9: Astronaut Mike Massimino Shares Several Out-Of-This-World Leadership Lessons

Written by Rob Stott

February 25, 2020


Former NASA Astronaut Mike Massimino, fresh off of a keynote at Nationwide Marketing Group’s PrimeTime show in Houston, shares stories from space and relates some of the things he learned to the independent retail channel.

Rob Stott: All right, we’re back on the Independent Thinking podcast and right now coming to you from PrimeTime. I’ve interviewed a lot of people and I’ve gotten the chance to talk to some interesting individuals, but this will be a first today. So I’ve never had the chance to interview an astronaut. So we’re here at PrimeTime in Houston and Mike Massimino, appreciate you, first, coming back to Houston.

Mike Massimino: Yeah, I like it here.

Rob Stott: Yeah, it’s a place you called home for a number of years.

Mike Massimino: Yeah, raised my family here. Yep.

Rob Stott: So appreciate you taking the time to join us in Houston and deliver a riveting keynote, a really excellent keynote, and now spend a few minutes with us for the podcast, so.

Mike Massimino: Okay. Yeah.

Rob Stott: So let’s start with that keynote. You had some really excellent messages that came out of it from your time in space and working with NASA.

And the two things that stuck with me, I think, that were the big takeaways right away were just leadership and teamwork and what that means, how much that plays into everything that goes on, that permeates through all of NASA. And whether that’s preparing to go up for a launch or all the work that goes on in space, while you’re in space, for spacewalks. So how do you recap a 45-minute keynote, right? But what are some of the things, the quick points, the takeaways that you could share with us about leadership and teamwork and what they mean to you?

Mike Massimino: Yeah, some of the things that I learned at NASA I tried to share with the group were things like it’s a team win or a team loss. You’re there to support each other in victory and in defeat, and it’s easy to win together, but it’s not always easy to lose together. Do you blame your teammates for the loss or for whatever happened or do you stick with them?

And I think that that’s what I realized, even when I had my moments of making mistakes and messing up our mission, I knew that my team was still with me and they kept me going and no one was going to throw me under the bus. And that’s a good way to go. You know if you’re going to go down, you’re going to go down with your best friends. And that’s the way I felt about it.

Some of the things that we learn, I think that caring about each other is really important. And things like making sure that you find a way to care for and admire everyone on your team, that everyone should know that if they have a problem, it’s not that they have a problem, but we all have a problem, whatever that might be, whether it’s at work or even in their personal life, so having that kind of relationship with your group.

And when you do make mistakes, understand that that’s going to happen, and you don’t want those things to happen, but if you need help, ask for it. If you can give help, give it in those situations, but certainly, try not to make things worse. That’s one thing that I learned. “Hey, I made this mistake, I don’t want to make it worse.”

And then don’t beat yourself up too badly. Put a time-limit on it. It’s okay to feel bad about it, but you also need to move on and can’t do anything about a lot of these things when they happen, but you can certainly make it worse, and you can certainly make it worse also by just dwelling on it. So, hey, I’m going to learn from it and I’m going to move on. And I think that’s important, as well.

And these are all things that I found I needed to do because if you didn’t operate that way, you were going to not be successful. You got to say you’re going to make mistakes. Let it pass.

Rob Stott: Sure. And to story tell for a second, you mentioned the mistake in space and how you worked through that during the keynote, but this is where, for those who don’t know that are listening to the podcast, this is a mission where you’re up in space working on the Hubble telescope instrument that I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with, and you got stuck in a jam. So tell us a little bit about the jam you got yourself into and then how you worked yourself out of it.

Mike Massimino: Yeah, we had a very complicated spacewalk and it was planned for years, even before we were assigned. And when we started thinking about that we were going to be going to Hubble to do this last mission, before a crew was there, we started thinking about how we could do this instrument repair. And what we had done up to that point was to remove instruments from the telescope or pieces of equipment and put a whole new one in. So, it’s like if your alternator goes bad in a car, you replace the car. If the light bulb’s out in the refrigerator, get a new refrigerator. You don’t go in there and start removing parts from these things.

