An Education to the Stars

Mike Massimino is a retired NASA astronaut, a seasoned space traveler who played a key role in two Space Shuttle missions. When I picked up his memoir, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, I expected a bit of biography and a tech-heavy account of space exploration, perhaps written with a popular audience in mind. Massimino has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from MIT, so I was thinking was it was going to be a super smart author trying to find a way to connect with the reader.

I could not have been more wrong. 

Spaceman is a book about hard work, perseverance, working some more, and then working even more. Much of the action takes place in higher education and it’s an education in itself. It’s a book about struggle and accomplishment, written from the perspective of a really good man who never thought of himself as the smartest guy in the room. Not in high school, not in college, not in graduate school, and not at NASA. I think that he’s a heck of a lot smarter and accomplished than he gives himself credit for – he’s really a hero – but Massimino’s great attitude makes the book accessible and interesting.

Spaceman is about figuring out how to be a better student and better person to pursue a dream. I would like high school and college students, current and past, to read it and think about the many ways that Massimino learned. He is inspirational and so, too, is his story.

Mass (his lifelong nickname) grew up in Long Island. His father was a NYC Fire Department inspector – without a college degree. Good in sports, Mass was a strong student but not the top of his class. A high school teacher recommended that he apply to Columbia University. Mass didn’t think that he would get in, and when he was accepted, he did not take advantage of all the opportunities the university provided. He admits that he was afraid of change and he did not want to stray from his hometown roots. Many students have the same fears. Massimino saw his strengths as people person.

At Columbia, Massimino’s grades were good his first two years and then he had a major crisis his junior year. Mass received a grade of 11 on his first Circuits and Systems exam, a key course in the electrical engineering sequence. It scared him and made him think of the sacrifices his parents had made for his education. He doubled down on the work and was able to make the Dean’s list for the first time that semester. Grades were not a problem for the rest of his undergraduate degree.

A good student with interests – and no real plan – Massimino’s life changed when he saw The Right Stuff. The movie reawakened his childhood dreams of being an astronaut. He secured a job at IBM after graduation and following the advice of a mentor, applied to a master’s program in Science and Technology at MIT. Shocked that MIT accepted him, he traveled up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, only to learn that he had applied to a program in Science, Technology and Society. It was designed for political scientists. MIT allowed Mass to reapply – this time to a program for engineers – and he was again accepted. Without a plan and funding, though, he wondered what he should do next.

Garden City, Long Island – not far from where Massimino grew up – is home to the Cradle of Aviation Museum. Massimino’s mother sent him an article about a fair the Museum was hosting, so Mass went and started talking to people. He started chatting with a sixteen-year old who had a pilot’s license and was planning to attend the Air Force Academy to become an astronaut. Desperate to learn from anyone, Massimino found the teenager informed and informative. The encounter also made Mass, an Ivy League graduate without a plan, feel “like an idiot.”

Massimino went home and decided to write a letter to NASA about becoming an astronaut. Addressed to the top administrator of the organization, it was answered by another administrator who offered to talk to Massimino. Their phone call convinced Massimino that if he wanted to be an astronaut, he was going to need a graduate degree. That spurred him to forgo IBM and security for MIT. It was a very tough choice. As he writes: “I realized much later in life that the reason this decision between MIT and IBM was so agonizing was because it wasn’t really about choosing a career; it was about deciding who I was, which part of myself I wanted to be, and that’s the hardest decision any of us has to make.”

Massimino believed that he was out of his league from the start at MIT. He worked extraordinarily hard and was still close to failing out his second semester. The challenges led Mass to start group studying – a proven technique to those of us who teach and tutor. It made a big difference and Massimino’s grades improved. Amazed at the talent of his fellow students and faculty, Mass worked and networked and worked even more, beginning to believe more and more in his capability to succeed. A summer job at NASA furthered his dream and led him to decide to pursue a PhD as a way of distinguishing himself from other astronaut candidates. As a master’s recipient from MIT, he had an easy in to a PhD program at MIT. But he asked himself: “Is this really how I want to spend the next four years of my life?”

Re-buckling down, Mass attacked his coursework and was making solid progress until his PhD qualifying exams. It was “a massacre” and he failed. Given the choice between dropping out and retaking the exam six months later, Mass questioned his ability. He met others, though, that had also struggled at MIT. One was astronaut, Charlie Duke, who flew on Apollo 16. The encounter gave Mass the will to try again. He talked openly with fellow doctoral students about his failure, realized that he needed to prepare for his exams differently, and began to ask for help. Massimino’s classmates questioned him, drilled with him, and helped him develop the skill set to pass the exam.

Massimino is elegant about this. It was not just that he wanted to go to space. He wanted to be part of the team that went to space. He stresses that he owes all his accomplishments “to the people around me – people who pushed me to be the best version of myself.”

Massimino completed his PhD, of course. It was not easy sailing after, though. He applied to be an astronaut three times before he was admitted into the astronaut program. He struggled with his eyesight, going so far as to do eye exercises to improve his sight. And yet he persevered. He was an astronaut, a  key member of NASA, and he achieved his dreams.

The book has much interesting material on being in space, on working the space shuttle and on the Hubble telescope repairs. Science and space fans will be pleased. For this educator, though, the book’s great strength lies in the author’s educational journey. Massimino’s humility, his positivity, and the way that it teaches us about success make this an outstanding book.

It is a lesson that I wish all students could learn and live.

David Potash

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