Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

  • Published

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele by Donn Eisele. University of Nebraska Press (http://nebraskapress.unl.edu), 1111 Lincoln Mall, Lincoln, Nebraska 68588-0630, 2017, 184 pages, $24.95 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-80326-283-6.

The 1961–75 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Apollo space program brought to the fore unparalleled technological advancements and human ingenuity. For many, this is perhaps best highlighted by Neil Armstrong’s “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” with Apollo 11. With these triumphs came great losses, such as the tragedy with the Apollo 1 fire on its launch pad and failure with Apollo 13 inability to land on the moon.

The entire Apollo mission sparked scientific and economic innovation within the United States and the excitement of the world. For those born after that era, it is difficult to have a similar point-of-reference for what was undoubtedly a series of watershed moments in a time of social and political turmoil. It is important to remember that what is often overlooked are the contributions of the other Apollo missions than those noted above during its 14-year history. Although they may not have the historical impact as the first steps on the moon, the efforts of the thousands of men and women who took part in developing and implementing this project were critical to those steps and the program’s overall success.

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele is a memoir by Col Donn Eisele, a former astronaut and Air Force pilot, and focuses on preparing for and experiencing spaceflight with the Apollo 7 mission. This mission, which included Wally Schirra and Walter Cunningham, offered a series of firsts for NASA; for instance, it was NASA’s first manned Apollo flight and first manned flight with the Saturn IB rocket. In addition, Apollo 7 served as the first manned NASA flight to feature a live TV telecast. Those “firsts” aside, Apollo Pilot gives us a flavor of Colonel Eisele’s perceptions and observations of his life before and during the mission.

A light and easy read, it is a fast-paced account of Colonel Eisele’s life, including his perspectives of his time as a young man, joining the military, being selected as an astronaut, preparations for spaceflight, and the immediate aftermath of his return. The book itself offers a foreword by Francis French, an afterword by Susie Eisele Black, and a historical overview by space historian Amy Shira Teitel. Ms. Eisele Black, Colonel Eisele’s second wife, gave Mr. French, a director of the San Diego Air and Space museum and author, access to his personal papers and affects after the colonel’s death. The result is a presentation of Colonel Eisele’s voice; we can imagine his words, and those around him, through his remembrance of moments both monumental and mundane. Apollo Pilot offers several charming observations: there are discussions on the intricacies of astronaut health examinations and the sheer majesty of viewing the earth from orbit, and there are moments of self-reflexivity on his role in the program and, by extension, history. We are fortunate to hear his words, and those of others, with the timing and tenor of how people during that time talked and viewed the world around them.

What Colonel Eisele’s story lacks is further contextualization of the times in which his story occurred. As someone removed from that time in history, readers such as myself would have benefited greatly from a contemporary reflection of the social and political issues at the various points of time in the memoir. Mr. French and Ms. Teitel’s chapters, while helpful in framing the discussion, leave this reader wanting more as to how Colonel Eisele’s story fit into that historical moment in time. Readers were left to fill in many gaps with Colonel Eisele’s own observations or suggestions. Ms. Eisele Black’s afterward provides some personal context but reads largely as her dissatisfaction with how she and Colonel Eisele were treated by the NASA community after he divorced his first wife. This divorce, due to his extramarital affair and marriage to Ms. Eisele Black, may be inconsequential today to a career but dirtied the heteronormative discourses surrounding wholesome, all-American family men who served as NASA astronauts. Indeed, Colonel Eisele himself discusses at length the personal and political ramifications of his compatriots’ martial affairs. Again, we are in no position to fault a man for his personal decisions 40-some years ago, but its implications cloud Colonel Eisele’s account to a minor degree and Ms. Eisele Black’s to a large part.

As with many memoirs, we are given several pictures of the author and the events depicted in the text. However, Apollo Pilot’s editors do not fully note who is who in many of the group photos. Colonel Eisele is identified in some but in group shots with his fellow astronauts Schirra and Cunningham, the individuals are not identified by name. This is a minor observation but is noticeable in its absence. Another odd convention is not capitalizing “Air Force” when referring to the service; such use makes it stand out and muddles its use in the text. Granted, these are very minor issues but they do stand out as odd copyediting choices.

Apollo Pilot offers its readers a taste of the grandeur surrounding our nation’s history that can leave readers wanting more. The book hints at the epic-scale of a national program designed to inspire the world—while only briefly noting its service as a foil to the Soviet Union’s own space program. While lacking in some regards, Apollo Pilot is successful in opening the door to an underappreciated part of a remarkable story and serves as an entrée into the history of the American space program.


SSgt Aaron Tobler, USAF
 Beale AFB, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."