TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

Fly Me to the Moon
Written by Denis Faye

(December 26, 2012) 

WHERE TO LOOK

On your way to the stars, your first stop should certainly be NASA. Here, you’ll basically find out everything our government wants you to know about the space program – and given NASA relies heavily on public perception to stay alive, they offer a lot of information. 

One of my favorite sections are the Astronaut Journals featuring letters, reports, and other musings written while floating high above our big, blue marble. 

You might want to spend some time learning about space agencies in other countries. Here’s a great list. (Norway has a space agency? Who knew?) 

And if you’re space travel savvy, you probably know that NASA isn’t the only game in town. The private sector has now entered the space race, so give them a gander. SpaceX’s informative Web site makes 2001: A Space Odyssey seem so, like, 11 years ago. Or if you’re looking for the latest on commercial space travel, check out Virgin Galactic. 

There are also several great reads out there when it comes to space flight. The Space Tourist’s Handbook by Eric Anderson and Joshua Piven mixes current space flight knowledge and theory into a fun, informative guide for your next galactic vacation. Finally, no conversation about astronauts would be complete without recommending The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about the birth of the American space program. The movie is great, but the book is a must-read for anyone who ever drank Tang or pretended their bunk bed was a space shuttle. 

“Astronaut” could very well be the coolest job title on Earth. Even in here Hollywood, where dream careers abound, it’s hard not to get a little giddy when there’s a spaceman in the room.

This came as a bit of a shock to astronaut Mike Massimino. In his current hometown of Houston, where the Johnson Space Center churns out Major Toms by the handful, his two trips into space on space shuttles Atlantis and Columbia are looked at as fairly de rigueur. But when he’s in L.A., where he has a recurring guest role on Big Bang Theory, he’s a little more rockstar-esque.

“I'll meet some television personality, and they're very excited about meeting an astronaut,” Mike ponders. “I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m an astronaut, but I'm just a regular knucklehead. You've been in this movie and that movie. You worked with Robert De Niro.’ They're like, ‘No, but you're an astronaut!’”

Although I, personally, have yet to interview Mr. De Niro, I’ve talked to countless other actors, writers, and directors over the years, some of whom were incredibly talented and influential. But when speaking with Massimino recently for Technically Speaking, I do have to confess that “but you’re an astronaut!” was pretty much all I could think to say. Luckily, I had the foresight to write down some slightly more insightful questions in advance. Here they are.


Astronaut Mike Massimino takes a walk under our big, blue marble.

What does Hollywood get right about astronauts and space travel?  

The best example of getting it accurately portrayed was in the Apollo 13 [Screenplay by William Broyles Jr. & Al Reinert] movie. The thing that they showed there was the team work between the crew and the Mission Control Center, how they work together to solve problems, how they're kind of just regular people with normal lives and families going on, but they get to do some really extraordinary things.

A lot of times the tendency is for them to think that astronauts are kind of, well, we're generally bright people, but we're not necessarily geniuses, and we're just kind of regular people who have really good jobs, really cool jobs.

In Apollo 13, there's a lot of personal conflict. Does that happen up there in space?  

Actually, I think that the conflict that they showed supposedly never happened. What personal conflict were you thinking of?

I believe it was Jack Swigert [Kevin Bacon] came in at the last minute because Ken Mattingly [Gary Sinise] had the measles, so there were questions as to his abilities and his issues with Fred Haise [Bill Paxton].  

I didn't take it that way in the movie, and no, that's not true. You always have guys who sometimes for medical reasons have to back down and come off a flight at the last minute, we had that happen not too long ago and usually the other person's disappointed they can't go, but they're also the first person to help the next guy to train their replacement.

I heard Fred Haise say there was a point when Bill Paxton yells at the guy for something and that it never happened. He said they just edit that in for effect. So a lot of times maybe these astronauts are just kind of boring and in order to spice it up a little bit Hollywood needs to try to make us more interesting than we really are. We're generally just kind of regular people with normal lives. We do get along really well, we work together really well and that's kind of, that's one of the qualities, maybe the biggest quality they look for in an astronaut. There are plenty of people smart enough to do the job, but you need people that are going to be able to get along and work together and be a good teammate. We really don't have that many conflicts, particularly when it comes to a mission. You're all pulling together.

So in addition to that, those embellishments, what else does Hollywood get wrong about the whole thing?  

I'm trying to think of like Armageddon [Screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams] or Space Cowboys [Written by Ken Kaufman and Howard Klausner] or stuff like that, they might make it seem a little bit too simple, you know? To go out and do a spacewalk is a pretty involved thing. You just can't throw a space suit on and go. So they simplify a lot of that, but that's normal. They sometimes make out like we're a bunch of thrill seekers, and that's not it. We're generally pretty conservative with taking risks and making sure that things are as safe as possible.

We're not like crazy, foolhardy nut jobs like Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment [Screenplay by James L. Brooks]. He's driving a Corvette with his feet along the beach. You probably don't find too many astronauts who would do that. We're generally not as crazy as we sometimes get depicted.

Or like in Armageddon, the way you have those two missions, the two launches, the two vehicles launched at the same time and then the guy on the space station, the Russian guy went nuts because he'd been in space too long and all that – it's a lot of baloney. It's just mainly for effect. They try to jazz up the whole space thing a little bit too much, that's not really the way it is.

