Excerpt: Apollo Pilot

The following excerpt is from Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele edited by Francis French.

From Chapter 3: Astronaut Selection

Six of the thirty-four candidates were dropped on account of their physical exams at Brooks. The remaining twenty-eight in mid-August of 1963 received confidential instructions to come to Houston for interviews and technical exams. We all made our way as unobtrusively as possible to Houston where our arrival was treated with marked circumspection. Manned Spacecraft Center officials met us at the gate in the airport and furtively escorted us to waiting limousines that sped us downtown to the Rice Hotel, an elderly edifice striving desperately to preserve its elegance of years past. There we were handed over to other men who took us up a rear elevator directly to our rooms, where we discovered we had been registered under assumed names. I was Clyde Pepper from Corpus Christi. The whole affair seemed like a comic episode from a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Or like a scene from one of those dreadful old spy serials I used to see at the movies on Saturday afternoon when I was a kid.

The reason for this skulking about, we were told, was to keep the pesky news reporters from interfering with the interviews and generally mucking up the selection proceedings. Later I came to realize that the space agency held a curiously condescending and occasionally negative attitude toward newsmen. There seemed to be an unspoken and tacitly accepted policy that the public relations function should serve principally to project what the NASA chieftains believed was the proper image of esoteric infallibility. Informing the public, translating the bewildering complexities of space technology into the vernacular, was incidental. Operating under the aegis of Messrs. Kennedy and Johnson with the able and wholehearted support of a group of powerful legislators, the agency saw little need to deign to explain itself. “We would like to tell you what we are doing, but we’re too busy and you wouldn’t understand anyway.” The public, boggling at the profluence of spectacular feats in space, was too dazzled to want to comprehend the technicalities, too awed to criticize the rationale or to question the space program’s basic purpose….

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I had come to Houston with my brain crammed full of technical tidbits and data on aeronautics and spaceflight gleaned from textbooks and oracles of the trade like Aviation Week: Newton’s laws of motion, Kepler’s law of gravitation, theories and principles of airplane flight control and performance, gyroscopes, rocket engines, technical details of Gemini spacecraft, gyroscopic precession-impulse momentum theory, the gamut of astronautical topics—I was ready.

Our first formal gathering was relaxed and sociable, with Deke Slayton presiding in a low- key, off-the-cuff, shucks-fellers manner. Wally Schirra bounced in briefly to make a few jovial remarks that confused more than amused us. I was terribly impressed, as I’m sure were the other candidates. After this brief chummy welcome we began our written exams. I was disappointed at the questions—not at all what I expected, hardly concerned with all the vast amounts of technical material I had labored so arduously to assimilate. The test was rather general and subjective, and seemed more geared to trying our talents for self-expression and examining our attitudes than to measuring the breadth of our technical knowledge. Drat! All those colorful facts and figures, all those hours of cramming, gone to waste!

Our next function was to meet the selection board for personal interviews. At the appointed time I arrived promptly, dressed in a black suit with narrow lapels, a skinny dark tie, and a white shirt. You couldn’t get any more decorous, conservative, or nondescript than that, I figured. And nondescript attire was de rigueur for those who toiled in the space biz in the early sixties. And still is, for many. The style of dress of these men matched their mediocre style of living. Banal existence gave nice, formless counterpoint to the narrow brilliance of their mentalities.

I was ushered from the outer reception room to the inner sanctum. There, all in a row, sat five moguls of spaceflight. Al Shepard, who smirked sardonically and persistently pierced my skull with darts from his steely blue eyes. Jolly Wally Schirra, crackling with puns and good humor (puns and humor are not necessarily synonymous). Quiet, serious Mr. Slayton. John Glenn, the original Mr. Clean, genuinely a nice fellow despite disparagements uttered about him by some of his astronaut cohorts. And quizzical, inarticulate Warren North, chief of technical and training support for the astronauts. How did he get in here? I wondered.

We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. I sat down in a chair facing the tribunal. My nerves tingled, my heart raced, my mouth went dry. I was scared stiff, but tried to conceal terror with outward composure. My God, what mere mortal would presume to place himself in the presence of these Olympian giants?….

I returned to Albuquerque with mixed feelings of hope and futility. I’d been through all the screening processes, the tests, and the interviews, and when it was over the people at NASA said that they’d let me know. Well, naturally I was very eager to be accepted, but when about three months went by without hearing from them it seemed that perhaps they just didn’t want me.

Prospects dimmed as the weeks went by with no word from NASA. I had all but given up when one afternoon Deke Slayton phoned and said something casual like, “Donn, we have selected you to be an astronaut. Would you like to come down to Houston and join the group?”

I was stunned. This was it! Just like that. One simple phone call, and I was an astronaut. My God, I’m an astronaut! In an instant, it seemed, I had been propelled from nondescript anonymity to professional prominence. “Oh, sure, Deke, I’d like very much to come. Thank you. When do you want me?” I replied with forced nonchalance. My heart raced and I could scarcely contain the excitement, but it seemed important to appear cool.

“Be here next Wednesday. We’re going to announce it publicly on Thursday and present you gents to the press. Your plane ticket is in the mail. We’ll meet you at the airport. And listen, keep this under your hat. We don’t want it to leak out ’til we’re ready.”