The Road Show

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

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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."


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.

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