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Book Review:  Apollo Pilot

Reviewed by: Clifford R. McMurray
Title: Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele
Author: Donn Eisele
Format: Hardcover/Kindle
Pages: 184
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Date: January 2017
Retail Price: $24.95/$12.99
ISBN: 978-0803262836

Donn Eisele may be the least famous of the Apollo astronauts even though he was pilot of the first Apollo flight into space. Tragedy might have made him more famous, but after dislocating his shoulder he was replaced by Roger Chaffee on the Apollo One crew. So Eisele wasn’t in the Apollo One Command Module when a fatal spark during a launch simulation set that spacecraft ablaze, and it was Chaffee rather than Eisele who died in the fire with Gus Grissom and Ed White. That disaster caused a delay of nearly two years, and called the whole Apollo program into question in the minds of many politicians.

Apollo Two had been cancelled because it had looked to be just a repeat of Apollo One, but the fire changed all that. Eisele’s crew was called upon to be the first to fly a radically redesigned Command Module for the first time. This mission was redesignated as Apollo 7. It was a superbly successful flight for Schirra and the spacecraft, but not so much for Eisele and Cunningham.

Although this was Schirra’s last flight, he went out at the top of the astronaut game, having flown three important missions in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. But Eisele and Cunningham, after their first flights, never flew in space again. Schirra had exercised his authority as commander in ways that mission control felt was arbitrary to the point of rebelliousness, and his junior crewmates followed his lead. Together they were known as a grouchy crew, and Cunninham and Eisele were the ones who paid for it. There was also the matter of Eisele’s divorce tarnishing the NASA image. So Eisele had some scores to settle when he sat down to write, and he didn’t hold anything back. Schirra, and NASA managers Joe Shea and George Mueller are particular targets of his ire.

This is a posthumous memoir; Eisele died in 1987, thirty years before this was published. He had left NASA in 1974, and started to work on the manuscript sometime after that, but never really finished it, leaving several partial drafts in a box. His second wife gave the box to space historian Francis French after having been interviewed by him for another book, In the Shadow of the Moon. French edited and stitched together five separate drafts to create a cohesive narrative, with the bulk of the story centering around the flight of Apollo 7. Amy Shira Teitel contributes a brief Historical Overview section to put the Apollo 7 mission in the context of the Apollo program before and after the fire, and mentions some events in the mission that didn’t make it into Eislele’s account.

Soon after the Apollo 7 flight, Eisele got a divorce and married a woman with whom he’d been having an extramarital affair. He was the first to break the taboo against divorce for astronauts, although a couple others followed very soon. The book contains an afterword by his second wife Susan Eisele Black, in which she details the cloud that hung over the couple among Eisele’s fellow astronauts and their wives. Black’s bitterness at her treatment by the NASA family is, if anything, sharper than Eisele’s. Her lack of understanding at the cold shoulder she got is, in my opinion, astonishing. When told the other astronaut wives had threatened a mass walkout if she showed up at one of their gatherings, she says “I’m not going to go—not in the middle of something like that. I mean what is all that about?” What all that was about was that women who’d uneasily tried to ignore their husbands’ affairs with “Cape cookies” saw the Eisele divorce/remarriage as the first crack in the dam of—well, not exactly domestic tranquility, but at least domestic stability. Two pages later Black notes “We would attend astronaut reunions; there was at least one a year. By now, at least one astronaut each time would show up with a new wife; I was no longer an oddity.”

If there were nothing more to this book than the sour grapes, dishing and literary score-settling, it wouldn’t be a very attractive read. But there are the magic moments of spaceflight, too: Eisele’s description of his photographing Typhoon Gloria in the Pacific, and the sound and feel of the spacecraft rocking as the fuel sloshed around in the Service Module’s tanks after a burn of the attitude control thrusters. If he’d worked with an editor or co-author to get his memoir published before he died of a heart attack, no doubt the manuscript would have a different shape, with more material about his life before and after the flight, and perhaps some of the sharper edges filed off. What we are left with is worth the attention of anyone interested in the whole, very human story of the flight that put the Apollo program back on track. Side by side with Schirra’s and Cunningham’s autobiographies, it completes the picture of Apollo 7 from the crew’s perspective, and marks one of the few examples of an Apollo mission told in books by all three crewmembers.

© 2017 Clifford R. McMurray

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