‘Astronaut Mike’ On Parenting Kids From Space During ‘Most Dangerous Days’ of His Life

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Former astronaut Mike Massimino tells Yahoo Parenting about balancing fatherhood and literally shooting for the moon. (Photo: Mike Massimino). 

Lots of fathers take business trips, leaving their children and spouse at home eagerly awaiting their return. Mike Massimino was no different during his career, except that when the dad of two jetted off, he traveled 370 miles up — into space to work on the Hubble Telescope orbiting around the Earth at five miles per second. 

“I wasn’t worried about anything bad happening,” the former astronaut, 52, exclusively tells Yahoo Parenting, looking back at his groundbreaking career, as his one-year anniversary of retiring from NASA approaches on July 29. “The thought crosses your mind, though, that it’s a pretty risky thing you’re about to do, launching into space, and you never know. Odds are, the journey is the most dangerous days you’re going to spend in your life. Unlike other lines of work, if something goes wrong, you’re gone forever. So it did make me think about my family.” 

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The family, in 2001. (Photo: Mike Massimino).

His daughter Gabby Massimino, a recent college grad, tells Yahoo Parenting that she wasn’t worried either, because the thought that dad could die never crossed her mind. Mike — a mechanical engineering PhD and college professor who was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1996 — flew missions on the space shuttle starting when Gabby was just 8 years old. “I don’t remember a lot,” she admits of the two-week stints in space, in 2002 and in 2009 repairing the telescope and doing space walks. “But all of my friends’ dads are astronauts so I didn’t think his job was a big deal. It was just our daily routine.” 

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And while Mike was in orbit, he kept in communication with his then Houston-based family, including son Daniel, now a college sophomore, and wife Carola, via video conferences. “On the space station now, they have Skype but back in the shuttle days we didn’t have any kind of phone setup.” 

Daily parenting during those trips fell to Carola, then a part-time librarian. “It wasn’t always the easiest thing to deal with,” Mike admits. “But I always appreciate what she’d do to take care of things when I wasn’t around.” Six month trips to the space station these days “are a lot harder on families.” 

The most upsetting family drama that he recalls dealing with while away was the death of the family hamster. Keeping cool after all is part of an astronaut’s skill. “It’s really important because if you’re worried about your family, you’re not going to be able to do your job,” he says. “That’s why NASA keeps the lines of communication open with families as much as possible so astronauts are not isolated. You don’t want a person feeling distracted up there.” 

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(Photo: Mike Massimino).

Compared to other professions, Mike considers being an astronaut pretty family friendly, in fact. “A lot of guys I went to college with travel more than I did for work,” he says. “Unless I was on a flight, I was always home at night and I coached the kids’ teams and went to practices and school events.” 

However, there are still downsides to his gig. “The toughest part about it is you’re not always there the way you’d like to be,” he admits. “Even though I was physically there, I was often kind of consumed by what’s going on with work. It’s one of those jobs that you want to make sure you’re prepared so you don’t put the crew or yourself in danger. And that requires a lot of attention – sometimes at the expense of your wife and kids.” 

Then there’s the focus on him, as a celebrity of sorts, which he worries isolates him at times. The prolific tweeter, who has racked up 1.3 million followers on his @Astro_Mike account and sent off the very first tweet from space – May 19, 2009: “From orbit: We see 16 sunrises and sunsets in 24 hrs, each one spectacular as the sun lights up the atmosphere in a spectrum of colors” — is no stranger to media attention. He was a star in the 2010 Hubble 3D IMAX flick, and has scored guest gigs on The Big Bang Theory as a fictionalized version of himself. 

Exciting opportunities for the family offset the negatives, though. Gabby is a huge fan of the band Radiohead and she had him take a CD of theirs up to space, which led the family to meet the band years later when they offered to give the musicians the disc. “We got to experience some things ‘normal’ kids wouldn’t experience because of the astronaut thing,” he says, noting that his two have seen space launches, thrown out pitches at baseball games and flown in flight simulators. 

“I never thought, I wouldn’t want to be an astronaut because of my family,” levels the space traveler. “It’s important to have dreams and I wanted to be a happy parent. I wouldn’t ever want to say, ‘I could have been an astronaut — but I had you kids.’” 

Nor would his little girl want that either. “What my dad and I have most in common is that we have big dreams,” says Gabby, working now in the music industry. “And through him, I know a person’s wildest dreams can come true.” 

Towards the end of his NASA career, Mike says he did turn down a long duration trip with family in mind due, in part, to the time it would require him to spend in Russia. “Both kids were still in school and at home and I felt satisfied [with the missions I’d done] and didn’t have a strong desire to go,” he explains. “Training for long trips is a bigger hit on home life. I could have swung it, but would’ve missed out on my kid’s high school years so I didn’t go for it.” 

Teaching now at Columbia University in New York suits him, and his daughter, just fine. “I don’t want him to go up now that I’m older,” admits Gabby. “At the time, it was just another thing, but now I like having my family here on earth. I prefer people on earth.”  

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