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
When space travel was new and astronauts relatively rare, people knew the names of those who ventured into space. Public enthusiasm was personal, and people lined up to get autographs or even just a glimpse of the returning space heroes. The ardor seemed even more intense overseas, where the cool competence of the astronauts and cosmonauts seemed to strike a chord. Some speculated that space travel (touted as civilian programs by both nations) allowed foreigners to admire the accomplishments of the two superpowers without subscribing to their policies or military programs.
Whatever the reasons, in the mid-1960s, the U.S. Department of State took full advantage of this popularity, sending the astronauts and their wives on goodwill tours to dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. Even in countries where U.S. policies were unpopular and visiting politicians had been vilified, the astronauts and their wives seemed to get a special exemption. They met the heads of state, visited university campuses, and laid wreaths on countless tombs of unknown soldiers. In every case, they were treated with respect and friendship. Back home, major American cities still honored the astronauts with elaborate parades, and in financial districts such as New York's Wall Street, crowds cheered as swirls of ticker tape and showers of red, green, and blue confetti floated down among the densely packed buildings.
As the astronauts moved through the throngs in parades around the world, the affection and admiration became a physical force that was almost frightening. People pushed and shoved one another as they tried to embrace the astronauts, shake their hands, or just touch their clothing. Often it took swift intervention by local police to keep the astronauts from being overwhelmed. A New York mounted police officer once plucked Gordon Cooper out of a crowd by pulling him up on his horse. In Athens, Greece, it took a line of hotel employees with linked arms to get the astronauts through the crowd to their motorcade. When I traveled with the astronauts and their wives as a NASA public affairs officer, I kept thinking to myself, This is what it must be like to travel with the Beatles.
A BIG DAY IN STEELTOWN
Thirty years ago, the once-booming steel town of Gary, Indiana, was in the midst of a deep depression caused by the closing of the big mills. Gemini 7 astronaut Frank Borman had been born in Gary, but he grew up in Arizona and claimed Tucson as his hometown. Even so, Gary officials pleaded with NASA to send Borman back after his spaceflight, ostensibly to honor him but mostly to give the stricken city some reason to celebrate. The Indiana Congressional delegation turned up the political heat and NASA gave in. Borman would have two hometown celebrations: first Gary, then Tucson. When I flew into Gary to consult with city officials about Borman's visit, I was treated as if I had brought serum to a city ravaged by plague. At every level of the city administration there was an eagerness to please and an almost heartbreaking determination to make the astronaut visit a success.
Fortunately for Gary, it had drawn the right astronaut. Borman may have gone to Gary with faint enthusiasm, but once committed to an assignment he did his best. And of all the astronauts, he had the greatest gift for reaching the public. Newsmen marveled at Borman's ability to rise in a crowded hall, assess his audience, and speak directly and eloquently to the interests of his listeners. Borman was outgoing and personable and seemed to exude integrity, and his wife, Susan, was blonde and beautiful. When the two walked or rode through the streets holding hands like high school sweethearts, the battered citizenry fell in love. For one day at least, Gary forgot its troubles, and the sun lit up the town.
When the day ended, I sought out Gary's police chief, Conway "Moon" Mullins, to congratulate him on the performance of his city and his department. I found Mullins in the cocktail lounge of the astronauts' hotel. He was already several martinis into a celebration of his own, but he was not too far gone to respond to praise from Washington. After I had complimented his department, the chief leaned close and whispered: "You're damn right there were no problems, 'cause we rounded up every troublemaker in Gary last night and threw them all in jail."
While I pondered the implications of this revelation, the ecstatic lawman threw his arm around me and added: "You guys were terrific. Here's a little token of my appreciation." With that the chief pressed two room keys into my hand. When I looked around for guidance, a police lieutenant, smothering his laughter, explained that the chief had selected two of the more presentable prostitutes from the previous night's raid and sequestered them in the hotel. I stared at the two keys in my palm and groaned. My god, I thought. He's put them on the same floor as the Bormans!
