Book Review: Riding Rockets

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9i94ycbJPik&NR=1&feature=fvwpI am reading space books to help prepare myself for the NASA Tweetup I will be attending at Kennedy Space Center in a couple weeks. The book most recommended by fellow tweeps was Riding Rockets by three-time space shuttle astronaut and Air Force Colonel Mike Mullane. Their recommendations were right on. Riding Rockets is an excellent primer into the fantastic world that is NASA, the space shuttle program, astronaut culture, the risks inherent with space flight and the agony often endured by the astronaut’s families.

This isn’t the history of space flight, nor is it an autobiography. It is an intimate look at the space shuttle program and shuttle missions through the eyes of one of the astronauts. Mike necessarily has to describe the astronaut selection process, training requirements, organizational structure, terminology, and policies related to being an astronaut. He does an excellent job of making his fellow astronauts human without tarnishing their status as courageous national heroes.

His insights into the organizational and leadership problems at NASA which resulted in unnecessary stress, division and ultimately the loss of life is sobering.

A theme of the book is his personal transformation from a cocky military aviator with little respect for women and civilian scientists to a man who recognizes their courage, commitment and skill.

Throughout the book Mullane offers the reader a glimpse into the humorous joking side of the astronauts, which lightens things up between the stresses of waiting for mission assignment, saying goodbye and launch countdowns. I found myself laughing out load many times during my reading, which earned me puzzled looks from those nearby.

As I read this book it seemed as if I were there with Mike on his journey from astronaut candidate through NASA retirement. I endured the emotional roller-coaster with him. I marveled as he did at the experience of weightlessness and viewing Earth from orbit. Mike’s use of detail and adjective are masterful, and aid the reader in painting a picture in the mind, transporting them through the pages to Florida, Houston, California and space.

Astronauts, we are reminded, are human in every sense, a fact I find incredibly refreshing and endearing.

Here’s to gunpowder and here’s to pussy. One I kill with, the other I’ll die for, but I love the smell of both.

Mullane’s relationship with George Abbey, chief of Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD) was, to put it mildly, strained. Throughout the book he lambasts the leadership of both Abbey and Chief of Astronauts, John Young.

I don’t think anybody had a clue what he was. Hoot Gibson would later offer me his best guess…that Abbey loved us, but, like a stern parent, he didn’t care how we felt.

Coincidentally, the day before I had read the following quote I was researching the possibility of a scenic flight over the space center. I was (more wisely) planning to go days after the launch. I learned the airspace over Kennedy Space Center is restricted at all times.

Some bozo in a light airplane had entered the closed airspace around the pad. We would have to hold until that plane was out of the area. The intercom seethed in our rage. We all simultaneously developed Tourette’s syndrome. Even Judy swore like a convict. Shoot the fucker down, was the general consensus. Previous shuttles had been delayed for the same reason, as well as for pleasure boats violating the offshore danger areas. Every astronaut thought these violators should be shot from the sky and sunk in the sea. Even astronauts enjoying a smooth countdown had no tolerance for idiots getting in the way of their launch, much less a crew as abused as ours.

It surprised me to read that the brand new shuttle Discovery had any FOD (Foreign Object Debris). When I was a maintainer in the Air Force we had to account for every screw, tool, used wax string and piece of safety wire. Surely bits could be found left by careless technicians, but I would expect the FOD prevention program on a space vehicle would be more thorough.

A handful of small washers, screws, and nuts floated by our faces. An X-Acto blade tumbled by my right ear. Discovery ahd been ten years in the factory. During that time hundreds of workers had done some type of wrench-bending in her cockpit.

Mike’s description of the terminator touched me deeply. It is a phenomenon only visible from orbit. How I would love to see it for myself.

As Discovery raced eastward, behind her the Sun plunged toward the western horizon. Beneath me, the terminator, that hazy shadow that separates brilliant daylight from the deep black of night, began to dim the crenellated ocean blue. High clouds over this terminator glowed tangerine and pink in the final rays of the Sun. Discovery entered this shadow world and I turned my head to the back windows to watch the Sun dip below the horizon. Its light, which to this moment had been as pure white as a baby’s soul, was now being split by the atmosphere. An intense color spectrum, a hundred times more brilliant than any rainbow seen on Earth, formed in an arc to separate the black of earth night form the perennial black of apace. Where it touched the Earth, the color bow was as red as royal velvet and faded upward through multiple shades of orange and blue and purple until it dissipated into black.

A very slow fall? It’s not 0-G, but a bit more. Just a bit. And extremely cool.

Then a lost M&M candy appeared from a corner and began a very slow fall. It was my first indication we were no longer weightless. The fringes of the atmosphere were finally slowing us.

As an avid snowboarder it was easy for me to imagine the orbiter carving back and forth in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Cool!

She was standing on alternating wings, skidding into the Earth’s atmosphere like a snowboarder braking to a stop.

I’ve received orders many times in my Air Force career. Obviously, none as cool as to “Earth Orbit.”

As employees of Uncle Sam we traveled on official orders, the itinerary of which read, FROM: Houston, TX. TO: Earth Orbit.

4 Comment

  1. I enjoyed reading your review. I like Mike Mullane’s writing (from the excerpts you shared), and I can see why you would be captivated by his book. He seems to be both intelligent and down-to-earth (no pun intended).

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kirsten. You crack me up.

  2. Great review I so need to read this. Question is, can I cram it in by launch day?

    1. Sure. That shouldn’t be too difficult. :)

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