The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele
Apollo 7 was the first time I became aware of the American space program. I was 10 years old, and if I recall correctly, my primary school class at the time had a student teacher from Canada, and he made it a topic of interest.
I don’t recall ever knowing about previous NASA space ventures.
Apollo 7 was the first manned mission after the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. Another tragic mishap would likely have put an end to American ambitions to reach the moon, or at least set them back sufficiently to let the USSR get there first.
Apollo Pilot tells the inside story of the Apollo 7 mission from the perspective of one of the crew. Donn Eisele’s account is candid, judgemental of his peers and their employers, and at times brutally graphic – like when he describes having to listen to recordings of his deceased colleagues’ death screams when investigating the Apollo 1 fire. As well as his description of having to inspect the burnt out capsule.
Eisele briefly describes the journey that led to his acceptance as an astronaut. He also details the rigorous selection regime of interviews and health checks that helped to weed out those not physically or temperamentally suitable.
Some of the most interesting and evocative parts of the book are the details he gives of the Apollo 7 mission, from launch through to splashdown; and how it was for three men to live in such close proximity in very restrictive conditions.
There is the sense of wonder at seeing things so few had seen to that point, and the challenges faced in the tasks they needed to carry out in an extended stay in space. An important aspect of the mission was to replicate the time required for future missions to travel to the moon and back, as well as simulating some of the maneuvers those missions may need to carry out.
It’s only a short book, around 180 something pages, but Eisele seems to fit in a lot of experience within those pages. Sadly he died quite young, and maybe if he’d had the time he would have written more. However the last two chapters, one written by his wife Susan Eisele Black , help to fill in a little of what he missed.
The astronaut lifestyle became one of parties and womanising, conducted in private rooms to avoid attention from the press; while their wives were back home in Houston caring for families. While some saw their extra-marital activities as casual affairs, some maintained long-term relationships.
While he doesn’t name those involved, his (2nd) wife’s chapter of the book makes it clear that he was one of the latter kind. His first marriage ended soon after the Apollo 7 mission. He was the first astronaut to divorce, and he married Susan, the woman he’d been seeing during his frequent trips away from home. The divorce seemed to put an and to his career as an astronaut, even though many others later followed the same path without the same kind of recriminations.