For me, the truth of it is a lot more interesting than any fiction you can portray. I mean just the views of the planet and the cool work you get to do up there is very, very interesting. They tend to try to make them more interesting in the movies because maybe astronauts just tend to be a little bit boring in real life.

You’re saying you’re a bunch of button-down guys even though you're doing these crazy, risky things?  

No, I wouldn't say we're button-down guys. We're good guys, we're fun, but we're not nuts.

The Right Stuff [Screenplay by Philip Kaufman] is my favorite movie. I didn't know those guys but that's a pretty good portrayal, actually. I would say the characters, they were kind of fun loving, they like fast cars and that part of it, I thought that that was a pretty good portrayal of the camaraderie between the astronauts.

Do you see a difference in an astronaut once he or she has gone into space and come back again, like they no longer have anything to prove?  

It depends. We're all human so sometimes there's a real struggle when your flying career is over. There's a real struggle with facing what am I going to do next? Some astronauts who have had good careers, and they're grateful for what they've done, they move on and they do other great things because you can't fly forever, you know? It comes to a logical end and when that time comes, you can be appreciative for what you have and move on and feel like, “I got nothing else to prove, I got the greatest job in the world, and I got to fly in space!”

But sometimes there are some sour grapes with people, even though they've been given the greatest opportunity in the world. It's just human nature that some people aren't satisfied and they don't know what to do now for the next act. That, I think, is more of an issue.

For me, whenever the time comes for me to leave the Astronaut Office, I have no idea what I would do that would come close to being as much fun because everything else is boring, no matter what it is.

In pretty much every astronaut movie, there's the obligatory scene where they look out over the earth and they're incredibly stoked on their job. Is that real? Does that always happen every time you go up?  

Yeah, absolutely, it's an incredible… In fact I wish they'd show more of that. The opportunity to view the planet from up there is just extraordinary. There are no words to describe the beauty of it but to me it was like looking into heaven.

My first thought was that this would be the view from heaven, and then I thought, “No, no, it's more beautiful than that. This is what heaven must look like.” I really felt I was looking into paradise, it's incredible. And you can look at the earth but then you can turn your head and look into the vastness of the oblivion of space in the other direction, then you look back and you see the Earth, and you realize the Earth is really just a planet floating around in all this chaos. We're all really like space travelers.

And when you spacewalk, it's like looking at an aquarium versus being a scuba diver. You feel like part of the environment and when you get to view the planet from a spacewalk it's just unbelievable.

What would you like to see in an astronaut movie that you've never seen before?  

The strong friendships that we have with each other and the teamwork that we display. Sometimes people get the idea that we're very competitive with each other, but it's a really unique group of people. The Astronaut Office, in my opinion, is the best collection of people in the world. Not that they're smarter or better than anybody, it's just that their personalities, the quality of people we have is just outstanding. There's really nothing we wouldn't do for each other and the bond that we have, the friendships that we develop because of the work, a lot of is forged by the work we get to do together. Flying an aircraft together and getting to do different training exercises and flying in space together builds these really strong relationships. We're like brothers and sisters. If there was some way to tap into that, that relationship where we have that camaraderie, the spirit that we have in our office, it's something that is really extraordinary. I'm not sure if it makes a good movie, but it makes a good life.

It's a little bit hard not to be in awe. As a writer I theoretically have one of those jobs, but it's nothing compared to being an astronaut.  

Yeah, it's a pretty cool job title. Alan Bean, who walked on the moon, talked to my astronaut class earlier, and he said, "You have the best job title in the world," and I think we do.

If you just drop that little fact in a bar, do jaws drop?  

It depends. Dropping it in a bar might not be the smartest thing. You never know who's drunk what and who's around you. In general, people do respect the profession very much, and it's really one of the fun things about the job. People generally tend to like us, and they're very nice to us, and we get treated way better than we should by just about everybody. Except maybe in Houston. No one gives a crap down here because there's too many of us.

Hmmm… I can’t think of anyone who wouldn't care about meeting an astronaut.  

My family doesn't care. My son says, “Again with the ‘Reach for the stars?’ I've heard enough of that!” He says he’s heard the same thing over and over again. It's because the astronauts all think they've got to go to the school because their kid goes to the school, and they don't want their kid to be left out. When there are like 10 kids, 10 astronaut kids in one school, guess what's going to happen? Every other week you're going to have somebody come in there showing how you poop in space. Enough already!

Eventually, they’ll make it so detention's going to be you have to go listen to the astronaut.

What advice do you have for a writer who's going to start on a script about astronauts?  

Speak to me first.

No, if you really wanted to do it, actually that's not a bad idea, to try to speak to a couple of astronauts about it. Like the way I helped with The Big Bang Theory. The best thing you could do, if you can, is to call NASA up and ask them if you can talk to some astronauts. Because we enjoy talking about our jobs, and we don't necessarily get the opportunity.

Also, we're not always very good at portraying what we do in a way that's entertaining so that people will actually watch it, whereas writers have that talent to entertain people and keep people engaged. That's probably part of why there are misconceptions. We don't do a very good job of telling people what we do and how exciting and cool and beautiful it is. That's why when we get someone interested to do a movie like Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff where they're going to tell a real story, but they're going to make it entertaining so the audience won't fall asleep, that's good. So my advice is, try to get the story right and then use your creative juices to make it entertaining.