Challenger, you're go at throttle up. Roger, Houston. Go at throttle up. Those were the last words spoken between Mission Control in Houston and the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Moments later the shuttle disintegrated, killing its seven-person crew. Commemorating the 25th anniversary of that tragedy, two astronauts have written memoirs that, combined, provide a detailed history of the shuttle program from the beginning. That the voices of the memoirs are very different seems appropriate given the evolution of the program from its heady initiation in the 1970s to the troubled and apparently final present days of what was intended to be a fully operational, safe and cost-effective space plane.
Mike Mullane, author of Riding Rockets, is an astronaut in the mold of the early pioneers of NASA, the kind of Right Stuff, politically incorrect Air Force veteran who would have been at home in the male-dominated world of space flight ˆ la 1965. But entering NASA with the first class of shuttle astronauts in 1978 put him in the same group with the first women and minority astronauts. In all his 35 years, Mullane had never dealt with women as equals, and he had to learn often the hard way that female astronaut was not an oxymoron. His memoir is full of the gaffs and epiphanies that came as he learned the lesson, accepted the new reality and ultimately formed a close personal and professional relationship with Judy Resnik, with whom he flew his first mission. Throughout the book Mullane uses the term arrested development to describe both himself and many of his male astronaut colleagues. The term fits. He seems to delight in telling as many space-toilet stories as possible, and his colorful language and off-color stories would seem to have more in common with the proverbial sailor than a star voyager. But Mullane's ribald sense of humor makes for an endearingly entertaining read, and his willingness to tell it like it was gives great insight into the years when NASA was trying to shift from moon-shot to space-truck mentality. Ultimately, the institutional we can't fail attitude that put 12 men on the moon led to the loss of Challenger and Mullane's friend Resnik. He pulls no punches in his criticism of NASA management or in his description of the mortal danger that every astronaut gladly accepts as the trade-off to fly 200 miles above the earth. Arrested development or not, Mullane was awed by the views he had of the home planet, and his description of spending a sleepless night floating in front of the shuttle windows, watching Earth glide by under him, will delight every reader who has dreamed of traveling the heavens.
Chris Scott fondly remembers watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on his grandparents' color TV.