Mike Massimino: So, that’s what it was with Hubble. We would remove big pieces of equipment and put new ones in. We wouldn’t try to repair the pieces of equipment in space. And this one instrument, though, we didn’t have a replacement for. It was a spectrograph that could analyze planet atmospheres and do all this cool science, and it had a power supply failure that killed it. Still,  everything was fine except we couldn’t turn it on.

But it was buttoned-up such that it was hard to get to this power supply. And it was 111 small screws that needed to be removed and launch lock bolts and connectors that were never intended to be ever undone anywhere, even in space or on earth. So we had to figure out ways to do this because it was buttoned-up and launched and that was going to be it.

So we had to undo all that smart-guy work that they did to button it up, and the easiest thing was to remove a handrail that was blocking access to some of the screws we needed to get to, and that was going to be easy. It was big bolts.

And I tell other people about this, I actually got a call from the astronaut crew a couple of months ago. They were working on something called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and it was a fairly complicated spacewalk, and I got a call from them. They can call. They can call the planet.

And I was speaking to the guys, and they said, “What do you have for us?” I said, “Well, you guys are well-trained but don’t forget the simple things, too. Pay attention to everything.” Because that’s what happened to me, I think, is that I was so worried about all the complicated stuff that the simple thing that I was doing, I messed that up.

Luckily, there were four bolts holding this thing in place, and three came out but one I stripped, and so was just some way to overcome that last bolt. And we were trying everything. There was no way to get it out. And then the solution came up to just try to yank it off, which might seem simple just to rip it off, but it didn’t occur to me to do that. It’s just something we wouldn’t normally do. When you break metal, you create debris. You can’t have debris in the telescope, debris might come and hit me. But the solution for that was to tape the bottom of the handrail where it was going to break so that the debris would be contained in the tape. And that was a pretty clever thing to do. It came off with a little bit of force, not too much.

Rob Stott: So no, I’m thinking, picturing this is happening in space and trying to flip through an Ikea manual, and what it’s like to take these things apart.

Mike Massimino: That’s kind of what it is. Well, we have that, you see. We had our checklist, of course, but we also had something that was called a crib sheet, and then we had a contingency checklist that was for everything that had happened on previous missions that were a problem, you had a way to get around it, that you figured it out.

And then stuff that happened in training. Well, this or that we got to watch out for. And then you would try to imagine everything that could go wrong. Like, for these smaller screws I described, if I stripped one of those, we had ways to get them out. We had easy outs and bolthead destroyer bits and stuff like that, so we had ways to get… But we thought even I couldn’t mess up this handrail, and, of course, that’s what I did. So we had nothing in our crib sheet or in our contingency checklist for this because this was really simple. So we couldn’t imagine that I would mess that up, and that’s exactly what I did.

Rob Stott: Man. Well, also maybe to your credit, you don’t know what sort of impact being in space for as long as that telescope has been, who knows what could happen to these parts as they’re floating around in space.

Mike Massimino: Well, yeah, the truth of what happened was I was using a big power tool at a high speed. We should have been using a lower speed. There’s no reason to, and I spun it at a high rate of speed and it didn’t have time to catch because of the torque.

When they did the analysis… These bolts when they put them in, because they were never coming out again, not only did they torque them down, they had washers there, as well, to help, and then they had glue staking on the threads. So the post-flight analysis… Because when I yanked this thing off, it came home, and they found that what the issue was is that that one bolt compared to the other four, the other three, that one had apparently more glue on it than the others and required more torque. So we didn’t know that. And so it was not going to come out with the settings we had, and instead, the bolt stayed where it was. The tool spun inside of the hex head of the bolt and ruined it without loosening it. So, that’s what happened. But I didn’t know that when I was work-

Rob Stott: You can’t prepare for these things.

Mike Massimino: We would have done something different. Right. But that was the problem there. You never know. Yeah, we would have imagined.

