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!
I’ll never forget waiting for the mailman that spring. Looking in the mailbox and seeing a large envelope meant only one thing: I had gotten in. Envelope in hand, I whirled about in a screaming frenzy throughout my living room, accidentally tearing the letter welcoming me into the Stanford family. What I did know is that I’d be joining the ranks of students from all over the world seeking out an educational experience beyond their wildest dreams. What I didn’t know is that I would be thrust into a Cardinal-colored ecosystem of all things that defined change and revolution.
On a recent visit to Stanford, and the surrounding area that is now known as Silicon Valley, I’m reminded of a story that highlights the transformative nature of this time in my life, and in the rest of the world. During my freshman year, one of my fellow dorm mates burst into our study room, only to surprise a few of us sleep-deprived students cramming for exams, and dramatically informed us, “There’s this thing called the ‘world wide web’… the ‘information superhighway’…and it’s gonna change the world!” He went on to explain on a little about what he meant, while most of us just brushed him off, thinking he was probably more sleep-deprived than the rest of us.
Whatever the impetus for his technological manifesto, he was right. And who knows, he may have gone on to create one of the hundreds of companies founded by Stanford alumni. Back on campus, which recently appeared at the top of Travel & Leisure’s Most Beautiful College Campuses list, I slowly wandered through the picture-perfect arches and architecture, dodging students on bikes and awestruck tourists.
After making my way through the Quad, I had the opportunity to meet with our alumni president, Howard Wolf. Sitting in his office, which is adorned with Stanford memorabilia and inspirational books, we talked about some of our unforgettable travel moments, our favorite Palo Alto eateries, and of course, what makes Stanford special. “To truly understand what makes Stanford unique, you have to go back to the beginning. At its core, it has that pioneer stock. It’s in the DNA and mindset of the University,” shared Howard.
Sails of Service
Love at every corner
As I listened to Howard talk about the foundation of this “University of the West”, I thought about my alumni network of friends and colleagues, all who exemplify this pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit. Whether it’s starting their own award-winning interior design firm, founding a fitness boot camp for children, or launching a non-profit designed to bring American democracy to life through jazz music, Stanford alumni pave the way for the world around them.
“One of Jane Stanford’s directives for the Stanford community was to yield ‘useful people’. There was an institutional emphasis on utility and action. And this spirit is alive in the student body and alumni today,” he revealed. “Stanford students want to change the world. Impact it and create a new way of thinking.” Of course, the world is now familiar with famous Stanford duos who founded companies like Google, Yahoo, Instagram, and one of the forefathers, Hewlett Packard. There’s no doubt that these companies impacted the world and created a new way of thinking, communicating, and living.
But beyond the impact on modern enterprise and the fabric of Silicon Valley, Howard and I agreed that what makes Stanford unique is that “zany and quirky spirit” best exemplified by Stanford traditions such as the Wacky Walk at graduation, the student-driven moniker, “Nerd Nation”, and really any performance by the Stanford Band.
As we chatted, Howard reminisced on Italy, one of his favorite travel destinations after studying abroad at Stanford’s campus, once known as Villa il Salviatino. And of course, no conversation with an alumni president would be complete without a nudge to volunteer for my upcoming reunion. But as with all of my past volunteer work for Stanford, I am looking forward to connecting with my fellow pioneers, and exchanging stories of challenge, growth, and success since our days on the Farm.
Leaving Howard’s office, I charted my course through the rest of campus. Eager to see the Bing Wing of Green Library that was closed while I was an undergrad, I met up with Associate Director for Development of the Stanford Libraries, Sonia Lee. I first met Sonia while volunteering with the Saroyan Prize for Writing a few years ago, and was thrilled as she offered some insight into campus’ largest library. As she led me through Green’s hallways, lined with mementos of student life from Stanford’s 125 year history, she talked about the current exhibition Stanford Stories, which is an effort to capture alumni anecdotes for the University archives. There will be several exhibits on display, one being at the Arrillaga Alumni Center beginning homecoming weekend through January 2017.
Green Library entrance
Poster from 1969
A view of student life
Touring the endless series of throwbacks, the highlight of my library visit was the David Rumsey Map Center. Just the walk up the stairwell was a sight to see, the walls lined with massive maps, one of my favorites being a 1666 depiction of “California as an Island”. A tech-savvy space, the Rumsey Map center holds original cartographic materials, some fact, some fiction, including “The Land of Make Believe”, which is used in teaching Professor Grant Parker’s course Memorials, Museums, and Memory. I could have stayed in there for hours and was thankful that my visitor pass was good for seven more days.
We ended at the Bender Room, which encases what Sonia calls the “greatest hits of literature”. This room, filled with loads of natural light, looks over a fountain below, and beyond to the Quad. The room’s renovation, made possible by the generous donation of Peter and Helen Bing, included framed prints of some of the most beautiful libraries in the world. Walking along this wall, I thought back to my tour of the National Library in Rio de Janeiro, and added a few new places to my travel bucket list.
