In Conversation with the Spaceman

Mike Massimino Ph.D., professor of engineering at Columbia University and a veteran of two space flights, shared his incredible and inspiring story with Peddie students today, encouraging students to pursue their passions.

At the age of six, Massimino’s dream was to become an astronaut. As he grew older, that dream seemed less and less realistic. “I wasn’t a thrill-seeking kid,” he told the students in Efros Auditorium. “I didn’t like heights, which is weird, considering I’m an astronaut. I didn’t like to go fast - also weird. But I did like math and science, and that’s what lead me to study engineering. The way I looked at it - the way I still look at it - is that engineering is taking math and science and applying it to build real things.”

It was this interest in engineering that led Massimino to Columbia University and their engineering program. After completing their four year program and entering the workforce, Massimino had a realization: “I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. What I was passionate about and what my true interest was deep in my heart. And that was the space program.”

In the 1980’s, NASA’s shuttle program was more accessible than ever before. NASA put out a call for astronauts and Massimino eagerly applied, only to be rejected. And rejected again. And a third time. Meanwhile, Massimino attended graduate school at MIT, earned his Ph.D. in Engineering, moved to Houston, Texas to work at Johnson Space Center where he developed laptop computer displays to control the robotic arms that astronauts use to manipulate objects outside of spacecraft, and became a university professor.

He was accepted on his fourth application.

As an astronaut, Massimino participated in the fourth and fifth maintenance missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. He was a member of the team that logged the most hours spacewalking in a single mission. He became the first man to tweet in space. Here on Earth, he teaches courses at his alma mater, including Introduction to Human Spaceflight and The Art of Engineering, a course mostly taken by first-year engineering students. He is the Chief of the Astronaut Appearances Office, he hosts the Science Channel series The Planets, he has a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (as himself) and he is the author of a memoir, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe. While visiting Peddie, he shared his story, answered student questions and toured the Digital Fabrication Lab.

“I think Dr. Massimino’s journey will help to shape and inspire students who are considering a career path along those lines,” said director of college counseling Joe Rulewich, who helped arrange this event, “whether it’s specifically in the field of engineering or not involved with STEM at all. Obviously STEM is a huge emphasis at Peddie, but I think this a chance to let all of our students take advantage of an opportunity to think about where their interests take them, and how they may pursue something while they’re at Peddie and also foster ideas about what they may do when they do go off to the next phase of their life. It’s also a chance for Peddie to continue that communication, the dialogue in that relationship with our friends at Columbia. And let them have a chance to see not only our curriculum here and our students but also the spaces in which our students are doing amazing work with the help of our faculty.”

On the role of education in his story, Massimino said, “That’s what my education taught me and what the space program taught me. Things seem unlikely, they seem improbable, but they only become impossible when you give up, Work hard, don’t give up, and an extraordinary life is possible."