Rob Stott: And relating that back to retail and the Nationwide membership is like you can’t prepare for things. You can prepare for so much, but it’s just being able to persevere through those moments and find solutions and find the fix that works for you.

Mike Massimino: Yeah. You can’t practice everything. What I felt like is that there’s a list of things that can go wrong in life. And you can imagine them, you experience some of them, but there’s some of them that you can’t even imagine. And how the heck did this ever happen? And you can’t even imagine. It’s never happened before. And it’s going to happen. There’s a list of those things and some of them will present themselves to you when you make those mistakes.

And so what I felt like is we can’t think of everything. We can’t be prepared. We can’t have a direct solution for everything. But the way we can be prepared to handle everything is to be good at handling problems as a crew and as a team with our control centers, that we know how to attack a problem. We may not have seen this problem before, but we certainly know how to work together to solve problems. And I think that’s what life is, right? Today it’s going to be something you never would have expected, but you know what? We have experience of working together and I know where to go. Nationwide. Call them if you’re a retailer, get help. Maybe they haven’t seen it either, but maybe they can help you figure it out.

Rob Stott: We’ve been hitting on leadership and teamwork and perseverance from your crew perspective. But even you personally, you go back to before getting into the space program and you were denied a couple of times.

Mike Massimino: Yeah, three times, yeah.

Rob Stott: And you end up getting accepted and then, I think you said you got medically-

Mike Massimino: Medically disqualified before. That was my third rejection was medical.

Rob Stott: Right. So because of eyesights, for you personally, and this was a dream… Reading your book, you talk about how this was a dream of yours from being a young kid seeing Neil Armstrong and his crew land on the moon to The Right Stuff movie. Is that right?

Mike Massimino: Yep. Yep.

Rob Stott: So seeing The Right Stuff and getting that spark to want to go to space. For you personally to persevere through those challenges trying to become an astronaut, what was that like for you and lessons did you learn along the way?

Mike Massimino: Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things that are important there… But I had this real interest and passion that I felt like I could not be happy unless I tried. I would be okay, I think. Disappointed if I never was selected, of course, but I don’t think I could have accepted giving up and then I would have real regrets. As long as I kept trying, as long as I knew that I, no matter what happened, I was going to figure out a way to keep trying, I think that’s all I could do. And I think I’ve learned in life that you can control the effort, but not the outcome. You can’t always control what’s going to happen.

And Joe Torre, the baseball manager, a friend of mine, I learned that from him. He told me that one time, he said that he learned that you can prepare and do your best, but you can’t always control that outcome. And that’s the way it is in sports. That’s the way it is in life, too, but you can certainly control the effort. And so that’s what I was going to concentrate on.

I felt like the chances of me becoming an astronaut were pretty close to zero. It was very unlikely, especially after getting rejected over and over again. But I knew that the only way that there truly was a zero probability was if I gave up. If you give up or you never try, you know what the outcome’s going to be. It’s not going to happen. It’s going to be zero. So as long as you try, there’s always a chance, and that’s what I was holding onto.

Rob Stott: Probably the greatest example of that is, we mentioned the medically disqualified because of eyesight, and then to not let that be a hump that you couldn’t overcome, going to an eye doctor that you mentioned had only worked with kids.

Mike Massimino: Only worked with kids. I told him I’d be really immature.

Rob Stott: Just lower that age level for her. But doing exercise is something, and this is the time, I believe, before LASIK, right? So LASIK wasn’t a thing.

Mike Massimino: LASIK wasn’t accepted back then or… I don’t know if they had it or not, but they had other things. They had radial keratotomy and they had something else. I forget what else they had. I don’t know if they had LASIK, but they did not accept that then because there wasn’t much experience with that stuff yet.

Now they actually do accept LASIK, as long as it’s stable for six months. And you don’t even need to do that because your unaided acuity is not important. It’s as long as you’re correctable to 20/20, so all that stuff went out the window. It was an antiquated rule that was the number one disqualifier of people. Even guys that could really see well…

I remember we were there in groups of 20 at a time when we interviewed, and I was in this group of 20 people that were there that week. And so we would generally meet for dinner because when you’re coming from different parts of the country… And a lot of military people were there from wherever they were stationed from around the world sometimes. But you were all there together in Houston. You got to know each other really well, the people in my interview group, because you would see each other as you’re going through the process or through the health clinic or whatever getting tested, and you were doing things together.

