From Outer Space to the Classroom

Apr 25 2014 | By Janet Haney

It’s not often a child can turn his 1969 boyhood dream of becoming an astronaut into reality. But that was the case for Michael Massimino BS’84 when, in 2002, he left on the first of two space missions. Now, Massimino is a visiting professor at Columbia Engineering, teaching students about what it’s like to be in outer space.

Massimino’s introduction to human spaceflight course covers everything about space, from its environment to how it affects humans to the history of the space program.

“I’ve tried to think about what are some of the most important things I’ve learned as an astronaut,” Massimino says. “I want to try to expose the students to it.”

His class of 40 undergraduates is definitely getting an otherworldly experience. On the first day of class, Massimino had fellow astronaut Mike Hopkins call in from the International Space Station. A different time, astronaut Dan Burbank Skyped from Houston to talk to the class about his long-duration space mission. Currently, Massimino’s students are designing an app that will enable users to take photos of Earth from space. The goal of the assignment is to encourage students to think outside of the box when considering their designs.

Capturing these Earth observations is important for scientific and environmental purposes. “It would be great if the app leads to something that can be used in the future, on the ground or in space,” Massimino says.

Currently a visiting professor at Columbia Engineering, NASA astronaut Michael Massimino is teaching a new course in human spaceflight this spring.

Massimino’s own journey to space started at the age of six, when he watched Neil Armstrong become the first man to walk on the moon.

“You can read all you want in comic books, but these guys are the real heroes in the world,” Massimino reveals. “At an early age, I had the impression that this is what’s going to matter in the world.”

Massimino earned two master’s degrees and a PhD from MIT while spending summers working at NASA. He taught at Rice University and Georgia Institute of Technology, and in 1996, was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate.

In March 2002, Massimino boarded the space shuttle Columbia for a mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Even though he was a rookie, Massimino logged more than 14 hours over two spacewalks on that journey. He was onboard the Atlantis in May 2009 for the final mission to the famed telescope, where he also did two spacewalks and orbited Earth 197 times.

“When you’re first looking at Earth from the shuttle through the window, it’s like looking at an aquarium,” Massimino says. “Then you go out in your spacesuit and it’s like you’re a scuba diver interacting in that environment. You can turn your head and view the Earth. It’s just extraordinary.”

Massimino’s success has earned him a whopping five guest spots on top-rated sitcom The Big Bang Theory, among other significant media accomplishments, like being the first person to tweet from space.

Through it all, Massimino carries Columbia Engineering with him—literally. He’s taken a Columbia flag and t-shirt signed by Engineering School faculty and students with him into space.

“My warmest memories of Columbia are the times I spent with my friends here or around New York City,” he says. “Columbia was able to expose me to what was possible in life. It’s not your average place.”

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