Of all the astronaut biographies published over the past 30 years Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut stands apart from the rest. An alternate title for Mullane’s book could easily be The Sacred and the Profane, because the author, a former shuttle astronaut, delivers a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners peek inside examination of NASA’s astronaut office that is irreverent and occasionally blasphemous, yet engaging and spellbinding.
Like most astronauts of his generation, Mullane was inspired by Sputnik to spend his high school years building rockets (for “high school projects”) with the blessing of his constantly supportive parents (he speaks fondly of his father who was crippled by polio when Mike was a boy). After flying 134 missions in Vietnam, he volunteered for the space program where he was subjected to every test known to man or beast including counting backwards by 7 (a test he failed) and a colonoscopy. “I was determined when the NASA proctologist looked up my ass he would see pipes so dazzling he would ask the nurse to get his sunglasses.”
Having passed the clean ass exam, Mullane joined a new class of trainees, the TFNGs (either the thirty five new guys or the fucking new guys depending on who you ask), the first class that NASA tried to diversify, hiring African American men and white women (including Judy Resnik and Sally Ride). Mullane has no problem accepting other races, but initially holds the same chauvinistic sexist views about women that characterized an era. He spent 12 years in all boys Catholic schools, followed by the military academy, followed by Vietnam. His only concept of women came from his mother and his wife, both of whom seemed content and fulfilled without a career. Mullane is honest about these feelings in the book, and while we can’t really cheer for him for his Road to Damascus revelation that “Oh wow! Women can be as talented and as smart and as good as men,” I did appreciate his candor.
And NASA clearly was a boys club. Where else can you “snort” at particularly attractive women (as in “I want to snort her flanks”) and get away with it? Or use the shuttle manipulator arm and camera to give head-to-toe inspections of female colleagues, as Mullane remembers doing? And where else but in microgravity do you get a “morning” Viagra effect thanks to the redistribution of blood?On orbit opportunities abounded for the Planet AD crowd. One shuttle commander, a particularly right-wing crewmember, ordered a countdown from a colleague—literally, “3, 2, 1, 0!”—in orbit so he could “squeeze … out a [fecal] muffin on that [expletive] Castro” as the shuttle passed over Havana. To say that Mullane and the other Planet AD inhabitants were uninhibited is an understatement. They were living on the edge—seemingly impervious. Of course, some of the more conservative post-doctorate members and female astronauts weren’t so amused. According to the author, Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, carried a heavy feminist chip on her shoulder. But other female astronauts, like Judy Resnik and Rhea Seddon, shrugged it all off and gave as good as they got.
However, discount the profane in this book, entertaining though it may be. Instead, admire Mullane’s moving description of the sacred ground of the Beach House, with its Ozzie and Harriet furniture, where the Challenger crew last saw their loved ones. And appreciate, along with Mullane, his close friendship with fellow TFNG Judy Resnik. A few strands of her hair were all that were recovered after the Challenger disaster. Considering it is doubtful we will ever read a dedicated biography of Judy Resnik, this book probably provides the best insight into her life as an astronaut. This book is an honest, sympathetic and authentic look into the fears and frustrations in these astronauts’ lives.