And so we’d always have dinner. We’d always find a place to meet for dinner. And I remember sitting next to this one Navy pilot who was a very experienced pilot, flown off a Navy carrier. I think he was sort of on the senior side, maybe his early forties, late thirties, something like that.

But he was an experienced flyer and it was something kind of disa… “How’d it go today?” He goes, “I can’t believe it. I failed the eye exam.” And I go, “How did you fail the eye? You’re a Nav….” And at that time, I think the Navy required… He said, “Because I’m 20/20 my whole life, and I’m still 20/20.” I go, “So how did you fail? And he said, “Well, they dilated our eyes,” something, and they had this really powerful dilation… I think they were for horses. I don’t know how they got… I don’t think you can give them to regular humans. But they would dilate your eye, and for whatever reason, I guess as he got older, maybe a little accommodation of his eye muscles helped with the focusing of bending the… And he could not see 20/20 with his eyes dilated, and they failed him on that. And I was like, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard because how the heck does that matter?”

First of all, you’re not going to go into space with your eyes dilated. You don’t live… You don’t walk around. This is an un-normal thing. I think they dilated your eyes so you could see better, but they also recheck your acuity, and because he couldn’t see 20/20 dilated, they failed…

Rob Stott: Geez, that’s tough.

Mike Massimino: And then the other thing that made me wonder about it was that once you got picked if your eyesight decayed, you were still okay, they’d waive it. And people wore eyeglasses during spacewalks and people wore eyeglasses landing the space shuttle. I wore contact lenses during my spacewalks. So it gave me the sense that this was really dumb. And that’s the other thing I was saying, this is not a good way to go.

Rob Stott: This is the… 

Mike Massimino: It wasn’t like I had some kind of illness or something that if I went to space, my intestines were going to explode. This is really stupid. You have people that don’t see very well, and so why is this? And he’s just like, “Well, we want the best people we can get.”

Mike Massimino: Well, really what it was is, I think the guy who was running flight medicine back then was an old grumpy… I really don’t know if he was grumpy or not, but I imagine him this way. And he was from the days of the pilots and everyone needed to see well because that’s how you did it back then. You saw everything. In World War II, they didn’t have much in the area of computers to help them find the enemy. They had to be able to see the other guy during a dog fight. But this was later on in the 20th century by 50 years or so, and why not use what’s available on that end? And now it’s no longer an issue, so.

Rob Stott: Man, that’s crazy. So I have two space questions that I want to end on that I’m just curious to hear your thoughts on. One, you mentioned during your keynote that you were on the last successful Columbia mission to return-

Mike Massimino: Yeah, the last one I got to land.

Rob Stott: Yeah. You also mentioned the fear of going up and seeing the shuttle and how it felt alive and the fear that stokes in you, but what, as a former astronaut and seeing that happen, what’s the reaction knowing that you were on that ship and… I know it’s debris that happened beforehand, anything can happen, but when you see that happen, what’s the impact on you?

Mike Massimino: Yeah, part of that story, too, is that that crew was assigned to Columbia before we were and they were STS-107. That’s when we numbered shuttle flights, and they, more or less, number in order. We were STS-109, so we were going to go after them. And Columbia, when it went through a refurb out in Palmdale, California, at the plant, when it was returned to the Kennedy Space Center for STS-107, there were some issues with it when it got back there. Something strange… It was the paint or something had gone that needed to be redone and it was going to delay it to be flight-ready longer than expected. Something happened when they were refurbing it. And what they did is they, they switched the order of the flights because they wanted us to get to Hubble.

