia accident because they said it was too dangerous, because if we took a debris strike on the ascent, on the way up like Columbia did, or at the Hubble altitude there is more crap up there in space than there is at the lower altitude, so the likelihood of hitting debris is much higher at that altitude, and if we were to take a hit and we couldn’t come back, we had no place to hang out.

You know, we could go into survival mode for a few days to maybe try to stretch it, but there was no way we could get anywhere, we were stuck. We actually came up with a plan of a rescue space shuttle to come get us. So there was an extra space shuttle on the launch pad. If we had a problem, they would come get us, but we were very concerned about it. There are probabilities of getting hit by a debris strike. There are probabilities for everything that we try to minimize. One of the things with Hubble, we are at a higher altitude where there is more debris. Once we finished our work on the telescope, we lowered our orbit almost immediately to get to a safer place in space where there wasn’t as much debris.

The telescope when you look at it on one of its big antennae dishes there’s a hole about the size of a silver dollar that a rock went through. I was out at the Jet Propulsion lab in LA, after we took out this wide field camera, which is an instrument that has an exposed radiator, meaning the mirror is on the outside of the thing. When you pull the thing out you are pulling it out by the radiator, sort of, kind of. We got that thing back to Earth, I looked at it at the Jet Propulsion lab in LA, in Pasadena, and I could see that it was peppered. It looked like some kid had gotten a BB gun and shot it up. It was peppered with little debris strikes. So things can get ya.

This is something that can really happen, and I think what it shows is space is a dangerous place. Space is a dangerous business, but we prepare as much as we possibly can. We practice these things happening. What do we do if this happens, what do we do if that happens, what we do if there is a fire. We practice, practice, practice for some stuff we hope we never have to do.

R: Debris, like you mentioned, these tiny pieces are so small and so fast, you wouldn’t even see that, right?

M: Right, and that’s the thing. You are traveling at 17,500 miles an hour. That other thing if it is going about the same speed in the opposite direction, that’s pretty fast. That’s a pretty big impact, so something even really small can do a lot of damage.

R: So you have all of these concerns. First of all, is your vehicle safe? The debris, and also you know that when you get out of the craft you are facing these extreme temperatures, something like 250 degrees above or below Celsius, no oxygen… Do you have some psychological training to deal with fear that may take hold?

M: No, not really. I think the way that you deal with it is you train as much as you can. So for me, like the spacewalks… I remember us talking about it when I was a rookie. Our very first meeting of the spacewalkers when I got assigned to the flight, I was with three guys who were very experienced. The other guys had flown. Two of them had flown three times before; one of them had flown two times before. They had a lot of spacewalks between them. They had a lot of experience, and here I am this new guy. Right? Like the rookie.

I remember them saying, “you know what?” At this point Columbia hadn’t happened. They were like, you know we have lost a crew on launch, and one of the experiences guys said the next time we lose somebody it is going to be on a spacewalk, because it is so dangerous. We are going to make sure that we take care of each other. We are going to double check each other so we don’t make any mistakes, ‘cause we’re all coming back. We are going to take care of each other up there. And that’s what it was. We suited each other up, we made sure everyone was going to be safe to go before we let them outside the hatch, and we kept an eye on each other while we were spacewalkin’.

So I think the way to deal with that is you just try to be as prepared as you can. If you thought about just going and doing it, it might be pretty scary, but after all the training you have… I knew the spacesuit, it’s still in my head, backwards and forwards. I know that thing really well. I know every idiosyncrasy of what can go wrong, and how much time we have if something happens. And what’s the best way if my buddy has a problem, I had a plan to rescue them if they became incapacitated or they were hurt or something and I had to get them inside. We practiced a lot.

I knew exactly what I was going to do. There wasn’t any question. Do I do this, do I do that? You don’t have any time, so you need to know exactly how you are going to carry them, how you are going to rescue your buddy, and they had the same plan for you, and you had confidence that if something happened to you that your buddy was going to get you inside, and that everyone was going to take care of each other, and that the ground control center was going to help you as well. So I had utmost confidence in our whole team. We really had this great trust and this teamwork together, and I think that is the only way to approach that stuff because it is really dangerous, and every once in awhile something happens.

Txtd-Dom-Detached-1sht-GVTYR: Being scientists and astronauts, you guys know the risks and the potential risks more than people outside of the space program, yet you go do it. What motivates you to take these great risks?

