DREAM MAKERS by Astronaut Richard ‘Mike’ Mullane, Copyright 2018 by Richard Mike Mullane, all rights reserved. Author of Riding Rockets, The outrageous tales of a space shuttle astronaut. Autographed copies of Riding Rockets can be ordered from the Online Store on this website. (Photos which are not the author’s are courtesy of NASA.)
‘That’s two hours of my life I won’t get back.’
It was 1977 and that’s what I was thinking after watching the movie ‘Close Encounters of a Third Kind’. I like my aliens bursting out of an astronaut’s chest (Alien) or vaporizing mankind with heat rays (War of the Worlds). I couldn’t warm up to the benign, childlike aliens that Steven Spielberg gave us in Close Encounters. Not a single tentacle anywhere.
No, I wasn’t a fan of the movie….with one big exception. I could identify strongly with the all-consuming passion of Richard Dreyfuss and company to make their rendezvous with the Mother Ship. Very early in my life, I was similarly infected with a raging life-purpose; a laser-focused destination. But it wasn’t Devils Tower. It was space itself.
My dream of spaceflight was launched along with Russia’s Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Remarkably, a few years later I documented my destiny in a report on my high school science fair project. That project chronicled my experiments on how rockets might one day parachute back to earth from space. I have to laugh, now, at the very scientific sounding title I had given my project, ‘Development of Biological Rocketsonde’. I had no clue what a ‘rocketsonde’ was, but I had seen the name in a NASA publication and plagiarized it for its ‘coolness’ factor. It certainly sounds better than the title the actual experiments would have warranted: ‘Calculating the Mortality Rate of Desert Ants and Lizards Launched in empty tin Vegetable Cans atop Pipe Bomb Rockets.’ If that’s a ‘biological rocketsonde’, then I nailed it!
But it’s the first two sentences of my report (see attached photo) to which I want to draw your attention. (And, remember, I wrote these words in 1960.):
“Today, this country and many others throughout the World are steadily working toward the conquest of space. Someday, I also plan to participate in this great undertaking.”
I was 14 years old when I wrote those words and they clearly reveal that ever-so-brief window in life where the garden of dreams is in full bloom and all things are possible to us…just because we say they are. But the bloom of my dream did not wither in the harsh blaze of adult reality, as so often occurs. Twenty-five years after writing those sentences, I was floating in the cockpit of the space shuttle Discovery, orbiting 300 miles above the earth. By any human’s definition, I made my rendezvous. I lived my dream.
How did it happen? The reasons are numerous enough to fill a book…and do. My memoir, Riding Rockets, takes the reader on my journey from youth into orbit. But if you forced me to pick the most significant factor at work in my life which brought me to dream fulfillment, it was the early and unqualified support of my parents. More than anything else, that’s why I am now a veteran of three space shuttle missions. My parents were Dream Makers.
At age ten, my 33-year-old father was crippled for life with polio and medically discharged from the US Air Force. Facing a limited-options life, my parents moved with their five children (a sixth would be born a couple years later) from Hawaii, where we had been stationed, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mom and dad had no family or roots in that city, but it fulfilled the requirements for my dad’s future life in a wheelchair: fair weather, good white-collar employment opportunities for a handicapped man, Catholic schools, a one-driving-day proximity to my mom’s parents in Wichita Falls, Texas and a Veterans Administration hospital, which my dad would need as he continued his rehabilitation.
Fortunately for me, Albuquerque also had dark skies. At least it did where we lived, on the very edge of the city. Just taking a few steps into the adjacent desert put me in a planetarium. This proved immensely important, in that I was able to participate in the early space program to a much greater degree than might have been possible elsewhere. I was in that desert, under those dark skies, watching Sputnik, Explorer, Echo and other early satellites twinkle across the evening sky.
The space race was on and there was no more enthusiastic participant than Mike Mullane. I sent suggestions to NASA on how to build better rockets; requested photos (NASA was always quick to fill those requests); and proposed that a skinny teen boy would be a better choice for an astronaut since he didn’t weigh as much as an adult pilot. I included my return address, wanting it to be easy for the Agency to reach me when the engineers finally realized the wisdom of that suggestion.
