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 4 of 5)
Having a sense of humor helped us get through the potentially awkward situations we faced every day, but Schirra's sense of humor was sorely tested when we reached South Korea. When the motorcade reached the Presidential Palace for a visit with President Park Chung Hee, Schirra, the last to emerge from the limousine, stumbled slightly and, reaching back to steady himself, curled his fingers around the centerpost of the car. At just that moment I was closing the front door, and it slammed against one of the fingers of his left hand. Schirra winced and groaned, but he shook off my distraught apologies and mounted the steps of the palace with his uninjured right hand outstretched to shake hands.
What followed was an excruciating hour for the astronaut as he, Borman, and their wives met with the Korean president. Schirra said later that the only thing that got him through the ordeal was a cotton ball soaked with anesthetic that had been slipped to him by an alert Korean physician. Once back at the U.S. Embassy, a doctor pierced Schirra's nail to relieve the pressure and the pain, and by the time the astronauts reached New Zealand on the last stop of their tour, the nail, although blackened, was clearly healing. This did not, however, stop Schirra from saluting me on every possible occasion by holding up his fist with the injured middle finger extended upward and saying loudly: "I think it's going to be all right."
ON PARADE, OUTBACK STYLE
Although the astronauts got affectionate welcomes everywhere, certain countries had special feelings for them. Australia, the site of a NASA tracking station frequently visited by astronauts on working trips, was at the top of the list. When Schirra and Borman came to Australia for the first official visit, their welcome was literally fit for royalty. The Australians had rolled out the pair of plum-colored Rolls-Royce convertibles procured for an earlier visit by Queen Elizabeth. These beautiful automobiles had yellow pigskin upholstery and a silver handrail so the monarch could steady herself as she stood to acknowledge the cheers of the multitudes. One of the cars was airlifted ahead and waiting in each of the major cities we visited.
When we visited the remote rocket test facilities near Carnarvon, however, the authorities apparently decided the limousines would be inappropriate. Nevertheless, that little town's sun-baked residents, upon receiving the state department's instructions recommending a parade, had decided to do their best to accommodate the odd ways of the Yanks. When we arrived, the welcoming committee showed us a flatbed truck with a railing around the sides and a rope stretched down its length. This, it was explained, would be our float in the parade and also take us to a restaurant in the nearby countryside for lunch and the required speeches and presentations.
Schirra and Borman were unflappable by nature and may have welcomed a recess from the high ceremonials of earlier stops. At any rate, we all jumped up and got a grip on the safety line. The procession moved sedately enough for the first few blocks, with the astronaut vehicle near the lead. Then the pavement ended. As soon as the truck hit the dusty country roads it kicked up a thick cloud of yellow grit. One by one, the cars full of dignitaries and guests passed our truck, waving as they went by. We were left standing in swirls of dust throughout the long ride to the inn.
When the jolting journey finally ended and we climbed stiffly down to solid ground and stumbled into the cool sanctuary of the restaurant, we all looked like late finishers in a cross-Australia road rally, covered with dust from our hair to our shoes, eyes blinking out of masks of grit. It was never quite clear whether the Australians neglected to notice our condition out of politeness or just thought the whole thing was a wonderful joke on the Americans. In any event, foaming mugs of beer were passed around, and we found ourselves surrounded by sunburned, oversized Aussies whose affection and admiration were unmistakable. Schirra and Borman looked at their windblown wives and at each other. After shaking their heads and pausing, all four broke out laughing. Later we all agreed that this was the way to see the real Australia--not lounging in a plum-colored Rolls-Royce but eating dust in the back of a truck.