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of the SPACE SHUTTLE
Growing up as an astronaut’s daughter
By Laura Ann Mullane
logo on it. I’m in Cape Canaveral for a family vacation that happens to coincide with a space shuttle launch. Lift-off is scheduled in a few days, and I know without asking
walk into the apartment parking lot on a sweltering July afternoon in east central Florida. There I see a large bus with the NASA
that the families of the astronauts are staying at the apartment block too, and that the bus will take the family to watch the launch. The thought of it makes my stomach sink back against my spine and a wave of nausea roll up to my throat. Although it has been 20 years since I’ve been the one boarding that bus to go watch the shuttle
ferry my father into space three separate times, I might as well be a teenager again. All of a sudden I can feel the fatigue from the sleepless nights and early mornings. I can feel my dry throat and the nerves that tangled my stomach. All of a sudden, it is once again my father who will ride a plume of smoke and fire into outer space.
When I was seven years old, my father, Mike Mullane, was selected to be an astronaut. It was 1978 and NASA had just announced the beginning of a new space programme: the space shuttle
the bus with my mother, brother and sister, joining the other families. As we drove, the June sky turned pink and the marshlands that lined the road tried to shrug off the thick haze that had settled on them overnight. The roads were lined with the parked cars and beach chairs of spectators who had camped out overnight to witness the launch. Many cheered as we passed. American flags flew from car antennas. Our bus bypassed the traffic and was waved through security checkpoints. All of it made me feel for a moment like a celebrity. Of course, I wasn’t. No one knew who I was. No one even knew who my dad was. Astronauts had long lost the celebrity status they enjoyed during the early years of the space programme and the moon landings. The star of this show was the space shuttle itself. We were all just props. This was the second time we’d made the drive. The day before, the launch had been scrubbed at 20 minutes to lift-off because of a mechanical problem. This day, we all tried to keep our optimism in check, but still the bus vibrated with the same excitement and anxiety of a busload of children on the first day of school. Once we arrived at the space centre, we were taken to the launch director’s office on the top floor of the Launch Control Centre. A wall of windows looked out onto the launch pad three miles away. We waited there and listened to the drone of the countdown play over speakers. At nine minutes to lift off, we were escorted down a hall
It’s hard to describe the feeling of waiting to watch a person you love about to blast-off into space.
— a reusable orbiter that would be used to launch satellites and conduct research and, ultimately, help construct and supply the International Space Station. They needed astronauts and put out the call for applicants. My father, who was 33, had spent his career in the US Air Force flying in the backseat of fighter jets. He had dreamt of flying in space since he saw the dot of light that was Sputnik arc across the sky as a young boy. So when NASA announced that it was accepting applications, he submitted his and held his breath. When he was selected, I was too young to realise what this career change meant. To me, it was just another move (as the daughter of a military officer, I was used to moving a lot), this time to Houston, Texas, where NASA was headquartered. Although my father was an astronaut in name beginning in 1978, his first trip on the space shuttle didn’t come until six years later, when I was 13. I was old enough to know his new job meant more than a cross-country move. It was the 12th shuttle mission and the first flight of the orbiter Discovery. The NASA bus picked us up at the condominium in the pre-dawn hours to drive us to Kennedy Space Center. I boarded
and up steps to the roof of the building, from which we would watch the launch. Nine minutes had never taken so long. I stood with my arms locked through my mother’s, who was practically shaking. It’s hard to describe the feeling of waiting to watch a person you love about to blast-off into space. First, there’s the sheer, unadulterated excitement of witnessing an event that feels larger than life itself. The shuttle, even from three miles away, loomed over everything, dwarfing the landscape around it. Vapours swirled at its base. On the roof, speakers amplified the countdown, which echoed between the buildings. You sensed that something big was about to happen, something that couldn’t be contained, that didn’t subscribe to the laws of the universe. But in addition to the excitement, there’s a paralysing fear. I wasn’t fully aware of this at the age of 13, when mortality was still abstract and death seemed like something that happened to other people. I didn’t worry that my dad would be killed on the shuttle mission, even though my father had told us repeatedly about the dangers. Strapping oneself to the equivalent of a bomb and being catapulted to a place with no atmosphere was a risky proposition. Still, I didn’t believe that anything bad would happen to him — not on a conscious level. But on a subconscious one, I was terrified. It’s what had kept me up the night before the launch, pulling me into the bathroom with