At twelve years of age, I knew precisely what I wanted to be…an astronaut…and set off on my own rocket development program. It had to be my own, because there were no hobby store cardboard/balsawood rocket models in those years.
Looking back on it, my rockets were hardly more than pipe-bombs with fins and my parents should have been more circumspect in letting me conduct my experiments. I was very fortunate not to have lost my eyes, hands ,or even my life, in the course of those experiments. Some kids did. But my parents can be excused by the fact I was attending monthly meetings of one of the numerous rocket clubs which had organized in the early days of the space race. Getting kids interested in rocket engineering was a national priority. Sputnik had proved that America was being left behind when it came to advanced technology.
Later in life, I asked my mom how she and dad could have let me play around with steel-tubes packed with homemade rocket fuel. “I thought you knew what you were doing from those rocket clubs you belonged to,” was her reply. ‘Since when does any teenage boy know what he’s doing?’, was my thought.
As it was, my parents were unbounded facilitators. They bought me rocket books and chemistry sets and a Sears telescope. They drove me to machine shops to get nozzles lathed and fins welded onto steel tubing. When I needed specialty chemicals for my fuel, my dad was ready to take me to find it. And again, he was there to drive me and my creations into the desert. He would get out of the car, lock his leg braces and take photos of my launches and whoop and cheer regardless if the launch was a success or a shrapnel-producing flop. Not once did my parents ever utter a single discouraging word toward my passion for all things associated with spaceflight.
My rocket club instructor had said the solid propellant fuel we were mixing had its own oxidizer, just like NASA’s solid-fueled rockets. It was the oxidizer that allowed those rockets to function in the vacuum of space, he said. I wondered…and decided to conduct my own experiment at home. I mixed up a golf-ball size of fuel, put it on the blade of a shovel, lit it on fire and then dropped it into my Dad’s swimming pool. I was certain it would immediately extinguish, and I would triumphantly contradict the instructor at the next rocket club meeting. Only, it didn’t go out. It burned with a white-hot intensity, all the way to the bottom of the pool. There it rested, like a small supernova, burning a permanent black spot into the pristine white of the pool plaster. I suspect if I had made it bigger, it would have burned into the mantel of the earth itself.
That experiment earned me the only discouraging word I ever heard…my dad’s favorite testicular epithet, “Balls!” He added that I should consult with him before anymore pool-based experiments.
Yes, in all ways my parents were Dream Makers…fully supportive of my dream, even to the point of my dad going head-to-head with the Dean of my High School to defend it.
On May 5, 1961 I was up early with my dad to watch Alan Shepard attempt to become America’s first astronaut to fly into space. Multiple delays pushed the launch time deeper into the school-day morning. My dad took my back, “You can be late to school, Mike. I’ll write a note for you. I know this is important to you and I don’t want you to miss it.”
After Shepard launched into history, my dad wrote an explanatory note and I departed for school. When I gave the note to Fr. Cushing, the Dean of Boys, he was not sympathetic. He penned his own note and handed it to me to show my teachers on Monday, “Mike’s absence on Friday was unexcused and he will receive zero’s as the daily grade for the classes he missed.”
When I returned home from school that afternoon, I showed the note to my dad. His reaction? It was almost as if the voice of God had boomed from the heavens and commanded him to rise and walk. His rage nearly put him on his feet. It didn’t help that the school had recently dismissed the student body early to watch one of the school teams compete in a regional playoff. The Dean’s obvious disinterest in the remarkable space history that had just unfolded was an affront that my dad had to address.
He enlisted me to help him into his hand-controlled car and drive with him to the school. There, like General Patton on a tank charging into the German lines, he blasted himself into the Dean’s office screaming, “What do you mean by this goddamned note!? My son was home watching history in the making! He will NOT be receiving any zeros for the classes he missed!” As a New York City Irishman, my Dad had a colorful way of expressing his displeasure. Fr. Cushing, fearing he was only moments away from having wheelchair tread-marks running up the length of his broken and crushed body, had a sudden epiphany. “Perhaps, Mr. Mullane, I was a little hasty with that note. Of course, Mike won’t be downgraded for his absence.”
