Book Review #1  The Making of an Ex-Astronaut by Brian O’Leary

Some people collect stamps, for others it’s baseball cards or Hollywood memorabilia.  To the uninitiated collecting may seem trivial, it may even seem childish.  But it’s not.  Do you have a question about, oh I don’t know, let’s just say early 20th century cameras.  If so the person to ask isn’t the history professor or the salesman at the local camera store.  Your go-to-guy, the individual most likely to have the correct answers is the collector of early 20th century cameras.  The collector’s zeal will make him an authority in his area of interest, not a degree from a fancy university.  Would you expect any less?   Collecting is, after all, what the collector spends his time and money on.  Given time he’s going to get good or he’s going to get out. 

So what do I collect?  Books written by astronauts.   On occasion I’ve been known to pull them down from the shelves and peruse them page by page.  It’s just what I do.   I would never rate these books in terms of stars, or try to measure their quality, for I consider each one to be a tile in a much larger mosaic.  Each book contributes to form a larger picture and a more compete understanding.  If you remove even one something is lost from the whole and the image becomes indistinct in places.  Often times a question posed in one book will be answered in another.  Inspired by Mark Hamill’s Pop Culture Quest I’ve decided to write about my hobby, my passion, my collection.   If you enjoy this project so much the better.  However I suspect my audience will be small.  No matter, it’s a labor of love. 

The Making of an Ex-Astronaut

The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, published 1970, is a unique and really quite enjoyable read. Unique because it’s not a story of success, instead it chronicles the career of a failed astronaut.   Enjoyable because it’s insightful, irreverent and gives those of us who didn’t work for NASA our first candid and unfiltered peek into the inner workings of the astronaut office during the heady days of the space race.  Reading it felt like being given a backstage pass to a rock concert or a pit-pass to the Indy 500.   Turning the pages I felt privileged and, as an added benefit, the book was truly funny.  During his student days Brian O’Leary was arrested for hitchhiking with an inflatable rubber shark and a Cherokee spear.  Now that’s funny.  How could you not love a guy like that?

O’Leary was a scientist by trade, not a professional pilot, and so his path to the astronaut office was unusual but not trailblazing.  I say not trailblazing because the true trailblazers were the first scientist-astronauts of NASA Group 4, an assortment of three physicist, two physicians and a geologist.  Group 4 was brought onboard in 1965.  How successful were they?  They did pretty well for themselves and for the program.  The first to fly was geologist Jack Schmitt who walked on the moon on Apollo 17.  Over a period of three days he spent 24 hours working outside the spacecraft on the lunar surface.  It would be hard to top that, but others came close.  Next up was Joe Kerwin who assisted the legendary Pete Conrad in saving the Skylab space station from destruction.  This was one of NASA’s most audacious and spectacular mission successes.  Owen K. Garriott  set a record for time spent in space, 60 days on the Skylab 3 mission.  But that record didn’t stand long.  Garriott was usurped by classmate Ed Gibson who spent 84 days aloft on Skylab 4.   Well you get the picture.  NASA Group 4 did themselves proud.

The Excess Eleven

Along with ten others O’Leary was hired in 1967 as a member of Group 6.   Mindful of their dim prospects of being assigned space flights anytime soon they dubbed themselves the Excess Eleven or XS-11.   As luck would have it the XS-11 included some truly remarkable men.  Those who were willing to wait their turn flew and they flew often.   Most notable was the redoubtable and multitalented Story Musgrave who flew no less than six Space Shuttle missions and, during a series of particularly demanding spacewalks, saved the Hubble Space Telescope. 

But let’s return to Brian O’Leary.   At age 27 he held a freshly minted Ph.D in astronomy from the University of California Berkeley and was a new NASA astronaut.  For his first job he’d be sitting in meetings with, plying the halls with, working out with, socializing with and rubbing shoulders with the first men to walk on the moon!   His direct supervisors were none other than Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton,  American heroes who would rank right up there with Charles Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle and the Wright Brother.  If I had been in O’Leary’s position I’d have been pinching myself every 60 seconds just to see if I was awake or dreaming.  In my opinion O’Leary was on top of the world.  He was standing on the summit of Mount Olympus.

Perhaps that was the problem.  Once you reach the top there’s only one way to go and that’s down; or so they say.  Brian’s problems began just as soon as he reported for duty in Houston.  The folks at NASA simply didn’t appreciate him.  They expected him to work hard, support the more experienced astronauts and to make himself useful.  Didn’t NASA realize that he had already proven himself in grad school?  Why should he have to wait for a flight behind people who didn’t even hold doctorates and were thus incapable of doing science?   To be charitable O’Leary felt entitled.  To be not so charitable he seemed sort of spoiled.  Well really spoiled actually.  He had his foot in the door to the greatest job in the world but, as he saw it, that wasn’t good enough. He wanted more, much more.   

