Book Review: Apollo Pilot: the Memoir of Donn Eisele
A Man of Mystery
To space flight geeks such as myself Donn Eisele was an enigma. He had flown an Apollo mission, the very first in fact, and yet beyond his official NASA biography we knew almost nothing about him. I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce his last name. When Eisele passed away unexpectedly in 1987 it was thought that his story would never be told. Three decades passed and memories faded. No one was more surprised than I when, Apollo Pilot: the Memoir of Donn Eisele appeared as a new listing on Amazon and with a copyright date of 2017. Why did it take so long?
“There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream – a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought – a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”
The words above might not sound like Mark Twain. They’re too despairing, too nihilistic for Twain. But write write them Twain did. Or perhaps he didn’t. If I seem to be talking in riddles that’s not my intent. From 1897 to 1908 Mark Twain labored on a novel called, The Mysterious Stranger. Try as he might the celebrated author was never fully satisfied with the results, but he was unwilling to abandon the project. Twain wrote many different versions of the story. Some were set in a fictionalized Hannibal Missouri, the town of Twain’s youth. Others were placed in a small Austrian village in the year 1490. Some accounts featured the beloved characters Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, others did not. There were in total five different manuscripts of The Mysterious Stranger all unfinished. At the time of Twain’s passing in 1910 The story remained incomplete and unpublished.
A man named Albert Bigelow Paine became the owner of Twain’s unfinished manuscripts. Paine kept these papers private. However he claimed to have found Twain’s intended ending for The Mysterious Stranger and at long last the novel was published in 1916. In the 1960’s it was discovered that Paine had in fact stitched together three different manuscripts. He added new characters to the story, changed the names of others and added passages not written by Twain to complete the novel. The Mysterious Stranger was a literary fraud that went undetected for almost half a century.
More than a quarter century after Eisele’s passing, and with the assistance of his second wife Susie Eisele Black, spaceflight author Francis French discovered five incomplete drafts that the former astronaut had written for a possible autobiography. These drafts were written in differing styles and apparently a publisher had yet to be contacted. Eisele abandoned the project sometime around 1974. Perhaps the former astronaut was only attempting to organize his thoughts. Perhaps he never intended the papers to be made public. Perhaps, like Mark Twain, he wasn’t satisfied with the results. We’ll never know. French freely admits that he used parts of all five drafts and added passages of his own to compete Eisele’s memoir.
French also admits that he doesn’t know the final form that Eisele would have chosen for his autobiography. Perhaps he might have softened some of his criticisms and strengthened others. Apollo Pilot is essentially a biography written in the form of a first person narrative. I say that not to accuse anyone of dishonesty for there is none. I just want to explain that I’ll review this book as if every word of was written by Eisele even thought that’s clearly not the case. I’d also like to add that the copyright is owned by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, a nonprofit educational institution.
It’s been said that all men are created equal until one of them writes a book. To compare Apollo Pilot with All American Boys written by Eisele’s Apollo 7 crew-mate Walter Cunningham is like contrasting a report written by a high school student to a Ph.D. thesis. The difference between the two really is that stark. That being said within minutes of delving into Apollo Pilot I was captivated. I can’t help myself, NASA in the the 1960’s is one of my favorite subjects. I’m a sucker for astro autobiographies, always will be. I might prefer a good stake but when I’m hungry a Big Mac with a side of fries and a Coke will suit me just fine. Apollo Pilot isn’t a fillet mignon. It’s more like a satisfying burger and there’s nothing wrong with that.
One of the reasons I read books like this is for all the little hitherto unrevealed historical tidbits, the plot twists and turns that reveal how the people involved with Apollo interacted with each other. Apollo Pilot starts off with a doozy of a revelation. Eisele was originally assigned to the prime crew for Apollo 1 along with Gus Grissom and Ed White. However NASA busybody and blabbermouth Dr. Charles Berry insisted that prior to the flight Eisele have corrective surgery on a shoulder that was prone to dislocation. Eisele had the surgery but due to the recovery period required for complete recuperation Deke Slayton bumped him from the prime crew of Apollo 1 replacing him with Roger Chaffee. Chaffee, as we all, know lost his life in the tragic Apollo 1 fire. For Eisele is was the equivalent of being yanked off an airliner that was doomed to crash. Did it ever occur to him that Berry’s unwelcome meddling had in fact inadvertently saved his life? If so Eisele didn’t say a word about it. How did Eisele feel about the fact that another man died filling what had been his seat? Eisele didn’t write about that either. Apparently Eisele wasn’t one for introspection, or if he was he wasn’t the sort of person to share his feeling. But if so why write a book?