Later, as a veteran astronaut, I ran into Fr. Cushing. He was saying the Sunday Mass I was attending while visiting my mom in Albuquerque. I made certain to go up to him afterwards to say hello. I wanted to see him squirm in discomfort. I didn’t have to bring up that quarter-century old, dream-squelching incident of his note. I could read the memory in his eyes.
At every turn my parents were there for my dream and it’s a debt which is impossible to repay.
I tell this story to draw a contrast to an incident that occurred not too long after I retired from NASA. I was invited into the home of a neighbor who took me on a tour of his recent remodeling work. Turning into one bedroom, I was struck by numerous plastic model aircraft hanging on fishing line from the ceiling. Except for the fact these plane models were of 1990 designs, it was a tableau from my youth, when I had various plastic models of WWII designs hanging from my bedroom ceiling. I commented, “Somebody loves jet aircraft.”
“It’s my son’s room. He’s really into planes.”
I answered, “You might want to encourage him to apply to the Air Force and Naval Academies. He might be able to get a pilot training slot.”
I’ve said the same thing to other parents who have volunteered that their son or daughter was really into airplanes and/or the space program. To that moment their universal response has been one of enthusiasm to pass on my advice to their child. Not this time. I was shocked by the father’s reply. “I will never let my son join the military. I was in the military for a couple years and hated it.”
I wanted to say, ‘Shame on you. Your son’s life isn’t yours to live. It’s his.’ Of course, I remained mute. But I was saddened. His son wasn’t blessed with what I had…a Dream Maker father.
There’s a lesson here for parents and everybody else who mentors our youth. It is an exceedingly rare thing for a young child to be consumed with an unwavering sense of purpose in their life. None of my five siblings were similarly blessed. I only saw it in a minuscule population of my high school peers. Only one of my three children displayed it. So, when we see it in a child, we should do our best to encourage it, even if it means supporting a dream we can’t identify with…or even oppose. In that regard, I offer my own parental experience.
Like me, my youngest daughter, Laura, had manifest an early and passionate life purpose…one with which I could not identify. Imagine a West Point graduate/USAF aircrew member/combat veteran/aeronautical engineer/astronaut-father’s reaction to news their daughter intends to go to college and major in….wait for it…
…theater! Yeah. Not a pretty picture. It’s the same picture that comes to mind of a surgeon learning their child wants to major in surgical malpractice law or the image of a Baptist pastor hearing their son or daughter intends to organize a Wicca coven.
In my youngest daughter’s case, I knew the statistics. The odds were very long to make it into the big-leagues as an actress. A degree in theater would most likely be a degree in waiting tables. What was she thinking!? But I didn’t fail her. When I was watching one of my rockets soar into the New Mexico sky, what odds would bookmakers have given that child would someday ride a rocket into space? Those odds would have been very long indeed. Who was I to discourage my daughter’s own long-odds dream? So, with a superhuman effort (and I MEAN superhuman), I was the Dream Maker parent to my daughter that my parents had been to me. I enthusiastically supported her.
And how did it ultimately play out? After eighteen months in the DePaul drama department, she concluded she would never succeed as an actress, switched to political science and secured a degree from the University of New Mexico. Later, she wrote a book nominated for a Pulitzer Prize (did not win) and is now employed in the communications office of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. She is happy and imminently fulfilled. I like to think I did my duty as a father to contribute to that fulfillment.
Yes, I’m very sympathetic with any parent who has been confronted with a child’s dream as alien to them as was my daughter’s to me…and, apparently, as my neighbor’s son’s dream was to him. I get it. We have all been brutalized by life’s realities and we want to protect our children from those realities. And certainly we should be honest with them and pass along what we have learned about life’s various paths, including the fact the odds are stacked heavily against children pursuing some dreams, including dreams of being a professional sports player, actor, rap star, ballet solo dancer at the Met (my granddaughter’s dream)…or astronaut. But those odds shouldn’t be made longer by parents, teachers, or other influencers who are openly dismissive or otherwise naysayers.
