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Reviews: Shuttle astronaut memoirs

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
by Mike Mullane
Scribner, 2006
hardcover, 384 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-7432-7682-5

Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir
by Tom Jones
Smithsonian Books, 2006
hardcover, 385 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-06-085152-X

A very narrow, yet durable, slice of the publishing market is devoted to the astronaut biography. In an average year a couple of books—usually, but not always, autobiographies—will be released, telling the life story and adventures of an astronaut. These typically have been dominated by astronauts who were part of the Mercury, Gemini, and/or Apollo programs: the heroic Space Race versus the Soviet Union. That generation of astronauts, though, has been largely played out: nearly every astronaut from that era has either told their story (or had their story told by someone else), or has no plans to write a memoir. However, there is a far larger group of astronauts who joined NASA after the end of the Apollo program, flying on the space shuttle and, eventually, the space station. Outside of a few people, though—who gained fame either by being the first of a particular class of people to fly in space, or through tragedy—most of these astronauts have been fairly anonymous from the public’s point of view. Would they have any adventures and life stories worth reading? As two new books demonstrate, that answer is a resounding yes.

Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets has clearly become the more famous—or infamous—of the two books, primarily because the “outrageous” in the book’s subtitle lacks even the slightest whiff of hyperbole. Mullane joined the astronaut corps in the first shuttle-era group in 1978, the so-called “Thirty-Five New Guys” or TFNG (an acronym that also has a more vulgar expansion.) That class featured the first women and African-American astronauts, as well as a large number of civilian scientists. That diversity was a recipe for a culture clash, particularly for military fliers like Mullane (who had been a “backseater” in two-man jets in the Air Force, his eyesight too poor to be a pilot). Mullane, for one, had difficulty accepting the civilian scientists, or “post-doc astronauts”, who came to NASA directly from academia. “For the first time in history,” he wrote, “the astronaut title was being bestowed on tree-huggers, dolphin-friendly fish eaters, vegetarians, and subscribers to the New York Times.”

“For the first time in history,” Mullane wrote of civilian astronauts, “the astronaut title was being bestowed on tree-huggers, dolphin-friendly fish eaters, vegetarians, and subscribers to the New York Times.”

That, however, paled in comparison to Mullane’s dealings with the new female astronauts. Mullane joked that he was from Planet AD, or Arrested Development; he blamed that on his life experience, from Catholic schools to West Point to his Air Force career, and as a result saw women primarily as sex objects. Mullane makes clear in the book that he was not the only denizen of Planet AD in the astronaut corps, which fueled a lot of verbal jousting, innuendo, and worse, as Mullane and the other ADers demonstrated a remarkable lack of tact at times. (Vignettes related to this clash explain why even Mullane considers Riding Rockets an “R-rated” book.) That caused particular problems in dealings with Sally Ride, who Mullane described as “a woman bent on making a political statement as opposed to a personal one”; the other female TFNGs were a little more tolerant. Mullane later credits Judith Resnik, a crewmate on his first shuttle mission, for teaching to him to appreciate women as professional colleagues and friends.

Given the testosterone-fueled hijinks that set this book apart from other astronaut memoirs, it’s almost possible to overlook his actual accounts of flying in space. That stems in part from the missions Mullane flew: two of his three shuttle flights were on Defense Department missions, many details of which are still classified to this day. The one unclassified flight he flew, STS-41D, prior to the Challenger accident, was highlighted only by the deployment of three communications satellites. “Compared with the missions of the early space program this was blue-collar work, completely devoid of glory,” he wrote. Nonetheless, Mullane does manage to capture the exasperation of launch delays, the excitement of launch, and the experience of weightlessness, as well as the roller-coaster emotional ride that both he and his family felt for each mission.