Astronaut Training

According to O’Leary most of his astronaut training was pointless, a compete waste of time.   Here is an example of what he had to say about something NASA wanted to show him called a computer.  You can find it on page 104.    

However most of the equipment we saw was computers, and there is nothing duller than looking at a computer, especially if it is your fourteenth of the day.  They all look alike, and when a tour director would say with great enthusiasm, “Of course you’ll want to come see our computer,” we winced and reluctantly tagged along to maintain good relations. 

The irony is that in only a few sort years an unremarkable middle school student named Steve Jobs would see a computer at the NASA Ames Research Center in a location that would one day be called the Silicon Valley.  Was 13 year old Steve Jobs as underwhelmed as Brian O’Leary?  To the contrary, little Steve Jobs realized at once that the computer would change the world.  But how was it that a little kid could so quickly grasp a concept that was entirely lost to a NASA scientist-aeronaut? 

Welcome to the World of Jocks and Nerds

As O’Leary described it the astronaut corps of 1967 was sharply divided into two mutually exclusive categories that were forever at odds with each other.   There were the military test-pilots and the scientists.  The nearest analogy I can think of would be those sophomoric Hollywood movies that depict college life as nothing more than a running battle between jocks and nerds.  Needless to say the test-pilots were the jocks and the scientists were the nerds. 

I’ll admit that there may have been some small kernel of truth to this.  Test-pilot Joe Engle was forced to relinquish his position as LM pilot on Apollo 17 to make way for geologist Jack Schmitt.  Some would say that for every scientist who flew there was one less seat for a pilot.  But the truth was far more nuanced for people don’t fall into neat categories like playing cards or dominoes.  Some college students are neither jock nor nerd, and some are both. 

For example there was Gene Cernan who wasn’t a test-pilot and didn’t have a Ph.D.  Gene was simply a military pilot with no combat experience and a masters degree.  But that was enough.   The lack of credentials didn’t prevent Gene from enjoying a hugely successful NASA career.  Then there was Buzz Aldrin and Walt Cunningham.  Neither one was trained as a test-pilot but both had earned the equivalent of Ph.D.s.  Into which category did they fall?  They weren’t hired as scientists.  Edgar Mitchell, who flew as LM pilot of Apollo 14, was a test-pilot who also held a Doctor of Science degree from MIT.   Mitchell’s credentials as a scientist were even more impressive than O’Leary’s.   But I guess no one told O’Leary that.   Brian wrote that there wasn’t a scientist on Apollo 14!  Or am I missing something?  Does being trained as a test-pilot render a Doctor of Science degree null and void?  I’m sure you see the problem. 

But even if we were to compare the stereotypical test-pilot astro, let’s call him Major Matt Mason, to the stereotypical scientist astro, let’s call him Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, just how wide would the cultural divide be between Matt and Bunsen and how deep would it run?  In 1967 the astronaut corps, both pilots and scientists, was comprised entirely of white middle class Americans.   There were no women, no blacks, no asians, no foreign nationals, no muslims, no jews, no outspoken atheists, no one over six foot tall, no one over 200 pounds, no one older than 45, no one younger than 25, no one without a college degree, no divorces, no bankruptcies, no serious problems with the law and, so far as we know, no gays.  Could any organization be anymore homogeneous?

Ethnic Diversity and Gender Equality, or the Lack Thereof

Brian O’Leary heaped criticism on NASA with the reckless abandon of a little kid drowning his waffles under a sea of maple syrup.  He piled it on by the shovelful and it wasn’t just NASA.  O’Leary found fault with Houston, with the people who lived there and with the entire state of Texas; too flat, too hot, too humid, too dull, too many poisonous snakes.     And yet he was oddly silent, completely silent in fact, about the lack of racial diversity and gender equality.  As stated before, the NASA astronaut corps of the 1960’s was one hundred percent male and one hundred percent white. 

How did O’Leary feel about this?   Since he didn’t mention it I suppose it wasn’t very different from what he had encountered at the Astronomical Department at UC Berkeley and that it didn’t bother him.  But the lack of diversity was noticed by and a real concern for astronaut test-pilots such as Michael Collins and John Young.   Why did O’Leary miss seeing what was so clear, and often, so troubling to test-pilots? 

Many times in his book O’Leary expressed his disapproval for the Vietnam War and more power to him.  That war was a national disgrace.  But how did he feel about the Civil Rights Movement?  He didn’t say.  I would imagine he supported it but I can’t be sure.  The assassination of Martin Luther King took place during O’Leary’s time at Air Force flight school.  Did the murder of King add to the stress he was already feeling?  I’d like to think it did but he never wrote a word about the assassination.  I guess it wasn’t high on his radar. 


After only half a year O’Leary dropped out of NASA because he couldn’t handle a Cessna 172 (the T-41 as the Air Force liked to call it.)  There’s no shame in that.  Not everyone is cut out to be a pilot and he was honest about it.  However O’Leary’s official NASA biography posted on the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center website is less than honest.  It states,

O’Leary was specifically selected for a potential manned Mars mission when it was still in NASA’s program plan. When that program was cancelled in 1968, he resigned from the astronaut program.

