The Road Show

Thirty years ago, astronauts were an exotic species. Wherever they appeared, crowds went wild.

Air & Space Magazine

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.


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!


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.

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