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 3 of 5)
By the end of the week, Johnson's grandstand gesture had paid off. Any American tourist in a Paris taxicab would first be asked if he knew the astronauts and then be treated to a sweep across the cab's radio band to hear, over and over, "astronaut...astronaut...astronaut." By the end of the week, the icy de Gaulle succumbed to political reality. Humphrey and the astronaut families were invited to the presidential palace for an audience. The Americans said later that de Gaulle was polite, cool, and very, very tall.
KINGS, QUEENS, AND EMPERORS
As the astronauts traveled the world, they became the nation's goodwill ambassadors and met with the leaders of nearly every country they visited. Such encounters often presented unique questions of etiquette, but the astronauts usually rose to the occasion with the same spirit they had brought to dealing with the unknown in space.
Jim Lovell and Pete Conrad, who had made separate Gemini flights in 1966, were teamed up by NASA and the state department to tour Africa. Lovell had let his beard grow during his four-day Gemini 12 flight, but he was clean-shaven when he met Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. When the emperor saw Lovell, he reached out and touched his face. The bearded ruler was simply telling Lovell that he preferred him in a beard, but because the emperor was venerated as a god by many of his followers, this intimacy with a mere mortal sent a shock wave through the courtiers in the room.
Lovell and Conrad also met the Oba of Benin. The Oba, who lived in a palace in Nigeria, was the religious leader of hundreds of thousands of people and was said to be the 37th descendant in his line. The astronauts and their wives paid particular attention to the furnishings during their visit to the Oba. They had been told that at least one of the chairs in the audience chamber was upholstered with the skin of a Portuguese slave captain caught cheating one of the Oba's ancestors, but no one spotted the fatal chair with any certainty. The Oba listened to the astronauts attentively but with little expression. When they had finished explaining a little about spaceflight, the religious leader had only one question about their journeys: "Did you see any angels?"
After the rendezvous of Geminis 6 and 7, Frank Borman and Wally Schirra made an Asian tour, and in Thailand they met the king and queen. Although the rulers were quite progressive in private life--he drove sports cars and played jazz--court protocol was to be strictly observed during the audience with their majesties. We were warned, for example, that it was bad form to cross one's legs so as to expose the soles of one's feet. Thus it was a relief to be met by a uniformed admiral of the Thai navy complete with aviator's wings and flight experience in U.S. jet fighters.
Reassured by the presence of the admiral, we were almost relaxed as we were escorted into the throne room. The king and queen sat side by side on a raised dais. We were seated in what seemed to be unusually low gold chairs. By prearrangement, each of us watched the other to make sure no one crossed his legs. I soon noticed that the servant pouring orange punch into a glass by my side was doing so from a prone position on the floor. It was then that I realized that only we, the honored guests, were seated--albeit somewhat lower than their majesties. Even the Thai admiral, still resplendent in dress whites, was reclining on one hip. We were all very much aware of the historic nature of the occasion, and though the royal couple seemed genuinely interested, it was hard to relax under the circumstances.
Finally, the audience ended, and we all stood as the king and queen rose to bid us goodbye. But we still had one more hurdle to clear. We had been instructed to back out of the throne room, since it was a serious breach of protocol to turn one's back on their majesties. One by one we made it, groping our way past the little gold chairs and potted palms. Everyone did splendidly except me. At the last minute, panicking that I had missed the door, I glanced over my shoulder. One of our embassy handlers shot me a dirty look.