Spacewalking is serious business, especially when you're working on a multibillion-dollar telescope, but there's room for a little whimsy and wonder as well.
Take astronaut Mike Massimino, for example: The shuttle Atlantis' current mission marked his second visit to the Hubble Space Telescope, making him one of the astronaut corps' more experienced telescope repair technicians. Yet he had to slog through two overtime spacewalks, both of which ranked among NASA's top 10 in duration (and probably difficulty as well). Heck, he even had to rip off one of Hubble's hand rails with his gloved hands!
Did that get him down? No way.
Toward the tail end of Sunday's eight-hour-plus spacewalk, he and spacewalking partner Michael Good were carrying on like a comedy team.
"I'm afraid to ask how long we've been out here," Massimino said.
"I think it's been about an hour, 45," Good said.
"That's about right," Massimino replied.
When Good helped Massimino move a cable out of the way before getting down to work, Massimino referred to the hapless MacGyverish character from "Saturday Night Live": "MacGruber, that's what you are."
Today, Massimino joked about the length of his spacewalks: "I thought I was getting paid by the hour, then I find out it doesn't make any difference. ... I'm a little disappointed about that."
In addition to the whimsy, Massimino found time to enjoy the wonders surrounding him as he worked: "At the end of my spacewalk, I had time to just look at the Earth, the most awesome sight my eyes have seen, undescribable," he wrote in one of his unprecedented Twitter postings from space.
It's not as if Massimino is checking his iPhone every few minutes from space for a new tweet: In fact, his short updates are passed down as secure e-mail from space, then plugged into his Twitter account by intermediaries at NASA. That indirect method is used because the space agency wants to head off the possiblity of hacking into the space shuttle's computer network.
Nevertheless, Astro_Mike has definitely made a name for himself on Twitter: He currently ranks No. 133 on a closely watched list of Twitterati (ahead of MarsPhoenix and Stephen Colbert but way behind Britney Spears). Today tons of questions were sent in via the Google Lunar X Prize's Twitter and Facebook accounts for Astro_Mike to answer, arguably setting the stage for the first social-networking Q&A in space.
Massimino isn't the only guy to have a little fun in space, of course: Who can forget Alan Shepard's golf swing during the Apollo 14 mission to the moon in 1971, or Harrison Schmitt singing "I Was Strolling on the Moon One Day" during Apollo 17 in 1972? The crew of the current Hubble mission broke out in song as well: As lead spacewalker John Grunsfeld rolled blankets of insulation onto the space telescope's exterior on Monday, a chorus of "Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'" from the "Rawhide" theme song could be heard over the radio link.
Some have pointed to the way astronauts dealt with the challenges of the mission's five spacewalks - including balky bolts, stray rivets and gyros that didn't fit - as evidence that tool-wielding humans will continue to be essential in space operations. You might be able to argue that future space telescopes, which are not designed for human service calls, will be cheaper in the long run. But there's no way those missions will be as entertaining.
Here are a few more must-see examples of astronauts indulging their lighter side:
- Congratulations to Scott Parazynski, former NASA astronaut and spacewalker, who has just reached the summit of Mount Everest after a weeks-long trek. You can follow Parazynski's adventure via Twitter.
- Watch Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata demonstrate his "magical flying carpet" aboard the international space station. Wakata also shows why folding laundry and putting in eye drops are such tricky tasks in zero-G.
- You've already heard about the basketballs that Atlantis' crew brought into orbit (deflated, to save space). But have you heard about the home plate? Last year, astronaut Garrett Reisman carried some dirt from the pitcher's mound at Yankee Stadium into orbit on his space station mission. Not to be outdone, the Mets gave Massimino a home plate from Shea Stadium, circa 2007, to fly on Atlantis. Here's another report from NASA that talks about the items tucked in the astronauts' flight kit. (Tip o' the Log to CollectSpace)
- One of the traditions for shuttle missions is for Mission Control to play wakeup songs for the crew members. Check out this Web page for the Hubble mission's playlist, usually accompanied by the explanation for why a particular song was picked. ("Stickshifts and Safetybelts," dedicated to spacewalker and former auto mechanic Drew Feustel, ranks among my favorites.)
What music would you like to wake up to in space? Feel free to add your musical suggestions - or any other observations about the lighter side of space travel - as a comment below.
Update for 10:05 p.m. ET May 19: X Prize founder Peter Diamandis is a middleman for the Twitter/Facebook Q&A with Massimino, and he asked the astronaut whether Atlantis' crew could see the moon. Here's the reply: "Peter - yes we can and it is awesome. You can sort of see it in 3D in space so it really looks like a planet out there, just awesome. Currently see about a half moon, and it[s] size is pretty constant except if you see it setting behind earth, and then the moon illusion has some effect, making it appear slightly larger."
Update for 11:12 p.m. ET May 20: How can spacewalkers work for hours at a time without going inside for a break? One of my colleagues at msnbc.com, Rich Shulman, pointed me to this HowStuffWorks discussion of the subject. And over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait touts this must-see video of Hubble floating away from Atlantis.