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Home Health What Space Taught Me About Being Human With Astronaut Mike Massimino

What Space Taught Me About Being Human With Astronaut Mike Massimino

by Pennsylvania Digital News


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Hello, and welcome to The Wellness Mama Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And this was a fun interview for me personally. It’s a little bit of a deviation from the focus on physical health, but we go a lot into mindset. And I’m here with Mike Massimino, who served as a NASA astronaut from 1996 to 2014 and flew in space twice, on the space shuttle Columbia in 2002 and on the space shuttle Atlantis in 2009, which are the final two Hubble Space Telescope servicing missions. He became the first human to tweet from space, was the last human to work inside of Hubble, and he set a team record with his crewmates for the most cumulative spacewalking time in a single space shuttle mission. He is now the author of a new book called Moonshots, which we talk about a little bit in these interviews with him. But I love the mindset and getting to hear his perspective on what shifted for him after viewing our world from an entirely different perspective as well as the things that his parents did and that he did with his own kids to encourage Moonshots. It was a very, very fun conversation. So, let’s join Mike Massimino. Mike, welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Mike: Katie, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Katie: Well, like I said before we jumped into recording, this is a fun one for me, not only because my kids think you’re super cool, but also because my dad used to work for NASA. So, I have a personal connection there as well. But for people listening, I guess some people may not know that you sent the first tweet from space, if I remember correctly. Can you share what that was like, and was that pre-planned, or did that just happen?

Mike: No. Yeah. I sent the first tweet from space. Take that, Neil Armstrong. And thanks for having me, Katie. It’s really a pleasure for me to get a chance to speak with you. And all the moms listening out there and everyone else. And thank your kids, too. Tell them I said hi. And that’s very nice. And your dad. Thank your dad. Is your dad still around?

Katie: He is still around, retired now. Actually helps teach my kids physics. So, it’s fun.

Mike: Oh, man. That’s a good. Anyway, please thank him for what he did for NASA and help. We went to space on the shoulders of people like your dad. So please wish him my best.

Katie: I will. Thank you.

Mike: So, the first tweet from space, did I think about it pre-planned? No, I knew I was going to do it. But what I relied on was some advice I got from my hero, Neil Armstrong. So, I was six years old when they landed on the moon, and Neil Armstrong was my hero. I wanted to grow up, not just to be an astronaut, but I wanted to grow up to be Neil Armstrong. I thought he was the coolest guy ever. And I never had a chance to meet him, until I became an astronaut. And he came, he was in Houston my very first week and came to speak to our astronaut class. And it was amazing.

And the day after he spoke to us, I didn’t get the chance to ask him any questions, when we went to the Q and A period after he spoke to us, but I didn’t get my question answered, but I saw him the next day on the food line in the cafeteria. And so, I’ve got to say something to this guy. So, I went up to him and introduced myself, and I asked him a question about what he said on the moon, Katie. You’re way too young to remember this. But when he landed on the moon, he famously said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And I remember I was glued to the TV set as a six-year-old, and I heard that, and I was like, I can’t believe he said that. So, I wondered, how did he come up with this thing? And I asked him when I met him, I said, “I got something to ask you, Neil. How did you come up with that thing you said on the moon? You know, did your wife tell you to say that? Did you hire a publicist? How did you come up with that?” And he looks at me, puts down his food tray, and he looks at me and he goes, “Mike, I didn’t think about what I was going to say on the moon until after I landed on the moon.” And I was like, “Really?” And then he went further, and he said, “Mike, if I didn’t land on the moon, there’d be no reason to say anything.” And I was like, “Okay, I guess that makes sense.” And then he got really serious with me, Katie. You know, he’s like he saw this as a teaching moment. He said, “Mike, you’re new to this, but this is an unforgiving business. This is serious business. You have to take your job seriously. If you get distracted with all the public relations and all the outreach and all the press and all that, it’s going to it could distract you. You can lose focus and bad things happen. Stick to your job first. Worry about all that other stuff later.” And he’s like, “You got it?” I was, like Neil Armstrong, greatest hero ever, I got it.

Years later, I get asked by NASA to send this first tweet from space. In our final press conference, I get asked this question, “Mike, what are you going to, have you thought about what you’re going to tweet?” Just what you asked me, right? Did you think about what? And I channeled Neil Armstrong, Katie. I was channeling this, my hero. And I looked at those folks in that press group, and I said, “I’m not thinking about what I’m going to tweet in space. We’ve got to get to space first. That’s what I’m worried about. If we don’t get to space safely, there’s going to be no reason to tweet anything. I’ll worry about that when we get there.” So, we launch, we get to space, I set up the computer. My crewmate and friend, Megan McArthur, is there with a camera to record this historic moment in the space program. And I’m looking at that computer screen, and I realize the advice I got from my hero was the worst advice I ever got in my life. I couldn’t think of a thing to write. And then I started thinking, he must have lied to me. There’s no way that this guy was on the moon with the whole world listening, and he comes up with something so poetic. And I can’t, I’m just floating above the planet, not very many people know I’m there. You know, the people in the control center do and family and friends and stuff. But it’s not like the whole world’s listening. And I can’t think of a thing.

Katie, you know what I wanted to tweet? I wanted to tweet. “Curse you, Neil Armstrong.” That’s what I wanted to do. But I couldn’t do it, so I wrote, “The adventure…” What did I write? I wrote, “Launch was awesome. I’m feeling great, enjoying the great views. The adventure of a lifetime has begun.” And I sent that tweet down to Earth. And then we were doing spacewalks and stuff and paying attention to what, I really wasn’t paying attention to what was going on Earth. I was concentrating on the mission, of course. So, the Monday, I sent that tweet on a Monday.

