Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut - Mike Mullane (2006)

Chapter 23. Astronaut Wings

I was drunk on joy and beer. We were headed back to Houston on the NASA Gulfstream jet with our wives. A cooler of beer had been placed aboard and I was doing my best to ensure it was empty by the time we got to Ellington Field. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t stop talking. I was giddy and silly and, oh, so happy. I was the bride on her wedding day, the child on Christmas morning. Periodically I would sit with Donna and try to describe the things I had seen, but as soon as I would get started on one memory, another would pop up and I’d be off on its telling. I never finished a sentence. I would leap to my feet and pace the aisle. I was incoherent with joy. I was now areal astronaut. I was alive astronaut. The latter fact was something I had never really expected. Subconsciously, I don’t think I ever believed I would survive this mission and now that I had, I was wild to celebrate life. I was the soldier back from combat. I had walked the narrow precipice of death and had not fallen.

The others stared at me like I was nuts, which of course I was. In one insane moment I bet everybody I could drop a can of beer and catch it before it hit the floor. I was past the bulletproof stage of intoxication and had entered the weightless stage. The results were predictable. I ended on my hands and knees chasing the foaming, rolling can while the others laughed at my floor show. I didn’t care that I was making a fool of myself. There was nothing anybody could have done or said to diminish my celebration.

A crowd of family, friends, and NASA employees greeted us at Ellington Field. Some of the family members and office secretaries had fashioned welcome-home signs. I saw my three children in the front row wearing huge smiles of pride and relief. We wouldn’t get any NYC ticker-tape parades but this was better. The people behind the ropes were NASA family. They had put me into space. I loved them all and given a chance I would have kissed each and every one.

A microphone was provided so we could say a few words of thanks. Stepping forward for my turn, I tripped on my own feet. It wasn’t because of my intoxication…or at least, not entirely. My sense of equilibrium had been affected by weightlessness. It was a common, short-term aftereffect of spaceflight. I have no idea what I said, but it didn’t generate any groans of embarrassment from my compatriots behind me, so I guess I did okay.

The ceremony ended and we walked into the crowd. Someone shoved another beer into my hand. I hugged my kids. Amy, my sensitive child, was full of tears. Pat and Laura were smiling. Only my death would have pulled tears from them. I worried the press might find me. I could see their vans and knew they were somewhere in the crowd. The last thing I wanted was to have a camera in my face. That would have been sure to dampen my fun. But I need not have worried—nobody was interested in male astronauts when Judy was around. She looked stunning. We had all showered at Edwards and donned fresh flight suits, and Judy had applied lipstick and a little makeup. She was holding the spray of roses given to her at Edwards. Unlike her predecessor, she had graciously accepted them. At that moment she was everything to everybody, the feminine feminist. The press was all over her. Fortunately, her hair was so big the shank she had lost in orbit wasn’t noticeable enough to generate questions.

Gradually the celebration dissolved and Donna and I drove home with the kids to get on with the rest of our lives. That night, as we lay in bed, I joked with Donna about the flight surgeon’s warning to purge my sperm.

She laughed. “That’s so romantic, Mike.”

“But the doc says it’s mutant, radioactive!” The doctors were serious about such purges for men still in the procreating mode, the fear being that some of our swimmers could have been damaged by space radiation. In one of the Monday meetings, after hearing the warning repeated, one TFNG had shouted, “Give me a break. I’m purging as fast as I can!” Our baby-making days were over, so Donna knew the flight surgeon’s comment didn’t apply to me. Nevertheless, we followed the doctor’s orders, celebrating as lovers do.

