Visiting Author: Mike Massimino
The Visiting Author Program at Avon Old Farms provides a tremendous opportunity for students to meet literary giants who are geniuses in their craft. It is rare that the visiting author is also an embodiment of the school’s motto: aspirando et perseverando—to aspire and to persevere. Yet, that was exactly the case with this year’s visiting author, Columbia professor and retired NASA astronaut Mike Massimino.
English teacher and Dean of Faculty Dr. Trevor Stern says Massimino’s incredible story of overcoming numerous setbacks to achieve a seemingly impossible childhood dream of going to space is one worth sharing with the school community.
“Mike Massimino’s story absolutely means to aspire and persevere,” Dr. Stern says.
In Massimino’s book, entitled Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe, he details his journey to becoming a NASA astronaut, from watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on TV at the age of seven, to looking down at the earth while floating outside the space shuttle. In September, he recounted his journey in front of a packed Brown Auditorium.
Throughout his journey, Massimino took multiple tries to pass his Ph.D. program, was denied repeatedly and even medically disqualified from the astronaut program, and was initially told he was too big to spacewalk. Throughout his presentation, he emphasized the importance of perseverance to overcome these obstacles.
“As long as you continue to try, there’s always that chance,” Massimino says. “The chances of you achieving that dream are only at zero percent if you stop trying.”
Another important value at AOF, and one that Massimino says was critical to his success as an astronaut, is that of brotherhood.
“Teamwork was really important, and I can already tell how important it is here,” Massimino says.
He told the audience that above all else, NASA look to recruit team players, because if you need help, it’s important to have reliable teammates to fall back on.
“Just like I had my fellow astronauts up in the shuttle and mission control on the ground to help me, you have friends and teachers here to help. Be mission control for others, and remember that you can always reach out if you need to.”
Following a standing ovation from the Avonians in attendance, students were broken up into groups for more intimate discussions with Massimino where they had a chance to ask more questions. These questions ranged from details about his work on the Hubble Space Telescope and how he dealt with reorienting himself back on Earth, to whether or not he believes in aliens and if he thinks humans will make it to Mars.
He answered several questions about his time in space that translate to life at Avon, including how to deal with homesickness.
“Going to space, it was an extraordinary opportunity, like what you have here, and you just have to remember that.”
He also gave advice on applying to college, something multiple students asked about after learning he had been denied from programs several times himself.
“I knew I couldn’t control the outcome, but I could control the effort. If you follow your dream, even if you don’t make it, good things still happen along the way.”
After signing more than one hundred copies of Spaceman for excited students and equally as excited, if not more, faculty, Massimino toured the school’s engineering lab where a group of students showed off the projects they’re currently working on.
Peter Siana ’23 exhibited a past Advanced Independent Project of his, which happened to be a carbon fiber model rocket. Siana said he was personally very excited about Massimino’s visit, because aerospace and engineering are fields he envisions himself pursuing as a career.
“The space industry is something I’m very interested in, so I’ve been trying to meet and talk with different people in the field. Obviously, speaking with someone who’s been to space—that’s the pinnacle,” Peter says.
After talking with Massimino, Peter's plan to pursue something like mechanical engineering in college was reinforced.
“I’ve been looking at different schools recently, the ones with really good engineering programs, so this has been a great experience.”
Massimino’s visit also proved to be a great experience for faculty and staff as well, including Science Department Chairperson Peter Rice ’76, who delivered Massimino’s introduction to the rest of the community and spent much of the day picking his brain for stories and details about space and working at NASA.
“Since I was a young boy, I have been fascinated by space travel and the lives of astronauts,” Rice says. “Dr. Massimino, your story is living proof that dreams can come true if one focuses on that dream, takes counsel from those who know best, perseveres through setbacks, and never gives up.”
The spaceman’s visit eventually came to an end Friday afternoon, much to the dismay of Massimino, who said he was very impressed by what he saw.
“I wish I could’ve come here as a student,” Massimino says. “For one, it’s just so beautiful. A lot of college campuses are going to be a let down after this.”
The students themselves left an impression as well.
“All the boys are so polite and seemed very interested. They asked some great questions.”
Above all else, however, Massimino couldn’t get enough of our Winged Beaver. “The beaver is often described as a natural engineer, but this one flies,” Massimino said with raised eyebrows. Being an engineer that spent a good chunk of his career flying, he couldn’t contain his excitement.
“Oh man, I love that mascot!”
The entire visit, as is the case with the Visiting Author Program as a whole, would not have been possible without support from the Parents of Avon.
“We in no way would be able to run this program without the Parents of Avon’s generosity,” Dr. Stern says. “This is a really unique opportunity we have here.”