on 2 August 2013
It's not about an astronaut, but alot more. Mike's opening gambit of an enema to produce "dazzling pipes" for astronaut selection shows someone so singularly focussed to do whatever it takes to be successful, that I read on. From life in the Mullane household, early military life and then fast forward to NASA, I too shared Mike's adventure and dream to get into space.
Brontë, Mike's book is NOT. The language ranges from crude `Merican schoolboy, to political incorrectness/AD and inner stream of consciousness of a locker room e.g. Viet pilot, "Better Dead than Look Bad", scepticism of female astronauts, passengers, etc. yet times eventually catch up during Mike's transition to PC personified (East German sauna - hunter becomes the hunted) - engaging and even charming. The technical language (SRBs, ET, MECO, ATL, etc.) is easily absorbed.
Like Shakespeare, important characters are offstage, such as omnipotent George Abbey or Donna and, call me a romantic, but it seems that Mike's all-consuming dream becomes Donna's as she raises the family. Through physical aspects, such as liaisons with Donna show the human side of astronauts and seizing possible final moments. We also picture the other astronauts as we share the minutiae of comradeship, smells, intimacy and reality of space preparation.
The book shows the emotional rollercoaster, with fear and frustration as close cousins. We witness Mike going from hero (when times are good) to zero (passed over or mission aborted, like a rejected bridesmaid) and the emotional drain upon the families. Just as demanding seem to be the physical toll e.g. medical, kit tests, Gs, the Vomit Comet, etc., and while bolted to a chair with 7million lbs of thrust underneath with a gambler's luck, uncontrollable bodily functions, making last minute promises to God, focussing on T-9, then fear/danger of T- ...5 .... 4 we share the exhilaration at heading skywards "at last" or dull dread of abort.
The book is living history. After an era of (US/USSR) Space Race and Apollo (dangerous and experimental yet culminating in man on the moon), Mike was part of the Space Shuttle (STS) and ISS. Seeing backstage at the nuts-and-bolts (and politics) of NASA could take the shine off the glamour of the space programme, yet this account is the closest some of us will get to space, because though space tourism has begun (Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace) (pats pockets, "Nope, don't have a spare million pounds"), Mike's account reminds us of the importance and danger of early space programmes, where the research, technology (e.g. iPhone more advanced than the Eagle), tests, daring-do (chutzpah and style), self-sacrifice and lives lost, got us where we are today.
An irony is that the comms satellites put into space are probably the very same satellites that keep kids glued to a keyboard, phone and ignoring the great world we live in, whereas Mike was possibly brought up with little/no TV or internet, and a kid probably had to find his own hobbies, interests and adventure. I've heard astronauts say one of the best things on the STS during its 1.5 hourly orbit, is the window overlooking Earth, watching the lightning, deserts, oceans, etc. so Mike should not knock us mere mortals (passengers) who are inspired by his space experience and want to see the real thing for ourselves.
The book shows why the space programme was costly and accountable to the public purse e.g. a returned STS had an MOT of one million checks, but also interesting to see a saving e.g. an STS cannibalised to reuse on others. But for the glory of it all, you cannot put a price.
The book is one viewpoint (with its gripes), so detail, timescales and aspects I have taken to be 98%-ish accurate, but Mike's book is authentic because it is a first hand account. Though a product of NASA, we can see the difficulty to adjust to NASA afterlife, yet Mike managed three space missions (in addition to aborted ones) and perhaps God kept him safe to tell the tale and make us feel a little more mortal.
I hope Mike never grows up and still enjoys a challenge. Though retired the sharing of his tale in this book can still inspire, so while bumpy, what a glorious ride. It is human, warm, vitriolic, sufficiently technical yet basic and down-to-earth. I feel lucky to have read the book, and feel it can be summed up as "Dazzling" (Mike and STS).