NASA's Real Right Stuff - A Review of "Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut" by Mike Mullane


I don't' have much time to review books these days. I feel honor bound to the authors who took the time to write their book to actually read it cover to cover - and observe the book as well as read it. After some arm-twisting from author and former NASA employee Homer Hickam, a review copy of this book found its way to my post office box.

As I waited in line at the bank drive-in one day I thumbed through it. The first passage I read (at random) on page 143 included "my ass was so tight I could have cracked walnuts between my butt cheeks." Hmmm, "not your typical astronaut memoir", I thought. As I thumbed though it more I came across George Abbey tales, rolling on UCDs, PeTe's Cajun BBQ and I said to myself "all right, Homer, I'll read it".

The comparisons between this book and Tom Wolfe's classic "The Right Stuff" are unavoidable. Indeed, Mullane himself makes frequent mention of Wolfe's book - often invoking images and themes that run through the book. Of course, there's one critical difference between the two books: Wolfe was an outside (albeit skilled) observer whereas Mike Mullane actually lived the life of an astronaut.

I can't say that I have read every astronaut biography - but I've read a number of them. While many of these books are well crafted - with vibrant, riveting descriptions of life off world, Mullane's book distinguishes itself in this genre by focusing on all aspects of being an astronaut. Let me make that clear - ALL aspects. Mullane minces no words when he speaks of people's strong points - and their weaknesses - and that most certainly includes himself. He just puts it all out there. He doesn't try to excuse himself - rather, he describes and explains himself - and doesn't ask you to forgive him for some of the things he said and did.

This book is, like any credible astronaut biography, is a tale of a journey - to and from the part of an astronaut's life that people are most familiar with. Who we are is the summation of all that we've been through and Mullane does an apt job in this regard. Indeed, another book that comes to mind in reading this book is "Rocket Boys" (the basis for the film "October Sky") by Homer Hickam. As was the case with Hickam's book, what emerges is a story of how childhood dreams propel one into adulthood - and a career. Small wonder Homer was pushing this book on me.

This book distinguishes itself in several other ways as well. Astronaut pranks are not exactly a new topic - yet Mullane breathes new life into the urban lore that surrounds the astronaut corps. He also scrapes down to bare metal as he describes NASA management and his lack of confidence in it.

Two of the most influential people in an astronaut's life in the late 1970's, 1980s, and 1990s were George Abbey and John Young. Rarely has such an explicit depiction of how these two people ran the politics of flight crew selection been put on paper. Mullane's depictions of NASA icons Abbey and Young are blunt and to the point. Bryan Burroughs touched on some of this in his book "Dragonfly" but Mullane takes the topic to a new level with one recollection after another.

This is not a kiss and tell book (although it gets close on several occasions). Mullane doesn't mince words and repeats what one person said to another (to the best of his recollection). This includes multiple times when Mullane said/did something dumb and regrettable. I suspect that the people depicted learned long ago what Mullane thought of them - so the tales contained in this book may not be a surprise to those folks - but they may find reading about these episodes to be a bit unsettling.

This book certainly shows a side of NASA that NASA Public Affairs Office would rather not have people read. NASA focuses (with some obsession) upon the positives, on the strength of the corps and its members. No flaws, no shortcomings - no weaknesses allowed. The net result is a homogeneous generic notion of what an astronaut is. While there may be a few people in the astronaut corps that come close to matching this image, Mullane smashes that generic notion. In more ways than outsiders might imagine, astronauts are just like the rest of us in more ways that NASA PAO would have you think.

Yes, there were juvenile delinquents in the astronaut corps (at least while Mullane was there). Indeed, he often groups this subset of the astronaut corps (with him as one of the prime practitioners) as having originated on "Planet Arrested Development" ("Planet AD"). Given that many of his fellow astronauts were also stuffed shirts, his description of his gang is as refreshing as it is irreverent.

In placing himself in a particular niche i.e. in the center of Planet AD crowd, Mullane manages to paint portraits of a rather wide range. Of course, no astronaut memoir would be complete without some mention of flight surgeons and the repeated indignities astronauts often find themselves exposed to - including one of the largest collections of space bathroom misadventures ever published.

Of course, from someone from Planet AD like Mullane, there is a fair amount of discussion of the roll-on cuffs that male astronauts use for the UCD (Urine Collection Device). Mercury, Shuttle - the basic concept hasn't really changed in decades. Neither has the inherent embarrassment and opportunity for silly jokes. I have to admit that I too succumbed to a little of this vintage "Right Stuff" behavior myself when I worked at NASA - where I used to be somewhat of a nuisance on occasion. When reviewing an early revision of NASA-STD-3000, the large volume of specifications for how humans and spacecraft machinery interfaced, I asked if there was a typo in a sentence that spoke of sizing UCDs to meet "all crew members" wondering if it should have said "all crew's members". Needless to say I got some strange looks.

