Once an astronaut, now Mike Massimino can’t wait to be a space tourist

 arstechnica.com  5/20/2017 1:00:09 PM   Nathan Mattise
Ars interviews an astronaut!

NEW ORLEANS—Mike Massimino wanted to be an astronaut ever since Neil Armstrong inspired the former six-year-old. He obsessed over space so much, in fact, his mom once converted an elephant costume from Massimino’s first-grade play into his official flight suit.

“She cut the tail off and made it an astronaut,” he said while sharing a vintage Polaroid on stage at this year’s Collision Conference. “I didn’t have any friends apparently, so Snoopy was my copilot.”

Massimino eventually had the realization every kid does: becoming an astronaut (or a pro athlete, or a spy, etc.) ain’t easy. “When I was nine, the idea of becoming an astronaut seemed preposterous—it was like becoming a superhero,” he said. “But after college, I realized that was my passion, so I went to grad school.

“I was rejected three times, once for a medical issue. But on my fourth time...,” he continued, flipping the displayed image to a snapshot of modern astronaut Mike reuniting with Snoopy beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. “There’s a difference between something being impossible and something being improbable.”

Maybe that sounds sappy, but Massimino’s passion for space has helped power him into a remarkable career, highlighted by famously performing not one, but two spacewalks (including work during the final repair mission for the Hubble Telescope) and being the first person to tweet from space. His retirement hasn’t been quiet, either—Massimino seems to have devoted himself to getting others just as excited about the possibilities of space. What Neil deGrasse Tyson is to physics, Massimino could be for the next generation of space-obsessed youngsters.

To that end, Massimino has appeared multiple times on The Big Bang Theory, his work is said to have inspired portions of the film Gravity, and he has told his space tales everywhere from deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk to the live performances of The Moth. Massimino also acts as an advisor at NYC's Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, and his biography, Spaceman, hit the New York Times’ bestseller list after its debut last October. Today, he’s even looking into creating a show where he can discuss space with anyone from devoted scientists to interested celebs.

“I like telling the story—it’s so extraordinary to be an astronaut, and I’m still grateful to have that opportunity,” he tells Ars. “There’s still so very few people who get a chance to do it—not just fly in space, but to be in the astronaut office. Suddenly, you’re part of the club, and you’re hanging with Neil Armstrong. Actually, the week after I started there was a luncheon with Neil, and we were next to each other in the food line, I’m asking him about the Moon. If I approached Neil Armstrong a couple weeks earlier, I probably would’ve been arrested.”

Massimino says the two things people approach him most about these days are The Big Bang Theory and what space feels like. Massimino’s time proved unusual—he barfed his first day in space and gained weight instead of losing it—but he tells people the experience felt like an aquarium visit. When you first go up, you’re simply looking out into space but still functioning fairly normally (sans gravity) inside the spacecraft. But spacewalking immerses you in a way that only scuba diving can begin to approximate back on Earth.

“When you actually go into space, you’re immersed in that environment, and it’s like a scuba diver—you’re out there, on your own life support, dependent on machinery to keep you alive,” he says. “I felt like I was interacting with the environment. Like a scuba diver, you’re part of the system and not just looking through a window. Scuba diving is the closet thing that we can do on Earth to simulate a space walk, which is why it’s actually how we train.”

As for the state of space these days, Massimino says he hasn’t been this excited about the future in quite some time. From SLS, to NASA’s Mars ambitions, to Cassini, to the booming private industry, he sees a once extremely difficult-to-enter industry finally opening up.

“These private companies are starting to get into the space industry very legitimately, and they’re having successes, and they’re going to continue to have those successes,” he says. “There’s more opportunity to work in space, with a lot of new tech to make it cost-effective, driving all of this.

“That’s going to open up the opportunities to fly in space to many people, so I want to go back as a tourist,” he continues. “Of course, it’s got to get a lot cheaper, but I think the price will come down. So I want to go back and I want to complain, ‘Hey, what’s going on? My ice isn’t cold enough.’ Because when you go to space as an astronaut it’s fun, but you have to fly the ship. There’s a lot to worry about. 'Hey, where’s the food?'—that doesn’t work when you’re an astronaut. ‘Oh, you don’t like it?’ Go somewhere else.'”

Listing image by Nathan Mattise

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