dry heaves that brought tears to my eyes. It’s what made me now hold onto my mom’s arm so tightly that she had to say, “Laura, honey, you’re hurting me.” It’s what made me sometimes imagine a future without my father, with whom I would swim and hike and stare up at the stars. My father, who would bring home flowers for my mom and chocolates for my brother, sister and me. This was the man I might lose forever. The countdown continued. Less than one minute to lift-off. Things were happening quickly now. The announcer ticked off the status of systems and the passing seconds in quick succession. He’s really going, I thought. This is really happening. The final countdown: “T minus 10, nine, eight — we have a go for main engine start — seven, six, five — we have main engine start…” A slight rumbling. Smoke billowed at the bottom of the orbiter. He’s really going. He’s really going. But then, nothing. Four seconds to lift off and the engines shut down. “We have a cut off,” the announcer said. “We have an abort by the onboard computers.” I looked at my mother and then at the rest of the people on the roof— the other families and a handful of NASA brass and other astronauts. Everyone was staring in disbelief. “What happened?” I asked my mom. “I don’t know.” A loud boom rumbled across the distance. What was it? An explosion? No, the shuttle was still there. It was just the sound from the initial main engine start finally reaching us. My mom and sister broke down crying. My brother strained
The shuttle carried family friends, including Judy Resnik, who had flown with my father on Discovery. It also carried the fathers of several of my high school classmates, one of whom was in my year. We had mutual friends but I didn’t know her beyond that. After her father’s funeral and her return to school, I would avert my eyes when I would pass her in the hallway. Every time I would see her I was reminded that I got to go home after school and eat dinner with my dad. I was reminded that my father would see me graduate from high school and college and eventually marry and have children. Her father never would. How could we possibly live in a world that was so unfair? Our fathers took the exact same risks, yet mine survived and hers didn’t. It was an unbearably painful awakening for a 15-yearold girl — this realisation that death is random and heartache is delivered with no regard for logic. It also came with the awareness that my father would risk death again. He didn’t quit the shuttle programme after Challenger. In fact, he would fly again twice. I never wanted him to quit, nor did my mom or brother or sister. We all knew flying was in his blood. He could abandon his desire to fly no more than a racehorse could abandon its desire to run. It was the essence of who he was. Yet each time, I stood on that roof wondering if I’d see my father again. Today, my father is 65 and an accomplished author. He no longer flies, instead sating his ambition by climbing mountains. He often says he would never believe he flew in
space if he didn’t have the pictures to prove it — the memories seem so distant and impossible. I know how he feels. I, too, look back on those years in disbelief. My dad joined NASA when I was seven and left when I was 19 after his third shuttle mission. Virtually every one of my formative years was spent in the
He could abandon his desire to fly no more than a racehorse could abandon its desire to run.
shadow of the space shuttle. Yet when people ask me what it was like to grow up as the daughter of an astronaut, I never know what to say. It was both amazing and terrifying. But mostly, it was just my childhood. It was the only reality I knew. As I near 40, I’m just beginning to understand how my dad’s career shaped me. It’s only now that I’ve realised how rare that singular focus is in most people. I was raised by a man who knew from an early age what he wanted to be and was able to become that. That is what makes my upbringing unique: not the fact that my father flew into space, but that he was able to achieve his dream. I wonder now what paths my childrens’ lives will take. Will they have the same ambition that defined my father? I don’t know. But I do know whatever they do, they can look up to the stars and know nothing is out of reach.
Laura Ann Mullane is a writer who lives in northern New Mexico. She is co-author of God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of ,Transformation. Her father, Mike Mullane .is author of the memoir Riding Rockets
I wouldn’t see my fatner fly into space that day. It would be two more months and more sleepless nights before I would once again stand on the roof with my family and squeeze my mom’s arm and hold my breath until the I heard the words, “We have lift-off,” boom across the loudspeakers. I would feel the ground shake and hear to hear what the announcer was saying over the loudspeaker. I just stood there — at a complete loss of what to make of everything that was happening. The fact was, I didn’t know. No one did. Even my dad sitting in the cockpit didn’t know. The computers had sensed a problem and shut down the engines. It wasn’t until later that we learnt about the fire on the launch pad, how my father and the other astronauts had sat for a few terrifying seconds while they wondered whether their rocket would explode. All I knew was that the deafening roar that rattled my chest, and I would watch the shuttle rise past the tower dragging its fire behind it. The shuttle Discovery would carry my father into space and bring him home safely again — just as I’d always expected. I didn’t know then that coming home safely wasn’t a foregone conclusion. A year and a half later — as my dad trained for another mission — the shuttle Challenger would begin its ascent into space, only to be ripped apart when it exploded 73 seconds after lift-off.
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