The Road Show

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

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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."


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.

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