Sitting in front of a nearby fountain, I decided to head down to the Computer History Museum. A visit to Silicon Valley is not complete without a trip to this Mountain View multimedia experience, whose Revolution exhibit spans from early computing with an abacus to modern day smartphones. A word of caution: plan to spend at least two hours at the museum. You’ll want to absorb the wonder of our technical advances as a human race. And if you’re a not a computer science major, you’ll want(need) to reread some of the dense information posted around the exhibits.
The abacus & early computing
1623 calculator replica
For me, the highlights of this multimedia exhibition were reading about the life of Ada Lovelace, who is said to have written the first computer program, seeing the live demo of the IBM 1401, which transformed data processing and changed the world, and seeing my childhood toys like Speak & Spell and Gameboy behind museum glass. Talk about a flashback!
Gameboy game system, 1989
The IBM 1401
Pacing slowly through the museum and seeing how far we’ve come with computing, even in my own lifetime, I wondered what was next. Some people warn of becoming too dependent on technology, but after visiting the Computer History Museum, I wondered if it has always been that way. Maybe what we consider a “computer” today will be just another exhibit at the museum a few decades from now.
Eager for my dinner at Evvia Estiatorio, I headed back to Palo Alto. Talking with Panos Gogonas, the restaurant’s general manager who’s been with Evvia since the beginning, I learned a little more about this neighborhood gem. “There’s a word in Greek – filoxenia – and it means ‘to make a stranger your friend’. That’s what we do here at Evvia; it’s the essence of our restaurant.”
Eagerly anticipating my meal, Panos shared what’s contributed to their success over the years, making it difficult to get a last minute reservation. “The experience at Evvia really touches the five senses, not just taste. And of course, we have all of the things that make any restaurant successful: great food, good service, and consistency. But among our staff, we have low turnover. It’s like a family here. And when we have that love within, we want to share it with our guests.”
Ah yes, the five senses. From the amber-glow that envelops you when you walk in, to the aroma of herbs like thyme, dill, and oregano mingling with succulent cuts of meat, your senses will definitely feel the love from Evvia. This sensory symphony is led by Executive Chef, Mario Ortega, who came to the Palo Alto restaurant after a breadth of experience that includes Executive Chef at Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley managed by Bernardus Lodge, Scala’s in San Francisco, in addition to orchestrating the annual Greek Independence Day dinner at the White House with his boss and Chef Partner, Erik Cosselmon of Kokkari in San Francisco.
While sharing some of the steps to one of his favorite dishes, youvetsi katsiki, Mario talked about the restaurant’s menu. “Many of these recipes are family recipes from the restaurant’s founders. Through my technique, I am paying respect to their traditions. It’s an homage to the Greek culture.” Mario starts the stew, featuring goat that is sourced from Don Watson in Napa Valley, and braises the tender meat with lamb stock, eventually baking it with a medley of orzo, green beans, scallions, baby heirloom tomatoes, and Spanish pimentón. Dutifully enjoying my lamb chops, one of Evvia’s signature dishes, I was already thinking about when I could return for a taste of this sumptuous stew.
As I finished my meal, Mario and I talked about some of the menu’s changing dishes, like the rotisserie chicken, pork chops, and ravioli. Satisfied with my choices of the lamb chops and pesto ricotta ravioli, I made a mental note to order the lavraki, Evvia’s signature grilled sea bass on my next visit. Listening to the crackling embers beneath the lamb roasting behind us, I scooped up the last of my meal, down to the last drop of flavorful broth from my ravioli. Sitting back, I watched other patrons and staff play a part in this symphony of sensory delight, all of which bring the Greek cuisine, with a Mediterranean influence, to Palo Alto.
The perfect end to a busy day in the Silicon Valley is settling into the picturesque surroundings at Rosewood Sand Hill. Nestled behind the Stanford Hills with sweeping views of the lush Santa Cruz Mountains, this luxury hotel is a welcome retreat. The only Forbes Five Star hotel on the peninsula, Rosewood Sand Hill enfolds guests in California Ranch style rooms, all which open to terraces where you can soak in those evergreen vistas.
But don’t stay tucked away in your suite for too long. There’s the Sense Spa, where you can indulge in the Gold Rush Renewal body treatment, while 24 karat gold infused scrubs nourish and revitalize your skin, leaving you literally glowing from head to toe. Adorn yourself with artfully repurposed jewelry from Verve, sold in the spa’s boutique, or head up to the bar, adjacent to award-winning restaurant Madera, where plenty of business people meet, hoping to strike gold with their latest ventures.
