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Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele


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In October 1968 Donn Eisele flew with fellow astronauts Walt Cunningham and Wally Schirra into Earth orbit in Apollo 7. The first manned mission in the Apollo program and the first manned flight after a fire during a launch pad test killed three astronauts in early 1967, Apollo 7 helped restart NASA’s manned-spaceflight program.

Known to many as a goofy, lighthearted prankster, Eisele worked his way from the U.S. Naval Academy to test pilot school and then into the select ranks of America’s prestigious astronaut corps. He was originally on the crew of Apollo 1 before being replaced due to injury. After that crew died in a horrific fire, Eisele was on the crew selected to return Americans to space. Despite the success of Apollo 7, Eisele never flew in space again, as divorce and a testy crew commander led to the three astronauts being labeled as troublemakers.
Unbeknownst to everyone, after his retirement as a technical assistant for manned spaceflight at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1972, Eisele wrote in detail about his years in the air force and his time in the Apollo program. Long after his death, Francis French discovered Eisele’s unpublished memoir, and Susie Eisele Black (Donn’s widow) allowed French access to her late husband’s NASA files and personal effects. Readers can now experience an Apollo story they assumed would never be written as well as the story behind its discovery.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803299528
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 01/01/2017
Series: Outward Odyssey: A People's History of Spaceflight
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 192
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Donn Eisele (1930–87) flew the Apollo 7 spacecraft in 1968 and served as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 10 moon mission. After retiring from the air force and the space program, he became director of the U.S. Peace Corps in Thailand. 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). Susie Eisele Black (1939–2014) was the widow of astronaut Donn Eisele. 

Read an Excerpt

Apollo Pilot

The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

By Donn Eisele, Francis French


Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9952-8


Launch Morning

The sun rose high over blue Florida waters on a bright October morning. Palm trees swayed and fluttered in the brisk ocean breeze. Launch day was clear, bright, cloudless and windy.

There was a lot of wildlife around the Cape. On the beach and in the palmetto marshes of the Cape, I knew all the creatures were beginning to stir. I imagined toads sleeping under a rock at the foot of a water tower, dreaming of flies, mosquitoes, and whatever else hungry toads like to eat. In nearby ponds and canals, alligators would be raising their long pointed snouts out of the water, giving a contented alligator grunt and crawling onto the banks. The warm sun would feel good on their green leathery backs, and they would be switching their tails lazily back and forth. Crabs would be peeking out of their beach houses — holes in the sand — and looking about for a tasty breakfast morsel.

I don't know if it was cool out there or not. I couldn't tell with that big lumpy pressure suit on. Fact is, it was too windy: straight off the ocean at twenty-plus knots. Eighteen knots was our safe limit, based on the need for the spacecraft to land in the water in case of a low altitude or launch pad abort. An impact on dry land could have caused severe injury to us. With the onshore wind like that and a low altitude abort, we could have landed over on Merritt Island someplace and got hurt.

There wasn't any excuse, really. The management was supposed to remain objective and make rational, unemotional judgments in the interest of mission success and crew safety. I remember one time some years before I got on a flight crew when I was expressing to Apollo program manager Joe Shea my dismay over the miserly amount of attitude control propellant spelled out in the Apollo design. He said to me, "Donn, you just worry about getting ready to fly and let us worry about the spacecraft design. We'll take care of you. Don't worry." He took care of us, all right. Ask Gus, Roger, and Ed of the Apollo 1 crew. Oops, sorry, they're not around anymore. Sorry about that test, fellows. But we had to go, go, go, to meet the launch schedule. And by the way, after Shea left we got an increase of 60 percent in the attitude fuel for all but the first spacecraft.

Meanwhile, back to launch day. Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and I got up, got a fast physical, then had a great breakfast of steak and eggs. There were several visitors and guests there in the dining room that morning. Funny, I can't even remember who they were. George Low, I guess, and Kenny Kleinknecht, and John Healey, and maybe George Mueller or Sam Phillips. There were three or four photographers snapping away at us. Maybe it was only one guy, I don't know, but it seemed like more. I read the morning paper until it was time to go. I wonder if old Walt still carries a newspaper around with him everywhere? He'd never go anyplace without that damn paper tucked under his arm.