One week later, I get email from my kids. And I was very excited. You know, all the spacewalks are over. And it’ll go over, and it has email from the kids that Monday afternoon. You know, they’d gotten back from school and send me a note. It’s like, what’s going on down there? And they tell me, “Dad, they made fun of you on Saturday Night Live.” What had happened was that on that Saturday, I got made fun of by Seth Meyers on Saturday Night Live during the Weekend Update edition. What he says is, he goes a little bit here, that I didn’t know this was happening, but I’ve seen it afterwards, of course. He says, “We have the first tweet from space. And here it is. Launch was awesome.” So, and then he lets that sink in. Then he goes, “In 40 years, we’ve gone from one giant leap for mankind to launch was awesome.” And then Seth Meyers pauses, and he continues and says, “If we ever find life in the universe, I assume this is how we’ll be notified.” And it has my little Twitter thing, and it says, “Geez, dudes, aliens.” So, you know, making fun of me and what I tweeted. I didn’t think about it. I just put through that out there. Anyway, so I didn’t know this was happening. We’re busy spacewalking. But I get this email from the kids on Monday, and I look over to this, and it says, “Dad, they made fun of you on Saturday Night Live. All the kids at school loved it. Keep saying stupid stuff.” So that’s that was I finally got some street cred with my kids and with the kids in the high school and middle school at the time. So, but that’s the story behind that. That’s the long story of the first tweet from space.

Katie: That’s so fun. And if I’m remembering correctly, you also have made cameos as yourself on The Big Bang Theory, which I’m guessing your kids also thought was pretty cool.

Mike: Ah! Yeah, I guess so. You know what I mean? I think they were we truthfully, they were not big fans of the show. I think if they were into the show, maybe they would have been more excited about it. But yeah, I think they thought it was okay. I think what it was about the Saturday Night Live thing is that the kids at school thought it was cool. And I got that note in space. I didn’t get that. I don’t remember getting such a report about The Big Bang Theory from them, but I thought it was cool. And a lot of other people did. And, you know, you’ve mentioned it, so maybe you thought it was cool.

And people know me more for that than space travel. Even people at NASA. I was asked a few years ago to speak at an event at the Marshall Space Flight Center, a NASA center in Huntsville, Alabama. And what they told me is that they were looking to try to get a cast member from The Big Bang Theory, but they couldn’t get a cast member to show up to this event. And would I be able to come? And I’m like, yeah, sure. And then like a week later, I get a note. They go, “Oh, we understand you you’ve serviced the Hubble Space Telescope. We’re going to have people in the audience who worked on Hubble.” I’m like, wait a minute. You didn’t know that I, you asked me because you were looking for a Big Bang Theory guy. And you weren’t even sure what I did. Maybe they knew I was an, I don’t know, but they knew more about that than the astronaut stuff. But I think that that’s okay because it was really a fun show to participate in. And it was, I think, a good thing for NASA. I did that while I was working for NASA. So, it ended up being part of my job.

And I did it also after I left NASA a few times. I was on seven episodes total. But that was really a fun opportunity and a view into a world that I knew nothing about, how do you make a TV show and the creative and fun people. But that was really a great show. I don’t think all shows are that much fun to do. It was just that everyone was happy and just really nice people. Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady, the creators of the show and all the actors and the writers and everyone involved. I still have got those friendships from the folks working in wardrobe and the camera people, it’s amazing. What a great family of people that included me as one of them.

Katie: Oh, I love that. And on a little bit more, a deeper note, I guess, you’re one of a very, very small percentage of people who have seen firsthand a much different perspective of the world we live in than those who are on earth. And I can only imagine that that was probably a pretty profound experience. I would love to hear any internal shifts you had or moments of profound realization from seeing our world from such a different perspective.

Mike: Yeah, and I think you’ve, thank you, Katie, and I think you’ve framed that question really well. The way I like is perspective because we live on the same planet. It’s the same, looking at earth, you know, I’ve lived my whole life on earth, just like everyone else here has, right? But what you see from space is a different perspective on things. And there were two things that really changed that, that changed my daily thinking behavior, the way I see our home and our home meaning the planet. And the first is just the sheer beauty of it, that seeing it, it was during my second spacewalk, seeing it from the altitude, we were a bit higher than other shuttle flights. We were up at where the telescope was at 350 miles, you can see the curve of the planet. And during a spacewalk, especially, you can get this magnificent view inside the spacecraft, it’s pretty cool. Of course, you’re looking through a window, but now when you get outside… No, it’s like you’re in the classroom as a little kid, and you’re looking out the window, and you get to go to the playground and the whole sky opens up, that’s kind of what it is. Being out there and doing a spacewalk, all of a sudden, the whole universe opens up, and you can see the stars and the moon. The sun is in a black sky. When I looked at it, I was like, “Whoa, that’s pretty cool.” Like a big star in a black sky. First time I saw that. And then the earth is so magnificently beautiful.

And it was on my second spacewalk was I felt more comfortable to look and do some sightseeing and try to get an impression of what was going on around me other than just the work I was doing. And the thought that went through my mind is this must be a view from heaven. And this is the view from heaven. This is how beautiful it is. And then I dwelled on that for like a moment. And I was like, “Nah, that’s not right. This is what heaven must look like.” I felt like I was looking into absolute paradise. And that’s what I think of our planet.

And I was speaking to Jim Lovell, who is the Apollo 13 commander portrayed by Tom Hanks in the Apollo 13 movie. A few years ago, he was in New York, and I got to spend the day with him. And I was talking to him about this, and he said, he said, “Mike, you know, a lot of people hope or believe that one day they’ll pass and go to heaven because I’m convinced, we were all born there.” That kind of makes sense. That’s kind of the way I feel about it. I know that I don’t know if that’s how accurate that really is, you know, where people have different beliefs and think different things. But I do think that where we live is a paradise, and it’s very fragile, and we have to take care of it. I could look in the other direction and see the, look out the stars and stuff. That’s kind of cool out in the other direction, looking at this, whatever’s out there in the solar system. But we’ve checked out the neighborhood, Katie. We can’t go anywhere. This is the only option we have.

And you can see, if you look some photographs, even from space, you see that thin line above the planet, a thin blue line. That’s our atmosphere. If you look at one of those photos, that’s our atmosphere. That’s the only thing that’s keeping us alive. And the size relationship of that, if you think of an onion, the earth is an onion, that top thin layer of the onion is the size relationship between our atmosphere and our planet. So, you can see the fragility of it from that perspective as well. So, it’s a beautiful paradise.

I think we have so many opportunities for happiness and to enjoy it. I think we need to take the time to look around and be amazed. I got that different perspective in space, but I carry it with me on Earth. I was very, very happy I had that perspective, but we can still be amazed down here, wherever you are. Where you’re living, if you’re near the ocean, you can maybe look at that or look at the sky or the clouds or the trees. Or if you’re in a city, the architecture, I live in New York City, even the faces of the people on the New York City subway are amazing. The cadence, the flow of people, the architecture, what we have in museums and parks, this is unbelievable where we’re living. It is an amazing place. And we should try to appreciate every moment we have on this planet. So that was one thing.

