Book Reviews


The Human Side of 'The Right Stuff'

Riding Rockets

by Astronaut Mike Mullane

Review by Richard Sheppard

 

If Tom Wolfe’s 1979 “The Right Stuff” remains the definitive astronaut story a magnificent introduction to the initial breed who rode to space and the Moon on towering missiles astronaut Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets continues the story into the Space Shuttle era. One of the original astronauts selected in 1978 for the Shuttle program NASA’s controversial reusable follow-on program to its historic Apollo triumphs Mullane offers a tale of dreams achieved, fun times to be had, and the frustration and heartbreak that came from dealing within the NASA bureaucracy. His accounts of the spectacular failures of shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 of how it could have easily happened to two of his own Shuttle flights highlight the constant danger of spaceflight. 

 

If human space flight is considered among mankind’s highest achievements, those who fly atop the rockets and Shuttles command admiration for making it through one of the most difficult selection processes devised. From his youngest days, Mullane enamored with and determined to be a part of America’s awesome space program planned his course to space. Flying homemade rockets as a youngster, and hanging on every detail of Sputnik and the early American Mercury and Gemini missions, Mullane determinedly followed his dream. When poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot he opted to be a “backseat” weapons officer, flying reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War. (When he finally flew in space, he became the first Air Force non-pilot “backseater” to do so.) He undertook the rigorous educational requirements to put himself in the best position as he applied to become a space flyer. He was starting a family at the time, but his wife Donna whom he lavishly and justifiably credits throughout the book backed his dream to the hilt. It’s just as much her story as much as it is his. But there is no step-by-step direction to being selected as one of aviation’s ultimate practitioners, and for all of his efforts there is never a guarantee of for anyone’s astronautical ambitions. 

Like the Original 7 Mercury Astronauts The 35 New Guys 

But succeed he did, and for his hard-work, his template of sacrifice yielding dreams, Mullane along with thirty-four others (including six women) becomes an “astronaut candidate.” Like the “original 7” Mercury astronauts, Mullane’s group was a “first” group, nicknamed the “Thirty-Five New Guys” (no slight to the included women), selected by NASA to fly their new glamour vehicle, the Space Shuttle. By NASA’s standards, Mullane and the others wouldn’t become “astronauts” until they reached NASA’s arbitrary altitude of 50 miles; Mullane argues convincingly that the minute a spacecraft leaves the launch pad, those aboard are astronauts (and convert their silver “candidate” pins to genuine gold “astronaut” pins). When he does finally head for space, Mullane flies as a Mission Specialist, crew members who oversee various Shuttle payload deployments, systems, and experiments, as opposed to the command pilots who the craft in space and land it.

While awaiting his first flight a frustrating process during which he reveals some interesting and none-too-flattering stories of NASA bureaucracy and personnel Mullane describes his training and bonding with his fellow space flyers. Not unexpectedly among such an ambitious group, there are petty and non-petty competitions, and hierarchies which develop as missions are assigned and massive egos jostled and bruised. Among Mullane’s closest astronaut friends is fellow astronaut Judy Resnick, who was to later perish in Challenger. It is in his descriptions of his close friendship and occasional temptations beyond with the foxy brainiac Resnick where Mullane adds a human counterpart to the cowboy astronaut image. Here are astronauts as human beings who are tested in more ways than getting to space; they have the same problems as everyone else. It is part of his appeal that Mullane admits his own foibles, serious and silly as they sometimes are. And these admissions are compounded for the astronauts by the fear and uncertainty of when they will get to fly in space, and the fact that the Shuttle is in effect being rushed into service and used improperly. You can especially understand the frustration of trained astronauts getting passed over for non-astronaut “passengers” in particular glory-hogging politicians who jump the line and take up seats on missions coveted for years by still-grounded astros.

Busting His Space Cherry

Eventually, six long years after being selected astronaut candidate Mullane gets assigned to his first Prime Crew, aboard the maiden mission on the new Shuttle Discovery. After several maddening aborts, Mullane busts his space cherry (as a he-man pre-PC astronaut might say) in August 1984, successfully deploying satellites and testing a solar panel. His hard work paying off more than he could’ve imagined, Mullane is privileged to fly two more missions aboard Shuttle Atlantis in 1988 and 1990 - deploying top secret military satellites, and receiving top-secret citations for these efforts, and meeting President Bush 1. Throughout these mission descriptions are plenty of Shuttle, spaceflight, and NASA factoids for space aficionados and the merely curious alike. And not everyone comes off as the squeaky clean.