"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.
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.
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.
In a space of about two years the Gemini astronauts visited more than 50 countries and dozens of U.S. cities. The schedule became so frantic that most of the details, for me at least, became a blur. Usually it was some minor crisis that would stay clear in my memory. Like the time the astronauts' convertible ran out of gas in the middle of a parade in Santiago, Chile. Or the time we realized, on the way to visit the president of Colombia in Bogota, that the name of his country was misspelled on his gift. Or the unusually large and boisterous crowd in Izmir, Turkey, which turned out to be swollen with people who had come to see not "men who were going to the moon" but "men who were from the moon."
And then there was the press coverage Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad got in Panama on an unscheduled stop. The local newspaper gave extensive coverage to their surprise visit but apparently did not have a picture of Cooper or Conrad. No problem. The next morning the newspaper ran a picture on the front page of a man in an old-fashioned diving suit, complete with air hoses and a round brass helmet. Under the picture of this unknown deep-sea diver was the caption "Astronaut Gordon Cooper."
ONE LAST HURRAH
The late Richard A. Daley was one of the last political bosses of a major American city. His control of Chicago during his long tenure as mayor (the current mayor is his son) was personal and mostly unquestioned. Daley embraced the early astronauts because they gave him an excuse to stage a seemingly endless series of all-American parades through Chicago's Loop. Other cities had provided extravagant welcomes for the early Mercury astronauts, but by the time of the two-man Gemini flights, the spectacles were beginning to go out of fashion. Even NASA was downplaying repetitive parades in major cities, turning instead to smaller hometown celebrations for individual astronauts. Julian Scheer, the agency's chief of public affairs, had issued a dictum: "One parade too few rather than one too many."
But Daley would hear none of it. Gemini 9 astronaut Eugene Cernan came from one of Chicago's suburbs, and Daley had decreed a "Gene Cernan Day" complete with a parade for him and his fellow Gemini 9 astronaut, Thomas Stafford. I was sent to Chicago to talk the mayor out of it or at least make sure the event was not an embarrassment.
In those days all public events in Chicago were run by Colonel Jack Reilly, a long-time Daley staff man. The colonel, a colorful fellow, wore a wrinkled trenchcoat, a snap-brim felt hat, and a black patch over one eye. In most cities where NASA's public affairs advance men had worked, relations with officials were cordial and cooperative; authorities treated us with some deference, perhaps assuming the agency's technological competence carried over into public relations. Reilly had no such illusions. When I suggested that it might be prudent to confine the celebration to Cernan's hometown of Bellwood in case no one showed up, Reilly swiveled his single eye and grated: "There will be a crowd." And then, taking pity on his backward pupil, he added: "The parade is at noon! You can't change a tire in the Loop at noon without drawing a crowd!"
The colonel was absolutely right. On the day of the event, NASA fulfilled its only real function by delivering the astronauts and their wives to the right place at the right time. Chicago reciprocated with a turnout both large and exuberant. There was no detectable diminution of fervor. When it was all over, the colonel and I stood together for a few minutes on the sidewalk. Then he jerked his thumb at me and led me around the hotel to a back street. Stretching for blocks were rows of yellow school buses that had been used to bring the party faithful downtown for the parade. "Insurance," said the colonel with a wintry smile.
Times have changed since that day in Chicago. Few people can name a shuttle astronaut, except maybe one who died in the Challenger explosion, and some actually have trouble recalling the name of the first man on the moon. And the old-style parades are long gone--even if the astronaut craze hadn't faded, we could never re-create them. Computers have replaced the machines that generated ticker tape, and the windows of Wall Street's air-conditioned buildings probably don't even open anymore. In the 1960s, Colonel Reilly didn't really need to drum up a crowd for an astronaut parade--he was just covering his bases. These days, though, he'd have to have those buses ready.