Do I have time to tell you a second one? The second one that got me. So, the second one that hit me look going around the planet over and over again was my concept in my, in my heart and how my heart and soul and mind and how I think about home. And I think I’ve always identified a place as home. Like when I was a little kid, I grew up in Franklin Square, on Long Island, a neighborhood just outside of the New York City border in, in Long Island. And, um, that was my home, right? We never, you know, we would go visit relatives in Brooklyn or the Bronx or maybe New Jersey once in a while, but mainly we, we hung around that home, that place. You know, I’ve spent time in the house or in the neighborhood and play with my friends or going to the park. My schools were there in Franklin Square, my favorite pizza place that I would go to growing up. Everything was there. Franklin Square is my home.

And when I went off to college, I always thought, Oh, that’s my home, Franklin Square. As I got older. And as I started traveling around and working after college and so on in graduate school, other places, I would identify myself as a New Yorker more like, where are you from? I’m from New York. That’s my area, New York, New York, the New York City area is my area. As an astronaut, you know, now I was in Texas living there and working for the government, going to work when I was flying in my jets or whatever we were doing, a lot of times I had the American flag on my arm. I travel around the world, and I was an American. When I thought of home, it’s the United States was my home.

But after going to space, it hit me on my second flight, toward the end of my second flight, looking at the planet, looking at it, I realized that everything I’ve ever known, everybody I’ve ever known, everyone that’s alive now, that’s lived before, that will live in the future, is from the same place that I’m from. And that’s the earth. That’s our home. And that’s, that’s, as far as we know, that’s the only place that people are. Maybe there’s life somewhere else, but right now, everything’s right here as far as we know. And that’s my home. That’s where I’m from. Going around that planet over and over again, going around the planet that many times, it made me feel that way. And it, so what I think of is that we’re all from the same place, no matter where we’re from throughout the US or throughout the world, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, where you’re from, we all share the same home. We are all citizens of planet Earth. And when I think of home, now I think of planet Earth, a home that all of us share.

Katie: That’s beautiful. And I’ve only had, obviously, from the earth experience, but I am very grateful to live in a place with very low light at night because of the turtles in the ocean and incredible stars. And I know many times I have been overwhelmed almost to the point of tears at just the beauty of the night sky. And I think there’s something beautiful about finding that overwhelming beauty in all the parts of the planet that we inhabit. And so, I love how that really seemed to brighten that perspective for you as well. Also, from the health world, I can’t help but ask, how did your body respond to being in space? Because I know growing up, my dad would talk about, especially people who are there for a long time, the muscle changes. And I know that NASA does a lot to mitigate that, but were there any physical things that changed in space or that you had to overcome when you got back?

Mike: That’s a great question. For me, there are changes, but most of those become rectified when you get back from Earth, as long as you do the right thing. So, like, for example, your spine grows a little bit in space or a little bit taller in space because the spine is kept in place with gravity. So our spacesuits, when we would go out spacewalking, they were configured that they were about an inch and a half longer in the waist ring that we had. So you wouldn’t get crushed inside of it because they knew you were going to grow a little bit. So that leads to a little bit of back discomfort. When you come back from Earth on that one, everything’s going to settle back in. So you don’t stay that tall. You lose that height. And when it settles back in, you’ve got to be careful. You’re not supposed to pick up anything. The temptation is when you land, you want to pick up your kids. Especially when my first flight, my kids were little. They were like seven and nine years old. I didn’t care. I picked them up anyway. But you’re not supposed to pick up anything heavy because your spine is still settling, and you’ve got to be careful about that. So, there’s been some injuries in that regard.

Your inner ear is a bit messed up when you’re up there because your inner ear works in concert with your eyes. So, we can do things like drive a car, ride a bicycle, catch a Frisbee, where we need that hand-eye coordination and being able to run and do things without falling over, walk. It all works together. And in space, that goes away because the inner ear works on gravity, the vestibular system. So now you don’t have that working for you. So, it was really weird because I would go up. When I first went upside down in space, you can float and do whatever you want. But as soon as I went upside down in space, I felt like the whole room had rotated. I was still straight up and down. My inner ear is telling me I’m perfectly still. So, when my eyes see this going on, which I’m moving my hands now for those of you listening, and you go upside down. It was if, no, you’re standing perfectly still, but now the room has rotated 180 degrees, that kind of freaked me out. I also threw up my first day because it’s this conflict between your eyes and your inner ear. It’s kind of like being… If you’ve ever been seasick or airsick or carsick, it’s a conflict between your inner ear and your eyes that, you know, you might be in a car trying to read. Sometimes it could elicit that feeling of nausea because your eyes are saying you’re steady, but your inner ear is saying you’re moving around. So, what, in space, it’s the opposite reason. Your inner ear is telling you perfectly still. Your eyes are telling you, your brain, you’re moving around. And that also can lead to sickness. It happened to me on my first flight, not on my second. I think my brain remembered.

And that’s the thing to remember here is that your brain can adapt to all of these things. And it figures out where you are like your, your liquid pools in your upper extremity. You can get a little stiffness in your head. You could also have the tendency to be dehydrated because it’s telling you have more water than you need. So, you have to drink a lot when you first get there, but the brain figures all that out. When you come back, the inner ear is spun up again, so you’re off balance a bit. You feel like, I felt like I was going to fall over. So, you can’t drive a car, fly an airplane, do anything like that for a couple days until you get checked out from the flight surgeon. So that adaptation back takes a couple days.

The biggest health concern for long-duration flight, flights longer than mine, there was some concern with mine, is that by floating in space, it’s like you’re on bedrest, like super bedrest, because you’re not doing any, your muscles aren’t necessarily working at all. And unless you do exercise, that’s when bad things can happen because your muscles can atrophy. Your heart muscle can actually shrink over a long period of time. You can lose bone density mass, which is not good either. So, we want to keep your muscles and bones strong. So, the way to counteract that is exercise. So, we exercise every day in space. It’s even more critical for those who go to space for longer periods of time. But exercise is really good. I think, Katie, of course, as you know and talk about, it’s not just for your physical well-being. In this case, you had to do it, but also for your mental well-being. It was always good just to get that 30 minutes on an exercise bike. Try to fit that in somewhere is what our goal was in space. Work up a sweat and feel better about it. You can’t go for a walk or do things in a regular gym like we could on Earth or however you might try to exercise at home or wherever. But we would try to use the tools we had to do that. So, I think that was important for both your physical and mental wellness.

