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NASA astronaut Michael Massimino talks about the “right stuff” you need to work in space – a healthy helping of math and science, but also passion and patience. Listen to this fascinating astronaut’s journey to save the Hubble Space Telescope. Check out a live demo of how to conduct an Extra Vehicular Activity (spacewalk).
Episode filmed live at the 2014 World Science Festival in New York City. The full Cool Jobs program from that year can be viewed online.
How’s everybody doing? I don’t even know if I need to say it’s a cool job, but it is a really cool job. But what I would like, especially for our young people to realize is that you need to figure out… You need to figure it out, but dream at least about what you’re passionate about. And if it’s involved with math and science or engineering, like it was for me and the other people that have spoken to you today, then you should pursue it. And it might not be easy because learning math and science in school was very difficult for me and wasn’t always smooth. But decide what it is that you like and don’t give up while you’re on that journey. So those are some of the things that we’re going to try to show to you from my experiences through a couple of pictures I’m going to show you. This is actually Buzz Aldrin. The picture was taken by me, alarm strong.
So I was six years old when I watched this happen on my TV set. And that’s what inspired me. I said, “How do I do that?” I had no idea what was going to happen. I was like, “That’s the job I want.” And so I went through high school and enjoyed math and science and found out that engineering might be something I’d be interested in studying because it was the applications are math and science. I got lucky enough to go to Columbia University, worked for a couple years. I was an engineer after graduating and then I started thinking about what I really wanted to do with my life at that point. And it was the space program that kept coming up in the back of my mind. So I went to grad school, got very lucky and had a chance to go to MIT and started pursuing my application to be an astronaut once I was in graduate school.
So I sent my application to NASA and you know what they told me? They told me no. So I had to wait a couple of years and I applied again. But then after a couple of years I had gotten my PhD from MIT. Big deal. So I put my new application in and guess what they told me then? They told me no. So then I in fact actually went down in my ranking. It was a lot of good that did me. So a couple of years had gone by, and then I moved to Houston. This is the Johnson Space Center. This is where astronauts train. But to me, this was the place I wanted to be. If I couldn’t be an astronaut, I wanted to be working here helping people go to space.
So I got to know a lot of the astronauts. I worked for a contractor at the Johnson Space Center. I put in another application, I got an interview so they got to know me very well. Only about 100 people get an interview. They got to know me real well. And guess what they told me after that? They told me no. So anyway, I applied again when I was in Atlanta and got another interview. And this time they told me yes. So after my fourth try, I got picked. Thank you. That was in 1996. So I tell you that story because things don’t always work out the first time. And scientists can tell you this too. The first time they tried something in the laboratory or they try an experiment, it might not work. And for me, just about nothing works the first time I try it.
And I think that that’s okay. I think the important thing is that you don’t give up. So that’s why I tell you that story, is not to give up if you’re trying to pursue something, particularly if you’re trying to pursue a dream that isn’t so easy. You got to recognize, “Hey, this is not maybe so easy. I might have to tough it out.” And that’s what I did and I got lucky. And I’m on the second row from the top third from the left. So that was me back in 1996. Now the cool part of my job. So I’m going to talk a little about flying in space, but we do a lot of cool stuff while we’re on Earth. And I’m going to tell you just a couple of them. There’s lots of stuff. But one of them for me was getting to fly in a T-38 aircraft.
I was a private pilot, but I’d never been in a military airplane before, especially one like this, which is really cool to fly in. This is a picture of me in the cockpit. Thank you. So this was taken as a National Geographic documentary and they had these GoPro cameras. About once a week I got to do a training flight. And when I was looking at this photo, when I first got it, I was saying, “What am I…” Because I was looking at my advisor. See below me is blue? The sky and above me, you can see in the reflection of my helmet, it looks like land and a cloud deck? So really what I figured out is I was like this. I think we were at the top of a loop at about 24,000 feet going about 500 knots upside down.
Is this a cool job or what? All right, I want to talk about spacewalking and then I’ll show you some stuff in space and I’m going to do a demo here. This is me working with some astronaut gloves on and a power tool that we helped design to do a job to repair an instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope. There were 117 small screws that needed to be removed from this instrument. So we practice things like this over and over again. It’s a big team effort. We have instructors, we have tool designers, we practice this stuff on land, and then we’d go in the water and practice the whole space walk. On my missions we had five space walks, which is a lot of space walking. We did those five days in a row. We had two teams. We would alternate. So we would run those space walk scenarios Monday to Friday in the pool, just like we would in space.
