Poking Fun

Among Astronauts, there was friendly competition and joking around. Those of us who didn’t come from the military had to learn what this was all about, so we could understand it—and sometimes join in.  

It might have sounded like “harassment” but it was all in fun.

Pilots who joined the Astronaut Corps had either been fighter pilots or attack pilots. The job of fighter pilots had been to engage enemy fighter pilots. They protected the troops on the ground and carriers at sea.

Fighter jet

Attack jet

Then, there were attack pilots.  

They dropped bombs on targets like ground troops, trains, bridges, and enemy carriers at sea. The guys (all the Astronauts were male when I arrived with the Class of 1978) referred to themselves as Fighter Pukes or Attack Pukes (heaven knows where that term came from…). Whatever type of “Puke” you were, you made fun of the appearance of the other kind’s jet.  

Cute guy with his jet

In those jets, there were pilots who did the flying, and then there were the “back seaters” who handled the navigation, communication, and targeting. Whether they were in the front seat or the back, attack or fighter, they loved their airplanes. Often, they were personalized with their names and never would be forgotten. They were their workspaces; they knew everything about them, and their jets brought them safely home. (See my friend Mike Mullane’s heartfelt blog about a “reunion” with one he flew.)

The people in the aircraft were Navy, Air Force or Marines. The Air Force pilots almost always had long runways to land on. Navy and Marine pilots could land on runways but most importantly on the pitching, short decks of aircraft carriers. And if they were at sea and not close to land, and they couldn’t manage to land on the carrier, they had to crash into the sea. Needless to say, the Navy guys argued they were the superior pilots.

Navy carrier pilots were assigned to the East Coast where they might be sent to the Mediterranean with all the beauty of art and architecture of Europe…and very little fighting. Or they’d be sent to the West Coast to spend time being scantily clad beach volleyball players in San Diego before being “assigned” to Vietnam where a little war was happening. Which would you choose?

A very short runway

(Spoiler alert: my future husband was a West Coast Navy fighter pilot…)

When the Mission Specialists (MSs) like me arrived in the Class of 1978, we were new fodder for their harassment. MSs were pit against these flyboys. The MSs said the pilots were just “bus drivers.” One of the pilots, whose name shall remain anonymous (hint, hint), called the MSs “talking ballast.” There was always the question of who had the more important job in space: getting the Shuttle to orbit, keeping it there, and guiding it home; or deploying the satellites and telescopes, doing the physics, life sciences, astronomy, geology experiments, and the spacewalks.

Okay…okay, it obviously took both, but the ribbing continued.

Mission Specialists never developed the swagger of the pilots, but we were all part of a team on missions we cared deeply about. Everyone took the joking and harassment in stride and we were always looking for the perfect come back.

Did you catch the link to my friend Mike’s blog post? Mike Mullane provides another perspective on the astronaut experience that I think you all would enjoy. Find it here!

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  1. “Fighter pilots make movies, Attack pilots make history” – heard at an A-6 Intruder Memorial dedication at the Museum of Fight, Seattle, WA. I am in the “talking ballast” category, but I describe it as “self-loading baggage” or inquire if the pilot needs a “semi-professional map folder” on their next flight.
    Please let us know the next time you (and your husband) are in the Pacific NW!

  2. Thank you Rhea for showing us Mikes reunion with his former plane. Very interesting and informative.

  3. A similar good-natured rivalry happened among us aerospace engineering students.

    “You design aircraft? Well, that’s pretty ordinary. ANYONE can ride aboard. OUR stuff is for people who make history. Besides, air is a nuisance you have to deal with until you get to the exciting part… SPACE!”

    “You design rockets? Everything you do piggybacks on all the research WE have done. Without us, you couln’t even get to the launch site.”


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