Afterward, we held each other and I was finally calm enough to describe some of the things I had seen. I told her of sunrises and sunsets that would make every future Earth rainbow I ever witnessed a disappointment. I told her of oceans that seemed infinite, of lightning and shooting stars, of a blue-and-white planet set in abysmal black. And I told her I wanted to do it all over again. There were other TFNGs already in line for a second flight. Some were doing spacewalks. Some were operating the robot arm. Some were flying high-inclination orbits where they would get to see all of the United States and most of the inhabited earth. Vandenberg AFB in California was being modified to launch shuttles into polar orbits. Some lucky TFNGs would be on those flights. My just completed mission of whirring around the Earth in a near equatorial orbit and throwing a few toggle switches to release a couple communication satellites seemed ho-hum compared with what was on the horizon. I was discovering what every other TFNG was learning: There were gradations in the title “astronaut” and we all wanted to be on top of the scale. As neophytes we had seen a flight into space,any flight into space, as total fulfillment of our life quests. But as we moved into the ranks of veterans, our hypercompetitive personalities created a TFNG hierarchy. For pilots, the command of a rendezvous mission was the most desired prize. For MSes, the A-list astronauts were those who flew the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) on tetherless spacewalks. Very close behind were MSes who did traditional tethered spacewalks. The next tier down were MSes who used the robot arm to grab free-flying satellites. At the bottom of the pile were those sorry souls doing actual science in the bowels of a Spacelab. While many of the scientist MSes really enjoyed Spacelab, most of the military MSes wanted nothing to do with it. Piloting an MMU or operating a robot arm had a lot more sex appeal and generated a lot more personal fulfillment than watching a volt meter on some university professor’s experiment. The Untouchables of our strange caste system were those MSes engaged in the Spacelab missions dedicated to life sciences. They collected blood and urine and butchered mice and changed shit filters for primates (and I don’t mean the marines). I lit candles at Donna’s home shrine to carry my prayer to heaven that I would never be assigned to a Spacelab mission.

As I recounted for Donna the incredible experience of spaceflight and expressed my intention to do it all over again, I was sure she was disappointed. I was sure she would have much preferred a “rest of our lives” scenario that had me returning to the air force for a staff position somewhere in space command that might lead to a star on my shoulders. I was sure her preferred scenario did not include the selection of another potential escort into widowhood, another good-bye walk on the beach house sands, and another T-9 minute vigil on the roof of the LCC. But she would have died before she would have ever put her feelings first—it was the Catholic in her. In her high school marriage course lesson plan is this statement: “The happiness of the woman is found in dependence on her husband. She’s happiest when she is making others happy. Selfishness is the greatest curse to a woman’s nature.” Through her childhood the nuns had browbeaten her to believe that her feelings didn’t count, that her lot was to mourn and weep in the “vale of tears” called life. Personal happiness? Fuhgeddaboutit. Her existence was to be one of sacrifice; sacrifice for her husband and sacrifice for her children. Her reward would come in the next life. No, Donna would never ask me to leave NASA. Her Catholicism had given me a free pass to pursue my own fulfillment.

Before we had even gotten our Earth legs back the Zoo Crew was in the JSC photo lab editing our mission videos and compiling a movie to take on the road to show the world. No longer would I have to interpret what others had done before me. I had loathed that ritual—going to the luncheons of America and prefacing my comments with, “I haven’t flown in space yet, but those who have say…” It was like a minor league baseball player getting onstage and saying, “I’ve never played in theShow, but those who have say….” Now I had my own space story and movie to support it.

In the rented ballroom of a local country club, a few weeks after our landing, Mike, Judy, Steve, and I climbed onstage to accept the coin of the realm from Hank—a gold astronaut pin. None of us cared that we had previously handed over a check for $400 to pay for the pins.

We began our postflight appearances. One of my first was to Albuquerque, where I was given the keys to the city. My flight had not conferred any celebrity. There were no cheering throngs at city hall, just the mayor’s staff, my mom and dad, and a handful of other family and friends. But at least I was introduced by my own name. I had attended an earlier event where Steve Hawley had been introduced by the NASA administrator as “Sally Ride’s husband.” Talk about living in a cold shadow. Hawley’s marriage to Sally had put him on the far side of the moon. When officials in his hometown of Salina, Kansas, told Steve they were putting a sign on a nearby highway proclaiming his astronaut status, Steve had joked with us, “It’ll probably say, ‘Hometown-in-law of Sally Ride.’” Judy, too, had to walk in Sally’s shadow. At several appearances she was referred to as Sally Ride. So I was happy to be “Mike Mullane” at my Albuquerque homecoming instead of “an astronaut who flew in space with the husband of Sally Ride.”

It was a few hours after the Albuquerque ceremony that my grandmother, who had flown from her Texas home to participate in the festivities, died quietly while napping at my parents’ house. Margaret Pettigrew had been born on a Minnesota farm in 1897, six years before the Wright brothers had flown an airplane. In her early childhood, the horse had been the primary mode of transportation. At age eighty-seven she had stood on a Florida beach and watched her grandson ride a rocket into space. Incredible.

