Before becoming an astronaut candidate in 1996, Mike Massimino was busy earning degrees — an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and four additional degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), including a doctorate in mechanical engineering.

His first mission was on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2002, during which he helped upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope during two spacewalks. His second mission, aboard Atlantis, was the final Hubble servicing mission on which he also performed two spacewalks. He became the first human to Tweet from space and the first astronaut to reach one million followers on Twitter.

Today, he is an engineering professor at his alma mater, Columbia, and serves as Senior Space Advisor for the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City. Tech Briefs spoke recently with Massimino, who discussed the technological importance of the Apollo missions, the benefits of space tourism, and why we should return to the Moon.

Tech Briefs: Many technologies we use every day came out of the Apollo program. As an engineer and former astronaut, how do you see the impact the space program has had on improving the quality of life here on Earth?

Mike Massimino: I think everything we do in space improves our quality of life on Earth. NASA has always tried to tell the public the great things they do and quantify it at times. It’s very hard to do that — it’s hard to say, “you’ve got this much benefit for every penny you’ve spent on the space program.” When the Russians put up Sputnik, it created motivation for our country to get more involved in research and development and it also created interest in science in general. It gave us these new problems of launching things into space, communicating with them, and eventually trying to get to the Moon. All those problems needed to be solved, which at the time, seemed impossible. With what they had back then, they had to make all these new materials, fuel pumps, engines, and computer technology, and had to understand navigation and mathematics.

I don’t know what this planet would look like if it wasn’t for the space program, but I think our lives would be very different. I can’t say we wouldn’t have this or that, but I can’t imagine we would be at the same technological level we are at now without the space program. We wouldn’t be as far along in so many different areas like electronics and computers, and even the cellphones we communicate with. I also think the space program has provided some inspiration for education. It’s been a great way to inspire young people and older people, too, to learn about science and technology.

Massimino works with the Hubble Space Telescope in the cargo bay of the Space Shuttle Atlantis during his second mission to service Hubble.

And it’s an international cooperative effort. Back in the Apollo days, it was primarily the U.S. going to space against the Soviet Union. Now that’s turned into a very international program on the International Space Station and almost every project we do in space — not just one country is involved.

Those are some of the benefits of the space program: international collaboration, education, the technology it has provided us with over 50 years of the manned space program. I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet — it’s really going to take hold now that real economic benefit can come with the privatization effort we’re seeing. It will open up in the next few decades — it will be very exciting.

Tech Briefs: What are your feelings about NASA’s goal to return to the Moon?

Massimino: I think we should go back —- not just return, but go and settle there and live off of Earth and the International Space Station. Twenty years ago, we started building the space station and in 2020, it will be 20 years that we’ve had people onboard. The next step is to go and live somewhere else. The place that would make the most sense and is the most exciting is the Moon. When the Apollo astronauts went there, it was an unbelievable achievement and we learned a lot, but now if we go back, it shouldn’t be just short visits — it should be to establish something more permanent.

Tech Briefs: Should our presence on the Moon be a jumping-off point to get to Mars?

Massimino: Well, it could be, but the Moon is a pretty good place by itself. We can learn a lot more and there are resources we can use. It’s a great place for tourists and for exploration. Just because it’s a lot closer than Mars doesn’t mean it’s not far enough away to be challenging. You’ll be dealing with building a habitat and learning how to deal with rocks and dust and zero gravity.

I don’t think the end benefit will be that it gives us a better way to get to Mars. It will give us information on how to live on Mars and give us a jumping-off point — we can go there and on to the next place, and also maybe launch from there. There is a lot that can be gained by going to the Moon and not just as a way to get to Mars.

Tech Briefs: Other than the excitement associated with it, what do you see as the benefits of space tourism?

Massimino: Hopefully, it could expand our opportunities to go to space. The initial driver might be wanting to experience what it’s like — get off the planet and look at Earth and the atmosphere and see the Sun in the black sky — all these really cool things that are not easy for us to see unless you’re an astronaut. I hope more people will get a chance to do that. My students at Columbia are working on a flight experiment that will fly on the Blue Origin spacecraft, so there is also the science part of it. There is definite scientific benefit there.

When we first had airplane travel, we really didn’t know what to do with it. It started from a government program and got more and more commercial. Now we have a thriving commercial airline industry that is a necessity for business. With commercial space tourism, we don’t yet have business travel, but I think we will eventually. While tourism may open it up, people will start going to space for business reasons. It’s kind of like barnstorming was for airplanes — at first it was fun and interesting, but the purpose will be more discoverable as we take those steps. It’s huge — there are a lot of things we can’t even imagine that could come from this.

Tech Briefs: If given the opportunity, would you go back into space?

Massimino: I would go back. I left NASA when I could have kept flying but I decided I had had enough and wanted to try something else. I never thought that would happen but it did, and it happens for everybody eventually. There were many things I enjoyed about being an astronaut but given the chance to go up to Hubble and space walk, look at our planet, and work on that amazing instrument — it was the highlight of my life. And I got to do that twice. The other great thing was the people you work with — the best friends and coworkers I’ve ever had were my fellow astronauts.

I think about going back all the time. The astronaut job is great but it takes a lot of work. It was a wonderful experience but I don’t know if I could go through that training again. I’m getting kind of old for that. I really hope space tourism takes hold because I’d go back as a tourist for a visit.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the July, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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