Astronaut Talks Space with David Letterman
Astronaut Mike Massimino and David Letterman gab about the final frontier on late night TV last week.
Credit: CBS

It's not often that astronauts hit the TV talk show circuit, but late-night host David Letterman welcomed one American space man with open arms recently to discuss the end of NASA's shuttle program and the view from space.

Letterman quizzed veteran astronaut and Hubble Space Telescope repairman Mike Massimino on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Wednesday in a show that came just over a month after his own brush with space. Letterman watched NASA's space shuttle Atlantis launch from Florida on its last planned mission in mid-May.

With NASA's space shuttle set to retire in February and the future of NASA's manned spaceflight in flux, Letterman asked Massimino what the future holds for America's space program.

"For kids interested in becoming an astronaut, will there be a place for them to be astronauts now?" he asked.

"I think so," Massimino said. "I just can't imagine us stopping, there's no way that the country is going to let us stop exploring."

The view from space

Letterman also wanted to know what Earth looked like from space.

"At the Hubble altitude, you can see the planet in its entirety ? its curvature ? and it looks like a big ball," Massimino told Letterman. "The thought that went through my head was, 'This is something I'm not supposed to look at, it's a secret, people aren?t supposed to see this.'" [Views of Earth from space.]

Massimino visited the space telescope in May 2009 as part of the fifth and final servicing mission to the orbiting observatory. He had rendered repairs and upgrades to Hubble back in 2002, but that spacewalk had been all business.

So when he got the chance to return to Hubble last May, he made sure to savor the moment. "My second spacewalk, I really had a chance to soak it in, and when I first looked [at Earth] I almost couldn?t stand to look . . . there are no words to describe this beauty," the astronaut said.  

Letterman shared his own notion of what spacewalking and a Hubble repair job might be like. 

"Two years ago, I was building a tree house," Letterman said. "And periodically I would be, you know, hanging ? I would get my lip caught on a nail ? and I would think to myself this must be what it's like crawling around [in space]."

In further relating his experience, Letterman said that in such a situation "every bit of muscle memory [is] gone" and "doesn?t apply when you?re out there floating and working."

Performing delicate repairs on the one-of-a-kind, multimillion dollar Hubble Space Telescope in a bulky, pressurized space suit was indeed difficult, Massimino said. "It's kind of like working with boxing gloves on."

Footage of Massimino in action as well as scenes from other trips to the telescope and the groundbreaking discoveries this work helped to bring about were recently compiled in a Hubble IMAX movie released in March.

Massimino said he had to keep himself from being overcome by the splendor of this rarest of views, and he joked with Letterman about the reason why.

"I started to get a little emotional, you know, and I got to catch myself, Dave, because I was afraid I might start to tear up," Massimino said, "and if I get some water in my spacesuit it could cause a problem, and then there'd be an investigation and I'd have to admit that I was crying."

Ever onward, and upward

During his down time on last May's mission, Massimino became the first person to send Twitter posts from space. A big Mets fan, he also took home plate from the New York baseball team's former stadium into space with him.

While growing up on Long Island, Massimino said it was the original moon landing in 1969 that inspired him to one day aim for the astronaut corps. "I was six going on seven ? and when I saw people walk on the moon ? that really grabbed me," he said.

"You're very lucky," Letterman said, "because you work in an industry that's a combination of engineering and physics and something that is also very spiritual."

Massimino agreed, saying that "people go to work at NASA because they love it" and with a "spirit of really [being] there for a purpose."

For him, as an aspiring astronaut, Massimino knew what it was he hoped to do someday. "You train to do all this work, but the thing you really want to see, Dave, is what does it look like up there? What do the stars look like? What does the Earth look like?"

Now having obtained the visual answers, Massimino had this to say in summary about our planet, to cheers from the audience: "It's fragile, it's beautiful, it's perfection and we need to take care of it."