NASA Johnson Space Flight Center
A Down-to-Earth Space Traveler
By Ahmad A. Malik
Perched atop a rust-colored boulder, Rick Mastracchio rose to his feet and retrieved the red foam pad he was carrying around to protect the seat of his pants from the shards of glassy lava spread across the fields of Kilauea.
Outfitted in a wide-brimmed hiking hat and reflective safety vest, Mastracchio was indistinguishable from the rest of the field team as he surveyed the surroundings before taking the first calculated steps of his six-foot descent to the jagged Hawaiian rocks.
And then, in the measured, almost lyrical drawl of a pilot with the righteous stuff, he slipped into mock-astronaut mode. “Houston, I’m going out for an EVA,” he said. “You let us know if that’s okay.” His delivery was storybook to onlookers, but merely textbook to him. His field mates roared with laughter.
Mastracchio is both a regular MacGyver and an archetype American dad with a ready supply of jaunty one-liners—comic relief for a man of serious purpose. An astronaut since 1996, he has spent 228 days in space on four missions, most recently a 188-day stint on the International Space Station after a flight aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Mastracchio is in an elite class even among astronauts: His 53 hours of spacewalks are the fifth most in history.
In early June, he was on a decidedly less demanding mission down here on Earth—10 days on the Big Island of Hawaii with NASA’s RIS4E field study, serving as a member of a team simulating extra-vehicular activities of the future with instruments that analyze surface characteristics of moons and planets in the solar system. As a seasoned astronaut with an understanding of spaceflight and exploration logistics, Mastracchio was providing the scientists with insights that could help them refine their instruments and make them more efficient.
“What we’re doing here is not just science, and not just engineering,” Mastracchio said. “It’s where these three things come together: science, engineering, and operations. And that’s how you pull off a very, very complicated mission. I’m here to try and marry all those things together to better operate instruments and help everyone better work as a team.”
An electrical engineer by training, Mastracchio served as a flight engineer on his first three short-duration shuttle missions, helping control the spacecrafts Atlantis, Endeavor and Discovery during their ascents and returns. Onboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a long-duration mission to the International Space Station last year, he served as board engineer, effectively a co-pilot who was fully trained to command the vehicle.
Mastracchio, a tinkerer by nature, considers his ability to solve engineering problems in space his strongest quality as an astronaut. He’s adept at everything from changing a light bulb on the Space Station—no simple procedure onboard the $150 billion ISS—to fixing an ammonia pump, an issue that festered for close to a month during last year’s mission.
In that instance, the biggest emergency he faced on the ISS, a leak in one of the ammonia pumps, which keep the onboard electronics cool, caused a month-long halt of the scientific initiatives on the station. After Mission Control spent two weeks devising a repair plan, Mastracchio and fellow astronaut Mike Hopkins left the station to conduct two EVAs to plug the leak. The second was on a snowy Christmas Eve – snowy with ammonia particles that landed on their spacesuits during the EVA. After fixing the leak, the astronauts had to undergo a series of “bakes” to burn off the particles so they didn’t contaminate the air inside inside the ISS.
Mastracccio’s on-the-fly problem-solving was on display in Hawaii—from fixing the armbar on a GoPro camera to calibrating a handheld GPS, all carried out with equal enthusiasm. “I can fix that” is not an uncommon phrase to hear when you’re spending time with Mastracchio.
Raised in the blue-collar town of Waterbury, Conn., Mastracchio is the son and grandson of carpenters who provided him with a hands-on environment during his childhood. As one of the only members of his family to attend college, Mastracchio pursued an engineering degree from the University of Connecticut after displaying a strong interest and talent in mathematics in high school. His affinity for studying the planets and stars led him eventually to work as an engineer, interested in aeronautics and aviation or “pretty much anything that flies,” he said.
Mastracchio was working as an engineer designing guidance systems for a private company in Connecticut and going to school at night to earn his first of two masters degree, in electrical engineering, when he saw a NASA advertisement for astronauts in a magazine. He didn’t make the cut for the astronaut program, but he did get an invitation to come to interview for a job as an engineer at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. He flew down from Connecticut and was offered the job on the spot.
Mastracchio worked as an engineer for nine years, three of them as a mission controller, earning, his second masters degree, in physical science, along the way And he applied again to join the astronaut corps.
“When I was interviewing to become an astronaut, they asked me why do you want to be one?” Mastracchio said. “Well, I said, I like the challenge. There are jobs out there that are physically challenging; there are jobs out there that are mentally challenging. I wanted one that was both. An astronaut fits the bill.”
After spending almost 10 years at NASA, Mastracchio was finally selected for the 1996 astronaut class. He spent two years in what he describes as astronaut boot camp, learning the intricacies of the space shuttle systems. He was assigned his first mission in 2000 – one of the early stages of constructing the International Space Station—and flew two more shuttle missions over the next decade. After NASA ended the shuttle program in 2011, Mastracchio pursued his only option to get back to space: flying with the Russians. Without funding from Congress to develop a new vehicle, NASA had signed an agreement to put American astronauts aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft—at $63 million a seat. Mastracchio got the nod to join a flight to the ISS in November 2013. After training in Russia for a year, he launched from Kazakhstan in November 2013 with a Russian commander and a Japanese flight engineer. He worked aboard the Space Station with nine international crewmates and returned home in May 2014.
Since the ISS mission—likely his last flight to space—Mastracchio has worked on a variety of projects for the astronaut office, using his expertise to help scientists develop experiments and instruments that will work well in space. He joined the RIS4E team in Hawaii after its field study leaders at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center requested a member of the corps to carry out simulated EVAs in the lava fields. (“Houston, we have a project.”)
During the field study, Mastracchio displayed his excellent physical condition, often leading the pack among a group of young scientists trekking the lava flows under the Pacific desert sun. No small feat for a 55-year-old. And he kept things loose both in the field and at the base camp with his stories of spacewalks and life in between.
By turns jocular and humble, Mastracchio is a space voyager who relishes his experiences but tends to play down any heroics ascribed to him. His wife and grown children help keep him grounded, he says, jokingly recalling his re-entry to normal life after his six months in space last year: “My wife asked me to take out the garbage. I told her, “I don’t understand your earthly ways.”
Mastracchio’s occupation, however exclusive, is not something he openly advertises. “With my family, we call it the ‘a-word,’ “ he said. “ I tell them that they can’t use it in public. I’m very proud of what I do, and am honored to be an astronaut, but on the other hand it’s not something that I go around talking about – it’s just my job. When I interviewed for this job, a hundred people got interviewed and only a few got selected – but all of those people were qualified. I was just lucky enough to get it.
He smiles and adds, “Better lucky than good, I always say.”
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