Mullane retired from NASA in 1990, shortly after his third shuttle flight. At the same time, Tom Jones was beginning his career as an astronaut. His account, Sky Walking, is absolutely tame compared to Mullane’s: there are no tales of drunkenness and debauchery here. Instead, Jones—a former B-52 pilot who also has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences—provides a fairly straightforward account of his career as an astronaut, from the selection process through training to flights on four shuttle missions, ranging from space radar missions to an assembly mission for the ISS. He describes in great detail his experiences during those missions, such as the frustration he and Tammy Jernigan experienced on STS-80 when their planned spacewalk was canceled because of a stuck airlock door, and the eventual realization of his spacewalking dreams on STS-98 in 2001, where he and Robert Curbeam helped complete the assembly of the Destiny module to the station.

Jones’ account tracks the evolution of the manned space flight program through the 1990s. When he joined NASA the astronaut corps was in desperate need of manpower as the shuttle flight rate picked up in the post-Challenger era, with the fleet carrying out a diverse array of missions. At that time the then-named Space Station Freedom program was still in the distance, its future in doubt because of increasing costs. Much of Jones’ career was not linked to the station, and he viewed the effort with detachment and even a degree of disdain. “More than once in the early 1990s, I thought NASA might be better off if it cut its losses and canceled the ISS,” he wrote. Eventually, as the station came to dominate the manned program, Jones could not avoid becoming involved. At the same time, the ranks of the astronaut corps swelled with dozens of rookies, the result, Jones said, of selecting large astronaut groups to supplement the engineering staff at the Johnson Space Center. Jones’ fourth shuttle mission, and his first to the ISS, would be his last.

Much of Jones’ career was not linked to the station, and he viewed the effort with detachment and even a degree of disdain. “More than once in the early 1990s, I thought NASA might be better off if it cut its losses and canceled the ISS,” he wrote.

Naturally, people will compare Riding Rockets and Sky Walking to see which is the “better” book. That is a futile exercise, since while they are nominally books on the same topic—life as a NASA astronaut—they are written by different people with different perspectives, working at NASA at different times. Mullane’s book is clearly the more colorful memoir, coming from a time when the agency was transitioning, in fits and starts, from the Apollo to the shuttle era. While Mullane may be from Planet AD, there’s no evidence that Jones has ever even visited there. That may be a sign of how the agency, the astronaut corps, and even the nation in general have changed: Mullane, in the epilogue to his book, notes that “perhaps, males from Planet AD have gone extinct”, a development he blames on both “political correctness in the extreme” and “a military that is more sober and religious”.

Still, some things haven’t changed. The thrill of the launch of the shuttle itself (and the frustration of launch scrubs) has not changed between the early 1980s and the turn of the 21st century, nor has the anticipation among astronauts about impending mission assignments. On the last point it’s interesting that one person pops up in both books as a powerful figure in determining who would fly and when: George Abbey. During Mullane’s day Abbey was director of flight crew operations and seemed more powerful than either the chief astronaut at the time, John Young, or even his boss, JSC director Chris Kraft. Abbey would prove to be just as influential, if not more so, in the careers of NASA astronauts when he returned to JSC as its director in 1996, as Jones recounts in his book. Jones and Mullane do differ in their assessments of Young, however: Jones welcomed any opportunity to talk with Young and gain the veteran astronaut’s insights on the past and present of the space agency, but Mullane saw Young as an ineffectual leader and eventually clashed with him debating a relatively minor post-Challenger shuttle safety issue.

Put together, Riding Rockets and Sky Walking offer a history of the shuttle program, from the point of view of the astronaut corps, from the pre-history of the late 1970s, when the shuttle was going to be all things to all people, to just before the Columbia accident, when the shuttle had evolved to become the means to assemble the ISS and little else. Both Jones and Mullane see great promise in the future, as the shuttle program that enabled their flights into space winds down and is replaced by new vehicles and new missions. More importantly, they demonstrate that even “ordinary” astronauts—if such a word can be applied to those elite few who have flown in space to date—can weave compelling tales of the experience, both technical and emotional, of space flight.