Book Review: Riding Rockets

Mike Mullane. Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut. New York, Scribner, 2006. 368 pages.

This is a book everyone who has any kind of interest in the history–and future–of manned space flight should read. For that matter, anyone who doesn’t have an interest in manned space flight should read it, too, so they have an idea of why it’s so important.

I was born after the Apollo program ended, and have vague memories of Skylab (mostly my dad assuring me that it wouldn’t land on us when it re-entered earth’s atmosphere in 1979). I remember hearing that, by the mid-1980s, we’d be sending shuttles into space every other week, and that space travel would be safe and commonplace. Of course, history told a different story.Riding Rockets

Since I started explaining the history of the space program to my four year-old (who is full of questions), I’ve been reading up on it as much as I can. When I learned about Mike Mullane’s book, I figured I’d give it a read and get a few new insights on the shuttle years.

Suffice it to say that Riding Rockets¬†gave me much more than that. About one page in, I realized something: Mullane is a hell of a writer. You might think that, as one of the few human beings to have escaped earth’s gravity, he’d start his story with the sublime joy of watching a sunrise from space or seeing the earth speed by below him at 17,500 miles per hour. No. He starts the book naked, lying on a table at a NASA facility, giving himself an enema.

Too much information! you might think, but within a few paragraphs Mullane is able to explain exactly why it was so important to administer that enema, and along the way introduce the reader to the astronaut selection process without doing a data dump or being didactic. When a NASA psychologist asks him about his motivations for going into space, he gives the reader a detailed account of his early years–and tells us the simple, boring story that he told the psychologist–again, letting us understand his deception.

Once he gets into the selection and training of 1978 Astronaut Class (nicknamed TFNG, ostensibly “Thirty-Five New Guys), the book really takes off. He shares painfully honest details of the process, including the tension between him and the other military flyers and the civilian astronauts. He also isn’t shy about revealing a nearly dysfunctional management structure, singling out Chief Astronaut John Young and George Abbey, Flight Crew Operations Directorate chief, for keeping the astronauts in the dark about the flight assignment procedures.

Mullane was assigned as a mission specialist on STS 41-D, the first flight of Discovery, and gives a personal perspective on that mission, which included the program’s first launch pad abort. He also talks about his friendship with fellow TFNG Judy Resnick, who was killed in the Challenger disaster in January 1986.

Discussing the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy is where Mullane is at his most searing. He is forthright in blaming almost everyone at NASA for the disaster, including himself and the other astronauts, who almost uniformly let their desire to go into space outstrip safety concerns. The story of the disaster is a cautionary tale for any organization, and the insights Mullane adds convinces the reader that the disaster itself wasn’t a fluke–that it took so long for such a tragedy is. His first flight, for example, saw erosion of the O-rings and “blow-by,” which ultimately doomed Challenger, but none of the astronauts were told of the safety concerns. Similarly, one of his post-Challenger flights saw the orbiter struck by debris during its ascent–the same scenario that doomed Columbia in 2003.

What struck me most about the book was Mullane’s unflinching, often uncomfortable, honesty. Sometimes it’s humorous, as when talking about the culture clash between the “Arrested Development” military aviators and the liberal civilian “post doc” astronauts, but it’s usually quite personal, as when he candidly admits his owns failures as a husband and father. Reading this book, you understand why spaceflight is such a beguiling prospect, but you also appreciate, probably as never before, exactly how many sacrifices astronauts make.

Highly recommended.