Anyone who still believes the Space Shuttle isn’t an unnecessarily dangerous ride to space should pick up Mike Mullane’s recently published Riding Rockets.

Not only is the book a great read, superbly written by an apparent natural at the craft, but it’s a body blow to the NASA establishment who insist on pouring good money after bad into a system that should have been scrapped long ago. Not that Mullane would have passed up any chance to fly it. As he so succinctly puts it on page 30, he and his fellow class of 1978 astronauts wanted to fly so badly that “If someone had told us our chances of being selected as an astronaut would improve if we sacrificed our left testicle, we would have grabbed a rusty razor and begun cutting.”

But he doesn’t let that hold him back on telling it like it is regarding NASA’s God-like hubris in designing a spaceship powered by a dangerous solid fuel booster design without a usable escape system and covered by heat shielding so fragile that the machine earned the nickname “glass rocket.” As Mullane says on page 34, “While no member of the shuttle design team would have ever made the blasphemous claim, ‘We’re gods. We can do anything,’ the reality was this: The space shuttle itself was such a statement. Mere mortals might not be able to design and safely operate a reusable spacecraft boosted by the world’s largest, segmented, uncontrollable solid-fueled rockets, but gods certainly could.”

Along with some of the most evocative and poetic descriptions of the Earth as seen from space I’ve yet read, Mullane recounts the butt-clenching fear he and his colleagues felt while strapped in waiting for liftoff, knowing all too well that every launch of the space shuttle was a game of Russian Roulette. “We were all the same,” Mullane says of himself and his crewmates. “Anybody who wasn’t terrified getting ready to fly a space shuttle must have chased a couple Valiums with a fifth of vodka.”

But the book’s purpose isn’t to bash NASA; it’s a brave, unflinchingly honest account of one astronaut’s journey from childhood into space, by turns laugh-out-loud funny and hauntingly sad; I’ll never forget Mullane’s reconstruction of the Challenger crew’s last two and a half minutes.

Mullane was to be Dr. David Livingston’s guest tonight on The Space Show, but he’s had to reschedule. Mullane and Livingston are now hashing out a new date, and Livingston will let me know as soon as its finalized. I’ll pass it on here.

–UPDATE on 3/21/04–
Got the word today from Livingston:

“Mullane is set for The Space Show on Sunday, April 16, 12-1:30PM Pacific Time.”

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