The Road Show
Thirty years ago, astronauts were an exotic species. Wherever they appeared, crowds went wild.
- By Brian Duff
- Air & Space magazine, January 1996
(Page 2 of 5)
"I WANT Y'ALL TO GO TO PARIS"
Ed White, who was later to die with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 fire, was the first American to walk in space. In 1965 people around the world responded to a dramatic photograph, taken by fellow Gemini 4 astronaut Jim McDivitt, of White in his spacesuit floating at the end of a long golden "umbilical cord" in the black void of space. The two Air Force lieutenant colonels had attained star status, and that dictated a weeklong U.S. tour, culminating in a triumphant welcome at the nation's capital. In the final hours of a busy final day, the astronauts were on stage at the state department providing commentary while films they had made during their flight were shown to members of the international diplomatic corps.
Suddenly there was a rustle of activity as Secret Service agents moved quickly into flanking positions along the sides of the auditorium. Then the rear doors burst open and President Lyndon Johnson, wearing a brown tuxedo, strode in. A place was quickly made for him in the front row between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and NASA Administrator James Webb. When the movies were over, Johnson stood up and, in a voice that carried through the auditorium, drawled: "Gentlemen, if I had seen your films before I saw you last week in Houston, I might have promoted you to full colonels." As the laughter and applause died down, Johnson added: "Gentlemen, I want y'all to go to Paris as quickly as possible, and take your lovely wives with you."
The astronauts looked at each other in disbelief, but the president wasn't finished. He looked down at Humphrey, who was also chairman of the Space Council, then at Webb, and said: "Hubert, you go along with them, and you go too, Jimmy. Take your wives. You can use my airplane." Finally, Johnson turned back to the two astronauts on the stage and said: "When you get finished here come back to the White House for a drink before you leave." With that he loped back up the aisle and out of the auditorium, leaving the program in a shambles. We learned later that the president had come to the state department on a rescue mission for the U.S. aerospace industry. Executives had been calling the White House from France all week to report that the American presence at the Paris Air Show was being overwhelmed by spectacular performances by the Soviets, including an appearance by cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The U.S. aerospace leaders wanted the administration to field a dramatic counter-measure.
By plan or by luck, the president had picked the perfect venue to accomplish his objectives with maximum impact and dispatch. While the astronauts and their wives were still greeting the members of the diplomatic corps in a receiving line, state department photographers snapped their pictures for diplomatic passports. Meanwhile, a senior foreign service officer who had set up shop in the basement was assembling passports for everyone in the official party, which had grown to about 40 persons. Since most of those who would be traveling were still upstairs at the reception, they were not available to answer routine questions about the color of their eyes or their hair. "We'll waive all that," the official decided in frustration, handing me a thick bundle of black passports. "Just don't let anybody in France see these if you can help it, and I want them all back when you come home." At the same time, the Secret Service was firming up plans to move the vice president and the astronauts and their wives from the White House, where they were having their nightcap with the president, to Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland, where the airplane was being readied for departure.
The swift-moving events that night were an impressive display of presidential power. The two astronauts and their wives, Humphrey, Webb and his wife, and various other dignitaries departed the White House lawn just hours after the president ordered the trip. As the helicopters lifted off in the darkness from the White House lawn, the president's daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines Johnson, who had volunteered to help babysit, stood in their nightclothes with the astronauts' children waving goodbye.
How the U.S. Ambassador to France, Charles Bohlen, reacted when he was awakened in Paris with the news can only be imagined. In addition to having to instantaneously create a week of activities for the incoming astronaut party, he had the thankless job of informing French president Charles de Gaulle that the American vice president and two U.S. space heroes would arrive in France within hours. De Gaulle reportedly was so incensed at what he took to be a flagrant breach of protocol by the U.S. president that at first he refused to receive either Humphrey or the astronauts. But of course we knew none of this as we disembarked in Paris, groggy from lack of sleep, and filed to the waiting limousines down a long red carpet flanked by guards with plumed helmets, gleaming breastplates, and drawn swords.
The feelings of the French president might have been bruised, but the average Frenchman was charmed by the boyish space heroes and their wives. With Humphrey at their sides, the astronauts worked without a break: touring the airshow, lecturing, attending receptions, and appearing on French television programs. When they volunteered to answer questions on a radio talk show, the incoming calls temporarily shut down the Paris telephone exchange. The pair even cornered cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin one day. Photographers snapped pictures while the Americans and the Russian talked in two languages augmented with a lot of pilots' sign language.