And just to throw out another thing for your mental wellness that we had was connections with home. Like the email from my kids, that was great. Just getting a note from them or from my wife or from friends or family and knowing that they were still there. And this connection to the planet is really important. I think, for example, when we got to the pandemic phase, it reminded me of a lot of space flight. When I was in quarantine away from my family or in space away from my family, they’re a world away, but they were still there. And I think the way we’re communicating over distance through Zoom or whatever app we use these days, I think that allows us to try to maintain that wellness and that feeling of connectiveness with our friends and family and coworkers. So, that was also a part of it is that mental wellness that was just as important as any other type of wellness we might be concerned about.

Katie: Well, that’s a perfect springboard because I talk often on here about even the physical benefits of community and that often overquoted idea that you are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, but really highlighting how much community is vital for our health as humans and how loneliness they’re now saying is more dangerous than smoking because we have that need to be in community. And I feel like this dovetails with something I’ve heard you talk about, which is the myth of the lone genius. And I would love to explain that a little.

Mike: Yeah, thanks, Katie. I think that we do things together and the idea that we can, we can accomplish things and be happy by ourselves. I mean, people, some people don’t need to be around people as much. They might be more introverts or want their time alone. And I think that’s great. But as far as like trying to accomplish things in life, I don’t see how you do that stuff alone. You need people to help you get educated and trained and give you encouragement. And especially in today’s world, it is so complicated that we can’t do it alone.

And raising kids is, you know, I know you have a lot of kids running around over there. That’s not an easy thing. You need help to do that. I think it could be a bit overwhelming if we think we’re doing things by ourselves. We think we should be able to do it by ourselves. I don’t think we should. We shouldn’t hold ourselves to those standards. I think we should think of it as that I need help every once in a while. And this concept of team, of how important that was, I think I’ve realized more recently that that was something that was always inside of me. When I was a kid, I still have my friends from when I was in kindergarten are some of my best friends still. And my friends from growing up in elementary school, high school, college, and so on. I always liked having a team around me of friends to help with personal issues, that I could help them with their personal issues. And we could, we’re working in school together or on a team together. And I think we, a lot of us are growing up that way in community and neighborhoods and families and so on. And I think it’s important to remember to continue that because you can’t do it alone. It’s a really complicated world.

When I first arrived at NASA, I was very concerned about this swim test I was going to have to take because I wasn’t a strong swimmer, and I didn’t like the water very much. But once I was selected, I was informed that I was going to need to pass a swim test in order to go through water survival training. And I needed to go through water survival training with the Navy in case I ejected out of an aircraft. We were going to fly high-performance jets with ejection seats and parachutes. And if you land in the water, you’re going to have to survive until they can come get you. So, you had to go through this survival course. Also, for the shuttle, the space shuttle, there was a bailout situation. If you had an emergency and you couldn’t make it to a runway, you were going in the water. So, you’re going to bail out of that thing and come down. And the parachute, you had to be able to survive until the helicopter comes and gets you. So that was something we had to do. And I wasn’t a strong swimmer. I showed up at NASA with a lot of practice, and I thought I could pass that test, but I thought I was going to seem like a real goofball. Here I am, I’m going to, I’m around all these high-performing people and I’m just a goof. How’s this going to turn out? And, at the end of our first week of administrative stuff, we were about to go home for the weekend. It was mainly, our first week was mainly admin meeting, Neil Armstrong came to visit, that was cool. But we were going to start our training in earnest the second week.

And so that Friday afternoon before I went home, Jeff Ashby, a Navy pilot from the class ahead of us, was helping us understand what we were going to do for our training and leading us through that. And before he dismissed us, he said, “I want to remind everyone that our training starts on Monday in earnest. And our first event will be the swim test.” How about a math quiz? Can we do something now? How does it have to be the swim test? And he goes on to say that he said, “Yes, yes. Who are the by show of hands, who are the strong swimmers in this group?” And a few people raised their hand. We had some Navy-qualified divers and other people that raised their hand. And then he goes, okay, more important, who are the weak swimmers in this group? And I need to know, don’t lie to me. So, I raised my hand. I knew I wasn’t a very strong swimmer. And he said, “Okay, anyone who didn’t raise their hand can go home. But the weak swimmers and the strong swimmers stay after class. And you’re going to arrange a time to meet over the weekend at a pool. Because the strong swimmers are going to help the weak swimmers with their swimming. When we go to the pool on Monday, no one leaves that pool until everyone passes the test.”

And that’s made me realize that I’m in a different world now. It’s very blatant that we think maybe we can do things on our own with the astronaut business. There’s no way you can’t. It is too much going on that you have to take care of each other. Your life depends on the person next to you. And your success depends, as a team, depends on each other working together. And that was my introduction to that. And more than that, too, I think, Katie, is that, if you’re good at something, you need to help the others. You can be Michael Phelps and set a world record in the pool, but if one of your classmates failed, you failed. So, you need to help the people you can help when they need your help. But I think also part of that to me, which is I think harder to admit, is when you need help for the sake of the team, for the sake of your own success, you need to get help. And if you’re having trouble, whatever that might be, if you’re out on a field exercise and you hurt your knee, for example, you need to fess up and say, hey, I think I did something to my back or my knee or whatever it might be because you’re going to slow the team down and your team can help you. All right, give me your bag. I’ll carry your pack. I’ll help you out. But you need to admit it. And you would actually get in trouble if you didn’t admit those things, if you didn’t admit you weren’t feeling well, and you couldn’t do the job, or you weren’t prepared because you didn’t understand a certain concept, or you were worried about whatever it was. That also affects the team. So, the only trouble you would really have is when you didn’t admit that you needed help. It was important to admit it and to be willing to accept that help.