Mullane unabashedly admits his terror of flying atop the monstrous, fuel-filled space place, most especially in the days and minutes leading up to each of his missions. So close to space on his missions, there are aborts, holds and the myriad delays that flying such a complicated machine entails. There are flaws and fears aplenty in these accomplished heroes, and Mullane explores these in a bit more depth than the “wild & crazy” antics of the original, test-pilot astronauts described by Wolfe. Mullane downplays any “astronauts will be astronauts” excuses and admits flaws as-is.

Foreshadowing the catastrophic Challenger explosion in 1986, Mullane reveals already existing O-ring (sealing) problems which occurred during his own initial 1984 flight and which would ultimately doom Challenger almost eighteen months later. It is in these passages where an outsider comes to realize how a bureaucracy of the best and brightest engineers and spaceflight experts becomes complacent to warning signs. How power-grabbing and butt-covering priorities sweep dangerous trouble under a gleaming showy space program. There are parts of Riding Rockets where you may feel that certain NASA officials need a good kick in the shin if not more dire corporal punishment. Yet even today NASA in many ways leaves an impression as a cocoonish, expert-laden clan that continually puts the lives of its most precious members in harrowing danger. And given how organizations will turn on those who reveal its secrets, it took some guts for Mullane to bring some of these troubling facts to light.

On Mullane’s second flight, launch debris smashes a noticeable and alarming gash in the Shuttle Orbiter’s underside heat-shield tiles causing plenty of anxiety during that flight. Again, NASA’s woeful and perhaps criminal organizational response was that this kind of damage fell within “acceptable” bounds. This precarious flight presages the tile damage that would bring Columbia to a fiery and so avoidable end over the skies of Texas in 2003. So not once but twice Mullane cheated death aboard the Shuttle. Both the seal failure which destroyed Challenger, and the tile failure which destroyed Columbia might just as easily have doomed astronaut Mullane. He makes this telling distinction: the Shuttle was never (and probably still isn’t) a truly “operational” system, checked and re-checked and flown with very high confidence of success. All of NASA’s early rockets were flown first without crews. Yet the very first Shuttle flight was a manned flight – and manning a new vehicle’s first flight had never happened during the missiles-as-rockets phase of spaceflight. This proved bad policy by NASA especially considering how careful it otherwise covers itself, especially after failures. 

A 'Bad Day'

This reviewer still remembers the first spokesman who appeared after Columbia’s destruction in 2003 the guy came out and said NASA “had a bad day!” That was his response! It was a “bad day!” It seemed that guy’s attitude was, “hey, so what, you’ve had them too, right?” From the reviewer’s experience, Mullane could’ve taken even further shots at NASA, but after all, he himself acknowledges that’s not easy to do with an organization that fulfills your wildest dream. At least he admits that and still takes some fair and entirely justified shots at NASA.

While he can get repetitive over his joy and sheer ambition of space flight, readers will recognize Mullane’s overachievement in earning his nearly unreachable dream. His description of his final Shuttle flight, in which he circles the globe and passes over the many places where his earthly roads had led him to his starry perch, is revelatory in understanding how dreams drive human accomplishment.

On some occasions throughout his story, Mullane lapses into goofy vulgarity; overlooked perhaps since he is after all an astronaut and thus embodies a “right stuff” ethos. But his non-PC recollections seldom venture into offensiveness only the doctrinaire will tut-tut. But Mullane didn’t write this book for them. His recounting of the various female astronauts and their differing reactions to joining the previously male-dominated astro corps only underscores that there isn’t one way of “correct” thinking as doctrinaires propose. Mullane offers the distinction between the tolerant and easy-going Judy Resnick and the more feministically ambitious Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. (A title worth millions of dollars.) If “The Right Stuff” introduced the public to the knife’s edge flyboys who were the first daring-do astronauts, Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets adds an introspective and human approach in bringing their story into the 21st century.