What sort of a man was he? My impression is that Donn Eisele was a more extreme version of Don Draper from TV’s Mad Men. That’s to say he was an unapologetic serial adulterer. Eisele’s interest in his first wife and children was minimal at best. There isn’t even a picture of them in his book. He referred to his youngest son as “retarded” but in the 1960’s that was the word that people used. Eisele felt that astronaut infidelity with multiple women was the rule rather than the exception. I suspect that he considered casual sex as the thing to do to unwind at the end of the day. Did Eisele ever love his first wife? He didn’t say. Did he try to make his marriage work? He didn’t say. Did he care about his children? He didn’t say. Did he at least try to be a good father? He didn’t say.
Eisele loved flying but who wouldn’t? His motive for becoming an astronaut was simply to fly the really cool stuff. He cared about safety but I suspect only so far as his own personal welfare was concerned. He was unsparing in his criticism of NASA bigwig Joe Shea and his Apollo 7 mission commander Wally Schirra. But few people had anything at all good to say about him. As an astronaut Eisele was, for the most part, adequate. He wasn’t anyone’s first pick for the guy you’d want to be stranded with on a deserted island. He wasn’t known as an exceptionally hard worker. With the exception of Tom Stafford he didn’t have a kind word for anyone.
The Wally, Walt and Donn Show, or Rub-a-dub-dub, Three Men in a Tub
At two minutes and 45 seconds passed 10 a.m. on October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 was launched on its 11 day mission. The crew was comprised of mission commander Walter M. Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham. Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of the Apollo spacecraft and the first manned flight since the Apollo 1 fire. Although the mission didn’t carry a Lunar Module and it made use of the comparatively diminutive Saturn 1B rocket as opposed to the monstrous Saturn V, a successful flight was critical to the recovery on America’s manned space program and to reaching the moon before the decade was out.
The launch itself was picture perfect but Apollo 7 wasn’t anyone’s idea of a happy ship. Dissatisfaction had been brewing since training and with Wally setting the pace the crew was in very poor humor. They vented their frustration on the hard working folks at mission control. During a press conference a few days into the flight a reporter said, “I’ve covered every manned mission since 1961 and never have I heard such abrasive and harsh air-to-ground communicates as I have in the last few days. Either Mission Control isn’t doing its job or you’ve got three world class malcontents in orbit. Now which one is it?” The flight controller paused, slowly let out his breath, and replied, “I’d be hard pressed to answer that question.”
From that point on the situation deteriorated sill further. Wally and company developed head colds. Suffering from nasal congestion they feared that they wouldn’t be able to clear their ears during the cabin pressure change of reentry and that this might result in ruptured eardrums. The NASA doctors said it wouldn’t be a problem but the crew wasn’t listening. Although it was a blatant violation of mission rules they flew the reentry without helmets. Flight director Chris Kraft wasn’t happy. He told Deke Slayton straight up that he considered the crew to be insubordinate. He added that none of them should ever fly in space again. Slayton agreed and as it happened none them did fly again. After splashdown Eisele returned to Houston and was even assigned to the back up crew for Apollo 10. But his work didn’t impress anyone. It was clear that Eisele’s NASA career was drawing to a close.
The Afterwards was written by Eisele’s second wife Susie Eisele Black. She passed away on September 9th 2014, more than two years before the book saw print. Her words were insightful but sad. She and Donn were married in August of 1969 at the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn but none of Donn’s astronaut friends attended the wedding. I wondered if at that point Eisele had any astronaut friends left. Donn Eisele may not have been everything we might have hoped for. He was certainly no comic book hero. NASA dealt him a good hand and had he played that hand better he might have walked on the moon. But that doesn’t really matter. Donn Eisele had something most of us lack, the courage to ride a rocket into orbit. He did his job and in doing so he brought the rest of us just a little bit closer to the stars. That’s a legacy of which his children and grandchildren can be proud. I’m pleased to have his book in my collection. I’ll never let it go.