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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Space Shuttle's Lying, Derelict Astronaut


As Atlantis is somewhere overhead tracing the last orbits of the Space Shuttle program, I'm thinking about my recent nightstand book, Riding Rockets by former astronaut Mike Mullane. In the autobiography, the three-time mission specialist reveals how the military and NASA tolerated a culture of chronic lying and fraud among its flyer corps. For example, here's how Mullane describes some of his blithe criminal conduct aimed at bolstering his chances in the astronaut-selection process.

In an act of incredible naïveté, the docs at NASA had asked us to hand-carry our medical records from our home bases. ... As the miles passed, I pulled out pages I felt could generate questions I didn't want to answer. In particular I pulled out references to the severe whiplash I had during an ejection from an F-111 fighter-bomber a year earlier. ... I liberated the offending pages from my files, planning to reinsert them on the return flight. I had one very slim chance of getting selected as an astronaut. I wasn't going to let a little thing like a felony get in the way. (p. 2)

I realize that the job of astronaut doesn't have the same need for a moral character requirement as that of lawyer. But it's such a coveted job, you'd think NASA could insist on a modicum of rectitude. After all, unmanned rockets can put up satellites. Half the reason to send real people up into orbit is to have heroes.

Mullane goes on to talk of how he lied, lied, and lied some more to an interviewing psychiatrist:

What would [the true stories of my childhood] have said about Mike Mullane? ... That I was an out of control risk taker? That I scorned rules? There was no way I was going to reveal that history. So I lied. (p. 23)

And did he turn out to be an out-of-control risk taker who was a liability to the astronaut corps? That's the conclusion I have to draw from the description of the re-entry on his second mission into space, aboard Atlantis for STS-27.

According to the checklist I should have been strapped into the mid-deck seat, but there was nothing to do or see down there, so I had asked [Commander Robert "Hoot" Gibson] if I could hang out on the flight deck and shoot some video of the early part of reentry. I would get into my seat before the Gs got too high. (p. 285)

But he didn't keep his deal with the commander:

The clouds appeared to skim by at science-fiction speeds. The sight was a narcotic and I watched it until my zero-G weakened legs couldn't take my weight any longer and I collapsed to the floor. It was beyond time to get to my seat. I pulled myself to the port-side interdeck-access opening and looked down. Uh-oh. I had waited too long. ... I was stuck on the flight deck, its steel floor now my seat, a situation I didn't altogether regret. (p. 287)

Mullane rode the shuttle back to Earth like this, sitting on the floor of the upper deck and unable to stand up, even though he was the person designated in an emergency to operate the lower-deck escape hatch and deploy the slide pole if the crew needed to bail out. Nice, huh? He exposed the whole crew to elevated risk because he wanted to be able to look out the windows.

I might of thought this kind of nonsense would get Gibson and Mullane into trouble at NASA. It sounds like dereliction of duty to me. And you and I both know that doing the equivalent as a passenger on an airliner would get you arrested by the sky marshal and facing jail time. But apparently there were no repercussions for the astronauts. Mullane flew again into space aboard Atlantis and eventually retired to become a motivational speaker. And Hoot Gibson went on to two more shuttle flights and a post-NASA career as a Southwest Airlines pilot. At Southwest, he presumably insisted that all passengers, including those in the exit-row, actually sit in their seats during landing.

All in all, I appreciate what Mullane has done for the historical record by writing his candid book. But reading about Mullane's dubious service has tempered my sadness about the end of the Space Shuttle program. What's more, you know that Mullane is nowhere near to being on the leading edge of deviance in the astronaut corps. Obviously, you'll remember astronaut and convicted felon Lisa Nowak, who drove all night from Houston to Orlando to try to kidnap her romantic rival for the affection of philandering NASA astronaut William Oefelein.

At the end of the day, I am happy to give an increased role to adorable robots that look like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit.


This rover would never tamper with its medical records, and it looks like Ally Sheedy's friend. (Image: NASA/JPL)

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 14, 2011 at 05:51 PM in Books, Current Affairs, Science | Permalink


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Homosapiens v. Machines???

We may ask these questions ...

Why send humans into space? Why can't spacecrafts, loaded with electronic devices, find out all there is to know?

Well,... humans make judgements, asking meaningful questions and adapt to unexpected situations. Machines can only obey!!!

Posted by: Thana Krishnan | Jul 17, 2011 1:24:35 PM

I'm a big fan of the robots, too, but not so much how we've treated them:


Posted by: Matt | Jul 15, 2011 7:09:03 AM

nasa - shut entire nasa down - right now. complete waste of resouces. usefulness expired 30 years ago. anoth temp govt program that became permanent. hundreds of billions - with little to show.

Posted by: concernedcitizen | Jul 14, 2011 7:48:26 PM

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