Cannonball Read III: Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane
Mike Mullane was part of the first class of space shuttle astronauts for NASA (for you younger folk/non-space program nerds, the shuttle program came after the Apollo Moon mission--mission 11 was the one where we landed on the moon, 13 was the inspiration for ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER, etc. The Space Shuttle is generally what you picture when you think of astronauts boarding their vessel). His book details a bit of his early life and influences, but mainly focuses on his twelve-year career at NASA and his three missions in space.
Mullane terms himself a long-term resident of "planet Arrested Development," and as he chronicles his boozy, moon-y (er, not like Apollo moon-y) days of jubilation at NASA; I simultaneously laughed and rolled my eyes. Mullane and his classmates were jackasses, though not malicious ones. They were all fiercely competitive, of course (career military men and women all vying for a chance to fly in space, when it was never made clear how people would be selected for missions or in fact if everyone would be selected), and played pranks on each other to let off steam. Mullane also spends a lot of time answering some of the less-frequently-asked questions about space travel, like "how does one poop?" However, Mullane also details his awakening to the feminist movement via his strong female classmates, particularly Sally Ride and Judy Resnik. Mike and Judy flew their first mission together (Judy became the second woman in space) and developed a close friendship. Through Judy and the other women in the space program, Mike moved out of planet AD (still visiting occasionally) and really embraced women as equals. His stories about his relationship with Judy were funny, moving, and illustrated how deeply he respected and liked her.
Judy was killed on the Challenger, eight years after she, Mike, and 33 other people were inducted into the space program. Though Mullane spent some time up to this point detailing a lot of the managerial and organizational failings of NASA, here is where he becomes outright critical of the agency. I can't blame him - while the management issues may be a bit murky, it's clear NASA at times misled the public and its own employees--people who could literally die due to the tiniest of errors.
At the same time, Mullane was still deeply in love with the idea of space travel. He does an excellent job conveying his frustrations with the leadership, his apprehension at saying "the wrong thing" and thus never being picked to fly again, and his outright love for rocketry, space flight, and the people who make it possible. There were times I had to put the book down. His retelling of the weeks leading up to and the horrible weeks after Challenger and Columbia made me cry, and his incredible gratitude to his parents and his wife Donna were moving to read, especially when Mullane made it clear he has a very hard time being so demonstratively emotional in person.
This book was fantastic. If you're interested in space travel (including, but not limited to, the process of peeing and pooping in space) or like well-written memoirs, definitely pick it up.
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This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.