Earlier this year, I attended Collision Conference where I had the opportunity to interview Mike Massimino, the first astronaut to send a tweet from outer space. When I found out Mike was going to speak at the conference, I just knew that I had to get some face time with him, since I handle all things social media for Stanford on the Moon.
Mike served as a NASA Astronaut from 1996-2014, flying in space twice and walking in space four times for the final two Hubble Telescope servicing missions. His New York Times bestselling book, Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, was published in the fall of 2016 to rave reviews. Mike received his Bachelor of Science degree from Columbia University, and two Master of Science degrees and a Ph.D. from MIT.
You can read more about Mike’s journey in his book, and here’s a bit from our chat at Collision:
So you’re kind of a pioneer in more ways than one! And you talked about earning cool points with your kids after sending that first tweet. Tell us about your social media ventures from space.
Well I enjoyed doing it and I was sharing the experience of space travel, my training, and I thought ‘how do I get the word out?’. I started a blog, but it felt like an assignment with all of the writing! So tweeting gave me a great way with 140 characters. About a month before flight in April 2009, I was tweeting everything – what we did, my workouts, checking out the spaceship. Then I kind of stopped and went through this phase of post-trip “does anyone care what I’m doing now?” but I found out people did want to see my life afterwards.
How has life afterwards for you changed? Seeing the earth from a different perspective, did it change your recycling habits, ideas about climate change?
Definitely! As astronauts, we did a lot of training, but for me the most rewarding thing was just getting a chance to look at the planet, particularly from the spacewalk. You see the curve of the planet. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen – there are no words to describe this beauty. I thought, this must be the view from heaven, not from a religious standpoint, but if you could be up in heaven this is what you would see. I cried at that moment.
And then as I looked at the earth more, I thought, no this is what heaven must look like. We live in a paradise. I think that there are opportunities for love and happiness, however you got here, whatever your beliefs are. Our atmosphere keeps us alive – we lose that and we’re dead! It is really important that we have to take care of it. Once it goes, we can’t put it back together. We have to protect the earth, our home.
I completely agree! In your presentation, you talked about the intense training for the space mission and that primal fear that overcame you when you walked on the plank. Since we’re at a tech conference, I have to ask, do you think that Virtual Reality can simulate emotions like primal fear, happiness, and love?
I think it can. I think our brains can be trained. You know, I mentioned my fear of heights in the presentation so when it came time for that part of the training – you bet I was a bit scared! So we had to go through this water survival training, where we started jumping off of a platform just 6 inches high, then a foot, etc. then eventually it’s a high platform. So you work up to it and get over the fear.
I do believe that Virtual Reality can help you manage the fear. Part of it is fear of the unknown – you panic or get nervous and your mind interprets it like a threat. If your brain can become comfortable with it, then you feel safe. Sometimes there’s a real threat and other times it’s just your mind.
Speaking of mind over matter, you closed your presentation by saying, “the difference between unlikely and impossible is when you give up – then it becomes 0%”. What was the turning point for you to help you pursue your dream of becoming an astronaut later in life?
I was a senior in college and went to see the movie The Right Stuff, and it rekindled my interest. Seeing the view outside of John Glenn’s capsule – it changed my life! I started learning more about it and reading everything I could about space travel. At this point, I had my job in Manhattan, but then I realized it was my passion and I could either ignore it and become miserable my whole life, or do something about it and try to be happy. I had to try, even though I had so many reasons not be an astronaut, – fear of heights, no swimming skills, near-sightedness! So I went back to MIT and did all the “right stuff” and here I am!
What an inspiration, Mike! So do you think there’s a chance that Stanford could have a study abroad program on the moon someday?
That would be great! You just have to get there. It’s going to happen – it’s just a matter of when. Sometimes we overestimate our capabilities, like 2001, the movie, where people thought that we were going to be living like that. But we’re still far behind. It takes a couple of generations, but yes, it’s possible!