One Astronaut’s Heart-Pounding Account of Almost Breaking the Hubble Space Telescope

His mission was to fix an instrument that could detect the atmospheres of far-off planets. One stubborn screw derailed the entire thing.

june 2016 eight hours of darknessCourtesy NASA

In 1984, I was a senior at Columbia and I went to see the movie The Right Stuff. And a couple of things really struck me in that movie. The first was the view out the window of John Glenn’s spaceship—the view of Earth, how beautiful it was on the big screen. I wanted to see that view. And secondly, the camaraderie between the original seven astronauts depicted in that movie—how they were good friends, how they stuck up for each other, how they would never let each other down. I wanted to be part of an organization like that.

And it rekindled a boyhood dream that had gone dormant over the years—to be an astronaut. And I just could not ignore this dream. I had to pursue it. So I was lucky enough to get accepted to MIT.

While I was there, I started applying to NASA to become an astronaut. I filled out my application, and I received a letter that said they weren’t quite interested. So I waited a couple of years, and I sent in another application. They sent me back pretty much the same letter. So I applied a third time, and this time I got an interview, so they got to know who I was. And then they told me no. Check out these mind-blowing facts about the International Space Station.

So I applied a fourth time. And on April 22, 1996, I picked up the phone, and it was Dave Leestma, the head of flight-crew operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

He said, “Hey, Mike. How you doing this morning?”

I said, “I really don’t know, Dave. You’re gonna have to tell me.”

He said, “Well, I think you’re gonna be pretty good after this phone call ’cause we wanna make you an astronaut.”

Thirteen years later, I’m on the space shuttle Atlantis, about to do a space walk on the Hubble Space Telescope. Our task that day was to repair an instrument that had failed that was used by scientists to detect the atmospheres of far-off planets. Planets in other solar systems could be analyzed using this spectrograph to see if we might find a planet that was Earth-like, or a planet that could support life. The power supply on this instrument had failed so it could no longer be used.

And there was no easy way to repair the instrument, because when they launched this thing, it was buttoned up with an access panel that blocked the power supply that had failed. This access panel had 117 small screws with washers, and just to play it safe, they put glue on the screw threads so they would never come apart.

But we really wanted this capability back, so we started working. And for five years, we designed a space walk and over 100 new space tools to be used—at great taxpayers’ expense, millions of dollars; thousands of people worked on this. And my buddy Mike Good (whom we call Bueno)—he and I were gonna do this space walk.

Inside was Drew Feustel, one of my best friends. He was gonna read me the checklist. We had practiced this for years. They built us our own practice instrument and gave us our own set of tools so we could practice in our office, in our free time, during lunch, after work, on the weekends. We became like one mind. We had our own language. Now was the day to go out and do this task. These are the things you never knew about space travel.

The thing I was most worried about when leaving the air lock that day was my path to get to the telescope, because it was along the side of the space shuttle. If you look over the edge of the shuttle, it’s like looking over a cliff, with 350 miles to go down to the planet.

There are no good handrails. And I’m kind of a big goon. And when there’s no gravity, you could go spinning off into space. I knew I had a safety tether that would probably hold, but I also had a heart that I wasn’t so sure about. I knew they would get me back; I just wasn’t sure what they would get back on the end of the tether when they reeled me in. I was really concerned about this. I took my time, and I got through the treacherous path to the telescope.

One of the first things I had to do was to remove from the telescope a handrail that was blocking the access panel. There were two screws on the top, and they came off easily. There was one screw on the bottom left, and that came out easily. The fourth screw is not moving. My tool is moving, but the screw is not. I look closely, and it’s stripped. I realize that that handrail’s not coming off, which means I can’t get to the access panel with these 117 screws that I’ve been worrying about for five years, which means I can’t get to the power supply that failed, which means we’re not gonna be able to fix this instrument today, which means all these smart scientists can’t find life on other planets.

I’m to blame for this.

And I could see what they would be saying in the science books of the future. This was gonna be my legacy. My children and my grandchildren would read in their classrooms:

We would know if there was life on other planets … but Gabby and Daniel’s dad broke the Hubble Space Telescope, and we’ll never know.

Through this nightmare that had just begun, I looked at my buddy Bueno, next to me in his space suit, and he was there to assist in the repair but could not take over my role. It was my job to fix this thing. I turned and looked into the cabin where my five crewmates were, and I realized nobody in there had a space suit on. They couldn’t come out here and help me. And then I actually looked at Earth; I looked at our planet, and I thought, There are billions of people down there, but there’s no way I’m gonna get a house call on this one. No one can help me.

I felt this deep loneliness. And it wasn’t just a “Saturday afternoon with a book” alone. I felt … detached from Earth. I felt that I was by myself, and everything that I knew and loved and that made me feel comfortable was far away. And then it started getting dark and cold.

Because we travel 17,500 miles an hour, 90 minutes is one lap around Earth. So it’s 45 minutes of sunlight and 45 minutes of darkness. And when you enter the darkness, it is not just darkness. It’s the darkest black I have ever experienced. It’s the complete absence of light. It gets cold, and I could feel that coldness, and I could sense the darkness coming. And it just added to my loneliness. These are the most bizarre things humans have left on the moon.

For the next hour or so, we tried all kinds of things, and nothing worked. And then they called up and said they wanted me to go to the front of the shuttle to get a toolbox, vise grips, and tape. I thought, We are running out of ideas. I didn’t even know we had tape on board. I’m gonna be the first astronaut to use tape on a space walk.

june 2016 eight hours of darkness astronaut fbCourtesy NASA

But I got to the front of the space shuttle, and I opened up the toolbox, and there was the tape. At that point, I was very close to the front of the orbiter, right by the cabin window, and I knew that my best pal was in there, trying to help me out. I could not even stand to think of looking at him, because I felt so bad about the way this day was going, with all the work he and I had put in.

