WALT AND ‘WHATSHISNAME’
In truth, Air Force Major Donn Fulton Eisele’s NASA career was waning by the time Apollo 7 splashed down. Born in Columbus, Ohio, on 23 June 1930, Eisele had followed the classic path to become an astronaut: a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy in 1952, a master’s credential in astronautics from the Air Force Institute of Technology and graduation from the Aerospace Research Pilots’ School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Prior to his selection as an astronaut, along with Cunningham, in October 1963, Eisele served as a project engineer and test pilot at the Air Force’s Special Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The easygoing Eisele’s performance as an astronaut is hinted at by Deke Slayton in his autobiography, when he notes that his original intention was to “try out some of the guys who, frankly, I thought were weaker’’ on the Apollo 1 mission. “My original rotation had Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee as the senior pilot and pilot, working for Gus,’’ he continued. Had it not been for the fact that Eisele damaged his shoulder during a zero-G training flight aboard a KC-135 aircraft just before Christmas 1965, he might have been in the senior pilot’s seat aboard Apollo 1, instead of Ed White. Instead, Slayton considered it easier to swap Eisele for White, the latter of whom was previously attached to Wally Schirra’s original Apollo 2 crew.
Eisele quickly assumed the moniker ‘Whatshisname’, bestowed upon him by Schirra and Cunningham, when nobody seemed to be able to pronounce his surname. Phonetically, it ran EYE-SEL-EE, but when NASA Administrator Jim Webb tried to introduce the crew to President Lyndon Johnson, he mistakenly called him Donn ‘Isell’. ‘‘From then on,’’ Schirra wrote, ‘‘Donn was ‘Whatshisname’’’.
Eisele’s career, in addition to Apollo 7, was harmed by a particularly ugly divorce from his wife Harriet, the result of an affair which caused his work in the astronaut office to suffer. Indeed, the pressures of the job had led many astronauts to look elsewhere, outside the marital home, and after Eisele it would be John Young who would next go through a divorce. Unlike Eisele, however, Young did not allow his personal life to disrupt his work and remained devoted to the space programme. Stories would abound over the years that the funeral of one astronaut killed in the early Sixties – his name was never divulged – was attended not only by his wife and family. . . but also by his long-term mistress, discreetly escorted to the ceremony by a close and trusted friend.
In spite of the criticisms levelled at them in the wake of Apollo 7, both Eisele and Cunningham were at least considered for backup roles on future missions. The former had already been assigned to serve as the backup command module pilot on Apollo 10, the dress-rehearsal for the first lunar landing. For Tom Stafford, the commander of that mission’s prime crew, however, Eisele’s assignment was little more than “a temporary step into oblivion’’. Cunningham, on the other hand, would work for several years on the United States’ space station project, Skylab, and even trained as backup commander for its first mission. He “wanted to fly again,’’ wrote Deke Slayton. “In spite of the flight operations opinion that he shouldn’t, I wasn’t going to rule him out. But it was a numbers game.’’ Cunningham, like Eisele, never flew again.
Ronnie Walter Cunningham was born on 16 March 1932 in Creston, Iowa, and came to be seen as one of ‘the scientists’ among the astronaut corps, owing to his credentials as a civilian physicist. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1960 and 1961, respectively, then began doctoral research, which he completed, save for his final thesis. However, his military experience certainly paralleled his scientific knowledge: he joined the Navy in 1951, began flight training and served on active duty, then as a reservist, with the Marine Corps. ‘‘In the Navy, in those days, you ran the risk of being assigned to torpedo bombers or transport pilots,’’ Cunningham recalled, ‘‘and the Marine Corps guaranteed you that your first tour. . . would be flying single-engine fighter planes.’’ He remained a reservist throughout his astronaut career. Prior to selection as one of ‘The Fourteen’ in October 1963, Cunningham worked for the Rand Corporation, performing research in support of classified projects and problems relating to the magnetosphere.
‘‘I was working on defence against submarine-launched ballistic missiles, trying to write in… the crudest fashion the equations that would intercept a missile on the rise,’’ Cunningham explained. ‘‘At the same time, I was doing my doctoral work on the Earth’s magnetosphere. It was a tri-axial search coil magnetometer and we were trying to measure fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. It was during this period that I applied and got accepted at NASA. I never did finish the thesis.’’
As a non-test pilot, possessing an air of academia and a self-confessed irreverance to authority, Cunningham stood out among the Fourteen. He ‘‘seemed determined to be different from the rest of us,’’ wrote his 1963 classmate Gene Cernan, ‘‘whether reading The Wall Street Journal while we busted our asses during a classroom lecture or driving a Porsche instead of a Corvette.’’ He would also lose support through his criticisms, notably over the performance of Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott during the Gemini VIII emergency. When Cunningham claimed years later that he, Schirra and Eisele had been tarred and feathered for their antics on Apollo 7, Cernan would retort that it was ‘‘probably with good reason’’.