Former Astronaut Was Starstruck by God’s Creation
By Nathan Barlow, Columbia ’20
On March 7, Columbia’s Catholic Ministry hosted engineering professor and former astronaut Mike Massimino at the 41st annual Thomas Merton Lecture. Dr. Massimino spoke about his journey, outer space, and what his adventures taught him about faith.
Columbia’s Catholic Ministry hosted former astronaut Mike Massimino to speak on what his journeys into outer space taught him about God.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, gave a brief prayer and prefaced Massimino’s remarks by reminding the audience of the psalmist’s words, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8).”
From a young age, Massimino, Columbia ’84, could not shake the feeling that “the space program was the most important thing going on” in this country. The movie The Right Stuff especially reinvigorated his interest in space when he was a senior at Columbia University. After college, he applied to the astronaut program each time that NASA issued a call. After being summarily rejected several times, NASA finally hired him as a research engineer. He applied and was rejected from the astronaut program once more, this time for his vision. Massimino described this rejection as particularly disappointing because his vision was out of his control. But he had faith in God’s plan for his journey, and, in Houston, he found an optometrist willing to teach him an experimental form of vision training. From this he drew a particular lesson for the audience: always reach out when you need help. Finally, NASA admitted him to the exclusive astronaut program once he increased his vision score by a few points.
In his address, Massimino offered a vivid and humorous description of the astronauts’ training exercises before getting to the heart of his address: the spacewalks. Massimino worked on several missions to repair and replace components of the Hubble telescope. He described his first spacewalk with awe. As he first looked down on planet Earth, he thought, “This is a secret; this is too beautiful for humans to see.” Coming face-to-face with the overwhelming glory of God’s creation, Massimino described his initial instinct: to turn his head away from the view. But as he did so, he noticed the colors on the American flag on his sleeve were crisp and vivid, due to the unobstructed brightness of the sun. Beauty and majesty surrounded him in every direction. “This must be the view from heaven; this is what God sees,” he thought.
The unparalleled illumination from the sun, the beauty of earth, and the sharpness of everything around him caused Massimino to reflect on the cosmic environment God built for His creatures. Around the time of his first spacewalk in the early 2000s, Massimino and his wife were building a family and trying to ensure that their children lived in a good house. Thus, by analogy, his view of the heavens inspired him to marvel “how much God loves us, to have given us this house.” The reminder that God made this universe for His creatures removed his initial sense of unworthiness for the beauty that surrounded him.
During the question-and-answer period, Massimino addressed how his faith shaped his career as an astronaut. As he put it, “I never knew exactly where this journey would lead me, but faith guided me through the process.” Through his many rejections, it was faith in God that sustained him along the way and staved off discouragement.