Flight of fancy

Rice Space Institute’s Massimino heads back to space on ‘Big Bang Theory’

Some American astronauts never got to ride the now-retired space shuttle and others have never been aboard a Soyuz. But only one has launched a real shuttle and a fake Soyuz.

Mike Massimino, executive director of the Rice Space Institute, is an astronaut AND he plays one on TV. The NASA veteran on loan to Rice University picks up a storyline he started earlier this year on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” with two new cameos in which he accompanies one of the series’s characters to space.

The first show aired on CBS (in Houston on KHOU Channel 11) Oct. 4; the second will be broadcast at 7 p.m. Oct. 18.

Big Bang Theory

From left, actors Simon Helberg, Pasha Lychnikoff and Mike Massimino pose inside the Soyuz mockup for last season's finale of "The Big Bang Theory." Massimino, executive director of the Rice Space Institute and a veteran of two space shuttle flights, will appear on the show this Thursday and on Oct. 18,

Massimino plays himself in the episodes, a role he’s well versed in after working both sides of the camera on two shuttle flights to the Hubble Space Telescope and in various NASA-oriented productions since.

So when the call came from Hollywood last year, he was ready.

“About a year ago last summer, I got a call from Bert Ulrich, our TV/movie liaison at NASA public affairs,” said Massimino, also an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Rice. “He asked if I was going to be in California anytime soon, and it just so happened my son was playing in a water polo tournament there.” Ulrich wanted Massimino to meet with the ‘Big Bang’ writers, who were toying with the idea of sending one of the characters into space and needed some advice on how to keep the storyline real.

Massimino certainly has a handle on “real.” His adventures on two flights to the Hubble are well documented, with a 3-D IMAX film about the most recent in 2009 in which the astronaut saved one part of the mission by ripping a handle off an access panel to install a critical instrument during a spacewalk. (The film’s producer/director, Toni Myers, will deliver a Space Frontiers Lecture at Rice Oct. 23.)

“I went to the Warner Bros. studio to see the writers,” he recalled. “They were at this big table, about 15 of them, sitting around cracking jokes and writing them down. I was with them for a couple of hours telling stories and talking, and they followed up with questions.”

Mike Massimino

Astronaut Mike Massimino smiles at his crewmates inside the shuttle during one of two spacewalks to repair the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. Photo courtesy of NASA

The space-bound character, Howard Wolowitz (played by Simon Helberg), was to be launched to the International Space Station to install a robot arm he had designed. “They had little side stories about how his family would react, how he would feel about it, what he would do, what the premise would be,” Massimino said. “They wanted to know how they could realistically justify this guy going into space.”

The writers concluded their meeting with an invitation to come back for a taping. “I wasn’t going to go, but my office mate at Johnson Space Center, who’s a Marine pilot, is a fan and said he would like to. So we flew out there and watched a taping about a year ago,” he said.

Cut to January. “They called and asked if I wanted to do a cameo, and that led to another where we launched into space,” Massimino said. “I happened to be in California, so they said, ‘If you’re going to be out here anyway, we might as well write you into the show.’ I didn’t realize that’s how it worked.”

Massimino said he follows a number of high-profile guests on the show, including physicist Stephen Hawking and his friend and upcoming Rice commencement speaker Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. “They don’t make it too hard on you,” he said. “The main characters are real actors, and they have a lot on their minds; they have a lot of lines to learn. For me, they try to make it simple.”

In last season’s finale, Massimino and his crewmate teased a nervous Wolowitz as they awaited the launch of their Russian rocket. “I explained to the other actor (playing a cosmonaut), ‘We’re making fun of him for being scared – and really, we’re just as scared as he is. But he’s showing how we feel.'”

No spoilers here, but Massimino expects this month’s cameos will be his last on the show, which often ranks among the country’s top 10. But NASA has been delighted with his participation. “‘Big Bang Theory’ has a huge audience, so it’s a way to get a message out to a lot of people,” he said. “The show has tried its best to be accurate in the way it portrays what NASA is doing. It’s good PR. So they’ve been very supportive in sending me out there and told me, ‘It’s really important for you to do this.'”


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.