Title: Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
Author: Mike Mullane
Release Date: January 1, 2006
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, History
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5 out of 5
Riding Rockets is shuttle astronaut Mike Mullane’s account of the time he spent at NASA. His memoir spans the shuttle program, from its beginnings to the destruction of Columbia in 2003.
When I first started reading Riding Rockets, I was a little turned off. Mike Mullane seemed like a terrible human being. He objectified women, was unbelievably politically incorrect, and was just all around offensive. Multiple times, I considered putting down the book just because I held him in such low regard. However, I couldn’t deny that his writing style was engaging and I was still interested in what he had to say, so I kept reading. And I am very glad I did because this was the best NASA memoir I’ve read, and that’s saying something with the number of books I’ve devoured about our nation’s space program.
I soon realized that the aspects of Mullane I disliked were what I came to love most about him. He almost always said exactly what was on his mind, no matter how it might be interpreted by those around him. But that means he’s completely candid with the reader, about his own faults and those of NASA. Most memoirs I’ve read about NASA and the country’s space program glorify everything about it and only have positive things to say. While Mullane definitely loved being an astronaut and had great things to say about some of the aspects of NASA, he wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. His searing critique of astronaut management and the NASA culture that led to both the Challenger and Columbia explosions are must-reads.
I also loved how much Mullane injected himself into his narrative. Too often, NASA memoirs are impersonal accounts of what happened during the person’s tenure at the organization. There isn’t a lot of personality in those books. That’s part of the reason I loved this memoir. There was a personal story along with what was going on at NASA; we got to see the development of the shuttle program, as well as Mullane’s personal growth.
And Mullane did grow a lot over the course of the book. Part of the reason he was so offensive towards women is that he didn’t know how to treat them. He went to an all boys’ Catholic school growing up, then straight onto West Point – he’d never worked with a woman as an equal. While he never got past his “arrested development” (his words) sense of humor, as he worked more with women in the space program, he developed a deep respect for their abilities and their drive. In particular, his friendship with astronaut Judy Resnick was very touching.
One of the reasons this memoir is so incredible is because of Mullane’s writing style. This is the most readable NASA memoir I’ve ever come across. A lot of times, books like this are dry and the writing style is choppy. The description of emotions leaves a lot to be desired. However, Mullane nails it on the head – even when I couldn’t stand him, I couldn’t help but continue on because I was so hooked on the book. There isn’t a dry moment in this memoir. Additionally, Mullane’s description of the Challenger explosion, its aftermath, and the emotional turmoil he experienced because of it is touching and heartfelt. I had tears in my eyes as he was describing his despair. It was an incredibly moving and personal part of the book – I’m sure it wasn’t easy to write, and I’m so glad he chose not to shy away from the more difficult aspects of this tragedy.
Riding Rockets was simply an incredible read, and I’m so sorry that it’s over. When I reflect on how much I disliked Mullane at the beginning, versus how much respect I have for him now, it’s overwhelming. I appreciated his candor and honesty, as well as the fact that he was very aware of his personal faults and never tried to gloss over them. This was an eye-opening look at a tumultuous time in NASA’s history, from the glory days of the shuttle to the horror of losing Challenger and Columbia. If you are a fan of the space program, or if you’re simply interested in reading more about the topic, this memoir should go on your must-read list (though for younger fans, I probably would wait until they’re older to give them this book.)