Accompanied by our wives, NASA flew us to Washington, D.C., for a glad-handing event with members of Congress. Our crew assembled in a reception line while congressmen and senators passed by, shaking our hands and offering their congratulations. I wondered if Ted Kennedy would appear. If he did, I was certain Hank would blow a brain vein, but the senator from Massachusetts was a no-show.

The reception provided another opportunity for me to observe the pull of Judy’s flight-suited beauty. It was Jovian. During a break in the greetings Steve whispered in my ear, “Watch their eyes as they shake my hand.” I was confused by his comment, but only until the next senator passed. As the politician pumped Steve’s hand, his head was turned and he was smiling directly at Judy. Steve was invisible. I watched several times and every man did the same thing; focused on Judy while handshaking with Steve. Steve could have greeted each of them with “Kiss my ass, Senator,” and they would not have heard. They had come into the gravitational pull of Judy’s beauty and were deaf and blind to the males next to her. Judy handled it with her usual aplomb, being equally gracious to the old lechers as well as the young ones. Of course, every politician wanted a photo next to her. I watched as one deftly folded his cigarette and highball behind his palms and out of view while the photographer snapped a shot. As quick as the flash faded, the cigarette and drink reappeared. He could have gotten a job as a Vegas illusionist.

On this same trip, Mike and Diane Coats and Donna and I, along with Admiral Dick Truly and a handful of other senior NASA officials, traveled to the Pentagon for Mike’s and my astronaut wings ceremonies. The gold astronaut pin was a NASA tradition. The military recognized their astronauts in a separate ceremony with the pinning of aviator wings bearing the astronaut shooting star on the center shield. Every military astronaut considered the award of astronaut wings to be the highlight of their careers. Mike and I were no exception. We had dreamed of this day as ensign and second lieutenant. For me, the ceremony would hold even greater significance. I would become the rarest of USAF weapon systems operators (guys in back of fighters). I would be the first WSO astronaut. It was a very small first, to be sure, but I was looking forward to hearing the USAF acknowledge it.

Diane and Donna were just as thrilled as Mike and I. It was their payday for a lifetime of sacrifice for their man’s career, for the terror of the T-9 minute walk to the LCC roof. They would be recognized and toasted for their contributions and bravery. They wore new dresses and shoes and had perfect hair and makeup. I hadn’t seen Donna look more radiant and more expectant since she had walked down the aisle in her wedding gown. She loved the pomp and circumstance of formal military events, as our astronaut wing pinnings promised to be.

Our first visit was to the chief of naval operations for Mike’s ceremony. As we approached the CNO’s office we were greeted by the CNO himself, Admiral James D. Watkins, beaming with almost fatherly pride and stepping forward to heartily shake Mike’s hand and hug Diane. Behind him waited a gauntlet of lesser admirals. They were dressed in whites, their epaulets dripping in gold braid, their chests festooned with ribbons and gold wings. It was as if every flag officer in the U.S. Navy had come to congratulate Mike. Each of them smiled broadly and rendered Mike and Diane a deference becoming royalty. Donna and I and the rest of the NASA entourage greeted the CNO and then melted to the sides of the room to let the spotlight focus on Mike and Diane. We’d have our fifteen minutes of fame in a moment.

While waiting I looked at the CNO’s wall art. There were gold-gilded paintings of Old Ironsides firing a broadside into an enemy ship, of dogfighting Japanese Zeros and Corsairs, of battleships pounding an enemy atoll. The art complemented the statement the CNO was making with the party, that the U.S. Navy was a service of unmatched history and glory, and new astronaut Mike Coats was the latest addition to that history.

White-gloved stewards orbited the gathering and served finger sandwiches and pastries from silver platters. I looked at Donna. She was in heaven. This was pomp and circumstance beyond anything she had expected and she knew she was up next.

The CNO began the pinning ceremony with comments on the importance of space to U.S. Navy operations. He highlighted the fact that one of our STS-41D communication satellites was a navy fleet UHF relay. He thanked Mike for laying his life on the line for the navy and thanked Diane for her years of wifely support. He then invited Diane to do the astronaut wing-pinning. In word and deed he made her feel that Mike’s new wings were as much her award as they were his. The CNO then led his throng of admirals in loud applause. The entire program had been first-class from start to finish.