We went to the suit room to suit up. Everyone was "up" for the occasion and in good spirits, but one of the medical technicians was nervous as hell. A few days before, Wally had really chewed his ass because one of Walt's sensor leads was too long. It was really a trivial matter, and Walt didn't really care that much, and anyway it wasn't the tech's fault. He had nothing to do with the harness design. But then, you know Wally. Always the prima donna. He had a hard-on for the medics, too. I guess we all did to some extent. If you didn't offer some resistance to them, they'd have draped us from head to toe with sensors, leads, signal conditioners, and pins in our scalps.

We got our suits on and checked out with time to spare. At the appointed minute, we left the suit room and walked to the elevator. The corridor was packed with secretaries, technicians, and other workers in the building. I remember the festive mood; hundreds of people turned out to see us leave the operations building. They were lined up along the hallways and the walkway to the transfer van, cheering and waving and wishing us well. Smiling, they shouted encouragement and good luck. It was a very happy occasion, and a touching one for the three of us.

We got off the elevator at ground level and found the same reception on our stroll to the transfer van, which was to take us out to Pad 34 for launch. There were people all along the driveway, in the parking lot, and along the main road in front of the Mission Support Building.

We all piled into the van. There were the three of us plus our boss, Deke Slayton, and three suit technicians, the driver, and the security officer. Wally, Walt, and I were all cooped up in our suits and carried our own portable oxygen packs. There was a communications system in the van that we could plug into so we could all talk with each other. I remember telling Deke to take care of things on the beach for us. Deke responded with an ill-at-ease smile. The suit techs, the driver, and the security officer were listening to our conversation. Deke was nervous about anyone outside of our group knowing or hearing about our little romantic goings-on in Cocoa Beach.

The van had big windows in it. As we approached the causeway, I could see out across the broad flat stretch of Banana River water and grasslands to the launch pad. There stood that beautiful white rocket, spewing white fumes of oxygen boil-off. When we got to the gate, Deke got off and went into the blockhouse. Then the van took us to the elevator at the base of the gantry. It was eerie and desolate out there. Normally when we went out to the pad there were a lot of people. Launch day was different.

Wally and Walt went up first with their suit techs, because the little passageway you had to cross to get to the spacecraft wasn't big enough for all of us. I had about ten minutes to kill until someone came down so I could go up.

I got out of the van to get a good look at our rocket. It was spectacular. There I stood in my lumpy white suit with the clear bubble helmet, lugging my portable oxygen supply, staring straight up at the monster. I walked around the base of the rocket, looking up at it like a country boy getting his first view of a big city skyscraper. Of course I had seen it before, but not like this — the rocket glistening in the bright morning sun, the launch pad deserted, liquid oxygen boiling off white vapors — I felt awed, dwarfed by this huge vehicle and the awareness that soon it would carry me to orbit. I remember thinking, "It's like launching the Washington Monument." A numbing experience — but it was good to know that after all these months and years of preparation we were finally going to launch this beauty.

When the ten minutes expired, my suit tech, Keith, and I went up the elevator. At the top we had to cross a thirty-foot catwalk on the access arm to get to the white room that enclosed the spacecraft hatch. The gantry swayed noticeably in the twenty-knot breeze, and the access arm, cantilevered out from it, felt pretty flimsy as it lurched and vibrated. Our favorite pad leader, Guenter Wendt, was in charge inside the white room and had the whole operation well under control.

It didn't take long to get me strapped in. Then they closed and locked the hatch. We checked the latches on the inside. Guenter and his crew began disassembling the white room. Just before they left, Guenter took one last look at us through the hatch window. I gave him a thumbs-up. He smiled and waved, then disappeared. A few minutes later the white room and access arm moved back away from the spacecraft. Guenter was the last person I saw before liftoff and that was the last time I ever saw him. Ironic, in a way.

We had nearly two hours to wait before liftoff. It seemed like an eternity. We had a few things to do during some of the pre-launch checks, but mostly it was just lying there on our backs waiting for the time to run out.

The sun beat down on the concrete launch pad and warmed the backs of the weary men who had worked there all through the night. Now they were rushing to finish up the last-minute chores before scurrying off in their cars and trucks. Towering above the launch pad stood our giant Saturn rocket, gleaming white in the bright sun and spouting white clouds of vapor. At the top of the rocket, we lay tucked away inside our spacecraft, waiting quietly while the last few minutes until liftoff ticked away.