M: I think for me, the astronaut job was a dream come true for me. It was something I thought about as a little kid, and then the dream kind of went dormant when I was in high school and college, and then it got rekindled watching a movie. This is why I say these movies are great. They are a bit scary, but I think that some little kids are gonna see Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts and get inspired. That’s my prediction. I think they are going to encourage more people to go into space than discourage them.

I saw this movie The Right Stuff when I was in college and it really rekindled my interest in being an astronaut, and the way I felt about it was like, “naw, I can’t have this kind of life. This kind of life is impossible, it can’t happen.” But I realized I wanted to do it. I started taking those steps, and then I realized it would be the chance of a lifetime. It would be a dream life, not just a job, but the whole life.

The people I get to work with are my friends. The other astronauts I got to work with, and their families I got to know, and the things I got to do. The life is extraordinary. So it comes with some risk, but it was a dream, I think, and I would hope that you and everybody else that is doing something, it is their passion and it is their dream.

So there is risk. You know plenty of reporters take plenty of risks, Alejandro. I mean they go out there, and they do all kinds of wacky things, man. I was talking to a reporter and some of the experiences she had covering war stories or natural disasters, and you do it because it is your passion. Everyone should feel that way about what they do. They should do it because they absolutely love it, and if there is risk involved, so be it.

I think most astronauts are not risk takers. We take calculated risks for something that we think is worthwhile. So this is something that is worthwhile, and the opportunity to do this is such an extraordinary opportunity that it does come with risk, but you try to minimize that and you try to understand it, and not let it paralyze you. That’s the way I have approached it.

R: Well, it’s almost difficult to measure the incredible effect that the Hubble telescope has had on the world, and these images. I think they have changed us all, and all of our understanding of science, let alone just scientists.

M: Yeah, you don’t have to be a scientist. I think that is why the Hubble is so popular, and astronomy is popular, because everyone can relate to it. Maybe not everyone can understand the principles of modern chemistry, but everyone can look up to the sky and say, “Wow, look at that!” You know? On a clear night how amazing it looks. You see those images of Hubble. Hubble takes us where we can’t go. It takes us way out to the edge of the universe, and the beauty and the mysteries are being unlocked.

There is a Nobel Prize winner, a guy by the name of Adam Reese, and it was on the discovery of dark energy, which was a Hubble discovery. It was one of the great Hubble discoveries just a few years ago. I didn’t win that Nobel Prize, but I feel very proud of my friend, who I have become friends with, not close friends, but I know the astronomers, and Adam in particular is a very bright nice fellow. He is always very grateful, and every time he sees me he says, “thank you for what you did.” We gave him his telescope, but he gave the world the discoveries. So we feel like we had a hand in that. I think that is very useful.

I had a few cameos on the Big Bang Theory and I was really hoping they were going to win the Emmy last night, because then I could say I had a hand in other people winning a Nobel Prize and an Emmy. I think one of the camera guys won a technical Emmy on an episode I was in. They said he won an Emmy for filming an episode in a space craft that I was a part of, so I try to take pride in that.

R: They’ll win some more. Maybe a Comedy Central award and you can have had a hand in it.

M: Right, you take pride in what these people accomplish with your small contribution in it. The Hubble is a no-brainer I think. I remember when I was getting assigned to it, another astronaut was saying, “man there is no question that going to do that is worth the risk.” It is great to be a part of that team. I wouldn’t trade it. It was one of the greatest professional memories of my life. Being part of those crews and working with the crews that I worked with, the camaraderie.

R: The movie presents what a daunting task it is to go out there and the possible consequences, so the movie kind of highlights just how heroic these efforts are.

M: I think that is a good way to look at it. Again, it is not just the astronauts, but it is everyone involved with the space program. We have a lot of people.

I knew the guys in the control center, all of the guys looking out for us. It’s a big team, it’s a big family and there is a lot of heroism in there, it’s not just the [astronauts]. In fact, in some ways we have the easy job. We get to go. It is the other people looking out after us.

R: So you are credited with being the first to twitter in space. It seems like Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield) kind of mastered it with all of the attention he got. How did you like his follow up to your twitter legacy?

M: He did alright. Has he passed me yet in followers?

R: Let me check.

M: I don’t know if he has passed me yet. He might have gone right by me. I don’t know.

R: I noticed you have a lot, a few million.