It’s particularly tough as a parent to lend support to some dreams (like those involving military service) that pose a threat to our child’s life. My neighbor’s comments did not imply such danger was the source of his negativism when I suggested his son consider military aviation. But I’ve heard other parents reflect that worry when their children have expressed a dream of a career in uniform…be it military, firefighting, law enforcement, or other similarly dangerous occupations.
My parents were faced with that aspect of my dream for, in its infancy, they knew it included military service (in my childhood all astronauts were military test pilots). And they knew military service always included the possibility of combat service. As my mom and dad were laying track for my dream, I’m sure they were hearing the drums of war from Southeast Asia and worrying when they would beat for me.
They finally did…when I was 23 years old. On my last night at home, before leaving for Vietnam, I said my goodbyes to my mom and dad. They understood the importance of granting Donna and me the privacy to say our final goodbye at the airport the next morning. I would later learn, however, my mom had come to the airport and watched from around a corner as I boarded the plane. She told me, “I could never have lived with myself, if you had been killed over there and I hadn’t watched you to the last moment.” My mom understood the dangers that came to military aircrewmen. She had kissed her husband off to war waged from a cockpit. (My dad was a flight-engineer/top-gunner in a B-17 flying in the Pacific Theater of WWII). Even in the peacetime Air Force that followed, mom and dad had grieved the loss of friends killed in military plane crashes. The uniforms of some dreams…military, police, etc…come with a target on them.
Being a Dream Maker takes immense courage on several different fronts and rarely, if ever, are we parents, or other mentoring adults, recognized for that courage. Even the cowardly lion got a medal of courage from the Wizard of Oz….to the cheers of the masses, no less. Where’s the Oz for us? Where are the cheering masses? Don’t hold your breath. But I hope this blog goes a little way toward rectifying that anonymity.
To all you Dream Makers out there…please accept my virtual high-five and shout-out for a job well done!
POST SCRIPT: My astronaut classmate, Dr. Rhea Seddon, sent me the following email about this post. She granted me permission to post it here. It offers another testimonial to the power we parents and mentors have to fuel the dreams of our children. I’ve included my reply to her.
‘Awesome, Mike! I wonder how many Astronauts stories parallel yours and mine. My father took me out in our backyard to watch Sputnik fly over. He told me I was watching the beginning of a new era- the Space Age. I’m not sure I ever brought up the possibility of flying in space with him again until I planned to apply but he never discouraged me from any occupation I said I wanted to pursue. When I decided to go into medicine he gave me practical information about the various fields. He was a lawyer & served on the hospital board & pulled strings for me to work in the OR during college summers. Yep- I was fortunate to have a Dream Maker for a father! I always tell fathers with daughters how important they are in their girls lives! Rhea’
My reply: Rhea, There’s an extra layer of heroism in your story. When you were watching Sputnik, your gender disqualified you from stepping into any military or NASA cockpit. Whereas, it never crossed my mind that I had any obstacles in front of me. As I say in the Blog…all things were possible to me, just because I believed that. You could not have had the same feeling in 1957. All things were NOT possible to you by virtue of gender. That’s sad. I’m glad things have changed!
After posting this Blog I received a message from a reader with this story on pursuing a dream, which I’m posting here (edited for brevity). It is a cautionary tale, particularly for young people contemplating leaving a dream behind to accommodate the wishes of others. “My dream was to be a cop, but the girl to which I was engaged was fearful of the risks involved in such an occupation. So, I became a teacher. But our relationship ultimately failed. When I then applied to be a cop, there was a hiring freeze. By the time that freeze ended, I was a year too old.”
DREAM MAKERS by Astronaut Richard ‘Mike’ Mullane, Copyright 2018 by Richard Mike Mullane, all rights reserved. Author of Riding Rockets, The outrageous tales of a space shuttle astronaut. Autographed copies of Riding Rockets can be ordered from the Online Store on this website.
To my readers: I would like to recommend the Blog that my astronaut classmate and great friend, Dr. Rhea Seddon, publishes. She provides another perspective on the astronaut experience which many readers of my blog would enjoy. Here’s the link: