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RUSSIANS ORBIT MOON! SPUTNIK CIRCLING EARTH!
That was the newspaper headline on October 4, 1957. I was 12 years old. That night, I stood in my front yard. My brothers and sister and parents were with me. Up and down the block, other families were in their yards, too. It was like Halloween. Everybody was out. Everybody was talking. Everybody was excited. Some people had brought radios into their yards and the voices coming from them were excited, too. The entire neighborhood, the entire city, in fact, the entire country was standing outside watching the birth of the space age. The Russian Sputnik, the first satellite, was flying over and we were all outside to watch it.
In Albuquerque it was cold and snapping clear with the cream of the Milky Way spilling across the sky. Shooting stars occasionally streaked through the black and brought "oooohs" and "ahhhhs" from the crowd.
Then, just as the newspaper had predicted, a tiny light appeared on the southwestern horizon and slowly, silently it glided over our heads. Voices were hushed by the sight. People stood in mute awe. Some cried. Some were frightened. Russia was our bitter Cold War enemy and Sputnik proved they were better than us. If they had missiles that could put satellites in orbit, it was feared they could also hurl hydrogen bombs to America. But I was too young to be afraid. I was excited. I wanted to fly where Sputnik was flying!
A month later Sputnik II carried a dog into orbit. Then, in January, 1958, America launched its first satellite. The country was wild with space fever! Everybody was infected: news people, politicians, teachers, scientists, moms and dads. Walt Disney produced TV programs about space travel. Songs were written about satellites. The Boy Scouts started a space merit badge. Toy companies started selling model kits for satellites and rockets. Schools had space days. Students went on space field trips to planetariums and museums. "Moon Watch" clubs were formed to observe the new satellites. I joined one of these clubs and spent hundreds of hours staring into space watching Sputniks, Explorers, Vanguards, Echoes, and Telstars. Those were just some of the satellite names.
It was during these exciting days that my imagination was captured by rocketry. I would stay glued to the TV watching launch after launch. In these early days, many rockets only went a few feet before blowing up in clouds of orange flame. But some worked beautifully, rising into the Florida sky on thunderous columns of fire.
I wanted to know everything about rockets. I went to the library and read about them. I bought books about them. In fact, I still have my favorite childhood rocket book: The Conquest of Space, by Willy Ley. More than any other book, I loved this one the best. It did much more than merely explain how rockets work. It had beautiful paintings that showed what it would be like in space and on other planets. At night I would fall asleep reading it and dream of being on the moon or Mars. In the morning I would risk being late for school by trying to read just a few more pages. The Conquest of Space taught me the power of books and the power of reading. No television, movie or video can ever fill your imagination like a book.
Besides reading about rockets and space travel, I also wrote to NASA for information. They sent me photos and fact sheets. I would look at these and then send them my suggestions on how they could make their rockets better. I even told them they could use my designs for free! I laugh, now, to think I told NASA I had better designs than they did. But I was so caught up in my dream of spaceflight I really believed I could do anything. I really believed I could design a better rocket than NASA. That's the great part of a dream. Dreams let you believe in yourself. Dreams let you do anything. Dreams let you be anything.
By 13 years old, I was a space geek. My classmates were in love with rock stars and cars. They had posters on their bedroom walls of Corvettes and T-Birds and Elvis Presley and the Beetles. But on my walls were posters of rockets: Atlases, Jupiters and Titans. I couldn't tell the difference between a Ford and a Chevy. I didn't know any pop songs. But I could tell you everything about NASA's rockets and satellites.
At this time in my youth there were no toy rockets like you can now buy in hobby stores. If you wanted to experiment, you had to build your own. Rocket clubs were organized for that purpose. Every school had one and I joined ours. Under the supervision of teachers, rocket designs and rocket fuel formulas were explained. Homemade rockets were soon being built and launched by kids all over the country. There were reports in the newspapers of some of these reaching altitudes of 30,000 feet! Some kids even talked about trying to orbit their own satellites!
Initially, I had adult supervision for my experiments. Then, like many kids, I learned how to get the chemicals to make rocket fuel by myself. I stopped going to the rocket club meetings and started doing my own experiments. Now, I can see how dangerous that was. My rockets got bigger and bigger, until they were taller than me. Instead of a few ounces of fuel they soon required ten or fifteen pounds of it. I would take them into the desert, light a fuse and run for cover. Sometimes, they would blow up and send steel pieces flying over my head, just like a bomb. Other times they would disappear in the sky and I never found them again. Only a miracle saved me from serious injury. My dream could have ended in blindness or burns or even death. As it was, many other children were injured and some were killed by their rocket experiments. Am I making this up? No. In fact, while I was an astronaut, I met a man who was blind and who had some fingers missing from his hands. He told me that when he was a child, one of his homemade rockets blew up in his face and caused the injuries. Always remember: never risk your health or life in an experiment of any kind! Injury and death will end your dream!
On April 12, 1961, another headline rocked America: RUSSIANS ORBIT MAN! His name was Yuri Gagarin and he became the first human to go into space.