Speaking of latest ventures, Rosewood Sand Hill recently welcomed Colin Cowie, celebrity party planner, to his new event studio which sits right off of the hotel’s impressive, yet rustic lobby. Bringing his keen eye for all things style and fashion, Colin will help guests tailor a unique Silicon Valley soiree, ensuring that it’s more than “just a party.” Back in my room, I sank into my bed and soaked in the stunning views, while nibbling on my bonbons, part of Rosewood’s signature turn down service, knowing I’d be working them off the next morning at the Dish.
Sense Spa lounge
Pieces from Verve Jewelry
In addition to Hoover Tower and Memorial Church, the Dish is one of those campus landmarks that signal Stanford territory. During my visit, I had the incredible opportunity to do an exercise session at the Dish with friend and fellow alumna, Shauna Harrison, Ph.D. A brand ambassador for Under Armour and the creator of Instagram community #SweatADay, Shauna is a fitness maven and health expert who embodies that entrepreneurial Stanford spirit with everything she does.
“Social media by itself is such an incredible means of getting messages out. My goal going into the public health field is that I wanted to help people make better decisions – healthier decisions.” And that she definitely has. Her Instagram community, homegrown through her #sweataday challenge, is proof that her doctorate in Public Health wasn’t just another degree to add to her accomplishments. “As I was posting on Instagram, I realized that I was one, educating people, and two, getting the message across. I never imagined it would become a community where people were supporting each other. At one point, I thought ‘I am doing Public Health’. It’s just in a very different way than I had imagined.”
And her thousands of followers are glad she did. When traveling, I often turn to Shauna’s Instagram for a quick supplement to my hotel room workouts, revved up by her awesome choice of music and clear instructional videos. But as fate would have it, we were able to meet to do a workout session overlooking the Stanford campus, where no filters are needed.
As we walked in between push-ups, planks, and grueling lunges, we talked about some of our cherished Stanford memories, and the sacrifices we made to achieve our academic dreams. “I knew I wanted to go to Stanford from an early age. My mom tells the story of how I saw someone wearing a Stanford sweatshirt on TV, and asked about the school. Then I basically did everything I had to do to get in.” She went on to tell me about how, ironically enough, she was doing poorly in her physical fitness class, which was based on the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, and worked hard to complete a bunch of extra credit to bring her grade to an ‘A’. A testament to her dedication, and possibly a turning point for her career path.
A double major in Latin American Studies and Spanish, Shauna had the opportunity to study abroad in Costa Rica, doing research on women, health, and body image, which informs much of what she does today. “The beauty of my posts comes from the movement. It’s not just aesthetics; it’s about being healthy.” When I asked what she does to stay healthy while traveling with her busy schedule, she exclaimed running, saying “it’s a great way to learn about a new place.”
Exhausted, but exhilarated from my session with Shauna, I headed back towards campus to the Cantor Arts Center. As I strolled through sun-soaked Rodin sculptures, I was reminded of a photo that my dad and I took in front of The Thinker when it used to sit near Meyer Library. Sitting there waiting for the self-timer to take our picture, a student sped by on his bike, stopped, and shouted, “Are you Steve Jobs?” Laughing, we continued along our walk through campus, talking about what it must be like to be Mr. Jobs.
Kente cloth, Ghana
My Spencer Finch creation
Thiebaud’s Lunch Table
Entering the exhibit, California: The Art of Water, whose pieces are set against a somber shade of slate blue, I walked along images reminding me of the scarcity of one of our most precious resources. Eventually drawn to a video titled Tilapia Jetty, showing dead fish flopping in a polluted pool of runoff, I watching the scene unfold as a solemn soundtrack hummed in the background. It was then that the emotion that had welled up inside of me came streaming down my cheeks. Sad for the loss of my father only a month before, sad for the way we’ve destroyed our earth, sad for the water situation in places like Flint, São Paulo, and Kenya, I felt like my tears could make up for all the water we’ve collectively wasted.
Wiping my face, I walked through the rest of the moving exhibit that illuminated California history and thought back to the map of “California as an Island” that I had seen at Green Library. Grateful for the gift of museums that provide lifelong learning opportunities, I headed next door to the Anderson Collection. The collection, built by the Andersons over the last 50 years, houses modern and contemporary art, strengthening Stanford’s support of the arts.
Sitting in a room surrounded by Nick Cave’s Soundsuits, I marveled at his use of movement and color, thoroughly enjoying the behind the scenes footage showing how his pieces were made. While watching a video of two figures masked with abacus faces, I thought of the abacus behind glass at the Computer History Museum: our earliest form of computing. As I observed these figures, fighting and fidgeting with themselves, it made me think of our relationship with technology. So dependent on it. For seeing each other. Seeing ourselves.
Walking back towards campus, I sat in front the building where I spent much of my time as a psychology major and research assistant, thinking about all of the hours I logged watching research subjects behind two-way mirrors. It’s no wonder that I missed much of the magnificence and marvel around campus. But luckily I have my reunion as an excuse to come back and visit Stanford. Which is a good thing. Because it always feels like home.