And I also talk about, like, knowing who to go to, having that mission control center. When I was in space and I made a mistake that I thought there was no way to save the day, I reached out to the control center, and they gave me, they came up with a solution. It was when I was working on the Hubble, I stripped the screw. It was a really stupid move, but they were able to come up with a solution. And I think about that. They were a world away, but they were able to help me. So, I don’t, you know, this idea that we can do things in today’s world by ourselves, I think that is a myth. I think that it’s not that we’re not smart or capable or we should not have confidence in ourselves. I think that’s all important. But I think it’s also a realization that we’re in this game together. And we should give help when we can. And I think people have the tendency to do that, but, but don’t forget when you need help to reach out to your control center. And be mission control for others. Be that person they can come to. But also reach out when you need help. You know, life, I look at life as an open-book test. When you need help, go get it.

Katie: I think that’s actually a very relevant reminder for moms, especially, because we are often the control centers, to use the analogy, for so many people, our children, our households, and friends, and often have trouble asking for help. So, I think that’s a perfectly resonant reminder for moms who are listening as well. And now, I would love to talk about your new book, Moonshots, because I loved the concept of this book. I love the message of this book. I think as a mom, I read it with the lens of helping my kids build a framework for being willing to take on exciting adventures in their own life. But what inspired it for you? I would guess, of course, your experience in space, but something felt important with bringing that message to a wider audience. So, what was the impetus for Moonshots?

Mike: Well, thank you, Katie. And I’m glad you, I’m really very grateful and very flattered here that you like the book. Cause that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do is help people with whatever that is with family, with work, whatever. And that, that’s why I wrote it is that now it’s just a regular, I am, there’s nothing special about me. I worked hard. I had people help me along the way. I tried to seek out mentors that were going to help me, but there’s nothing special about me. I am the opposite of what you think might become an astronaut. I, I realized when I was eight years old that I was afraid of heights and scared of most things. And I was never going to become a fearless test pilot like Neil Armstrong. That idea of when I started to realize what those astronauts really did, like, there’s no way I’m doing that. And I was, you know, this skinny, scrawny kid growing up. I couldn’t see very well. My eyesight was bad. I ended up getting medically disqualified from NASA because of my eyesight and had to go through vision training to improve that and get requalified again. I’m not that, you know, what people might think astronauts are. And I think actually a lot of them are like that. They’re just regular people.

But there are lessons that I learned along the way and people that helped me and things that happened and that I learned mainly from other people. Some I discovered and made up on my own of rules of how to do things, guidelines that not only got me to the astronaut office, that was only part of it. You know, getting that job, getting that degree, getting that opportunity. What happens when you’re given that opportunity? What can you do to be successful with that opportunity? Whether it’s, you know, with your family, with raising kids, or whatever it might be. What are some of the things that you can do? And I learned so much. I kept my eyes and ears open and learned so much about those things. Those lessons that some of we’ve talked about in perseverance and in leadership and in teamwork and in speaking up and in being amazed and enjoying the beauty around you. Dealing with change. All these things are in the book. And what they are are lessons, some of which we’ve talked about today, that I wanted to share with people. Because if I could pull off my moonshot, you know, the title of the book is not physically going to the moon, but it’s about this idea that your moonshot is whatever dream you might have in life, whether that’s personal or professional. Somehow, I was able to pull it off, and I still look mystified of how all that happened in some ways. And I wanted to share that with people, because if I can achieve my moonshot, so can you. And that was really the motivation here is to collect these stories that have resonated I found with audiences that I speak to over the years. What are my top 10 lessons? And let’s get them written down with the stories behind them because it’s like a guidebook of things that I learned before, during, and after the astronaut program of how to achieve impossible dreams of how to do things that might be intimidating to you, of that are going to be difficult. And anything worthwhile is going to be difficult, and you’re going to face failure and rejection and bad days and good days and and all these things are going to happen to you. How do you deal with it? How do you get around those things? That’s why I wanted to share all these things that I had learned over the years with whoever thought they either needed help with developing their moonshot or achieving it.

Katie: And I’m curious if anything stands out to you from your own childhood that your parents did that helped encourage your mindset and your ability to stick to it when I’m sure things got difficult at various times and or anything that then translated into raising your own kids with a framework and a mindset to be able to achieve their own moonshots.

Mike: My parents, both were very smart. My mom was really smart. She was like the smartest kid in school when she was growing up. But she did not have the opportunity to go to college. That wasn’t – her parents were from Italy, and she grew up in Brooklyn and college was not on the horizon for her or a lot of women her age of her time. And my dad also grew up on a farm, and he went to high school and was a very smart person and a good student, but never had the opportunity. His job was to go back home and work on the farm. His parents were also immigrants. So, they grew up with a little opportunity to get a higher education, but with big dreams and wanted to encourage me and my brother and my sister to get an education and to try to fulfill whatever we wanted to do. Because I think they felt like they were held back, and they didn’t want their kids to feel that way. So, they were very encouraging.

The other thing is that my mom was pretty much a stay-at-home mom. When we were all out of the house, she went and worked in a senior center in the cafeteria. My dad, his job was, he had a few different jobs and then primarily his career from the time I was born pretty much onward until he retired was working for the New York City Fire Department. And my neighborhood was this working-class neighborhood where most of my friend’s parents didn’t go to college. Most of them worked in like, we were considered doing service for others. The guy next to me was a New York City police officer, a neighbor next door. The person across the street was a, was a Nassau County detective across the street, but we had people working in these different jobs where they were helping people and were part of something that was bigger. And I think that was the other thing that, that stuck with me of that to, you can look at trying to make a lot of money maybe or fame or whatever it might be. But I had the sense that, and I still believe this, that I think that’s in some, if that’s all you’re looking at, it’s somewhat unfulfilling. And that what you really want to do in life, what I learned from my parents was do something that is meaningful, whether it’s, you know, in raising a family or having a job where you’re helping other people, or you’re doing something to make the world a better place. You might not make a whole lot of money. We didn’t make a lot of cash as astronauts, but we certainly felt that we were part of something bigger than us, that we were doing something we loved, that we were part of a really close-knit team. And that community was in my mind as a little kid, but both with my family and with my friends in my town and the way my parents were active in the community and raising us. I think that was instilled. And I searched. I really wanted that as an adult. And I found that in the astronaut office, a way to be part of a community, a way to help each other, be part of a great team of people that with us, with a focus to do something that was together, we could do something that is bigger than us.