America had already selected its first astronauts. They were called "The Mercury Seven" because there were seven of them and they would fly in the Mercury capsule. But none had yet flown in space when Gagarin was launched. America's rockets seemed to blow up every time they were launched, so they were still being tested. Also, they were less powerful than the Russian rockets and couldn't carry much weight into space.
I was 15 years old then, and because of America's puny rockets I dreamed that I would be the first American in space! That's crazy, isn't it? But I really did dream that NASA would find its Mercury Astronauts were too heavy for the rockets to lift, so they would have to pick some skinny kid to go instead. I dreamed they would pick me! I even stopped drinking milk shakes for a month to stay skinny.
Of course, nobody from NASA ever knocked on my door and said, "Your rocket is ready, Mike". But it was still a wonderful dream. You should never be ashamed or afraid to dream of being anything. Dreams do come true.
The older I got, the more determined I became to be a pilot. I washed cars and mowed lawns to make money for flying lessons. After some instruction, at age 17, I had my first solo airplane flight. It's another memory of my dream that's as clear as a photograph.
When I lined up on the runway, my heart was thumping in my chest like a big drum. I pushed the throttle forward and the engine roared until the spinning propeller was invisible. Then, I released the brakes and watched the airspeed increase...20 knots...30...50...70 knots. I gently pulled the yoke backwards and the ground seemed to fall away from the plane. I was flying! For the first time in my life I was actually flying! I was a pilot! On that day, and many that followed, I flew over the New Mexican deserts and mountains and dreamed of the day I would be a jet fighter pilot doing the same thing.
In 1963, after graduating from high school, I went to West Point. West Point was a very strict school that trained me to be a military officer. It also challenged me to be the best that I could be. At first, that was very scary. Nobody had ever done that before. In grade school and high school nobody had really challenged me to do my absolute best. But West Point did. Bellowing seniors would tell me to run up a mountain or swim across a lake holding a rifle in my hands. In class I was given very difficult tests in every subject, everyday. Many, many times, I thought to myself, "I can't do this. I'm not good enough. I'm not smart enough. I'm not strong enough." But I discovered the most amazing thing. I could do them!
West Point dared me to be my best. It challenged me mentally and physically. At the time, I had no idea how important that was. But for a dream to come true, you have to know how good you are. Most young people never know, because nobody challenges them. Young people say to themselves, "I can't be a doctor or lawyer or teacher or astronaut. I can't go to college. I'm not smart enough." But you are! You really are much smarter and stronger than you think. To find out, dare yourself. Dare yourself to do better. Dare yourself to read more books, learn more words, do more math, do more than your teacher or parents ask of you. Dare yourself to follow a dream!
As my West Point graduation approached, I was very excited. I was going into the Air Force. Soon, I thought, I would be in pilot training. I would learn to fly supersonic jets! The sky wouldn't even be able to hold me. I would take my jet higher and faster than anyone had ever been before. My sonic booms would rattle windows as I climbed and dived all over the sky. Nobody would ever beat me when we practiced dog-fighting. I would go to Test Pilot School and learn to fly the fastest jets, like Chuck Yeager had done. I'd be a Top Gun. Finally, after many years of training, I would be ready to be an astronaut. What a wonderful, beautiful dream it was. I had my life planned. I knew exactly what I wanted.
Then, something terrible happened. A few days before graduation, my commander called me into his office. "Mike," he said. "I have the results of your physical exam for pilot training. You failed the vision test. The doctor says you need eye-glasses."
He didn't have to say anything else. I knew the rules. The Air Force would not let anybody be a pilot unless their vision was perfect. I needed glasses, so I could never be a jet fighter pilot. It was the end of the world for me. I went to my room and cried. My dream was over.
Imagine wanting something very, very much. Maybe it's a new bicycle or a baseball glove. Maybe it's a position on the school cheerleading squad or the lead role in the school play. Whatever it is, it's all that you can think about. Night and day you dream about having it. Maybe you work very hard to get it. Maybe you spend hours every day shooting baskets or practicing gymnastics to get on a team. You practice and work and study. It seems as if your whole life is at stake. Then, at the last minute, you're told that you can never have it. Maybe you're told somebody better than you got the position. Maybe you're told you can't be something because of a problem with your health. But, whatever the reason, you're told that your dream is over.
That's what it was like for me when I was told I could not be a pilot. There would be no jet fighters, no Test Pilot School, no Top Gun, no astronaut job. It seemed as if somebody had cut out my heart. I cried.
Now, though, I can see the important lesson this experience taught me. I learned you cannot always have what you want. Sometimes things happen that you cannot control. I had no control over my eyesight, so I couldn't be a pilot. I had to find another dream and follow it. That's what you have to do when something you can't control gets in the way of your dream. You need to quickly put your disappointment behind you. You need to find another dream and follow it.
I couldn't be a jet fighter pilot, but I could still fly in jets that had two seats. So that became my new dream. I would be the best fighter "backseater" in the Air Force. I trained to operate the radar and radios and electronic equipment in the rear cockpit of Air Force fighters. It wasn't the "star" position. The pilot had that. But it was still a very important job and I dared myself to do my best at it.