We all bid our thanks and departed for the office of the vice chief of staff of the air force, General Larry D. Welch. For some reason the chief himself was unavailable but we didn’t care; we were certain the number-two man in the U.S. Air Force would take good care of us. Donna was biting at the bit to get there. The gleam in her eye said it all. She was anticipating the identical “Queen for a Day” treatment she had just seen rendered to Diane. So were we all.

Our first indication that things were to be a little different on the air force side of the Pentagon occurred as we neared the office. No generals awaited us. Instead, a lowly captain rose from his desk, welcomed us, and then said, “Please wait here. I’ll see if the general can see you.” I felt Donna tense at my side. If there was any pomp and circumstance around, it was well hidden. I whispered, “Maybe the party is set up in a different room.”

She replied tersely, “I hope so.” I was beginning to have a very bad feeling.

The captain emerged from the vice chief’s office. “The general is now ready to see you.”

Jesus,I thought,this has more the air of a court-martial than an awards celebration. I could hear Donna’s molars grinding in her rising anger. The rest of our entourage exchanged wondering looks. The contrast to the manner of welcome given Mike and Diane at the CNO’s office could not have been greater.

Our group entered the vice chief’s office and my worst fears were realized. It was just him, General Larry Welch, and his aide. There was no celebratory cake—no celebratory anything. Even the room seemed cheap compared with the CNO’s office.

I presented the general with a framed photo of the launch of STS-41D and tried to inject some levity into what was unfolding as a severe embarrassment for our group. I joked, “General, the only way the space shuttle could look better was if it hadUSAF emblazoned on the wings.”

The general didn’t find the comment the least bit amusing. Instead, he launched into a discussion on the air force budget and how important it was for money to be spent on the development of a new cargo airlifter, not on a new air force–manned space program. I wanted to scream, “It was a joke, general!”

The rest of the ceremony—if it could be called that—was quick. The general pinned the wings on my uniform, shook my hand, and posed for a photo. He made no comment about the fact I was the first nonpilot air force officer ever to fly in space. Then the aide hustled us out of the office so the general could get back to work on those airlifters. I had never been more embarrassed for my service. USN Admiral Truly had seen the debacle. Mike and Diane had seen it all. The NASA officials with us had seen it. The navy treated theirs like royalty; the air force treated Donna and me like an interruption. I wanted to crawl under a rock.

I held Donna’s arm as we walked from the office, and I could feel her trembling in rage. She had received no acknowledgment from General Welch. This was supposed to have been the highlight of my career, and, by proxy, her life. She had put me in that rocket. To do it, she had buried friends, and consoled widows, and kissed her husband off to war, and endured four shuttle countdowns including one engine-start abort. As we exited the office, Donna cursed under her breath. It was a mark of her extreme outrage: I was the foul mouth of the family—Donna never swore. The aide was close enough to hear the word, but I doubted he had any idea as to the reason for the outburst. I knew the general was clueless about how close he had come to feeling the wrath of a woman scorned. His obliviousness reminded me of something an air force pilot had once said in Vietnam, “We’ve all seen tracers coming at us and think that’s the closest we’ve come to death. In reality, some gomer in a rice paddy has probably fired an old single-shot rifle at us and the bullet passed within a foot of our heads and we never knew.” As a combat veteran, I’m sure General Welch had his “I was this close to death” stories, but in reality the closest he ever came to death was by the hands of my wife in his Pentagon office, not in the skies of Vietnam.

The manner in which I had been treated cleared up one source of wonder for me. Over the years, I could not understand why the air force hadn’t done something about Abbey’s preferential treatment of the navy astronauts. The next three missions to follow STS-41D were all to be commanded by navy pilots. On one of those, navy captain Bob Crippen would be flying his third mission as a shuttle commander before his peer, USAF colonel Karol Bobko, would fly his first. Why didn’t the USAF see this as I and the other air force astronauts did—a slap in the face of the air force? Now I had my answer. The shuttle program and its air force astronaut corps were invisible to the top leadership in the U.S. Air Force. We were interruptions to more pressing business. When I got back to JSC, I spread the depressing word to others within the air force community. “Don’t expect help from the Pentagon. We’re on our own,” was my message. Abbey could do whatever he wanted with us and there would be no outrage from our leaders. We were a forgotten squadron.