107 was a science mission that could pretty much happen anytime, but we were going to Hubble and they were afraid of certain things starting to break on the telescope, and then we wanted to get there first, so they flipped the order of our flights. So we got their spot and they got ours. I figured that one out like the day after. I was like, “Holy cow.” We traded seats with them, more or less, spots with them. Who knows what would’ve happened. But that had me thinking, too.

It was pretty devastating. I think about them a lot. I think about my friends all the time, every day. And not a day goes by I don’t think about… I knew them all really well, and three were my astronaut classmates. Rick Husband was one of my best friends. He was a Commander. And Ilan Ramon. I knew he and his family very well. I just saw his son, me and some of the other… He’s an Israeli astronaut, so some of us got involved with his foundation in Israel as a result of all this, so we think about these people all the time.

It was a really bad accident. It was a tragedy. But you’ve got to keep going. And in some strange way I felt like that could have been us and it wasn’t. And I sometimes… I don’t know, I have this feeling about my friends that they’re still around, what they would… Trying to live the best we can in their honor because they didn’t get a chance to see their kids get older, and it’s been now… How long has it been? It was ’03. We just celebrated-

Rob Stott: Seventeen years?

Mike Massimino: 17 years ago this happened and their lives were cut short. So I felt like space exploration and the way we live our lives, we need to realize that we owe it to the opportunity to be here to do the best we can every day.

Rob Stott: Ah, that’s awesome, and certainly quite the tribute and well-put. Another question I wanted to ask, and this is something you briefly touched on on stage with Tom Hickman, our Chief Member Advocate, and something I know, prior to coming down to Houston on the call to get to know you, you touched on, as well. The impact that being in space, and that you were part of two spacewalks, and mentioned the first one, you were very in-the-zone wanting to stay focused on the job, but that second spacewalk where you had some time to look around, and you see Earth from that perspective. You see our planet and what that does to you to see the planet from space and not down on Earth like we typically see it. As high as I get it ever is the 30,000 feet in an airplane, so I know it’s completely different-

Mike Massimino: Yeah, that’s where I’m going now.

Rob Stott: I know it’s a completely different perspective, but what does that do to you to see the planet in that way?

Mike Massimino: You see it in its entirety, and as you’re going around it, you can see how beautiful it is. From that perspective, I think that for us to truly appreciate our planet, we need to get off of it, which is weird. I think to really see its beauty is you need to observe it from above. I think to really understand the changes that it’s going through in climate and in the migration of people, and agriculture, you can tell a lot of what’s going on on the planet by looking at it from up there, and it gives you an appreciation for the beauty of it and also the appreciation that that is our home. And when you’re in space, the only way you’re existing is with life support and you appreciate how well the earth takes care of us, so we can’t mess this thing up. I think that-

Rob Stott: We got one of them.

Mike Massimino: The permanence of it as I was going around the planet and seeing it, the rotation and the changes in day and night, and looking at the sun and… The planet is here a long time before we were. And if we do something to ourselves where we don’t survive for whatever reason, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but the planet will survive. I think the planet’s going to be okay. I think the planet can heal itself and I think we have to keep it good for us so we can still be here for a while.

Rob Stott: Fingers crossed on that one.

Mike Massimino: I think we’ll be all right. I have faith. We’ll be all right.

Rob Stott: Like I said, we get one of them. Well, one final thing I wanted to do and I don’t know… So for people that are familiar with Big Bang Theory, you have a recurring role there. They may know that a certain character that goes to space gets the call name Fruit Loops on there. So how do you get these call names?

Mike Massimino: These call signs come up… They just naturally happen. If you try to give yourself your own name-

Rob Stott: It’s not going to stick.

Mike Massimino: … because you’re not a cool name, that’s not going to happen. That’s going to backfire like it did in the episode of The Big Bang. We’ve had cases of that that I’ve witnessed that someone… It doesn’t work. And then guys try to hide their call sign when they show up at a new place. That’s another thing.

Rob Stott: It comes out.

Mike Massimino: And the phone calls are not that hard to make. “What did you call this guy back in Yuma, Arizona?” So yeah, you got to be careful with that. But for me, I thought I was going to get a call sign that I wasn’t too happy about.

