Those who love astronomy or have seen episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” may recognize a familiar face on campus this year.
Mike Massimino, SEAS ’84—who has been on two space missions—is taking leave from NASA and returning to his alma mater to design a course on human spaceflight, which he will teach next semester.
Throughout the fall semester, Massimino has been giving lectures and participating in on-campus events, including the TED Conference hosted by the School of Engineering and Applied Science last weekend.
“I started thinking about what I wanted to do next before I get too old,” Massimino said. “I thought if there were one place I would go to make an impact, it would be Columbia.”
Massimino’s spring course, which will be cross-listed at the 4000 level in the mechanical and industrial engineering departments, will not be a traditional spaceflight engineering course. Typically, such courses focus on mechanics, but Massimino’s lectures will focus on what it takes to put humans into space. Topics will range from space tools to the psychological aspects of being so far from home.
“If we need someone to teach the mechanics of spaceflight, any mechanical engineer could do that,” said Gerard Ateshian, chair of the department of mechanical engineering. “He’s perfect for teaching this course because he’s had the firsthand experience and perspective that no other faculty can give.”
This won’t be Massimino’s first experience as a professor. The astronaut has taught similar courses at Rice University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he discovered he enjoyed the world of academia and engaging with students.
But the highlight of his career has unquestionably been his time on space missions.
“I almost regret that it was so much fun, because it’s over,” Massimino said.
On Massimino’s first mission, in 2002, astronauts upgraded the Hubble Space Telescope’s power unit, camera, and solar arrays. Massimino went on two spacewalks, totaling more than 14 hours.
“The spacewalks were unbelievable,” Massimino said.
Seven years later, he returned to service the Hubble for his second mission in 2009. During the mission, Massimino—who is active on Twitter—became the first person to tweet from space by sending Twitter updates to Mission Control, which then posted them online.
Massimino has also earned pop-culture acclaim thanks to his adventures in space. He guest-starred as himself on five episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and has hung out with U2, professional athletes, Nobel Prize-winners, and popes.
For Massimino, the road to becoming an astronaut was neither easy nor direct. Though as a child he dreamed of becoming an astronaut, it was not until his senior year at Columbia that he thought seriously about pursuing the career.
“I really started thinking about what mattered to me and I went back to my little boy dream,” Massimino said.
After a short stint working at IBM upon graduating, Massimino went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study for his master’s degree and then his doctorate in mechanical engineering. At MIT, he met his mentor, Tom Sheridan—now a professor of astronomy and aerospace engineering at MIT—and studied in a human-machine systems laboratory alongside other aspiring astronauts.
“Astronauts were crawling all over that place, so it almost made it seem like working for NASA was something that a lot of people did,” Massimino said.
Massimino received three rejection letters from NASA’s astronaut program before he was accepted in 1996. He then immediately quit his job as a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology to follow his dream of traveling in space.
“My adviser told me that if you can withstand indignities in life, you can go far,” Massimino said. “That’s one thing I’d like to share.”
Although he isn’t teaching until next semester, Massimino is currently advising several Columbia mechanical engineers on their final projects.
“It’s very encouraging to have a Columbia grad who stuck with the engineering path,” said Rushal Rege, SEAS ’14 and the Engineering Student Council’s vice president for student life. “It’s very exciting for students to have someone like him on campus.”
Rege is planning to hold an event for SEAS students with Massimino as a featured speaker.
Massimino said that returning to Columbia 30 years after his graduation has brought him full circle.
“Because I was a student here, it’s where I’m from, it’s like coming home,” he added.