From the Desk of Francis French: Finding Apollo

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele (January 2017) is the newest book in the popular series, Outward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight. Francis French is the director of education at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and the coauthor of Into That Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961–1965 (Nebraska, 2007). Below French discusses finding Donn Eisele’s story. 

It almost sounds too good to be true: an unpublished memoir written by an astronaut who piloted the very first Apollo flight, sitting in a pile of papers in his widow’s closet. And yet that’s exactly what I came across when I was looking through the many boxes of space memorabilia and lifetime memories at the home of Susie Eisele Black, the widow of Apollo 7 astronaut Donn Eisele.

Donn Eisele had always been an enigma to me and many others interested in NASA’s Apollo space program. He passed away in the 1980s, too early for me to have the opportunity to meet him. From what I had read about him, he was considered lighthearted, easygoing, and often so innocuous that he faded into the background of some of humankind’s greatest moments of exploration. I knew this could not be the full story, however, as he had also been in the center of two tumultuous and controversial events.

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The first was the Apollo 7 flight, the crew of which—by some accounts—had had unprecedented disagreements with Mission Control. I had read of testy radio exchanges and vows by mission planners that none of the crew would ever fly in space again. None of them did. I had also read about how Donn Eisele had, without wishing it, become the test case for how much astronauts would be allowed to veer away from their media image as all-American space heroes who lived the ultimate in stereotypically wholesome lives. Divorce, in that climate, was unthinkable. And yet Donn chose to divorce and to try and remain an astronaut. This easygoing man chose to pit himself against the unwritten rules his bosses had made very plain to him.

Donn later remarried and retired from NASA but died suddenly of a heart attack in 1987 while on business in Tokyo. Years later I met Donn’s widow, Susie Eisele Black, who granted me access to Donn’s papers and notes. When I came across a stack of typewritten, translucent onionskin sheets in a closet, I found many of the answers to my questions. Written not long after he had left NASA, these words represented a man with a new mission—he wanted to tell his story and explain what had happened to him. He was unsparing in some of his criticisms of his managers. He also told, in beautiful detail, what it was like to journey into space on the first flight of the Apollo spacecraft, the vehicle that would take humans all the way to the moon on the very next mission. He was immensely proud of what he had accomplished. However, he did not live long enough to add more to his memoirs. With Susie’s permission, I began turning Donn’s writings into a manuscript.

Once I had carefully edited the numerous drafts into one, Susie Eisele Black read it and told me that it was as if her late husband was still alive, speaking directly to her. I hope this is a sensation every reader feels as they experience this long-overlooked memoir, vividly telling us all what it was like to journey into space aboard an Apollo, with all its glory and frustrations. Dry technical reports could never capture the feeling of being in the heart of the space program; for all of the program’s engineering triumphs, this is a very human story.