It was his childhood dream to be an astronaut. He had the costume and everything.
“I didn’t think it was possible,” Mike Massimino said.
He got rejected over and over again. But he still figured out a way to pursue his dreams.
It took him 10 YEARS. But NASA accepted him. And he became an astronaut. I like to think Mike Massimino is the reason we get to see beautiful pictures of space. He worked on the Hubble telescope.
This was my second time interviewing Mike. I didn’t even review the last interview to prepare for this. I just wanted to focus on the things that really stood out for me. There were so many different things that have stuck with me. And I think back to his story all the time.
So this time I went even deeper into his story of rejection. How did he continue on after that first rejection? And again after the second? It’s so easy to just give up when you fail over and over again rather than explore other ways to attack the problem.
So this is what Mike taught me about how not to give up:
1. Look at The Upside
Mike said, “When you try to do something, it might seem impossible, but it really isn’t. It’s just unlikely. The probability is not zero. The only way it becomes zero is if you give up. And once you give up, it’s over.”
He had two choices. One was to give up. And the other, to push forward.
But he told me, “The thought of giving up was not really a choice.”
“You don’t know if it’s going to work out,” Mike said, “You could just keep getting told no. And so I think it’s important to enjoy what you’re doing as you’re going along. Enjoy the journey because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”
That’s one thing he taught me (of many). Rejection is okay if you’re still enjoying everything BEFORE the final “no.”
“The way I thought about it was, ‘Well, what if I can’t become an astronaut? What if for whatever reason they won’t let me? And they keep telling me “no.” What would I want to do if I couldn’t?”
So Mike learned to scuba dive. He learned to fly planes. He went back to school and got his PhD in robotics from MIT. He was doing the things he enjoyed AND would help on his application.
He knew that each year, NASA picks their astronauts based on different criteria. Not everyone will have all the same qualifications. So he kept working to get that extra edge.
“I had no control over the outcome, but I certainly had control over whether or not I could keep trying. And as long as I could keep trying I felt like there was still a chance,” he said.
It maybe wasn’t the exact process he was picturing, but he still figured out ways to pursue his dreams even if it wasn’t the outcome he wanted. The process was still happening for Mike.
3. Surround Yourself In a Community of Common Interests
Mike was studying “robotics on other planets” at MIT. This was part of diversifying. And part of not taking “no” for an answer.
He put himself in an environment where people were likely to have successful outcomes. There were 3 other people in his program who became astronauts.
“I believe that if there are certain things you want to do with your life you need to surround yourself with people who have that same interest,” he said. “You need to be part of that community. It helps. To do it lone ranger is not as easy.”
When he failed his qualifying exams his friends from the program helped him study. They helped him get through MIT. And he became an astronaut before any of them did.
“There was a synergy involved there,” he said.
After MIT, Mike picked up and moved to the suburbs of Houston where all the astronauts lived. He not only went to the school that had all the potential astronauts, he also relocated his whole life to be in the epicenter of his field.
4. Find Alternative Ways to Solve Problems
Mike failed to become an astronaut for the third time because of a medical issue.
It was his eyes. He was extremely nearsighted. And the job he was applying for (mission specialist) required near perfect vision to get. This was at a time when LASIK surgery wasn’t accepted by the program.
And what he did next… I’ve never heard anyone else doing. He found a way to improve his vision without any surgery.
“I had to figure out a way to see better,” he said.
This is where reaching out to get help is incredibly important. He called an optometrist. And he learned about a technique they’ve tried to use with young kids who need to strengthen their eyes.
“The techniques tricked your brain to focus beyond what it was looking at. You would look at an object and look beyond it. And then the letter would come into focus.”
“How long did it take for you,” I asked.
“I did this for about 6 months. Everyday. Close to an hour a day. Whatever it took.”
5. Be Honest With Yourself
There’s so many people who feel lost and stuck. I get emails about this everyday. They’d like to find out what their passion is… what they want to pursue more than anything.
So I asked Mike for some advice. Because he, like many others, had a childhood dream that became a reality. I wanted to know what he would tell someone who feels like they’re not in touch with their childhood dream at this point. How could they get closer to what they might love?
He told me that he was 6 years old when he first dressed up in an astronaut costume. But he wasn’t the only one. The majority of kids dreams back in 1969 wanted to be an astronaut. It was a dream for everyone then. But those dreams faded for most and stayed for Mike. “Those astronauts were my heroes,” he said. “I thought what they were doing was the most important thing happening at that time. And it would be the most important thing for the next several years.”
But he didn’t go for it right away. First, he took a more linear path. He went to college, studied engineering, and then started working at IBM.
“It was a place you could stay for your whole life, but there was something missing out of that for me. And I noticed my attention drawn was drawn in pretty much two places: baseball and space.”
Mike’s lucky. He discovered his dream all over again. Then he found inspiration. He saw the movie “The Right Stuff” about the original seven astronauts.
“It’s what kicked me back into it,” Mike said. “It brought back all those dreams I had as a little boy.”
He became consumed with learning about the space shuttle in the 80s.
“What’s your advice then? What did you do differently?” I asked.
“For me, it was being honest with myself about what I really liked. And not worrying about if I couldn’t do it. But just saying, ‘What is it that you really love? If you could do anything you want what would it be?”
He took away the idea of “no.” And “not possible.” And realized what he’d want to be most was either a baseball player or an astronaut. And being an astronaut seemed more attainable.
I played devil’s advocate about going the baseball route. Because there were still avenues he could take. He could’ve been a writer about baseball or an ESPN anchor.
“That’s an interesting point,” Mike said. “I think for me I wanted to be the one experiencing it first hand. I wanted to be out there. I would’ve wanted to be a player if I went the baseball route.”
And so he went to get his PhD at MIT.
6. Start Earning Your Place
Mike was accepted to NASA with his fourth application. He finally made it to space.
And then something bad happens.
But before he’d tell me that story he wanted to tell me a lesson.
“I think you earn things after you get them,” he said “Your reward is earning it. Once you get to where you want to go, that’s when the performance really happens. There’s no time to relax once you’ve got it. That’s actually where the work really starts.”
7. The Hurdles Keep Coming
It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder.
Mike went on THE most complicated space walk ever.
He fixed the Hubble Space Telescope.
“As an astronaut you’re constantly dealing with things that are going wrong all the time. I think having that experience of being in this situation before, maybe not in a space flight, but maybe taking an exam. You’ve failed before. And you’ve been able to recover to get where you are,” Mike said.
Everytime I’m in a new situation, stressful, scary or sad, I hope I can think of Mike’s words. And remember that I’ve been down before. And up, too. Up always comes after down.
And I hope I also remember that dreaming is a form of resilience. It’s a form of breaking the chains and choosing yourself. Whether I want to be an astronaut or if I don’t know my next self yet, dreaming will take me there.
It’s the first step.
Links and Resources
- The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
- The Right Stuff (the movie)
- Jurassic Park
- Science Channel
- Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Podcast, StarTalk Radio
- StarTalk on the National Geographic Channel
- The Planets and Beyond on Science Channel
- One Strange Rock on the National Geographic Channel
- The Big Bang Theory
- Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum
- Elon Musk
- Jeff Bezos
- Richard Branson