But through the corner of my eye, through my helmet, just the side there, I can kinda see that he’s trying to get my attention. And I look up at him, and he’s just cracking up, smiling and giving me the OK sign. And I’m like, Is there another space walk going on out here? I really can’t talk to him, because if I say anything, the ground will hear. You know, Houston. The control center. So I’m playing charades with him, like, What are you, nuts? And I didn’t wanna look before, because I thought he was gonna give me the finger because he’s gonna go down in the history books with me. But he’s saying, No, we’re OK. We’re gonna make it through this. We’re in this together. You’re doing great. Just hang in there.

If there was ever a time in my life that I needed a friend, it was at that moment. And there was my buddy, just like I saw in that movie, the camaraderie of those guys sticking together. I didn’t believe him at all. I figured that we were outta luck. But I thought, At least if I’m going down, I’m going down with my best pal.

And as I turned to make my way back over the treacherous path one more time, Houston called up and told us what they had in mind. They wanted me to use that tape to tape the bottom of the handrail and then see if I could yank it off the telescope. They said it was gonna take about 60 pounds of force for me to do that.

And Drew answers the call, and he goes to me, “Sixty pounds of force? Mass, I think you got that in you. What do you think?”

And I’m like, “You bet, Drew. Let’s go get this thing.”

And Drew’s like, “Go!” And bam! That thing comes right off. I pull out my power tool, and now I’ve got that access panel with those 117 little bitty screws with their washers and glue, and I’m ready to get each one of them. And I pull the trigger on my power tool, and nothing happens. I look, and I see that the battery is dead. I turn my head to look at Bueno, who’s in his space suit, again looking at me like, What else can happen today?

And I said, “Drew, the battery’s dead in this thing. I’m gonna go back to the air lock, and we’re gonna swap out the battery, and I’m gonna recharge my oxygen tank.” Because I was getting low on oxygen; I needed to get a refill. These are the astronomy facts you never learned in school.

He said, “Go.” And I was going back over that shuttle, and I noticed two things. One was that the treacherous path that I was so scaredy-cat-sissy-pants about going over—it wasn’t scary anymore. That in the course of those couple of hours of fighting this problem, I had gone up and down that thing about 20 times, and my fear had gone away because there was no time to be a scaredy-cat; it was time to get the job done. What we were doing was more important than me being worried, and it was actually kinda fun going across that little jungle gym, back and forth over the shuttle.

The other thing I noticed was that I could feel the warmth of the sun. We were about to come into a day pass. And the light in space, when you’re in the sunlight, is the brightest, whitest, purest light I have ever experienced, and it brings with it warmth. I could feel that coming, and I actually started feeling optimistic.

Sure enough, the rest of the walk went well. We got all those screws out, a new power supply in, buttoned it up. They tried it; turned it on from the ground. The instrument came back to life. And at the end of that space walk, after about eight hours, my commander says, “Hey, Mass, you know, you’ve got about 15 minutes before Bueno’s gonna be ready to come in. Why don’t you go outside of the air lock and enjoy the view?”

So I go outside, take my tether, clip it on a handrail, let go, and I just look. And Earth—from our altitude at Hubble, we’re 350 miles up. We can see the curvature. We can see the roundness of our home, our home planet. It’s the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like looking into heaven. It’s paradise.

And I thought, This is the view that I imagined in that movie theater all those years ago. As I looked at Earth, I also noticed that I could turn my head, and I could see the moon and the stars and the Milky Way galaxy. I could see our universe. I could turn back and see our beautiful planet.

And that moment changed my relationship with Earth. Because for me, Earth had always been a kind of safe haven, you know, where I could go to work or be in my home or take my kids to school. But I realized it really wasn’t that. It really is its own spaceship. And I had always been a space traveler. All of us here today, even tonight, we’re on this spaceship Earth, amongst all the chaos of the universe, whipping around the sun and around the Milky Way galaxy.

A few days later, we get back. And I’m driving home to my house with my family. My wife starts telling me that while watching the NASA television she detected a sadness in my voice that she had never heard from me before.

And we turned the corner to come down our block, and I could see my neighbors were outside. They had decorated my house, and there were American flags everywhere. And my neighbor across the street was holding a pepperoni pizza and a six-pack of beer, two things that unfortunately we still cannot get in space.

I got out of the car, and they were all hugging me. I was still in my blue flight suit, and they were saying how happy they were to have me back and how great everything turned out. I realized my friends, man, they were thinking about me the whole time. They were with me too. I wish I would’ve known that when I was up there.

The next day we had our return ceremony; we made speeches. The engineers who had worked all these years with us, our trainers, the people that worked in the control center, they started telling me how they were running around like crazy while I was up there in my little nightmare, thinking I was all alone.

I realized that at the time when I felt so lonely, when I felt detached from everyone else—literally, like I was away from the planet—that really I never was alone, that my family and my friends and the people I worked with, the people that I loved and the people that cared about me, they were with me every step of the way. Next, read about the most baffling mysteries about the universe

Michael Massimino, PhD, is a veteran of two NASA space flights (STS-109 in March 2002 and STS-125 in May 2009) and has logged a total of 571 hours, 47 minutes in space, and a cumulative total of 30 hours, 4 minutes during four spacewalks. A graduate of Columbia University and MIT, Michael is a professor at the Columbia University School of Engineering and is a Senior Advisor at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, as well as a sought after inspirational speaker. Mike appears regularly on television news and talk shows, and has appeared on The Big Bang Theory six times. Follow Mike on Twitter at @Astro_mike or visit his website at Mike’s memoir, SPACEMAN, is published by Crown Archetype and is 
available in hardcover or paperback.

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