The concrete halls of the mechanical engineering department are decked in dim grey blocks and starved of natural light, but Mike Massimino’s office feels lively. Inside, the walls are lined with tidy rows of memorabilia: photos of Massimino’s crew in their space station hailing from his two missions, a proper portrait of him beaming in his space suit, and awards written in dramatic typefaces, adorned in heavy golden frames. There are more eclectic objects too, like a plush Snoopy that grins at me from the corner of Massimino’s desk, donning a clear astronaut’s helmet. This space holds an entire universe—spanning from intimidating-looking official letters to objects like Snoopy that seem almost like inside jokes, winking at whomever ventures into this abode.
These objects register as mere ephemera to me, but each one clearly occupies a distinct place in Massimino’s mind and heart. While Massimino’s speech is measured and steady as he describes his career path, he comes alive when I ask him about the room’s decorations. He leans forward. His hands begin to fly, gesturing dramatically toward the scattered portraits and objects as he proudly tells me that he built the Lego rocket on the desk—a white and red model that stands proudly over a foot tall—by himself. When prompted to describe the patches decorating an official-looking portrait, he grins, swivelling around to detail the significance of each one (turns out they’re from one of his spacesuits).
Like the varied collection in his office, Massimino is a man of many suits: an astronaut, a professor, an author, a museum advisor, and a media figure who has appeared on shows and late-night programs—CNN, Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Star Talk, and David Letterman, to name a few. Even through his polished veneer, there’s a glimmer of boyishness that emerges every once in a while—a pure spark of pride and delight that shimmers, uncontainable as Massimino reminisces about his winding journey around the country, into the stars, and finally, circuitously, back home to these few square blocks between Broadway and Amsterdam.
Massimino earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, then went on to earn his Ph.D. at MIT, working in a human-machine systems lab. Soon after, he left the Northeast for Houston—known as “Space City”—the city in which the space industry which grounds its history, economy, and culture. Massimino taught at Rice University and later at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to his academic appointments, Massimino worked in the aerospace engineering sector at IBM, NASA Headquarters, and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace. But even while he was immersed in academia and engineering, Massimino never lost track of his childhood dream to reach space.
Why? Because he always thought space was “cool.” It’s that simple.
He tells me that even while he was teaching, he applied three times to join NASA’s space program—receiving rejection letter after rejection letter—before being accepted.
Still, merely working on the ground near the space industry wasn’t enough for Massimino, who was finally selected as part of NASA’s 1996 class of 44 new astronauts (nicknamed “The Sardines”) following a rigorous selection process. After a lifetime dreaming of space, Massimino would finally have the chance to be among the stars.
Like many other children born in the decades following the 1960s, I too dreamt of becoming an astronaut at one point. This is, after all, one of the few things that unites generations and generations of Americans who grew up watching Neil Armstrong’s historic spacewalk in elementary school classrooms, spellbound by the strange magic of outer space. The vast majority of us move on from this dream at one point or another, lured away by other passions or the need for more practical work. I certainly did. But hearing Massimino wax about his experience as an astronaut, the space-loving child in me loses sight of gravity for just a moment.
For the most part, Massimino speaks in a blunt, authoritative manner—an engineer’s voice, precise and sure. But when I ask him to describe the most transformative moment of his journey, a hint of the poet in him surfaces: “You see the beauty of our planet, and how special it is, and how fragile it is. You can see how thin the atmosphere is compared to the rest of the planet. That’s the only thing that keeps us alive,” he says.
The one caveat of becoming an astronaut is its instability as a source of employment. Massimino tells me that, even as he was actively working with NASA, he knew that his appointment had a ticking timer attached to it. Luckily for Columbia, Massimino was already looking forward to returning to academia. As it happens, he would soon come back to the classrooms and courses which shaped his own trajectory, joining the faculty of the Mechanical Engineering Department at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in 2014.
