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BOUND TO PLEASE / A down-to-earth astronaut regales with tales of space

The Japan News

By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterSpaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

By Mike Massimino

Simon & Schuster, 317pp

If you’ve seen spectacular photos from the distant reaches of outer space, chances are the pictures were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Among the many people to thank for those images is astronaut Mike Massimino, who flew on space shuttle missions in 2002 and 2009 to service the orbiting observatory. 

Few people have traveled so far: The Hubble telescope orbits at about 560 kilometers above the Earth. That’s greater than the distance between Tokyo and Okayama — but straight up. For comparison, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits at about 400 kilometers. 

The Hubble was launched in 1990, equipped with large, flimsy solar panels. As it passed in and out of the sunlight on its trip around the Earth, its temperature rose and fell by more than 200 C. The panels expanded and contracted and began “shaking the telescope.” 

On Massimino’s first mission, recounted in his memoir “Spaceman,” he was part of a crew that replaced the 1990 panels with sturdier and more powerful 2002 models. He did a spacewalk on which he had to maneuver and install a 290-kilogram panel that was “bigger than a king-size mattress.” He had to move slowly and carefully because “even though it wouldn’t have any weight in space, it would still have mass, which means it still had inertia.”

As Isaac Newton could tell you, once in motion it would stay in motion.

Massimino is 191 centimeters tall. His tense grappling with that bulky object shows why it pays for spacewalkers to be tall and long-limbed. 

If his spacewalking tales are thrilling, his descriptions of life in space are entertaining. 

“Your first night in space is weird … when you get inside the sleeping bag, you’re kinda floating inside this cocoon. Once you get used to it, it’s the most relaxing way to sleep ever. What they’ve also found over the years is that people like having their head against something, even if they’re floating in the air, so NASA developed pillows that attach to your head with a Velcro headband.”

The conversational tone of this passage is typical of the book, which includes just enough technical detail for the casual reader and makes it feel like Mass is telling you his stories over a beer. (All his buddies call him Mass.)

But beer is not a drink for space. In orbit, Mass drank brand-new water, a by-product of the shuttle’s fuel-cell power system, which combined hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity.

He was luckier than his colleagues on the solar-powered ISS, where “80 percent of [the water] is recycled urine, sweat and condensation collected through a filtration system … As my pal Don Pettit described it: Today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”

Mass is now a professor at Columbia University in New York. His more recent adventures include appearing as himself on “The Big Bang Theory,” a science-themed sitcom shown in Japan on Hulu. When I first saw him on that show, I didn’t realize that “Mike Massimino” was a real person. 

But even if he’s not fictional, he is an appealing character.

Where to Read

Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, which Massimino briefly mentions visiting in connection with the development of a robot arm for the ISS. 

Maruzen price: ¥2,880 plus tax (as of Dec. 7) Speech

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