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The City Journals

Space shuttle astronaut encourages students to reach for stars

Feb 14, 2017 10:25AM ● By Julie Slama

Retired astronaut Mike Mullane tells Bingham High students to challenge themselves, work hard and set lofty goals. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Retired astronaut Mike Mullane knows how to keep dreaming even when the odds are stacked against him.
The retired U.S. Army colonel recounted his life story to Bingham High science, engineering, math and technology students on Jan. 31. He outlined the path he took to become an astronaut and fly on three space missions on the shuttles Discovery and Atlantis before being inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame. He also is the author of “Countdown to Safety.”
“I wanted to be John Glenn,” he told students. “I was lucky. I grew up in the space race and knew exactly what I wanted to do at a young age. After high school, I was going to go to the Air Force, because back then, that was the path you needed to become an astronaut.”
However, Mullane didn’t get accepted to the Air Force Academy because of his poor vision. He was accepted to West Point as a third alternate.
“I didn’t get in the Air Force,” he said. “I didn’t earn a varsity (high school) letter. I didn’t date the homecoming queen. I only had one autograph in my yearbook and it said, ‘You missed Korea, but here’s hoping you make Vietnam.’ Things definitely weren’t going my way.”
Still, Mullane preserved. He attended West Point from 1963 to 1967.
“I was afraid of failure in high school,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten to be where I was without West Point.”
In 1967, knowing he couldn’t become a pilot or astronaut because of his poor eyesight, Mullane became a backseat test pilot. He also attended graduate school.
Eleven years later, NASA developed the mission specialists for non-pilots, and Mullane was among the first group selected.
“There are key reasons I was chosen,” he said. “For 10 years, I did my best at everything I did. I couldn’t see the future, but I knew what I was doing would help me and it would be important. And I was tenacious. If I failed at something, I didn’t quit. So, you don’t quit, but pursue your goal when you encounter speed bumps.”
Mullane was 39 years old when he flew.
“I was a little older than the average age of an astronaut,” he said. “The youngest ever was the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin at 25. If you had an intense training, you could be ready in two years, but in reality, it was six-and-one-half years for me, and I was training all that time.”
Mullane described how the space shuttle launches and how an average 200-pount man will feel like 50 pounds 4,000 miles above the earth because of free falling in space.
“Nothing weighs anything when you’re falling in space, so it’s not really weightlessness,” he said.
He shared how some astronauts get space sickness for undetermined reasons, how they eat dehydrated food and tortillas and how they sponge off rather than shower and use the bathroom. The highlight of the voyages was the views he had of Earth, he said.
“It wasn’t a ball or a globe view of Earth, but mostly a horizon,” he said. “I saw mostly water and ice, but the northern lights and the views at night looked beautiful.”
He told students to dream big.
“Don’t’ sell yourself short,” he said. “You have your own life, and don’t be afraid of failure. You can challenge yourself by setting lofty goals, and you’ll amaze yourself. Nobody can discriminate you by the color of your skin, your race, your sex, your religion. They can discriminate you against your education, so make sure school is No. 1. Education opens doors to your dreams.”
When asked, however, if he would have liked to live on the space station for one year versus his one-week missions, he laughed.
“No, I enjoy earth too much and miss showers,” he said.