And I think, again, it could relate to your personal life and also to your professional life. And that came as I’m doing more of these interviews and thinking about the book and where this, it really comes from them. It really comes from my mom and dad and my family and my neighborhood. They put me on the right track to do the things that was my moonshot. And I don’t know. I don’t realize that when that was going on. But now I certainly do. So, they get full credit.

 

Katie: I love that. I also had parents who are very focused on finding a way to help other people. And now, with my kids, I, as an entrepreneur, I try to weave that into the way I raise them. But I tell them a lot, like if the whole point of starting a business or if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, look for the places you can help people or the problems you can solve that help people. And build from there because that’s going to feel fulfilling. And also, I believe income follows outcome. And if you just chase income, you won’t be fulfilled, and you probably won’t achieve as much in the metrics that you might look at. Whereas if you’re focused on helping people, I really do believe income will flow from that and that your needs will be taken care of.

Mike: I’m with you 100%. I think the money comes. I think you have to look at what you love doing, what is your purpose. And you need to figure out a way to make a living at it. But I think if you’re doing what you love, what your passion is, if you can do that, figure out a way to make a living at it, that money will come.

And you asked me about my kids. So, I’ve got two of my own, and I’ve got two stepkids now. And everybody’s in school right now, Katie. The two stepkids are both in college, and my kids are in grad school. My daughter’s in grad school in the school of social work. She’s trying to help people. My son is in engineering grad school. He is looking to – he’s interested in the space program. We’ll see what happens there. But I think by showing by example, and I think now that they’re older, which is interesting, I think that that was instilled in them that, they just saw what I was doing, maybe, like I saw what my dad and mom were doing, that they saw their parents engaged in those types of jobs and community. I think that’s where it seems like, I don’t want to hope they’re not listening to this. Cause I don’t want to, because I don’t want to mess them up. I try to stay out of it whenever I can, Katie. There’s the best thing I could do. Usually just try to support as best I can and try to do what I think is right. And maybe they’ll notice, but always try to encourage them. And I’m thrilled that everybody’s in school. I think that’s a good place to try to pursue a dream. But I agree with you 100%. I think you said it perfectly that if your focus is trying to make money or become famous or whatever it is, you’re not going to get there. And the best thing to do is to follow your passion where you can be of service to people. And that money, you have to have confidence that money will come. That’ll make you successful.

Katie: Yeah, I love that. And like you, it seems like we have a similar approach with our kids where I don’t want to interfere. I always say you’re your own infinite autonomous humans. And I’m not here to direct who they are. I’m here to support them in discovering who they are and who they are, not to guide that through my own motivation. And it’s-

Mike: Yeah. Yeah.

Katie: Yeah, well, I love that. And I know so many things stood out to me in the book as well. I love that the story-based approach to it. It’s such a fun read. I’d love to touch on rapid-fire a few of the things you talk about. There’s some practical tips. One is about harnessing nervous system energy for motivation. I talk a lot about the system on this podcast and how it’s a barometer. And if even if we mentally feel fine, you know, if our nervous system doesn’t feel safe, we’re not going to rest and digest and heal. And it’s so intricately connected to everything. So, I love that you talked about this as well. Can you talk about what you mean by harvesting nervous system energy for motivation?

Mike: Yeah, I think that if you’re nervous about something, that’s a good sign. That’s the first thing they made because it means that it’s important to you. And I find if I’m nervous about it was about a space flight or, you know, getting a training flight or a simulator or an exam I was taking in school, or I don’t know if I thought about this when I was in school this way. I wish I would have. But I’m like, all right, I’m nervous about it. But this is what I learned at NASA is that I’m nervous about it’s because it’s important to me. And I’ve spoken to some athletes about it. And there’s a baseball manager, a friend of mine, Tony La Russa, I think is more wins than any other manager. And I was visiting with him before a game. Last year, and he looks at me. We were in Yankee Stadium, beautiful sunny day, and we’re talking, and he goes, “You know, Mike, I’m really nervous.” I go, “You’re nervous? You’ve managed more games than anybody. What are you nervous about?” And he goes, “I’m just nervous. You know, it’s a game.” And we talked about this, how nervousness is good. And he said there was one time there was a young pitcher who was going to start his first game in the major leagues. And Tony said, “How are you feeling? Are you nervous?” And the kid said, “No.” And he said, “No, you’re not pitching today. Because if you’re not nervous, you’re not ready.” So that’s one way to think of it. But you want to use that nervous energy, I think, to help you prepare. I’m nervous about this. It’s good because it’s important to me. But I’m also, in my case, I thought of the way it came to work for me was that that’s how I better get ready for this thing. And I want to think of everything that can go wrong and try to be prepared if I’m on a spacewalk and this happens, that happens. And try to build that confidence. Like we’re going to take a test. You know, if you’re nervous, that’s good. It’s good, if you’re nervous ahead of time, especially because then you can prepare, right? So if you use that nervous energy to help you prepare and then when it’s game time, whatever that means, whether it’s the event, it’s the pitch you’re giving, the presentation, the game you’re playing, the test you’re taking, the social event you’re attending or whatever it is, you know, whatever that that the discussion with the kids, whatever it is. Now it’s time to trust in what you’ve done to prepare, trust in yourself, trust in the network of people that might help you. If you’re going to need that help, trust the gear, the tools that you have, whatever it is, if you’re going in to make a pitch and you’re going to be using a piece of equipment to help or whatever, have trust in everything because you’re ready and you’re prepared. And now, it’s time to execute and try to have that trust.

You know, confidence is something I wish I had more of, maybe, but I feel like, all right, I can trust. I looked at as trust as something that I can, I trust the people I’m with. I trust my equipment. I trust my training. I wouldn’t be in the, my name wasn’t picked out of a hat. I’m here for a reason. And it took me a while to get to believe that, but we need to believe that in those situations and then try to execute our plan.

And you mentioned a little bit about being scared. One, I never, I was never in like scary, like really scary situations where I thought I was going to get maybe killed or hurt very often in life. But as an astronaut, I did. There were certain times we had an emergency one time in a jet where we lost our hydraulic pressure, which means you can’t fly the airplane. We only had about 20 minutes to get it on the ground, if that much. And we were getting ready to eject out of the airplane. Luckily, we were able to get it on the ground. But that was a scary situation for me. Like, holy cow. And then another situation, spacewalking, looking at the spaceship before the launch. There were certain times I was like, uh… And what I realized at those moments was that being scared is a luxury that I can’t afford right now, that being scared is not going to help me. It’s not going to allow me to think clearly. It’s not going to help me make decisions. I do not have time for that. And I just blocked it out. And I never thought I could react that way. But that was the case because I could not afford to be scared. I had to have my focus on what was going on, or else something bad could happen. And not all situations are like that, right? Hopefully, that you’re not, oh, you know, this is really bad. But I think a lot of our life is like that, where we’re in a scary situation. And I think try to look at it more as nervous energy to get you ready. And when you’re in the moment, don’t be scared. Have that trust. Have that trust in what you’ve done to prepare and execute the plan and have trust that you’re ready for whatever that, whatever that experience or opportunity is. Because getting scared in the moment is not, I don’t think, is going to help. Is that what you found as well?

Katie: Yeah, and I love that reframe of that when you’re nervous, it’s pointing to something important rather than the idea if you’re nervous, that that means you shouldn’t do it. Because I think often, we can get scared and decide not to do something because we’re nervous. And I also think it touches on not defining emotions as bad, like not just saying, oh, I’m nervous. It’s a bad thing. This is a great messenger. This means this is important to me. This means maybe my body has some hesitancy, but I can still do this. I think a smaller example where I’ve seen this in my own life is things like when I’ve had to have difficult conversations, realizing I’m nervous because this is important to me or this person is important to me. And it’s only scary until you do it. Like the Ryan Holiday idea, the obstacle is the way that often the cure to the nervousness is to actually do the thing, not to avoid it. And if we resist it, it tends to build. I think that’s another valuable parenting lesson because certainly our kids will have moments where they feel nervous or fearful and to be a guide for them through those situations as well. You also talk about why it can be a good idea to wallow in regret for 30 seconds.

Mike: Yes.

Katie: This is another a little bit like countercultural one that I would love for you to expound on.

Mike: Yeah, what’s interesting here, Katie, is you’re putting, like, what I find a very interesting academic spin to a lot of these things that I just learned by walking around, you know, making mistakes and, you know, flying airplanes and stuff. But this is really cool. I’m enjoying this. The 30-second rule. Okay. So, I had, you know, what I would find when I would make mistakes, uh, I think some people deny their mistakes. I think most people are not like this. But occasionally, you can think of someone that just didn’t. I never did. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s you. It’s someone else. The deniers, right? I don’t know if there’s really two categories here. But the other category that I know about is my category, which is I just beat myself up. And when I would fail things, I failed my qualifying exam my first time when I was trying to get my PhD, and I was able to retake it and and pass it the next time. But I beat, I was like, oh man, this was horrible. And I wallowed in the misery for like a long time, like for days, a week, until I was able to pull myself back out of it, or you get bad news, or something happens in your personal life. I mean, you know, when it’s, yeah, I’m not, there are things that happen like a death in the family that’s something different, but I mean, like when you make a mistake at work or or something or you just whatever mistake you make, I’m in a relationship whatever it is. And you, oh man, I shouldn’t, why did I say that, why did I do that? You could make a mistake that leads to regret, as I said for days or a week or more, and you never get that time back; you just don’t it’s it’s gone, and it doesn’t change anything you’re still in that same position.

So, I would, and in space, you don’t have a minute to do that. You know, you make a mistake and like, oh, crap. Well, now what? You know, you can’t wallow in the misery. You’ve got to be an active participant in the solution. So, I would hear people saying, and I hear this in sports a lot too, like when you make a mistake, leave it in the past, leave it behind you, let it go. You know, and I’d be like, oh, really? But it’s terrible. What I did was terrible. So how do you, the way that I found was best for me and for a lot of us that I work with as astronauts was this 30-second rule that I learned from my friend, Megan McArthur. This second time I’ve mentioned her, I need to give her a phone call, apparently. And she’s on my mind.

So, Megan, and she learned it from a guy named CJ Sturckow, who was a Marine test pilot who taught it to her. But she taught it to me. And it’s give yourself, it’s a 30-second rule. Give yourself 30 seconds of regret. It is okay with this rule now. It is okay to be mad at yourself for something stupid that you did. All right. That’s okay. You know, I didn’t mean to do that. It was a mistake. That was bad. And you can take 30 seconds to beat yourself up. So, when I made a mistake trying to work on the telescope, which was a terrible bonehead maneuver, I stripped the screw because I was being a bit careless. And I, you know, how could I have done this? I took my 30 seconds, and I said to myself, you’re the worst astronaut ever. How could you have done this? Why did they even put you on this flight? Like they should have given someone else’s. This is you. This is way over your head. Why don’t you think of that beforehand? Why don’t you think of that? We should have prepared differently. Now look where you are. We’ll never find out there’s life in the universe. And it’s your fault. And, you know, just don’t vocalize any of these things. Just keep it to yourself because if people hear you, they get scared. So, I had my 30-second rant. And then I got it out in my head. And I’m like, now it’s in the past. It’s officially flushed. We’re going to forget about it. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to learn from it. We’re not. We’re not going to be cavalier like I was with the tool any longer. That’s the takeaway there. That’s not happening again. But it’s in the past, and we’re going to move forward and try to find a solution. So that’s, that’s, what’s been helpful for me and for many of my colleagues.

Katie: And I think the value there is you’re actually giving a voice to those emotions rather than fighting them. So again, with the, what you resist, persist, but also there seems something psychologically helpful in the structure of that, of like, there’s a time limit, it goes away, and now you can let it go. I think I’ve had many recurring lessons in my own life about letting go rather than holding on to certainly negative emotions, but many things. And I’ve done something similar as a mom on the really overwhelming days. I will set a timer for five minutes. And my goal in that time is I’m going to feel as stressed as possible. I’m going to feel all of this stress and worry. And then when that five minutes is up, I’m going to go get solution-focused, and I’m going to solve it. And it’s something about that structure is so comforting. And so, I love that you’ve used this practice as well, even in space and what is much more high stakes than the, you know, the things I encounter on a daily basis. But I think that’s a really helpful, tangible tool that people can use.

