The Road Show

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

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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.


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.

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