This was it. The moment I had been waiting for through days, months, years of preparation. I found myself thinking: Donn Eisele, air force pilot, member of the Apollo space program, astronaut, you are about to rocket into space on the first Apollo mission. I looked at the panel of instruments in front of me and at my crewmates. Wally Schirra on my left and Walt Cunningham on my right, all three of us strapped tightly to our seats and lying flat on our backs. We were relaxed and confident as we awaited the final minutes of the countdown. I thought about the procedures during launch, my duties in orbit, about all the things I'd be doing in space for the next eleven days. And sometimes when there was a lull in the count my mind wandered off to other things, like the ancient Greeks and their stories of Daedalus who flew on wings of wax and feathers, and his son Icarus who fell into the sea when he flew too close to the sun and his wings melted.

Even in those ancient times men dreamed of flying, yet were fearful of it. I recalled Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, those comic strips that I never read as a boy because they seemed too far-fetched, too preposterous. But this wasn't a comic strip happening — this flight I was about to make was real. No make-believe adventure, no wax-and-feathers fantasy. This was the first Apollo shot, the spaceship that would eventually go to the moon. And because it was real, and here and now, it was far more exciting, more fantastic than anything I ever saw in the Sunday comics.

"Apollo 7, do you read?" crackled a voice in our earphones.

"We read you loud and clear," answered Wally. "The crew is 'go' for launch."

"TEN, NINE, EIGHT ...," boomed a heavy voice counting down the last seconds to launch. "... THREE, TWO, ONE ..."



I find myself thinking back, trying to remember where it all began. But who can ever pinpoint exact beginnings? I can remember, at the age of two or three, running outside — or getting someone to take me out whenever a plane flew overhead. I guess I was always fascinated by airplanes, and was there ever a time when I didn't want to be a pilot? Certainly through all my years at school, back home in Columbus, Ohio, I knew that was what I would like to do.

When I graduated from high school I enrolled in the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and out of the Academy I went right into air force pilot training. I flew jet fighters for several years, then returned to college to study astronautics — the science of spaceflight. The studies were interesting and so was my duty afterward, in technical work. But I yearned to fly again. I missed the whine and smell and roar of jet engines. The wheeling, soaring freedom of high flight, turning and weaving, playing tag with great towering pillars of boiling white clouds. The solid feel of g-forces in a tight turn or pullout from a dive. So I returned to the cockpit, this time as a test pilot, to blend flying with my training as an engineer.

In 1962 Charlie Bassett, Ted Freeman, and I were in test pilot school together. There were sixteen in the class, and in proper military fashion we arranged ourselves in alphabetical order. It happened that Charlie sat directly in front of me, and Ted sat immediately to my right. It also happened that the three of us were the top three students in the class, and were the three who wound up later going to NASA as astronauts — but not before a false start or two.

About halfway through the course, in April or May, NASA announced a second round of astronaut selections — the so-called Gemini astronauts. One of the qualifications was that applicants had to be practicing test pilots or have graduated from a test pilot school. Charlie, Ted, and I tried to apply, reasoning that we would have completed the course by the time final selections were made. But we reckoned without the Edwards Air Force Base Astronaut Screening Board — or whatever title it went by (there may not have been a board as such, but in effect there was) — which decreed that we were ineligible on account of not having graduated yet from test pilot school and until we had, presumably and theoretically there was always the chance we wouldn't. High-handed snobbery of the most callous sort, we thought. We were all doing well and there were no doubts of our completing the program with honors — barring some calamity that might wipe us out of flying altogether.

The pre-screening of astronaut applicants at Edwards by the local honchos was required by neither the air force nor NASA. The principal reason, we were told, was to assure that all applicants were fully qualified, so that none would bounce back from air force headquarters and thus make Edwards look bad. The real reason was to ensure as far as possible that the chosen fair-haired few would have the least competition and therefore the best chance of being passed on to NASA by air force headquarters.

