It's Outta Here: Astronaut Takes Mets' Home Plate Into Space

Astronaut Mike Massimino takes Mets' home plate with him into space.

July 29, 2009, 5:44 PM

July 31, 2009 — -- Mike Massimino has his feet firmly on Earth now. He is back from a flight on the space shuttle Atlantis, where he and six fellow astronauts spent two weeks in May, 350 miles out in orbit, repairing and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope.

Now comes the hard stuff: public appearances, adoring kids, talks about NASA's goals for the future.

When Massimino is on Earth, he does Earth stuff -- such as coaching his son's little league baseball team -- and therein hangs a tale.

Massimino spent his childhood in New York's Long Island, and you can still hear the accent in his voice.

"Growing up in New York, the Mets were a big part of my life and still are," said Massimino when we talked to him in Houston before Atlantis' flight. "At the same time we landed on the moon, the Mets won the World Series."

Massimino was a little kid during that electric summer of 1969. If Neil Armstrong could walk on the moon, and the Mets could become the champions of baseball -- well, then, anything was possible.

Massimino -- "Mass" to his crewmates -- is a big, garrulous man, quick to laugh, often the life of the party, even in the better-not-mess-around confines of a space shuttle's middeck.

"He could become a stand-up comic if this astronaut thing didn't work out," joked his crewmate Mike Good, who went on two long spacewalks with Massimino to replace key parts of the Hubble.

As they were training for their mission, word came that a fellow astronaut was flying on the space station with some infield dirt from Yankee Stadium. Massimino called the Mets.

"Not to set up any kind of rivalry or anything," he said with a conspiratorial smile, "but the one thing they did tell me was, 'Mike, I think we can do better than dirt.'"

Some time later, a box arrived in the mail. It was a badly scuffed home plate from Shea Stadium, the Mets' home for 40 years, which was torn down after the 2008 season.

Astronauts carry souvenirs in space all the time -- coins, flags, plaques -- but part of a ballpark? Massimino and some friends tried to see where it could be stowed on Atlantis' middeck -- remember, where you don't mess around much?

Mets' Home Plate: Space Souvenir

It was slightly too big for the equipment lockers that line the middeck's front wall. Massimino contrived to slice off the black rubber border, and it just fit.

"So this is going to go in your personal locker?" he was asked.

"Well, it's in our special flight data file," he answered.

The rest is history. Atlantis launched May 11, and Massimino and his crewmates went on five spacewalks to repair the telescope. In between, he became the first astronaut to use Twitter in orbit. But the Hubble repair was grueling work; they had trouble opening parts that had survived the extremes of space for more than a decade.

At one point, Massimino cursed mildly, with his microphone open, as he struggled to remove a handrail. ABC's Charlie Gibson asked him about it a few days later in an interview with the astronauts from orbit.

"I would say the opposite, Charlie," he answered. "I was praying. I was really praying hard out there with that sticky bolt."

But everything worked out. The Hubble appears healthy, and the shuttle landed safely May 24 after a 5 million-mile flight -- with home plate still tucked safely inside the special flight data file.

Friday night the Mets played the Arizona Diamondbacks at their new park, Citi Field, just a few hundred yards from where Shea Stadium used to stand. Massimino returned the Mets their home plate -- safely in one piece after a 5-million-mile detour.

ABC's Gina Sunseri contributed reporting for this story.

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