Professor Massimino Talks Physics, Persistence, and Burritos in Space

On 2 November, Dr. Michael Massimino spoke with boys, faculty and staff about his path toward becoming an astronaut, and what he learned along the way. Now a professor at Columbia, Dr. Massimino was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1996—on what, he shared, was his fourth time applying for the role. Undaunted by the longshot odds of achieving his childhood dream of going to space, he simply persisted.

A veteran of two space flights—the fourth and fifth Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions in 2002 and 2009—Dr. Massimino enjoys accomplishments including setting a team record for the number of hours spacewalking in a single space shuttle mission, and being the first person to “tweet” from Space. He has earned a number of awards including two NASA Space Flight Medals, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, and the American Astronautical Society’s 2009 Flight Achievement Award.


In his presentation, Dr. Massimino shared photos and videos of the intensive training that astronauts undergo preparing for space travel. His NASA classmates include twins Mark and Scott Kelly, and Peggy Whitson, the U.S. record-holder for most time spent in space. Dr. Massimino walked his audience through his mistake of stripping a screw while making repairs on the Hubble Telescope, and the team problem-solving that kept the mission from failure. He also shared videos of the novelties his team encountered while eating in space—including suspended burritos that never lost their toppings.


Dr. Massimino is a professor of professional practice in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia Engineering and his master’s in Mechanical Engineering and Technology and Policy—as well as his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering—from MIT. Earlier in his career was an engineer at IBM, NASA Headquarters, and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace; he had also held academic appointments at Rice University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. At Columbia, Dr. Massimino teaches Introduction to Human Space Flight, an undergraduate class that harnesses his years of academic and professional experience. He also works with the Art of Engineering course, in which engineering students attend design lectures and complete engineering projects with socially responsible themes.


Dr. Massimino has had a recurring role as himself on the CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory.” He appears frequently in specials on the Science, National Geographic and Discovery Channels, and on national and cable news. He is a frequent guest on late night talk shows including “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” where he has appeared five times. Dr. Massimino’s book, titled Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, was released in fall 2016.