Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on the earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.
Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey to realizing those dreams was as unlikely as it is captivating. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, Massimino catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his qualifying exams and be rejected twice by NASA before making it to the final round of astronaut selection—where he was told his poor eyesight meant he’d never make the cut. But even that couldn’t stop him from finally earning his wings, making the jump to training in T-38 Air Force jets and preparing his body—and soul—for the journey to the cosmos.
Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble telescope—which he’d be tasked with saving on his final mission— Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where the nerdiest science meets the most thrilling adventure, and pulls back a curtain on just what having “the right stuff” really means.
I’ve always had a fascination with the space program, and I’ve loved both fiction and non-fiction books about the early days of NASA and the astronaut program, as well as more humorous (but still informative) works like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. I came across Spaceman purely by chance, and my first thought was, “Hey! It’s that guy who played an astronaut on The Big Bang Theory!”
Well, that’s true, but Mike Massimino is much more than some dude who had a cameo on a sit-com. Massimino embodies the “right stuff”, the true core of what makes an astronaut special. And I’m delighted that I took the time to listen to his audiobook and experience his story.
In Spaceman, Massimino takes us through his New York childhood, his education, his repeated attempts to overcome hideously difficult challenges — oh, for example, fixing his eyesight in order to meet NASA standards — and his determination to one day be a real astronaut.
Through it all, we get an intimate view of the US space program and its triumphs and tragedies, as well as one man’s dedication to achieving his life’s goals.
Massimino presents it all with humility and with humor. For a man who is startlingly intelligent and talented, he’s incredibly self-deprecating throughout the book, and does not shy away from discussing his shortcomings. His repeated message is about sticking with things, even when they seem impossible or out of reach.
Massimino himself narrates the audiobook, which is a wonderful thing. He’s got a gruff, deep voice, and it’s perfect for conveying his own story. Listening to him narrate his first space flight or his father’s illness or his sorrow over lost colleagues, you get the sense that his feelings are real and true, and there’s a sense of immediacy and intimacy in hearing him speak his own words.
There are a few truly beautiful things about Spaceman. One is the portrayal of friendship and goodness that Massimino presents as he speaks about his colleagues in the space program. He describes the dedication, the support, and the sacrifice that they all bring. Through his narrative, the picture emerges of people dedicating their lives to a higher cause, who genuinely believe in what they’re doing and that they’re making a difference in the lives of humankind.
Second is the devotion to one another among the people involved in NASA. When personal needs or crises emerge, the team is there for the individuals and their families, and it’s real. It goes way beyond sending flowers to a bereaved coworker — these people really care and give of themselves in thousands of ways.
Third, Massimino’s descriptions of what it feels like to fly, to spacewalk, and to see the Earth from a distance of 350 miles — just gorgeous. For a scientist, he’s practically a poet.
Finally, I couldn’t help thinking that Massimino himself is just a really nice guy. He says good things about EVERYONE. There’s not a single person he mentions in this book that he doesn’t praise or offer gratitude toward, and he’s quick to point out the talents of just about everyone he’s worked with. Some memoirs focus on the guilty secrets; in Spaceman, we only see the good. Quite impressive.
Sections of Spaceman are particularly moving, but none more so than when Massimino tells of the Columbia shuttle tragedy. He knew all of the lost crewmembers personally, and makes the disaster feel all the more tangible through the descriptions of the terrible events and human loss.
I highly recommend Spaceman — definitely for those who enjoy reading about space exploration, but also for anyone who appreciates a straightforward tale of one person’s journey toward his goals, told by someone who appreciates every opportunity he’s had to pursue and live his dreams.
A reading note: While I loved listening to the audiobook and hearing Massimino narrate his own story, I found it helpful to have a print copy (thank you, public library) on hand as well, both for going back and checking earlier chapters, and in order to be able to view the photos that go along with the story.
Title: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Mike Massimino
Publisher: Crown Archetype
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 57 minutes