In many ways, Massimino tells me, coming back to teach at Columbia is like coming home. After all, he was raised on Long Island, and completed his undergraduate degree only a short train ride away at Columbia. Back then, it was his first-choice university, he says. Massimino tells me that he felt especially comfortable at an institution he had already been affiliated with. In this sense, Columbia represents one kind of home for Massimino, an institution where he has deep roots (he even brought the SEAS flag into space!).
But his concept of home has also evolved throughout the decades. To Massimino, home is not just a neighborhood, a city, or a state, but a global community that encompasses all of us. Of his mission servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, Massimino reflects on seeing the Earth as the most significant moment. A palpable excitement infuses his voice and quickens his speech as he describes it:
“In space, you’re on this perch where you see the planet on your left and the universe on your right. You see it differently—it’s like you’re looking down on it. That—that’s what gave me the sense of: That’s home. That’s where we’re from.”
Five years after his retirement from NASA, Mike Massimino remains deeply connected to the space community. He tells me that many of his friends are astronauts who communicate regularly, know each others’ children, and often run into one another at panels or events. This bond is not only lateral, but vertical as well, spanning generations.
As we talk, Massimino casually drops mention of his encounters with other astronauts, referring to the fourth man to ever walk on the moon, Alan Bean, as his “good friend,” like it’s no big deal. Through these scattered mentions, I begin to sketch out a family tree of astronauts in my head– Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, all the way down to Mike Massimino and his generation of astronauts, all of whom come together to form an intergenerational community hailing from all corners of the globe. Glancing around near the end of our conversation, I take stock of the memorabilia scattered around the office. I feel like I can now see the histories carried in each stuffed toy, Lego sculpture, and portrait adorning the office—a miniature version of our cosmos stuffed into this 300-square-foot space.
Today, besides just teaching, Massimino works to expand the circle of this space community to even younger generations by speaking at high schools across the country and helping to recruit STEM students to Columbia. Once they’re here, he teaches a section of the foundational first-year SEAS core class, Art of Engineering, specially tailored for human spaceflight. His autobiographical book, Spaceman, was recently adapted into a version suitable for young readers, targeted at a middle school audience. He is a devoted father who pauses our interview to pick up a call from his son, chuckling at the phone before promising to call him back later.
Currently, Massimino serves as a senior advisor at the Intrepid Museum in New York, where he primarily develops programming aimed at an elementary school-aged audience. When I ask him how he juggles this, Mike Massimino just gives a chuckle, saying, “I do the best I can.” I imagine running back and forth all day between studios, panels, Pier 86, and Mudd 228A, and I wear myself out with just the thought. Yet, Massimino is truly excited about every one of his duties. He tells me that he enjoys being able to help students of all ages and having a mix of different age groups to talk to. Wielding his straightforward manner of speaking, his unshakable passion for exploration and the pursuit of curiosity, and an arsenal of anecdotes from space training and missions, I can already imagine that Massimino is especially adept at connecting with bright-eyed young scientists. As he speaks, Massimino not only touches on the scientific underpinnings of human spaceflight, but also relays his personal journey to his students. When he tells me that the core of his message is “trying to find something you really like in life and then admitting it to yourself,” his tone is earnest and almost pleading.
When I ask Massimino about how he thinks the spaceman ideal has evolved over the decades, he is quick to point to Neil Armstrong, who he claims as his “ultimate superhero.” Yet Massimino, in many ways, has served as a quiet hero, embodying this timeless archetype for a new generation. Luke D’Cruz, one of two co-presidents of the Columbia Space Initiative which Massimino advises, tells me that many members are drawn into the club after learning of Massimino’s involvement. He regularly pops into their meetings, checking in with the group’s different “missions,” or engineering projects, and hosting chats to speak with members. Massimino and D’Cruz both tell me that they are drawn toward space because—quite simply—it is “cool.” It seems that the love of space—one that is deeply rooted in a childlike thrill and curiosity about what lies beyond—has endured and thrived here, passing from the Apollo generation to Massimino and now, onto a budding group of young engineers and students in spite of generational differences and all the years that have passed.
“When I think of home, I think of our planet, our globe. We’re all in this together,” Massimino says. “No matter where you’re from, we all share the same home.”
Enjoy leafing through our seventh issue!