In his new memoir, “Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe” (Crown Archetype, 313 pp., $28), former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino details his love affair with the cosmos and his unlikely path from blue-collar Long Island to viewing the blue planet from a spaceship hundreds of miles away. A professor at Columbia University, senior adviser for space programs at the Intrepid Museum and actor (he has played himself on “The Big Bang Theory” six times), Massimino talked in a recent phone interview about intergalactic tweeting, his love for the Hubble, and never giving up. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You wanted to be an astronaut when you saw the moon launch in 1969 at age 6, but then the dream fell away. What happened?
As a little boy, I was on a Police Boys Club baseball team and my coach was an engineer for Grumman. I knew that the spaceship that landed on the moon was developed at Grumman on Long Island. That was the memory I have of it — well, this is happening right here! They built the spaceship that landed on the moon!
But by the time I got to be 9 or so, the dream kind of went away. It felt impossible. This was before the internet, and I didn’t know any explorers or space program people, I didn’t even have a science club, so I had no idea how to go about it.
Then the dream was resurrected [when] I was living on Long Island after college with my parents. I was commuting on the LIRR, wearing a suit and tie, and every time I would pass the newsstand and see a story about space I would pick it up. I would go to the Cradle of Aviation Museum and just wonder what might be possible. Finally, I went to grad school at MIT and one thing led to another.
You come from a very blue-collar town where even going to college was a big deal. When you finally got to NASA, were you worried you wouldn’t fit in with the most elite engineers in the country?
I first started meeting astronauts in grad school — alums would come back to visit — and I got to work at NASA during summers. What I found out is that many went to public school, or service academies, and couldn’t afford to go to college. But they were smart kids who worked hard, and they got ROTC scholarships or went into the military. So many of the men and women I met were exactly the kind of people I would’ve been friends with back home in Franklin Square. They were the sort of working-class people who took the opportunity to get an education and ran with it. Much to my surprise, my upbringing on Long Island prepared me to fit in and gave me the same sort of attitude: work hard and be grateful for what you have. I never had to pretend to be somebody else.
You were on two space flights to the Hubble Space Telescope [2002 and 2009] and say it is the best job you could have an astronaut. Why?
Being able to service and put new technology on the Hubble was amazing. It is an engineering wonder and a scientific wonder, producing our best science to look at the universe and ask the big questions: What is dark energy and dark matter, how did we get here, and is there opportunity for life on other planets? We didn’t even know all these planets existed before the Hubble.
Do you think a kid today can still experience the same kind of wonder you did as a child when looking up at space?
I get to work with all kinds of kids today as an adviser at the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan. And through Columbia University I do a lot of speaking at high schools and with college students. It is certainly different; today, kids can Google anything they want, and they can read astronauts’ Twitter and Instagram accounts to keep up on what’s going on at the Space Station. Kids engage space differently today, but I think there is definitely still wonder.
My 7-year-old son has a question I’ve got to ask: Do you really eat astronaut ice cream in space?
Absolutely not. No one would go to space if you had to eat that — you’d just stay on the ground!