With the recent SpaceX launch of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, a second golden age of space exploration has begun. In the future we can expect to see more entrepreneurial companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, exploring space not only for scientific benefit but also for profit. We are transitioning from over 50 years of human space flight programs conducted exclusively by governments, to programs that provide new opportunities for private enterprise. It is similar to air travel a century ago when airplanes were used primarily for government and military purposes, and for barnstorming. Those early years led to today’s commercial airline industry. Just imagine what the recent accomplishments can lead to in the near future: space tourism, utilization of space resources, and science and technological developments to benefit life on Earth.
Over the past few months a common joke I hear from family and friends is: “Hey Mike, I bet you wish you were in space now!” As a former NASA astronaut with two space shuttle missions and four spacewalks worth of experience, I am finding that my NASA training and space flights have helped to prepare me for what we are now all going through. I am familiar with feeling separated from the Earth, sheltering in space with my crewmates, executing our mission with our ground control team back on the planet, coping with loss and tragedy, not letting fear get in the way of success, and being resilient to overcome unforeseen challenges while away from traditional support systems. When I was selected for the NASA Astronaut Class of 1996, astronauts were preparing to be sent to space for longer periods of time and increasingly challenging missions. It became apparent to NASA that this transition in space exploration was not going to be an easy one for the crew members and their families. We looked to endeavors with similar challenges, such as polar exploration, to help us prepare to engage with isolation and hardship. Some of our guidelines were: embracing the situation as best we could; concentrating on meaningful work and developing hobbies; keeping open the lines of communication between friends, family and co-workers back on Earth; enjoying the beauty of our planet; keeping a regular schedule, including an emphasis on exercise, hygiene, and health; putting the well-being of our crewmates first by being respectful and practicing good “expedition behavior” while sharing our living area; being flexible to handle unexpected challenges while away from our normal channels for help; and using time away from the hustle and bustle of our normal daily routines to think introspectively about our lives.
Mike’s dream of becoming an astronaut began when he was six years old watching television as Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon. The path to achieving this dream was wrought with unexpected challenges, failures, disappointments, and self-doubt. Mike was rejected three times by NASA including a medical disqualification which Mike overcame by teaching his eyes to “see better.” His persistence paid off with two missions on the Space Shuttle and four spacewalks on the Hubble Space Telescope. Mike stresses that as long as you keep trying no matter what the obstacles, achieving your goal is possible.
Upon arriving at NASA, Mike discovered he was part of team that put the success of the team and the mission above individual accomplishments. Teamwork and leadership was developed through the extraordinary experiences that Mike and his fellow astronauts shared during their training and spaceflights. Through these experiences strong friendships and working relationships were forged that enable Mike and his colleague’s to complete astronaut training, overcome tragedy, and repair the greatest scientific instrument in space – the Hubble Space Telescope. Mike discusses how teamwork and leadership led to success during his spaceflights and in life.
Mike’s second spaceflight was the final Space Shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. On that mission Mike was tasked with the most complicated spacewalk ever attempted: the in-space repair of a delicate scientific instrument inside of the telescope. A major miscue during that spacewalk nearly led to failure. But the ground control team and the astronaut’s in space worked together to come up with an innovative solution that saved the day and the mission. Mike explains how although not every problem has an obvious solution, preparation and innovation can help us overcome unforeseen challenges.
Mike’s second space flight was one of the last of the Space Shuttle Program. It was time for NASA to retire the space shuttle and move on to the next phase in space exploration. That next phase included, flying exclusively on the Russian Soyuz for the foreseeable future and working with commercial companies in the coming age of private space travel. Many at NASA did not want to accept these changes. But the last few years have shown that those who accepted these changes have thrived, while those who resisted are no longer contributing. Technological progress and entrepreneurship are inevitable in every industry, and the NASA team learned to embrace the changes in order to move on to that next phase. We now have partnerships and burgeoning private space industry. Many of Mike’s students are still excited about working for NASA, but many are also excited about the new opportunities with private space companies and our future in space is bright because of these changes.
No matter how much we enjoy our jobs we sometimes get caught up in the day to day activities and can forget the big picture. This can even happen to astronauts. Mike stresses the importance of trying to remember the reason why we work as hard as we do. In addition to supporting our families and enjoying the challenges of our jobs, we should always remember how we are making the world a better place through our work. For Mike as an astronaut it was servicing and repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Arguably the greatest scientific instrument ever built, Hubble made some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history while showing us the beauty of our universe. Contributing to great projects makes all the hard work and sacrifice worthwhile.
After a realizing a dream, there comes a time when one needs to find that next dream in life. For Mike, his astronaut career was a little boy dream come true. After 18 years it was time to find a new challenge in life and a new dream. Mike discusses the difficulty of giving up the most exciting and interesting job he could ever have for the next phase in life. New challenges are needed for happiness, and there is no reason why one dream job cannot be replaced by another. In Mike’s case that has meant a new career as a university professor, museum advisor, author, television personality, and speaker sharing his lessons and experiences from his life as an astronaut.
The orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope is 350 miles above the Earth, 100 miles higher than the International Space Station. From that altitude, astronauts are able to see the curvature of our planet, and spacewalking astronauts are able to take in the magnificent views through their helmet visors with a 360 degree view of our planet and the surrounding universe. Mike describes his observations and feelings while viewing our planet, including its fragility and the importance of taking care of it.
We are in a very interesting time for space travel, transitioning from over 50 years of human space programs conducted exclusively by governments, to programs that provide new opportunities for private enterprise. It is a similar to air travel a century ago when airplanes were used for government and military purposes and for barnstorming. Those early years led to the thriving commercial airline industry of today. Some of these programs are governments working with private enterprise such as the NASA Commercial Crew Program with Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Others are more purely
commercial companies such as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. There are also many smaller companies developing private space opportunities in tourism, rocket propulsion, zero gravity science, and planetary exploration. The students I teach at Columbia and the ones I meet around the world are even more excited about careers in the space program today than I was decades ago. In the near future it will not only be governments going to space, but also private innovators and entrepreneurs.
Inspired at age 6 to become an astronaut while watching Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon, Mike had no idea how to make his idea come true. But he discovered in elementary, middle, and high school that he liked math and science and decided to study engineering in college. Although being an astronaut was not on his mind in college, Mike followed his STEM interests which eventually would lead him to NASA and the astronaut program. Following one’s interests can lead toward a happy and successful career even if a person is undecided about what they want to do with their lives while in school. Mike’s parents never had the opportunity to go to college, but going to college and getting a STEM education changed his life. He learned not only about engineering, but also about how dreams come true – by getting an education in an area in which one is passionate.
Mike’s first flight was on Space Shuttle Columbia STS-109. The very next time Columbia went to space with the crew of STS-107, it burned up while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere killing the crew. Space shuttle missions are generally flown in order. STS-107 was assigned prior to and was originally scheduled to fly before STS-109. But launch delays forced NASA planners to switch the flight order.
Mike’s crew got the slot previously given to STS-107, and STS-107 got the original STS-109 slot. Mike and his crew returned safely to Earth, the crew of STS-107 did not. Spaceflight is a dangerous business and now it had claimed the lives of 7 of his friends. Mike found that much can be learned from investigating space flight accidents, not only the Columbia accident but also the Challenger Space Shuttle accident and the Apollo 1 fire. Mike shares with audience lessons learned and how to move forward. The biggest lesson is that safety is everyone’s job, and everyone has a responsibility to speak up when an unsafe situation arises.