I know we’re talking about the book. I’ll, of course, make sure it’s linked in the show notes for you guys listening while you’re driving or walking. You can find it there, or anywhere books are sold. But for the last couple of minutes of our conversation, I would love to circle back to something we talked about early on, kind of that impression you had, the perspective of being in space and how it led you to find awe in the ordinary. I think this is worth returning to because I firmly believe that one of the best things we can do in life is to cultivate that wonder and that awe for everything to get overwhelmed with the beauty of life. Of what make the nature, of relationships. And I think it’s something that, as a mom, I see kids are so naturally attuned to, and perhaps we lose a little bit as we get older. So, what are some ways that you personally find awe in the ordinary and cultivate that in your life?

Mike: I actually, I find that I need to take a cognizant, deliberate timeout to do it. And I find that if I feel myself getting a little stressed, which happens to everybody, and I wouldn’t say that the things that you’re doing as a mom is less stressful than what I learned. The high stakes is that, you know, that was only a telescope. It was only the future of astronomy. It wasn’t necessarily, you know… Your life or livelihood, but a lot of times, so anyway, but I think I find that I need to sometimes really stop myself and say, hey, wait a minute. Let’s just look out the window for a minute. Let’s look at a picture of my wife on the phone. Let’s think of something with the kids but look around. Look around, even the stuff you have in your apartment or home, and that’s what really helps me. I live in New York City, and when I get out, especially when I get out the front door, whether it’s wherever I might be, if it’s if I’m traveling somewhere, or if I’m at home and I get out that door, I just try to take a moment and look around and say, this is unbelievable. At the beginning of the day, I just think this is incredible. You know, in the city, there’s just this all this moment. If you’re out and we also spend some time in more of a countryfied setting, like we’re going to be for Thanksgiving, and we open up that front door and there’s trees and a lake in front of us. And oh, my goodness, look at that wonder.

And but in the city, you open it up to the door and going out on a street and looking up at the buildings and the cars and the bus and the people and the park in the distance or whatever you might be able to to see. It’s it’s just wondrous that we have this opportunity to be here and to meet people that what people can do. We take so much for granted, like artwork. I can’t, you know that’s something I really can’t do, right? But I can wonder and see how people. Do this or even the buildings. I don’t know how to build a building. I mean, I understand how it’s done because I’m an engineer, but I I’m lucky. I mean, this place I’m sitting in now, I had nothing to do with it. You know, someone else built this thing. It’s a wonder what people can do with their with their time and their skills and by working together. And I think it’s really important for us to remember that because we’re only here for a visit.

When one of the experiences I had living the planet orbiting over and over again, at the speed we go, so we go at 17,500 miles an hour. That’s our velocity in space. It takes 90 minutes to do one complete orbit. Out of that time, about half that time is in sunlight. Beautiful, bright, pure white light, the sun in space above the atmosphere. It’s so beautiful. And part of that time is in complete darkness because it’s nighttime on half the planet, right? So, half the time is in bright sunlight, half the time is in darkness. You get 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a 24-hour period. And when you’re coming into that sunrise, for example, you feel the warmth of the sun like down in your bones, like a cold, like a warm current in the water, if you’re in the ocean or something. Anyway, but you feel it before you see it. And you come around the corner, you see the sun and the black sky, and you look back down at our planet, and you see a line that divides night and day. And it moves, and it’s moving steadily. And what that is, we call it The Terminator. And we think the sun rises and sets. The sun doesn’t go anywhere. The sun stays where it is. We’re the ones that are moving around the sun, and we’re also rotating. So, a sunrise, it’s not that the sun’s coming out tomorrow. It’s the earth is going to rotate toward the sun tomorrow. You can count on that. And looking at, right, we know we can count on that.

But when I saw that, and I saw this line moving across the United States, and there’s one particular instance, about to illuminate California, and it was like over Arizona, coming over California. This line, we call it The Terminator, was moving so steadily. It had the word that came to my mind when I was watching it, the rotation of our planet was permanence, that this has been going on for billions of years, well before my parents and grandparents and anyone, well before any of us were around. And I had the sense on top of that, Katie, that it’s going to be going on for a long time after we’re gone. This cosmic dance of things in our universe and the motion of our planet and all the activity that takes place on it is going to be going on for a very long time. This is our time. This is our blip to enjoy what we have here. And it’s so precious to be here that we can’t waste a moment, uh, of our time here doing bad things or things that aren’t good, whatever that means.

So, I think we should take a time out whenever we can, every day, to just be amazed by where we are and how lucky we are to be here and that this is our time. And we’re, you know, in your case as a mom and my case as a dad, I think more as I’m getting older that I’m going to be leaving, right? I don’t want to think about that, but it’s, you know, it happens, right? And what we leave behind is really important, and what is more important than our kids and the people we affect and students or whoever we influence. Because that planet is, it didn’t hiccup. It didn’t hesitate. It’s going to keep rotating, and it’s going to keep orbiting. And this whole thing that we sometimes take for granted of where we are and how lucky we are to be here and so on, that’s going to continue well after we’re gone. And we need to do the best to enjoy it, I think, and to help the folks who are still going to be around to continue to make contributions after we’re gone.

Katie: So beautiful. I have a thing I try to remind myself often, the idea to just be here now, because truly the present moment is all we actually have. And I think if we savor that and stay present to it, we see the beauty in that moment more easily. I actually even have a tiny dot tattooed on my hand that is representative of a period at the end of a sentence. And it reminds me to savor everything as if it were the last time I would ever get to do it. And I feel like that brings me so much focus and presence. And that in that moment, it’s easier to see the beauty in my kid’s eyes or the beauty in the trees and really soak up that present moment. So, I love that you talk about that as well. I think that’s such a very important reminder and would definitely encourage people to check out the book as well. Again, I’ll link to it in the show notes, but Mike, this has been such a fun conversation. I’m so grateful you were here. Thank you for spending the time with us today.

Mike: Thank you very much, Katie. Thanks to everyone who’s listening. Hopefully, some of this was helpful because that’s what it’s intended to be. And I just enjoyed it. You’re awesome. Thank you so much. I’ve learned so much here, too, even though I was jabbering the whole time. Thank you very much for having me on and for sharing your insights. Thank you.

Katie: Thank you. And thanks as always to all of you for listening and sharing your most valuable resources, your time, your energy, and your attention with us today. We’re both so grateful that you did. And I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of The Wellness Mama Podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.



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