And those days were great. When I say, “Boy, I can’t wait until I get back tomorrow.” That’s how much fun it was doing this stuff. Right now what’s going on, it’s kind of bright in the pool, thats me Pulitzer me on the left. [inaudible 00:05:43] my buddy is on the robot arm on the right. These scuba divers are holding a big silver thing. It’s a camera, it’s an IMAX camera. They made an IMAX film from our flight. And they used some of the footage that they took that day in the pool to make that movie. But that’s us practicing fixing the Hubble. Here’s my crewmen. Talk to you a little bit about my second flight into space. We’re doing a training exercise in an army personnel carry down. It’s an emergency thing we were doing down at the Kennedy Space Center.
We launched. You go from zero to 17,500 miles an hour in eight and a half minutes. It’s a lot of power. It’s acceleration speed. It is a really cool ride into space that you take. We got to the Hubble a few days later, we rendezvoused with it, grabbed it with the robot arm, and then we got to space walk. And so there’s a picture of me space walking, handling a solar, right? So you work with really cool tools. You’re inside of your own spaceship, which is your space suit. And just over your shoulder at any minute is the most beautiful scene you’ve ever seen. Seeing the Earth from space at the Hubble altitude, you can see the curvature of the earth. It takes up your whole field of view, but it’s just magnificent. This is a picture of us going from darkness into sunlight.
Since we’re going so fast in space, we get 45 minutes of sun followed by 45 minutes of darkness. 90 minutes for one lap, you get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in one day. And you can see the line. When you’re space walking, one thing you can do is you can kind of feel the heat of the sun coming, take a look at the planet. You can see the sun out in the distance as our stars out there. And what you realize is that date line, that difference between blackness and light is moving. And that’s a sunrise on earth that you’re watching. And what hit me was that I’m watching the revolution of our planet. I’m watching the planet move. You really think of the sun is coming up and going down. That’s not what’s happening. That suns not moving. I’ve seen it, the sun’s staying right where it is. We’re the ones that are moving. So that’s me at the end of the [inaudible 00:08:00] So I think we’re going to… We’ve talked a little bit about training and what we do in space. I’m going to bring my friend out. He’s all dressed up.
You all right, man? All right. Okay, so we got this wire coming down. We actually do this sort of stuff. I showed you the pool. Remember the big picture? So the pool is really big. It’s 200 feet long, 100 feet wide, 40 feet deep. We get to get in our space suits and practice our crew coordination, all that. But you’re kind of slowed down by the viscosity of the water. It’s not exactly like moving in space. So they do this kind of stuff to us. You’re doing all right, man? All right. If you have any trouble, you let me know. So what they do is they do hang us from wires like this, like Peter Pan, because this gives us a little bit of a different experience. If he were to push off for me. There you go. He goes flying, you don’t want that to happen when you’re in space.
So you learn how to keep yourself stable and do your work. So one thing we would do is… Harris, I’m going to grab your feet. Okay? So if your feet are nice and stable, then you’re going to stay in one place and you can do your work. So go ahead. You want that? I’m going to give you this. Okay? Just keep it out of my face a little bit. There we go. All right, here we go. All right. So he’s got a helmet on, I don’t. So I can’t get hit with that thing. So he’s not doing something that’s very easy. It’s harder for a couple reasons. One is that he’s not as stable as he’d like to be. I mean, I’ve got his feet, but he’s floating and all this stuff is floating. If he were doing this in space, he’d have this stuff attached to a tether.
So if he drops this. It’s going to go to the floor. You got it in there. Congratulations. You want to try this other one? All right. Okay. See, that’s what happens with gravity. Here, try that again, man. We’ll keep working. So in space you would want to have that on a tether so it wouldn’t float away from you. And he’s also working with gloves on. So I described space walking, working on the Hubble is like working on your car, except you’re doing it with boxing gloves on. So you have to design the tools a certain way so that they’re easy to use. You don’t want to lose anything. So you need tethers, you need hooks and things so you won’t lose your stuff. You got to keep track of everything and be very, very particular in how you work. He’s got a suit on, which is also not the easiest thing to work inside of. Our space suits give us some extra pressure. You have to fight against that pressure to do your job. But he’s got it this time, I think. So we’re going to call victory.
So I’m going to leave you alone now so you can enjoy the rest of your day. But I would like, especially the young people here to remember a couple of things. One is that whatever it is that you might want to do, I would encourage you to pursue it with all your heart. You have to be true to yourself. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but if it’s what you want to do, you got to give it a shot. So I want you to dream about what you want to do, and I want you to think big aim high. If you’re interested in being an astronaut, try to be an astronaut. If it doesn’t work out, you can do something else. But I would aim high. Don’t settle for second best. Do as well as you can. And the third thing is never surrender. Okay? Don’t give up. Don’t give up your dream. Have a great day.