This statement is compete face-saving nonsense.  It’s poppycock.  Blame his departure on budget cuts.  Blame it on the cancelation of a project that was never funded and never more than talk.   But don’t blame his resignation on the fact that an astronaut was unable, or unwilling, to do his job.   Would it kill NASA to tell the truth?

Life after NASA

After leaving NASA the disillusioned O’Leary was still very young, only 28.  He was recruited by Carl Sagan to teach astronomy at Cornell.  It seemed that he had landed on his feet and had a bright future ahead.   But O’Leary found it impossible to relinquish the title of “NASA Astronaut.”  He would attended conferences, and appear on TV, and it was sort of like Vlad the Impaler or Ivan the Terrible.  His title was always an integral part of his name and his identity.  It lent gravitas to whatever statement he made. 

He was always introduced as Former NASA Astronaut Doctor Brian O’Leary or, when he grew a bit more mature, Retired NASA Astronaut Doctor Brian O’Leary.   Retired as if he’d spent his career at NASA and not just six months.    What right minded person would fail to be impressed by a man so styled?  But the astronaut title took O’Leary only so far.  It’s milage was limited and I suspect that after awhile what had once been an asset become a liability.  Who wants to spend the rest of their lives defined by what they did, or more accurately failed to do, at age 27? 

Add to this the fact that O’Leary didn’t have the ability to connect with the public as successfully as other astronomer such as; Carl Sagan, Gene Shoemaker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, John Dobson or Michio Kaku.  He didn’t have their star power.  His message was never as optimistic or as inspirational.   After awhile people began to lose interest in the former astronaut and his criticism of NASA began to seem more like a rationalization for his own failures as an astronaut.  Increasingly he seemed to be a man with a chip on his shoulder and a bag full of sour grapes. 

Pseudoscience and Government Coverups

When it became obvious that O’Leary wasn’t going to play a major role in astronomy he reinvented himself but reinvention isn’t always an improvement.   He turned away from legitimate science any embraced  the shadowy netherworld of pseudoscience and conspiracy theory.  The new Brian O’Leary loved making wild and outlandish statements about government coverups and the Earth being visited by space aliens.  He even went so far at to explain how UFOs fly.  They use co-rotating toroids and anti-gravity manipulation for their propulsion systems.  All this from a man who couldn’t handle a 120 mph Cessna 172 with a wimpy little 160 h.p. engine.    

O’Leary waxed-poetic about all sorts of silly alternative energy sources and alternative medicine that could fix you up lickety-split.    Before you could say Danger Will Robinson, O’Leary was the darling the counter-culture crowd fawned over by conspiracy theorist from coast-to-coast.  I thought he had hit rockbottom.  How wrong I was.  As the new century dawned O’Leary turned traitor. 

The Rise and Fall of Former NASA Astronaut Doctor Brian O’Leary.

Arthur C. Clarke once said that he believed that a certain amount of crackpotery served as a safety valve to keep people from more self-destructive behavior.  Perhaps so, but there are limits to everything.  In 2001 the Fox TV Network aired a “documentary” called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon? It was hosted by X-Files actor Mitch Pileggi and featuring such notables as Bart Sibrel.   And what do you know, there was none other than Former NASA Astronaut Doctor Brian O’Leary!   O’Leary flashed his ever charming smile, opened his mouth and this is what he had to say.

“Regarding the Apollo missions, I can’t say one hundred percent for sure whether these men walked on the moon.  It’s possible that NASA could have covered it up just in order to cut corners and to be the first to allegedly go to the moon.”

Really Brian, I mean Really?  If you had your doubts why didn’t you voice them sooner?  Why wait 32 years to spill the beans?  Could it be that your celebrity is waning and you need a kickstart to boost your relevance and make you look important?  Hey Fox TV Network, put the camera on me and I’ll give you exactly what you want.  Just make sure you air the show on prime-time.   

Soon after O’Leary appeared the FOX documentary became unwatchable as their “experts” claimed that the Apollo 1 crew was murdered by NASA as part of a larger coverup.  I vehemently hoped that some tiny smoldering ember of common decency buried deep within O’Leary would prompt him to reconsider his statements and to distance himself from that trashy travesty of a TV show.  I felt like the “Say it Ain’t so Joe” kid from the Black Sox Scandal.  I hoped he would retract his statements.  But he didn’t.  He let them stand and that’s when I knew that he was lost.  Brian O’Leary was truly lost. 

When Buzz Aldrin famously clobbered delusional nut-job Bart Sibrel spaceflight enthusiast the world over cheered their approval.  Way to go Buzz!  The creep had it coming!  Too bad Buzz didn’t take a swing at O’Leary and knock him right on his silly butt.  So there you have it, the impressive rise and tragic fall of Former NASA Astronaut Doctor Brian O’Leary. 

Leave a Comment