The story of retired astronaut Michael Massimino

Not many people can say they’ve graduated both from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have published their memoir and have flown space missions with NASA except for our guest. Today, retired astronaut Michael Massimino is a mechanical engineering professor at Columbia Engineering School. He joins Hari Sreenivasan.

TRANSCRIPT

Not many people can say they've graduated both from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institut of Technology, have published their memoir, and have flown space mission with NAS except for our guest today Retired astronau Michael Massimino is a mechanical-engineering professor at Columbia Engineering School You are running a progra called Extreme Engineering You're teaching extreme.

What does that mean?

Yeah.

Hari, first of all thanks for having me

Oh, thanks to you

It's a pleasure to be her an get a chance to talk with you.

So Extreme Engineering was actually the ide of our dean of engineering at Columbia, Mary Boyce.

And I had some interesting stories to tell.

And every once in a while, a friend of mine would show up from NAS someplace and talk to students And so Mary had this ide to try to turn it into mor of a formal progra where we could inspire student to see what's ahead of them, after they get out of engineering school, that could be exciting And things like flying in spac or exploring in the Arctic or coming up with ne medical devices or figuring ou a way to turn wastewater which is one of our professors working on turning wastewate into resources and clean water and so on, all these thing that are kind of on the edge of technolog that kind of, I think, is the reason why people get interested in scienc and engineerin from the beginning There's somethin they want to accomplish, something they want to do.

And then, they get t engineering school and they find ou it's really hard You know, I mean, like 'Why am I doing this while everyone els is having fun in college?'

Right

You know, and 'I'm banging my head against the wall tryin to learn all these equations.'

And the reason is becaus when you get out o engineering school or out of a scienc major afte you study that stuff I think you're in a position to have a very exciting career So that's what we try to sho to students.

You know, it seems like a lot of kids get sidetracke on the process to get there, meaning understanding math and saying, 'I don't know.

Yeah.

'I don' want all this math stuff.'

Yeah.

But they don't really see what they can do with it later on and they don't have that kin of big goa that they're working toward.

That's right.

And I think it's important to have that goal.

And it helped me, particularly when I was in graduate school.

You know, I got interested in the space program at an early age, when I was 6 going on 7.

I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon But that kind of died for me And it didn't get -- That dream, I didn't pic that up until after college.

And I decide to go to grad school And having that goal in front of you that 'Hey, you know, I'm goin to make the sacrifice now, but it's going to maybe lead to something that I want t really want to do with my life.'

One of the things people sa is that colleg is almost about learning how to learn more than i is what yo get exactly inside the book.

I mean, you, through NASA, which is incredibly famous for having huge binders full of, you know, checklists et cetera, et cetera

Yeah.

But you've also bee in scenarios where you've had to thin out of the box..

Yeah.

...and say, 'All right, guys You didn't write something down for that.

Absolutely, yeah.

That's happened.

I think, in engineerin in general is -- I think the most valuable thin you can lear with an engineering educatio is how to engage a problem because if you look at problem if you see it written down on an exam or in a book, or if you're faced with it in reality, it's overwhelming.

Like, how am I going to figure all this out And certainly at NASA, you know, we're faced with - I've been faced on my -- About every space walk, some worse situations than others..

Yeah.

...but every one of my spac walks that I've been involved with, either on the outsid with my friends spac walking or on the outside my you know inside with my friends space walking outside or being outside in the suit myself, you know you're faced with something that is not what you expected But what you've done is you've learned how to solve problem because you practice so much and you simulate so much

So it seems the key to staying calm out in space or anywhere is preparation

Preparation, yeah I think that that' really important You know, if you think about doin almost anything in life...

Right

...and you don' know anything about it it could b a little overwhelming.

But studying and getting ready being prepared makes a big difference And you can walk into an exa and feel a little bit better about it if you've studied a little bit And you're building confidence So I think preparation and study -- all you're really doing is building up confidence.

You can go into that exa or that space walk or that launch into spac or whatever it i and feel confident because you're well prepared

It sounds like your classes aren't necessarily just for engineering students.

No. Yeah, no.

So, the class that I teach I teach a class on space flight.

And it's primarily engineering students But it's also availabl to students at Columbia Colleg and graduate students.

But Extreme Engineering, for sure, our program there, and you can find i on the Columbia website, is open to the entire school

You're one of a few dozen humans that have ever seen the planet from the vantage point of space.

What does it do to you

It actually has changed the way I think about the planet And from the altitude -- I was up at Hubble It's 100 miles highe than station We see the curve of the planet when we're space walking You're not looking through a window any longer, like when you're inside the spacecraft Now, you're outside, and you can see the Eart in front of you.

And when I really had time to look at it, the thought that went to my mind was 'This would be the vie from heaven.

If you're up there in heaven this is what you would see.'

And then I dwelled on it for a moment I said, 'No, no.

It's more beautiful than that.

This is what heave must look like.'

And as I stared for thos moment and thought about nothin except the beauty of our planet, I felt like I was looking into a paradise And that's the way I feel about this place.

You know we have lots of problems here.

We have a lot of thing to work out.

Sometimes, we feel lik we're getting better overall Sometimes, we take steps back.

But I think, after seeing it the way I've seen it I really do think we're very very lucky to be here.

We have to take care of this plac and make the mos of the opportunity living here I think there's life other places But I can't imagine any plac being more beautiful than our planet Earth.

Besides the secret handshak that I'm sure you all have is there -

Shh I'll have to tell you that when we're off the air

Is there something that you know, having seen the things that all of you have seen, is there some sort o a shared understanding I mean, do mos of the astronauts coming bac have that kind of aha moment that says, 'This is a planet that we've got to take care of This is our only one'?

I think so.

I think some express i a little bit differently We all, maybe, have our own view of it.

But I think, certainly, yes.

And I think what all of us share is this great feelin of gratitude of -- You know, becoming an astronau is not likely.

It's a very unlikely thing to have happen to you.

And it's just a little bit of good fortune, I think that comes into play there And having had that opportunit and getting a chance to fly in space, I think for everyone that's had a chance to do that it makes you very, ver appreciative of it, I think.

So I think that's probably the common thing..

Yeah.

...that we have And not everyone will tell you We have various kinds of people, just like you do everywhere.

And some people talk about it.

Some won't Some are more affected about it.

But, you know, everybody's different.

Yeah.

But I think most of u are very appreciative of what we've gotten a chance to do and see.

Mike Massimino, Professor of Engineering Columbia, former NASA astronaut, thanks so much for joining us.

Hari, thanks for having me.

Pleasure