As it turned out, that's about what happened. Of the nine men finally selected by NASA, four were air force, of which three came from Edwards: Jim McDivitt, Frank Borman, and Tom Stafford. McDivitt and Borman were among the heavy favorites. (Curiously, the other darlings of the Edwards ruling clique didn't get past air force screening.) Stafford was an instructor at the test pilot school at the time, a post not necessarily high on the Edwards pecking order, compared to flying the more exotic aircraft like the X-15, the U-2, or the latest jet fighter prototype. When Tom first got wind of the screening ploys, he raced over to wing headquarters and raised enough hell with the colonels on the senior staff to get assurances that his application would be forwarded with no qualifications or adverse commentary.

Stafford had a point. He had stood first in his class at test pilot school and had been instrumental, in his instructor role, in revamping and streamlining the course material and instructing methods. He was one of the most skillful pilots at the test center, and Edwards management would have been hard pressed to defend anything less than full approval of his application for astronaut training.

For Eisele, Bassett, and Freeman, the story was different. Our applications hit a stone wall at Edwards and bounced back in our faces with curt insinuations that we were categorically unfit for the exalted role of astronaut — a prejudicial and unwarranted assumption, we felt, since the space agency presumably knew better than anyone else who was fit and who wasn't.

Charlie Bassett, ever the nice guy and non-wave-maker, dropped out at that point. But not boat-rocker Freeman and bullhead Eisele. We fired our applications directly to the NASA space center in Houston. We expected to get our wrists slapped, but at least NASA would know we existed even if they couldn't pick us (unlikely without air force sanction). And next time, if there ever were a next time, we might have a better chance. But nothing much happened. Several weeks later Ted and I got a polite brush-off letter from Warren North at the Houston center thanking us for our interest but stating they couldn't process our applications since they didn't come through channels — and better luck next time.

I dismissed my chances. It had been about three years between the selection of the first and second astronaut groups, and I figured I'd be too old by the time NASA got around to a third. I guessed they would start reducing the upper age limit, going for younger candidates.

We finished our test pilot training in August. Charlie Bassett walked off with all the marbles, standing first overall and in academics as well. Ted Freeman was second and I ran a close third. In the scramble for assignments, I secured a billet as a fighter test pilot at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But I was told to plan on staying at Edwards another six or eight months to attend the first class of the new Space Research Pilots program. Later this course was incorporated into the regular training curriculum but at first it was separate, and made a big deal of.

Charlie and Ted emerged among the handpicked dozen or so primary candidates as I slipped to alternate status. I felt like the proverbial butterfingered bridesmaid. There was scant chance I'd get to attend the course, but I was constrained to hang around Edwards for two or three months on the off chance that some of the primary guys would flunk their physicals or otherwise get shot down.

Meanwhile, my juicy flying job at Kirtland Air Base in Albuquerque got shaky. I started getting calls from other bases: El Centro in the Imperial Valley near Mexico, to fly cargo planes for parachute drop tests; Eglin, in Florida, to work on jungle warfare in old propeller-driven trainers; and other places to do a variety of jobs, some of them not even flying assignments. Finally I flew to Washington and managed to shake loose the orders sending me to Kirtland. The space pilot course began with all the primary selectees in attendance, and I left immediately for New Mexico with my family. Just before we left Edwards, Buck Buchanan, the officer in charge of the space pilot school, told me another course would start in about six months and he felt sure I could make it if I applied. I told him if I were all that hot a prospect he should have put me in the first class while I was still there at Edwards instead of dragging in a bunch of other guys from all over the country while I hung by my thumbs to see whether they would all make it, then send me elsewhere only to drag me back six months later. I was beginning to feel like a yo-yo on a string. He said I had a point, but air force headquarters had gotten into the act of selecting candidates and he didn't have control of it. I never did find out if that was true, but his story sounded like a cop-out to me. At that point it didn't matter anymore, since I had had my fill of formal training and was eager to get on with my first assignment as a test pilot.


Excerpted from Apollo Pilot by Donn Eisele, Francis French. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Foreword by Francis French,
1. Launch Morning,
2. Beginnings,
3. Astronaut Selection,
4. Going Back to Houston,
5. After the Fire,
6. Liftoff,
7. Rendezvous,
8. The Grandeur of Earth,
9. Return to Earth,
10. Splashdown,
11. Home,
12. After the Flight,
Afterword by Susie Eisele Black,
Historical Overview by Amy Shira Teitel,

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