M: I got a lot, yeah. What happened is I got a lot of them and it kind of just stagnated after awhile. Chris is a good guy. He is a good friend, and I think he did a great job with spreading the word of what it was like up there. He had 6 months up there as opposed to our 2 weeks. I really didn’t get to tweet as much as I would have liked. It was only a couple weeks. We didn’t even really figure out how to do it. I think he had a great way of doing it. He took these pictures of the earth. He has people helping him with the research. I think his son was helping him.

Chris is a really good astronaut. He is a very experienced guy, and he had that comfort level to do that, I think, because he was such a good astronaut. He knew how to work the spaceship so well that it gave him the time to be able to put his attention and do some other things as well as just doing his space job. I think he did a great job. I think he did a great job spreading the word of what it is like to be up there and that is one of the reasons I like doing the Twitter and I like doing interviews like this.

We have a great job. We have this unbelievable experience, and the thing that strikes me when I look out the window of the spaceship is how do I share this with people? It is so beautiful. How do I tell my wife about this, or my kids about it, or my friends about this? You can take pictures, and you can tell stories, you try to get the word out as much as you can.

Another way is the movies. We did an IMAX movie, which was also a Warner Brothers gig on our flight that is called Hubble 3d. It is still being shown in some theaters. It has been out now for over three years. That was terrific. And in some ways, I think the Gravity movie, although it’s not a factual documentary, it shows the glory of space the way people work together and a lot of the aspects of a space flight that I think allows people to see what it is like to be in space. I like watching this movie because it kind of brings me back there. But, you know, it is a bad day in space. You can tell by the trailer, so it is not the kind of day you want to have in space, but it does share the experience in some way.

R: You will be happy to know that he has a little less than a million followers, but you have almost 1.3 million followers there, so you are still beating him.

M: Exactly, chicken feed. Take that Hadfield! No, Chris is a really good friend of mine, much more deserving of twitter followers than I am. Let me put it that way.

R: Last question is, you had mentioned in a recent interview that Sandra Bullock would make a great astronaut, and I was wondering what are some of the qualities she has that would make her a great astronaut?

M: I don’t really know her that well, but I met her at this press junket last week, and I was standing around in a blue flight suit and we know who she is of course. Even I know who she is. I mean, I don’t know a lot of actors and actresses. I’ve embarrassed myself and my family many times by not knowing who the hell it is I am talking to. You know what I mean? That is another interview you might want to do with me at one time. Stupid stuff said by dad.

She came right up to me and says, “Hi, we haven’t met. I am Sandy.” Just like that, and we started talking a little bit about the movie and the spacesuits and this and that. It was very brief because she was busy doing stuff, but she made a very good impression, and she seemed very very warm. A lot of times people ask me, “How do you become an astronaut? What’s important?” It is not only, and my case is a good example, it is not only the smartest people. Although, I am not saying Sandra Bullock isn’t smart, I am sure she is very bright.

It is not the smartest people, and it is not the best looking. A lot of times it is the people that can get along with other people, and work as a team, and she just struck me as the kind of person you would enjoy being around,  because she was very pleasant and easy to talk to, and I think that is a good quality for an astronaut to have. You want a good team player to work these problems together and help each other when you need help, not abandon your friends when the chips go down but support them when they need help. That’s why I thought she would be a good astronaut. George Clooney I have never met, but I am trying to start the rumor that he based his character on me.

R: Yeah, I am sure he did.

M: He is a pretty damn cool astronaut. I am going to recommend to NASA, they got a new group of astronauts, they should watch the movie and try to be as cool as George Clooney. That would be the objective.

R: Well, you are kind of becoming the Hollywood guy for NASA with your Big Bang appearances, your National Geographic Known Universe, so you are doing a good job being the cool George Clooney of NASA.

M: There you go. Oh wow! Now you’ve got me interested. That is quite a compliment.

Alejandro Rojas

Alejandro Rojas is a radio host for Open Minds Radio, editor and contributing writer for Open Minds magazine as well as OpenMinds.tv. For several years Alejandro was the official spokesperson for the Mutual UFO Network as the Director of Public Education. As a UFO/Paranormal researcher and journalist, Alejandro has spent many hours in the field investigating phenomena up close and personal. Alejandro has been interviewed by media organizations around the world, including the largest cable and network news agencies with several appearances on Coast to Coast AM.

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