“Astro Mike” Returns to Campus to Inspire a New Generation to Explore Space

Bridget O'Brian
November 13, 2013

When astronauts go on a mission, they are allowed to take one or two personal items with them. On his first space flight in 2002, Michael Massimino (ENG’84) took a Columbia Engineering School flag. The second time, in 2009, he took a gray Columbia Engineering T-shirt covered with the signatures of as many Engineering School students and faculty as could fit on it.

Now, the 51-year-old Massimino is bringing space to the Engineering School as a visiting professor on loan from NASA for this 2013-2014 academic year. He’s looking for research opportunities and partnerships in which Columbia faculty can collaborate with the space agency, and come spring he will teach a 4000-level course titled “Introduction to Human Space Flight” to undergraduate and graduate engineering students. “I want to get into the consciousness of the people of New York City and some of the students here at Columbia that the space program may be a fun place for them to work someday,” he said.

That shouldn’t be a hard sell for Massimino, who exudes humor and positive energy as he strides around the Morningside campus wearing a NASA fleece or polo shirt and, as @Astro_Mike, tweeting news and pictures about the University and space. He is the first person to tweet from space and has more Twitter followers, 1.6 million, than any other Columbian except for President Barack Obama (CC’83), who has 39.5 million.

“I like trying to share what I’ve been able to do, and Twitter was perfect for that,” said Massimino. “I tried writing a blog, and it was like I was back in college — it felt like I had a term paper due. But 140 characters—that I can handle.”

Massimino grew up on Long Island, the son of a New York City Fire Department inspector and a homemaker, and decided to become an astronaut at age 6 after watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. The impulse faded until Massimino’s senior year, when he saw the movie The Right Stuff, about the first Americans in space. “What got me was the views out of John Glenn’s spaceship and the camaraderie between those astronauts,” he said. “They were doing something that I thought was really important and really cool, and it looked like a lot of fun.”

After graduating with a degree in industrial engineering, he took a job at IBM, deferring graduate school to give him time to think about what he wanted to do. It didn’t occur to him immediately to apply to NASA—he doesn’t consider himself a thrill-seeker, and he doesn’t like heights. “I grew up in New York—the subway was the most exciting thing I did.” Eventually he got a master’s and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at MIT and began working for NASA during summers.

In 1996, after applying four times to the program, he was finally accepted as an astronaut candidate. “I think a lot of times people, for whatever reason, go to Plan B too quickly,” he said. “If you have to settle at some point in your life, maybe that will become obvious, but don’t aim low—aim as high as you can.”

For Massimino, aiming high meant 370 miles above Earth, where the Hubble telescope orbits every 97 minutes. His two NASA missions involved 30 hours and four minutes over four separate space walks to repair the device that has beamed hundreds of thousands of space images to Earth since 1990.

“The only sad thing about being an astronaut,” he said, “is when you’re seeing these beautiful things, especially doing a space walk, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘How can I explain this to my friends, and how can I remember this?’”

The release of the recent hit film, "Gravity," gave him the chance to share some of that awe as journalists sought him out to comment on the special effects.

“It was very realistic,” said Massimino, who has also made four guest appearances on the popular sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory." “It also shows the hazards of space. We tend to forget that and think that launching into space is routine. Every once in a while we lose a spacecraft and a crew, and we get reminded that it’s not.”

Massimino is one of three Engineering School graduates who became astronauts, but the only one to have been a Columbia undergraduate. (Kevin P. Chilton received a master’s from the school in 1977 and Gregory H. Johnson in 1985.) By the time he finishes his stint next spring it will be time for Massimino’s 30th reunion. “Columbia Engineering gave me a great start, a great education, and created opportunities beyond my wildest dreams,” he said.