We were in water survival training and they had these parachutes that we were hooked up to and we were coming off the deck of a ship that was very high off the ground. I don’t know how high it was, but it was pretty high, 20, 25 feet off the water. And the idea was you would march off this platform and then this… You’re getting pulled by a boat, but you’d march, march, march, and then you’d get to the end of the deck of the ship. It was a flat open deck there. And then the boat would pull you and you would rise in your parachute.

Well, the person before me was Stephanie Wilson, who was much smaller than I was. I’m a bigger astronaut and she was a smaller astronaut and she went up like Peter Pan. I don’t think they recalibrated anything when I stepped in there, and I just went right to the water and they couldn’t get me airborne. And they drug me in the water and I kept getting airborne, like about five or 10 feet, and then bang. So they just kept dunking me and dragging me in the water until they gave up. And then we had to try it again, and it worked, luckily, the second time.

But while this was going on, I guess I looked like a teabag. So one of my crewmates started calling me Teabag and I just didn’t say anything. But then, eventually, the nickname I got was a nickname, or call sign, that I had my whole life, which is Mass, which is short for my name. So that’s what I’ve been called my whole life and a lot of people, all of my friends still call me that.

Rob Stott: Any tie to Top Gun and the Mavericks and names that they get there, or is it-

Mike Massimino: I know a lot of the names aren’t cool names like Maverick and Iceman and… No, my commander Scott Altman was Scooter because of his name, and I think he had other ones that he didn’t like.

He actually flew in the movie Top Gun, Scott Altman did. There were two F14 pilots primarily flew the… So he flew those scenes.

Rob Stott: That’s incredible.

Mike Massimino: Scott Altman was a good friend, Scooter. And in the movie, if you look at the credits, they give him credit for flying the F-14 in there-

Rob Stott: Oh, that’s awesome.

Mike Massimino: … and it says Scott “D-Bear” Altman, so he was called D-Bear. And the reason was D-Bear stood for dancing bear because he was a big fellow and he would like to dance. He was great. He loved dancing for YMCA, so I guess someone said he looked like the dancing bear, which is also something from Captain Kangaroo, which is before your time, if you know had the dancing bear. And so I think Scooter said, “Well, the dancing bear is large but not oafish,” or something like that.

So he had that and I think he was okay with that one, but I think he preferred Scooter. We had another guy named Scorch and there’s a story there that I can’t tell you. So it wasn’t always-

Rob Stott: I feel like it’s a lot of those.

Mike Massimino: Yeah, it wasn’t necessarily. Our oldest guy was called Fossil, so there wasn’t anything with anyone called… There was no Ace. There was one guy named Ace Biel who was a pilot out at Ellington, and we know that was a lot of bologna.

Rob Stott: Is there a designated namer or is it just something that comes around naturally?

Mike Massimino: No, it just naturally happens. Sometimes someone will make themselves a designated namer and it’ll stick sometimes. But yeah, people just start calling you that and that’s it.

Rob Stott: So it’s dangerous then, basically, I’m getting the sense, to ask for a call name.

Mike Massimino: Don’t ask for a call-

Rob Stott: Don’t ask for a call name. I won’t do that.

Mike Massimino: No, you’ll get one, and you’ll get one… Yeah, no, again, they can be really bad.

Rob Stott: No, that’s awesome. Mike, I’ve taken up more of your time than I intended, so-

Mike Massimino: Yeah, because I’ve got to get on an airplane or else we can go all day.

Rob Stott: Yeah, right. So going to let you guy… and we know that countdowns are important to you, so-

Mike Massimino: Yeah, no. The flight’s going to leave with or without me, so I better get going.

Rob Stott: No, but I appreciate it again. Appreciate you coming here to Houston and joining us on the podcast.

Mike Massimino: No, I love coming here. Thanks for spending some time with me, too.

Rob Stott: Yeah, you got it. Appreciate it.

Mike Massimino: All right, Rob. Good luck.



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