Former NASA Astronaut Talks Fixing Hubble and COVID-19 Quarantine Tips Ahead of Telescope's 30th Anniversary

For three decades, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided us with a stream of stunning astronomical images, revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos.

Next week, the telescope will celebrate 30 years in space, marking the anniversary of its historic launch on April 24, 1990.

In advance of the anniversary, Newsweek spoke to former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who has completed two space flights—the fourth and fifth Hubble servicing missions in 2002 and 2009—aboard the space shuttles Columbia and Atlantis respectively.

Massimino holds a team record for the number of hours spacewalking in a single shuttle mission, and is also the first person to tweet from space. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Newsweek: As an astronaut, what is the significance of the Hubble Telescope in your eyes?

Massimino: I think you can look at it from three angles. One is the science return: I think you can make an argument—and I'm biased—that it's the greatest scientific instrument ever built. What it's shown us discovery-wise, taking us places that we can only dream about going, and also showing us the beauty of the universe. I think it's been a wonderful science instrument engaging not only astronomers, but also the general public [who] can appreciate Hubble by looking at those images even if they have no knowledge of astronomy.

I think that it is also a great engineering accomplishment. An amazing engineering device above our atmosphere. It goes through a sunrise or sunset, every 45 minutes, which means huge temperature swings. It's traveling at 17,500 miles an hour in a vacuum. And it's able to point very accurately—as accurately as if you had a laser pointer on the Empire State Building, and you hit a dime on the Washington Monument. That's how accurately this thing points up in space. And it was designed and built to be serviced by astronauts. It had to be worked on by astronauts with limited time, while they were wearing spacesuits, limited visibility and so on. We could go up and take out parts that needed to be replaced and upgraded with new technology.

Thirdly, I think it's just a great story. It was something that astronomers imagined getting a telescope above the atmosphere way back 100 years ago, it came to fruition, it was being built, it was delayed years and years. Finally got there. Didn't work as well as they had hoped because there was a problem with its mirror. Was given glasses on the first servicing mission, more or less a correction, so that it could see and make these wondrous discoveries. The final service mission was cancelled, they were going to abandon the telescope. And then the servicing mission was put back on the books after we figured out a way to to safely go and service the telescope after the Columbia [space shuttle] accident.

It's an instrument, it's a piece of machinery but also, a lot of people, their life, their hearts and their souls are in there. So I think it's just a great story, a great scientific instrument and a wonderful engineering accomplishment that's going to be hard to match. Ever.

You worked on the telescope itself. Can you tell me a little bit about what that experience was like?

I've had four spacewalks and those days are very special days, I can remember every one of them really clearly. There's a lot of anticipation a bit of stress, wondering what's going to happen. The overall feeling I had in the airlock getting ready to go was, 'This is going to be a memorable day.' Going out there, you're focused on what you're trying to do. The Hubble spacewalks were different for a few reasons. One was that we had to be very delicate with the telescope. It's very fragile what you're working with. We also knew that we didn't have many chances to go out there and do what we were going to do. If we didn't do it, it wasn't getting done ever, especially on the last mission. So we were really trying to get as much done as we could.

Also, we're 100 miles higher than where the [International] Space Station is so we were as high as you could get with the space shuttle. So that meant that we got to see the curvature of our planet. The views from the spacewalk where the whole sky or universe opens up to you, it's just extraordinary. Those are those are some of the most memorable moments when I had a chance to view our Earth during the spacewalks on Hubble.

Having seen the Earth from this viewpoint, does it give you a different perspective on what's going on in the world right now. Do you see things differently?

I think we're living in an absolute paradise. And I think our Earth is best seen from space because you can see it in its entirety, and it's just beautiful. But we also can engage with it down here on earth and enjoy that beauty. If you're gonna go out, do the right thing. Stay six feet away from other people, make sure you have your mouth covered. Be careful with what you touch and so on. But remember, we're living in a paradise.

Hubble Space Telescope
This photograph of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was taken on the fifth servicing mission to the observatory in 2009. NASA

And the other thing which may be even more important, I realized that my view of my home and where I'm from and who we are changed when I was in space. After being in space, what really hit me was [the thought] that we all share the same home. When I think of my home, I think of planet Earth, we all have that in common. What's interesting about this disease [COVID-19] is that we're all in this together. It's not isolated to one town or one state, or one country. It's the whole world that's going through this. So remember, you're not alone. We do have lots of support out there.

You have spend a lot of time being in isolation as an astronaut. Can you give any tips to people out there who are currently stuck at home?

I think in general, one of the things I encourage people to do, when they're in isolation, quarantine, separation and so on, is to stay connected to people. Get a daily routine going, a regular schedule. Get up, brush your teeth, get your exercise. Exercise, in these cases, I think is as much for your mental wellbeing as physical. Finding something meaningful to do. Whether that's work or a hobby or an interest, meaningful things to do are important. And try to make the best of the situation. There's nothing really much we can do about it. We're stuck inside.

My missions were on the Shuttle so we would go into quarantine for a week before the mission and try to remain healthy. And that's the most important thing right now is to try to remain healthy. There were seven of us living up there in very close quarters for those for those missions. What I learned about sharing a small area with people was to try to respect each other's privacy and know that there are other people around you. I live in New York City so sharing an apartment with a few people, it's very similar to sharing a space shuttle with a few people.

I always felt like spaceflight brings out the best in people because you're very mission oriented. You're trying to get the mission done successfully and so you respect each other. You know that when you leave something out, it might float around in space and find its way into someone else's space. So you want to keep track of your stuff, don't make a mess, clean up after yourself.

Massimino will appear in an upcoming documentary in honor of Hubble's anniversary, "Hubble: Thirty Years of Discovery," which will premiere on the Science Channel at 8 p.m. ET on April 19.