Saturday, December 22, 2012

Riding Rockets

Riding Rockets: the Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut
© 2007 Mike Mullane
400 pages

Mike Mullane is a shuttle astronaut with a penis fixation. Although Riding Rockets is ostensibly about the opening decades of the space shuttle era in NASA,  it could be titled the Cosmic Adventures of Mike and his Member. If he doesn't mention his genitalia more times than he uses the acronym "NASA", he at least makes a valiant effort. His is an astronaut memoir of an altogether different kind than say, Jim Lovell's, or Deke Slayton's.  This is not a heroic tale of people achieving the impossible:it is instead the story of a man-child and his bros in space. He is juvenile, inappropriate, and obsessed with himself --- but someone who has an interesting story to tell, one that sometimes verges on thoughtful,  if you can endure his boorishness.

Riding Rockets gave me fits, being an uncomfortable read: Mullane has all the tact of a dog in heat, and writes almost confrontationally. His emotions are ever on his sleeves, and he dares anyone to challenge him. ("Come at me, bro!") His story is entertaining, and even touching -- there were times when I shook with laughter, and moments wherein I put the book away to put some distance myself and Mullane's emotions, like his despair at his friends' death following the Challenger explosion. Part of the appeal in reading the memoirs of astronauts is that they've seen Earth and humanity in a way the overwhelming majority of us haven't. A photo of Earthrise cannot have the same profound effect on people as actually being there, hanging in the black of space and seeing the Earth -- the stage for every human drama, the sum of our experienced lives -- shrinking below, the entirety of our existence reduced to a finite thing that can be left behind. Mullane can write beautifully, but instead he makes a lot of penis jokes, and those moments of author-reader connection were always broken by  wanting to recoil from his personality.

Despite the sometimes beauty of his words, and  his insights, Mullane is, candidly, a jackass.  The image that comes to mind is that of a drunk teenager invading a bar,  perhaps one who has just finished the greatest high school football game of his life and can't wait to impress his audience with it -- but is oblivious to the fact that he is in the company of grown adults who find his posturing and immense self-satisfaction wholly obnoxious.  He identifies himself early on, and somewhat proudly,  as being in a state of a Arrested Development, along with most of the astronaut corps.  Having cheerfully written off his ability to function as a mature, considerate, and thoughtful human beings, he spends most of the book acting instead like a jackass -- ogling women, devoting paragraphs to how rockin' the bods of some of his female colleagues were; endlessly complaining and opining about everyone who thought or acted differently from himself, and of course, chatting merrily away about his penis.  Inexplicably, he forgot to mention said organ in the index. It was certainly mentioned enough times to merit inclusion there.  Charming he isn't, although his attempts at civilized behavior are almost comic.  After dismissing civilian astronauts for being a bunch of pantywaisted granola-eating libtards -- in contradistinction to the solid, right-thinking, manly-man military pilots -- Mullane reflects on their performance throughout the shuttle missions and concludes, "Hey, those guys  did have a pair. Not bad!"

I couldn't be impressed by Mullane. Behind the cocky grin and the swagger are thoughtful eyes and a mind that can deliver stirringly poetic tributes and reflections to friends, love, and the beauty of life , but these occasions are few and far between, diamonds in a rough possibly too broad to justify digging in.   There aren't many astronaut memoirs about the shuttle program, but I'm planning on reading the other I've found (Sky Walking, Tom Jones)  to see if readers interested in that era of NASA's history have to be content with this story of adolescents in space.

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