Eight Hours at the Edge of Darkness

In 1984, 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 among the original seven astronauts depicted in that movie – how they were good friends, how they stuck up for one another, how they would never let one another down. I wanted to be part of an organisation like that.

And it rekindled a boyhood dream that had become dormant over the years. That dream was 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 at MIT, I applied 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”.

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.”

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

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

There was no way really to replace this unit or to repair the instrument, because when they launched this thing, it was sealed 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 had put glue on the screw threads so they would never come apart.

But we really wanted the Hubble’s capability back, so we started working. And for five years, we designed a space walk. We designed 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. I was gonna be the guy actually doing the repair.

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.

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 560 kilometres 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.

The first thing 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 out easily. There was one screw on the bottom right, and that came out easily. The fourth screw wasn’t moving. My tool was moving, but the screw was not. I look closely, and it’s stripped. I realise 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 realised 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 28,000 kilometres an hour, 90 minutes is a single 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.

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. I’m gonna be the first astronaut to use tape on a space walk.

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.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see 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 can’t talk to him, because if I say anything, Houston will hear. You know, the control centre. So I’m playing charades with him, like, What are you, nuts? And I didn’t wanna look, 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 (27 kg) of force.

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 screws with their washers and glue, and I’m ready to get them. And I pull the trigger on my power tool, and nothing happens. And I see that the battery is dead. I turn my head to look at Bueno, who’s in his space suit, 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.” I was getting low on oxygen; I needed to get a refill.

He said, “Go.” And I was going back over the 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 any more. 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 is the brightest, whitest, purest light I have ever experienced, and it brings 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, screwed it down. They tried it; turned it on from the ground. The instrument had come 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 the air lock and enjoy the view?”

So I go outside, clip my tether on a handrail, let go, and just look. And Earth – from our altitude we are 560?kilometres 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.

And I thought, This is the view that I imagined in that movie theatre 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 where I could go to work or be in my home or take my kids to school. But I realised it really wasn’t that. It really is its own spaceship. And I had always been a space traveller. All of us here today, we’re on this spaceship Earth, among all the chaos of the universe, whipping around the sun and the Milky Way galaxy.

Michael Massimino, PhD, is a veteran of two NASA spaceflights, in March 2002 and May 2009. He serves as executive director of the Rice Space Institute in addition to his responsibilities in NASA’s Astronaut Office.

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