When I was 25, I went to Vietnam. I had to leave my wife and two babies and go to fight in a terrible war. We would fly very low and fast over the enemy and take pictures of his airfields and bridges so the bombers could attack them. Red tracers of machine gun fire and exploding shells would streak by my cockpit. When we flew at night the enemy couldn't see us, but it was even more dangerous. We had to fly in deep valleys at 600 miles per hour and depend upon our instruments and radar to keep from crashing into the mountains.
I was very scared in Vietnam and I learned another lesson. When I was a little boy, I used to "play" war with my friends and think it would be a lot of fun to shoot guns and drop bombs. But real wars are not fun. They're not like you see in the movies and on TV. Young people get killed in real wars and never return to see their families and children or their mothers and fathers. Many of my West Point classmates were killed or seriously injured. They lost legs and arms or were horribly burned or disfigured. War is very, very sad.
Something very important in space happened when I was in Vietnam. On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon! I listened to him say, "That's one small step for man...One giant leap for mankind." I watched the movies of him skipping in the moon dust and I wanted so badly to be an astronaut. But I knew that dream was dead. NASA would only select people who were test pilots and I could never be one of those because I wore eyeglasses.
After Vietnam, the Air Force sent me to England for 4 years. This was during the Cold War, when Russia was our enemy. We trained in our jets in case a real war should start. That never happened, but the training was dangerous and some more people were killed. It was another lesson that wars are very sad.
In 1974 I returned to America and went back to college to become an aeronautical engineer. If I couldn't be a pilot or an astronaut, I could still help to design and test the planes and rockets that the pilots and astronauts would fly. At this school, I once again dared myself to do my best. I graduated with honors.
Next, I went to Edwards Air Force Base in California for another special school that taught me how to test airplanes. You would love to go to this school! Imagine getting in the back seat of a supersonic jet and taking measurements while the pilot flies it as fast as it can go. It was awesome! And because of another self-dare, I again graduated from this school with honors.
One day, as I was getting out of my jet, a friend rushed up to tell me some incredible news. NASA had just announced they were going to select new astronauts to fly their latest rocket, the space shuttle. Some of these astronauts would be called Mission Specialists. They would do experiments and space walks and release satellites. What was so incredible about this? MISSION SPECIALISTS DIDN'T HAVE TO BE PILOTS! THEY COULD WEAR GLASSES! Imagine my joy at this news! It had been 10 years earlier that I had been told I could never be an astronaut because of my eyesight. Now, the dream was back! I had a chance!
But was I good enough to be an astronaut? Weren't astronauts like supermen? When they were kids, didn't they all get straight-A's in school and graduate number one in their college classes? Weren't they the smartest and bravest people on earth? The newspapers and magazines said they were.
I knew I wasn't the smartest or bravest person on earth. I didn't get straight-A's on my report cards. And I had been scared many times when I was flying. But I had always dared myself to be my best. Now, because of those dares, I had a very good record to mail to NASA.
But just think what could have happened. I could have given up 10 years earlier. Remember? I had been curled on my bed, crying, thinking my life was over. I could have quit daring myself. For 10 years, I could have done just enough to squeak by. But if I had, I would have lost this one chance to be an astronaut. You can never go wrong by doing your best.
I had a chance, but it seemed a very slim one. NASA was expecting over 10,000 applications for only 35 astronaut positions! How could I possibly be picked? There were just too many people.
But many months later I was amazed to be called to NASA for an interview. I sat at the end of a long table and old astronauts that had walked on the moon asked me questions. Did they ask math and science and aeronautical engineering questions? Did they ask me to name all the planets or explain how a rocket works? No. They wanted to know about me as a person. They wanted to know about my dream!
"Mr. Mullane", they said, "tell us about your childhood. How long have you wanted to be an astronaut?"
I told them the story of my dream, of wanting to be a pilot, of building rockets.
They also wanted to know if I could get along with other people. NASA is a giant team made up of men and women who are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and all types of other people. NASA wanted men and women who can be part of a team.
The interview lasted for 2 hours. Then, I was sent to doctors for a physical examination. NASA will only pick people as astronauts who are in good physical condition. Since I had never used tobacco or drugs or abused alcohol, my lungs and heart and the rest of my body were in perfect shape.
I went home to wait for NASA to call with their decision. It was November, 1977. Would I be selected as an astronaut? Would my dream come true? One week went by without a call. Two weeks. A month. It was a torture.
The Air Force moved me to Idaho and I waited for the call there. December passed and I was sure that NASA had not picked me.
Then, one cold, January morning the phone rang. It was NASA. They had selected me as one of the first Mission Specialist astronauts!
I cheered! I screamed my head off! I skipped around the room! It was like hitting a home run to win the World Series! It was like catching a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl! It was wonderful! Incredible! I WAS GOING TO BE AN ASTRONAUT!!!!!!!!!!
That night I walked into the Idaho desert and looked at the sky. It was cold and bright with stars. Satellites drifted silently over my head as dim specks of light. Someday soon, I thought, I will be up there with them.
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