Riding Rockets: Beyond “The Right Stuff” to The Real Stuff.


Years ago, Tom Wolf gave us The Right Stuff, an outsider’s fictionalized view of the early NASA astronaut world. Today Mike Mullane blows that to pieces with the real stuff: Riding Rockets, a white hot, insider’s first person view of life and death as a shuttle astronaut.

Like the author’s life, the story is an unlikely, relentlessly driven paradox of impossible factors that leaves the reader exhausted but fulfilled, terrorized while simultaneously enchanted, disgusted yet amused and ultimately, completely amazed. Mullane the aviator reminds me of a similarly high octane squadron mate of mine who went full-throttle against all obstacles. He’d demonstrate his wrath at even the normal delay associated with crossing a runway by doing so when cleared with a kick of afterburner.

Mike Mullane has led his whole professional life in afterburner and the book unfolds accordingly, so strap in tight and hang on: the high-arcing trajectory ranges from the bureaucratic depths of “AsCan” (“Astronaut Candidate,” impossible not to read as “ass can” in your head) drudgery, through the abject terror of the controlled explosion that was a shuttle launch, to the soaring euphoria of the orbital view and every-ninety-minute glorious sunrises offered in spectacular detail. The writing makes the experience visceral and gut-wrenching: you’re not reading; you’re riding rockets.

And therein lies yet another major paradox of this book: in Mullane NASA finally—albeit unknowingly—launched a poet into orbit. When Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad was asked what it was like to walk on the moon, he reportedly answered, “It was great—I really enjoyed it.” Period.

By contrast, Mullane boosts the reader into a loftier orbit: Riding Rockets doesn’t describe or tell; you don’t read or hear—rather, the reader lives the painstakingly and beautifully constructed engineer-meets-aesthete (finally!) prose. The reader inhabits every dimension of the astronaut experience in firsthand, nuanced but no-nonsense and often poignant detail.

And yet paradoxically, there’s no denying the subtext of political and sexist incorrectness that was the Neanderthal mother tongue of those of us who were military aviators in the last century. But even that’s nothing but cringe-worthy authenticity—the more provocative political incorrectness is in Mullane sharing the bald-faced truth of the politics, pettiness and even foolishness of NASA management in life or death issues of safety, risk management, practicality and common sense that resulted in pointless deaths that nearly dismantled the space shuttle program. Strictly political NASA stunts like putting non-professional astronauts—including congressmen, even icon John Glenn—aboard to the detriment of safety, morale, professionalism and ultimately, risk, exposes the NASA management innards as malignant, dysfunctional and only marginally competent to run a complex space vehicle year after year.

Which raises the ultimate and heretofore largely unexamined astronaut conundrum, as the reader lives out the blurred borders between commitment, dedication and obsession: the driving force wasn’t the astronauts’ fear that they could very well lose their lives in a shuttle launch; rather, it was their fear that they couldn’t live their lives if they didn’t. That, plus the inside look at the families’ launch and pre-launch hell, is a sobering, heartrending experience that the reader—if not every American citizen—should take to heart when looking back on the men, women and families of the space shuttle.

Maybe Mullane does too good a job of letting the reader rummage around  inside his head. You can’t help but recall the Melville classic he claims—probably correctly—that no one has ever read. Nonetheless, one painful fact of “Moby Dick” is that the first hundred pages teach you how to read the last three hundred. Looking for the whale tale in Riding Rockets, a wonderfully layered and nuanced narrative, you discern ultimately the sincere and higher truth behind the crude, abrasive exterior of bravado and testosterone-driven veneer that covers a thoughtful, values-driven core of humanity nonetheless.

So in Mullane’s focus on one of his “TFNG” colleague’s untimely death in a shuttle tragedy and the years leading up to it, the reader is torn—probably deliberately, by the author–over reading between the lines . . . or not. And yet, living out his experience, you can’t possess even a modicum of decency without strictly honoring the narrative for what it is: a moving tribute to a fallen comrade; no less—and no more.

From the desert southwest to West Point to Europe, space, the White House and back–that’s the exhausting, rewarding, provocative and inspiring journey that is Riding Rockets. In the end, you arrive with Mullhane at a priceless retrospective pinnacle, rich with emotion and understanding of the epic undertaking that was the space shuttle,  generously shared by a deft, driven, talented (finally!) writer with “the right stuff” who delivers the real stuff.

At long last. A must read for all space program followers; a should-read for everyone else.

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

For more information on Astronaut Mike Mullane, click here.

Coming next in a few days: back into the left seat—

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12 Responses to “Riding Rockets: Beyond “The Right Stuff” to The Real Stuff.”

  1. In a strange coincidence NASA will be accepting applications to become an AsCan starting this month.

    Maybe I will read this book before pressing the submit resume button.

    • Good idea. It’s the first fully candid, warts-and-all (Michael Collins’ “Carrying the Fire” is close, but out of date) inside look at the astronaut world.

      I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all now and there have actually been a couple new first-person entries in the last few years (Falling to Earth, The Last Man on the Moon) which are all interesting historical reads, but Riding Rockets is the closest thing to a current look, although the narrative ends in the early 1990s.

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

  2. SkyJunk1e Says:

    I read it when it first came out. Enjoyed it, never really thought about the stuff you brought out but you’re right. It’s awesome.

    Now get your ass back to writing flying stories, wingnut.

  3. I think you and Mr. Mullane are both full of crap. You for writing a “book review” in the first place and him for his tall tales.

    Stick to what you know. What is that, by the way?

  4. Just bought the book, and am now at page 65. Excellent book !!
    Thank you Chris, it is like “The right stuff”, but nmore recent.
    Another nice book I have just bought: “The rogue aviator” by Ace Abbott.
    Perhaps an idea for next blog….

  5. On Mullane’s second flight, launch debris smashes a noticeable and alarming gash in the Shuttle Orbiter’s underside heat-shield tiles – causing plenty of anxiety during that flight. Again, NASA’s woeful and perhaps criminal organizational response was that this kind of damage fell within “acceptable” bounds. This precarious flight presages the tile damage that would bring Columbia to a fiery – and so avoidable – end over the skies of Texas in 2003. So not once – but twice – Mullane cheated death aboard the Shuttle. Both the seal failure which destroyed Challenger, and the tile failure which destroyed Columbia might just as easily have doomed astronaut Mullane. He makes this telling distinction: the Shuttle was never (and probably still isn’t) a truly “operational” system, checked and re-checked and flown with very high confidence of success. All of NASA’s early rockets were flown first without crews. Yet the very first Shuttle flight was a manned flight – and manning a new vehicle’s first flight had never happened during the missiles-as-rockets phase of spaceflight. This proved bad policy by NASA especially considering how careful it otherwise covers itself, especially after failures.

    • It’s the mix of politics, PR and funding–a really bad combo when lives are at stake.

      Also a good example of “The Peter Principle:” you have to admire a pioneer spaceman like John Young–except he was pretty much a failure as a leader. That’s disappointing.

  6. […] astronaut‘ (Mullane 2006). Don’t miss Chris ‘JetHead’ Manno’s ↑review [a professional pilot's […]

  7. […] the podcast interview. Additionally here’s Chris ‘JetHead’ Manno’s ↑review of ‘Riding rockets.’ MULLANE, RICHARD MICHAEL ‘MIKE’. 2006. Riding rockets: The outrageous tales of a […]

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