There is also a healthy dose of astronaut hijinks - much in the vein of Wally Schirra and his merry Mercury cohorts. Hours hoisting beers at the Outpost Tavern, prelaunch outings at the astronaut "Beach House", airplane piloting of questionable wisdom, as well as stunts, gags, pranks, jokes - many of them unrepentantly juvenile in nature. And, of course, there were the Public Affairs dog and pony shows - and the surprising terror that many astronauts feel when they have to speak in public.

And while Mullane risked his life and pulled gags at work, his wife had to put up with him at home. If anyone comes out of this tale as a saint, it is his wife Donna. Not only did she have to deal with a somewhat out of control fighter pilot, she had to go through the process of saying farewell, perhaps forever, each time Mike Mullane climbed into a shuttle. As is that case with all astronaut spouses, this can get unnerving - especially, as was the case with STS-41D when 4 attempts (and therefore 4 farewells) were required before the shuttle lifted off.

Mike Mullane was picked as part of the astronaut class of 1977. They soon adopted the motto "The Thirty Five New Guys" or "TFNG" - an acronym which soon came to also represent the "The F**king New Guys" as well. Among this class were Mike Coats, now Center Director at Johnson Space Center (who shared an office with Mullane) and Dick Covey, the Chief Operating Officer of United Space Alliance. America's first female and African American astronauts were also members.

This class was notable for being the one that actively recruited women and minorities into the historically white guy pilots only club. NASA recruited Star Trek's Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) as part of the effort to reach out to a wide range of potential applicants.

In addition to ethnic and gender diversity, this class included non-pilots and scientists. Of course, there were still a lot of white guy pilots. Mullane was an unabashed member of the white guy pilot's old school. Mullane's adaptation to a new type of coworkers from backgrounds unfamiliar to him is central to the story he tells.

The culture Tom Wolfe described during Mercury program was still quite evident at NASA as Mullane's class showed up for work. But the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo "right stuff" culture was fading - transitioning - into a new configuration. This class represented the collision between post WW II fighter pilots and post Vietnam era baby boomers.

As mentioned before, this new class was not with out its pranksters and risk takers. Mullane notes one harrowing (and after the fact, enjoyable) flight in the back seat of a T-38 piloted by astronaut Fred Gregory. Mullane describes how Gregory took the jet "inside" the Grand Canyon. Gregory went on to become Deputy Administrator of NASA - but before that he was the Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance - an irony not lost on Mullane.

Mullane also describes the political space junkets of Sen. Jake Garn (then) Rep. Bill Nelson ,and former Sen. John Glenn. He notes that as a result of shoving Bill Nelson onto STS- 61C, Greg Jarvis was bumped onto STS-51L - and his death.

As hard as he worked to become an astronaut - and as long as he yearned to do so, the reader gets the impression that Mullane had to regularly pinch himself and ask "what am I doing here?" As such, while clearly a creature of NASA, he is able, 15 years after turning in his NASA badge, of looking back at his time with both an openly jaundiced - yet brutally honest eye.

Some of the most frank, often blunt, descriptions in this book have to do with what someone thinks about when the prospect of being blown to bits on a flying bomb is part of one's job. Mullane also spares no ink in describing close calls, including damage to a Solid Rocket Booster nose cone during STS-27, and the loss of thermal tiles. In describing the damage Mullane writes "we had 700 bullets and lived to talk about it. The damage had been sustained in the only place where it could exist and still be survivable". He includes descriptions of some bad decisions (in Mullane's view) at Mission Control - all of which serve as an eerie preview of many of the events that led up to Columbia's demise.

Of all the topics that he delves into, perhaps the most telling (on many levels) is his relationship with fellow classmate Judy Resnik. They came into NASA together, adapted to NASA life - and their coworkers together, and flew together. Mullane had never worked with a female before in a professional situation and this was a surprisingly difficult adaptation for him to make - but he did. When Resnik and her crewmates died, it was as if a piece of Mullane did as well - and he describes the loss in great detail. Indeed, as his book progresses from this episode, you can see that this accident is one of the key pivots of his story - and of Mullane's life. Nothing was the same afterward.

With the echo of Challenger provided by Columbia, many of these feelings remerged within Mullane - as they have in all of us. While he is critical of many things at NASA - including safety, he readily admits that he'd hop aboard a shuttle for another flight. Such are the things that go into being an astronaut.

Over the years I have gotten to know a number of current and recently retired astronauts - some rather well. As such, I have long noticed the disconnect between the public perception - the one NASA works so hard to preserve - and the true diversity of the people in the astronaut corps. Each one has a story to tell. Eventually, in one way or another, they all do. Some do it better than others.

Mike Mullane's book is a perfect intersection of the risks and fears, joys and fulfillment, strengths and weaknesses, and the human cost to family and friends of exploring space. It is not to be missed.

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