Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Riding Rockets, by Mike Mullane

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut, by Mike Mullane

Mike Mullane was one of the first space shuttle astronauts, completing three space missions aboard the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis and recording over 350 hours in outer space. His biography is a fascinating look at NASA and the shuttle program, covering selection and training, jealousy and euphoria, and dealing with disaster. He has a great writing style: sometimes funny, sometimes honest, but always hitting just the right note for the story. And what stories! Bathroom humor about colon exams and condom fittings, emotional treatises about the helplessness experienced when strapped into a rocket before takeoff and the frustration of a scratched launch, and poignant tales about fulfilling a life-long dream. The most touching descriptions, however, are about the Challenger disaster.

The shuttle explosion is a tragedy seared into our national consciousness, but for most of us the astronauts who died that day are simply names on a monument. For Mullane it was entirely too personal—he lost friends and coworkers that day. And for Mullane’s family and the families of all the other NASA astronauts, it was the realization of their worst fears. The author doesn’t write just about the sadness, though; his anger at the NASA repeated administrative failures that caused the accident comes through loud and clear. “But as the notes of ‘Taps’ floated in the air I was stirred anew in my anger at NASA management. This should have never happened. It was completely preventable. There had been four years of warnings.” Sadly, any lessons learned were temporary at best; seventeen years later it happened again with Columbia.

More than just a memoir, Riding Rockets is also the story of the shuttle program at NASA. Mullane explains how the selection process worked to become an astronaut, and how frustratingly opaque the selection process for missions was. He doesn’t pull many punches; sexism and misogynist behavior was unbelievably rampant, and the level of jealousy between those chosen for space and those left behind on each mission was shocking. Most surprising was the political infighting between the astronauts that came from the Air Force and those from post-doc educations, and the shared disgust for the “part-time astronauts,” those people added to missions that “hadn’t paid the dues to get there—a lifetime of brutal work and fierce competition.”

Funny and forthright, emotional and educational, poignant and pointed. I utterly enjoyed Riding Rockets and unhesitatingly recommend this biography to anyone.

First Sentence:
I was naked, lying on my side on a table in the NASA Flight Medicine Clinic bathroom, probing at mt rear end with the nozzle of an enema.

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