History is forever being made, and so was the case when two astronauts successfully flew into orbit aboard a rocket ship designed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, despite weather troubles and delays.
It was the first time that a crewed space mission launched from US soil since 2011.
‘Space Launch Live: America Returns to Space’, which documents the launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule from the Kennedy Space Centre, will air in the UAE on June 11.
Former Nasa astronaut Mike Massimino spoke to Gulf News shortly after the launch, discussing its importance and the next big frontier in space exploration.
Q: It’s a crazy time. Firstly, what are your thoughts on the recent SpaceX launch?
A: I thought it was an absolutely great achievement. I’m very happy for my friends who made it to space again. I know both of those guys [Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley] really well and the other American up there as well, Chris Cassidy, so I’m happy for all of them. This is something that astronauts have been looking forward to for quite a long time, of having another way to get to space and we have another way to do that and to work successfully. It is also a private company doing it, so I think it marks a whole new phase in space exploration.
Q: How do you think it affects the regular everyday person who might not be aware of the significance of the event?
A: Well, from what I can tell, a lot of people were very interested in what happened. And I think it was a source of inspiration during a very difficult time. There [were] a lot of people who paid attention to what was going on. We have a lot of other things going on in the world, but they were very interested in what was going on.
A: It also opens up possibilities for those who are interested in working in the space programme. A lot of my students that I teach at Columbia, they go work for Nasa, for the government agencies exploring space, but now they also can work for some of these entrepreneurial private companies and it’s very exciting. I think it’s going to get a lot of young men and women interested in engineering and in science and trying to be a part of the space programme.
Q: You’re known for so many different things — you’re known for a record-breaking spacewalk and being the first person to tweet from space. Personally, when you look back on your career, what would you consider to be your most significant moment?
A: For me, it was getting a chance to be a part of the final Hubble servicing mission. The end of the Space Shuttle Programme was coming around. The mission was cancelled at one point and then through public outreach and some key members of our leadership in Congress and people at Nasa, the mission was put back on the books and it was very ambitious. And we knew we had to do whatever we could to try to keep the telescope going as long as possible.
Q: When you’re asked as a child what you want to be when you grow up, so often the answer is to be an astronaut. Is it as impossible as it seems when you’re a kid?
A: It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of work and perseverance. I was rejected three times before I was selected. But I think the world is changing now too. The Nasa programme is so very competitive to get into, if you’re an American, and the other space agencies as well, the Japanese Space — one of my friends, one of my classmates is Japanese astronaut, Soichi Noguchi.
Other countries, like the UAE, just flew an astronaut. So, I think that there’s going to be more and more opportunities for people around the world from different countries. And also, I think with the privatisation, there is going to be more opportunities for people who are not government employees to fly in space. And they may be working at different commercial entities or entertainment.
Who knows where there will be other opportunities. So, it kind of depends on what you want to do. I wanted to be an American astronaut part of the Nasa programme. And I knew that that was unlikely, but I knew it was never going to happen unless I tried. The most important thing is to try and not give up.
Q: Do you remember how it felt the first time you experienced [space] and does it change? Does the novelty of space exploration wear off eventually?
A: No, I don’t really think so. I think we get used to it. But I think every time there is a launch or every time we do something in space, we’re reminded of how special it is. People pay attention at different times to certain things. People pay attention when there is a big launch coming up or a major event like we had on Saturday. But I think for the people who are really interested, their interest may come and go — mine did. But I don’t think it wears off … It’s about the future and it’s always changing. And it’s really been changing a lot recently, particularly with these private companies.
Q: Can you tell us about your memories guest starring on ‘The Big Bang Theory’?
A: That was pretty much just fun. I went [to Los Angeles] initially to help with the script … I became friends with the writers and the producers and they asked me to come on the show a few months later. It’s not that much different than flying in space in some ways, because it’s a big team and everyone has their role and you work together to get the job done.
You never know how things are going to turn out … Sometimes opportunities are just placed in your lap and you just need to say, ‘Yes.’ And I think sometimes we don’t say ‘yes’ to things.
This is just something Nasa asked me to do it and if I would have said, ‘Nah, I don’t have the time,’ they would have gone with somebody else … I think it’s important to try to say yes when you can, you never know where it can lead.
Q: This year marks the 11th year since you tweeted from space.
A: 11 years was amazing. My crewmates and I from that mission, we’re still very close to each other and very good friends. We’ll usually send a bunch of notes to each other on the anniversary of our launch day and I remember when it was 10 years, which was a year ago, Megan McArthur, my good friend, whose husband [Bob Behnken] just launched into space on Saturday … kind of summed it up when we were sending around the notes like. She said, ‘It seems like yesterday,’ and then she said, ‘And a lifetime ago.’ And that’s what it is. It seems the memories are still so clear and even the emotion behind it.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the future of space exploration? What’s the next big frontier?
A: We saw some of that on Saturday. Even though they were going to the International Space Station, which we’ve been doing for 20 years, I think we saw the future being in private … part of the future I think is in the privatisation of space of opening up opportunities for non-government astronauts and non-government entities to explore space, to utilise space in low Earth orbit.
So I think that’s one thing that’s going to be happening over the next decade or two. And then I think the other thing is that Nasa is building a very large rocket called the Space Launch System … After that commercialising of low Earth orbit and continuing to utilise low Earth orbit for exploration, I think our next step is going to be going back to the Moon … We’ll eventually get to Mars, but I think the Moon is what’s going to be coming up next. And hopefully within the next five years, you know it’s a very ambitious plan but I hope we can do that.
Q: Retiring that part of your life, do you miss it at all?
A: Yeah, I do. I do miss it. I mean, I don’t miss it enough that, given the choice, I’d go back. I think that my decision to leave was a good decision. I had a very fun and good career as an astronaut. I did it for 18 years and I think I left at the right time … There is always something else going on, but you kind of hand it off to someone else … It’s also important to have something to do after, too, that you’re looking forward to. But I certainly do miss it.
Don’t miss it!
‘Space Launch Live: America Returns to Space’ airs at 10pm on June 11 on the Discovery Channel on OSN.