Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Book Review: "Spaceman" by Mike Massimino

This book can be summed up in a single passage, a response to a question at a NASA press conference about whether we would ever send kids into space: "'We have sent kids into space. We sent Mike Massimino.'"

On paper, Massimino is a pretty impressive and even intimidating character. He holds a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from Columbia University, and both a master's in technology and public policy and a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT. He has been a professor at Georgia Tech and Columbia. He's an expert in robotics, specializing in human-machine interfaces. In 2002 and 2009, he performed multiple spacewalks servicing the Hubble telescope as part of the crew of the Columbia and Atlantis space shuttle missions. You would expect a book written by someone with those credentials to be dry, technical, and boring. But Massimino's voice is still that of the wide-eyed 7-year-old from Queens who fantasized about being either an astronaut or a pitcher for the Mets. It is quite telling that one of the prized possessions he brought with him into space was the stuffed Astronaut Snoopy he'd had as a kid and saved all those years. His voice in Spaceman is a delightful combination of technical expertise and childlike wonder.

The book's subtitle is "An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of of the Universe," and it is an excellent description of the book. The story is not so much about being an astronaut as it is about becoming one. Massimino talks about his motivation to become an astronaut, about the many stumbling blocks he encountered and overcame on that journey - personal issues, medical issues, educational issues, about what kept driving him to achieve his dream against all odds. He repeatedly explains that there is no one single predictable, prescribed path to becoming an astronaut; each person's journey is as different as their skill set, experience, and personality. He personalizes the process in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat - you know he eventually becomes an astronaut, but how? How did he manage to beat the odds? Throughout the book, you are rooting for him to succeed.

One of the themes Massimino refers to often is the importance of teamwork. Teamwork among the members of the astronaut training class, teamwork among the members of a shuttle crew, teamwork among the mission control team. He explains the psychology behind how the members of a shuttle crew are chosen: partly for the necessary combination of expertise to complete that particular mission, but just as important is the balance of personalities. Being trapped in space with the same people, 24 hours a day for days or weeks at a time, under intense pressure, brings on conflicts in even the closest of teams. Massimino admits that he was chosen for his missions partly because of his expertise in robotics, but partly because of his role as the guy who cracks jokes to break the tension. And his sense of humor is what makes his story so interesting.

Massimino's abilities as an entertaining storyteller served him well after his active career as an astronaut, as NASA called upon him to be a PR representative. He realizes that most post-mission press conferences are dry and dull, and he takes it upon himself to express the awe and wonder of man's exploration of space. He thinks back to the American fascination with space during his childhood in the early 70s, and thinks, "...maybe I could be one of the best at telling the story of space. Maybe I could make it fun and lively and adventurous like it used to be."

In Spaceman, Massimino succeeds completely in telling a fun and lively and adventurous story of space. Even if you're not particularly interested in space exploration, Spaceman is a worthwhile read simply as the story of one man's journey to follow his dream. All the way into space.

I received this book for review from Blogging for Books. For more information about Spaceman by Mike Massimino, please see the Penguin Random House website.

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