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Retired astronaut pulls no punches

Astronaut Mike Mullane has flown on the shuttle three times and would go again in a heartbeat, but he says the ship is the most dangerous spacecraft humans have ever ridden.
Astronaut Mike Mullane listens to emergency egress instructions during a briefing held at NASA's Johnson Space Center in advance of his 1990 shuttle mission.
Astronaut Mike Mullane listens to emergency egress instructions during a briefing held at NASA's Johnson Space Center in advance of his 1990 shuttle mission.NASA
/ Source: Reuters

Astronaut Mike Mullane has flown on the shuttle three times and would go again in a heartbeat, but in a new memoir he calls the ship the most dangerous spacecraft humans have ever ridden.

NASA’s bureaucracy helped make it that way, he said, by discouraging questions about safety and other matters. Astronauts deserve some share of responsibility, too, Mullane said in a Reuters interview about his book “Riding Rockets,” published this month.

“It’s the most dangerous manned spacecraft ever flown, by anybody,” said 60-year-old Mullane, who retired from NASA in 1990. “And I say that because it has no powered-flight escape system. ... Basically the bailout system we have on the shuttle is the same bailout system a B-17 bomber pilot had in World War II.”

A powered-flight escape system that would have blasted shuttle astronauts from the doomed craft might have saved the Challenger crew when that shuttle exploded seconds after launch on Jan. 28, 1986, Mullane said.

But it probably would not have been able to keep the Columbia crew alive as their ship disintegrated on re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003. These two disasters claimed 14 lives.

“That was the true tragedy of Challenger: Nothing was learned. Columbia was a repeat of Challenger, where people had a known design problem” and launched anyway, Mullane said.

Can Buck Rogers buck bureaucracy?
Despite the book’s rollicking tone and self-deprecating humor, Mullane has a serious point to make: that astronauts with a competitive urge and a compulsion to fly hesitated to raise questions because they thought bucking NASA’s bureaucracy would keep them from getting into orbit.

“I survived as we all survived: I kept my mouth shut, I endured. ... You walk in terrified of doing anything that might jeopardize your one chance to get to space,” he said. “It’s not like other jobs, where if you get frustrated you can go in to your boss and say, ‘Take this job and shove it!’ You can’t do that at NASA, because there’s no other place to go fly shuttles.”

Columbia accident investigators called this reluctance to make waves a “broken safety culture” at the U.S. space agency.

Mullane agreed, even though he was part of it, as a member of the astronaut class of 1978, the first to ride the shuttle.

“We were bitterly angry and disgusted with our management,” Mullane wrote of astronauts’ attitudes after the Challenger accident. “In our criticisms, we ignored our own mad thirst for flight. ... Only janitors and cafeteria workers at NASA were blameless in the deaths of the Challenger seven.”

Risque rocketman
Mullane’s own thirst for spaceflight began in childhood and continued through his selection as an astronaut. Since his retirement, he has written children’s books about space and works as a motivational speaker.

The autobiographical book opens with a vivid account of his drive to be the best applicant for the corps, down to his preparation for a proctological exam.

“Yes, I was going to give this astronaut selection my best shot,” Mullane wrote. “I was determined when the NASA proctologist looked up my ass, he would see pipes so dazzling he would ask the nurse to get his sunglasses.”

Further humiliations lay ahead, like the time Mullane tried on a NASA-issued condom — used for urine collection in weightlessness — and watched the too-large sheath drop off and fall to the floor.

“I’ll have you know I’ve fathered three children with this!” is what Mullane wanted to shout to the condom-fitting technician but didn’t. A complaint might have derailed his selection as an astronaut.

Chosen as a shuttle mission specialist, Mullane flew three missions, logging 356 hours aboard Discovery and Atlantis.

Few flights for fleet
The shuttle never lived up to its billing as a reliable space workhorse, and the fleet has been grounded since the Columbia crash, except for one shakedown flight to the international space station last summer.

Even then, the same problem that plagued Columbia — falling foam insulation that struck the orbiter on launch — recurred, prompting more troubleshooting. The next shuttle launch is tentatively set for May.

Mullane acknowledged that the shuttle’s ability to lift heavy loads into orbit made such marvels as the space station and the Hubble Space Telescope possible.

The three remaining shuttles are supposed to retire in 2010 after completing construction on the orbiting space station, which has been operating with a skeleton crew of two since the Columbia accident.

A replacement for the shuttles is being designed. One version would look a lot like the big stacked rockets that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon, a design Mullane agreed could work, so long as there is a powered-flight escape system.

And yes, he would go again if he could. But he acknowledged that he would not be essential to any shuttle mission now, and for that reason, he should not be on the flight.