STORY LINK: "The Real Space Cowboys" on Space.com
"The Real Space Cowboys”
by Michelle Evans, January 2006
We have been very lucky of late to have a great many books being written about the early days of the space program, often with direct input from those who took part. Publishing houses such as Apogee Books saw the need for more details to come to light and have provided a wonderful outlet through their series of space books. One of the latest among their offerings is The Real Space Cowboys, by Ed Buckbee and astronaut Wally Schirra.
In addition to the books themselves is often the opportunity to get a more personal perspective on things when the authors tour for talks and book-signing events. The Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego is one of the best locations that regularly hosts these types of programs, and Francis French, who organizes them, usually makes sure to invite the Orange County Space Society to participate.
Back in May, there were two events almost back-to-back. The first involved the authors of The Real Space Cowboys, while the other featured the widow of moonwalker Pete Conrad, with her book, Rocketman. First up will be Buckbee and Schirra. Watch for Nancy Conrad in a future issue of O.C.Space.
Ed Buckbee was a close colleague of Wernher von Braun for many years, serving as a NASA Public Affairs Officer at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He was personally selected by von Braun to be the first director of the newly-established U.S. Space and Rocket Center outside the gates of Marshall. He then worked directly with von Braun to found Space Camp, which now has facilities in several countries around the world, including Space Camp Turkey, founded by OCSS member Kaya Tuncer.
Wally Schirra is best known as one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, becoming the fifth American to launch into space aboard Sigma 7 in October 1962. He went on to fly in the Gemini program and was the only astronaut to fly all three initial space programs when he commanded Apollo 7 in October 1968.
In San Diego, both Ed and Wally were able to talk with the large crowd that gathered to meet them and purchase copies of their collaborative book. OCSS provided a display for the event, including special photographs and models of Wally’s flights from the collection of myself and Jim Busby.
Ed was first at the podium, telling us, “We remember the 1959-1960 timeframe when we were getting our butts kicked by the Russians, it was decided that we would have a special group of men selected, and seven of our very best would go into that new ocean we called space. It was a real challenge for this country.”
During the presentation by Ed, he showed us a famous photo of that special group of men posing in front of an F-106 fighter jet. He pointed out that if you look closely at the photo you will see that no two of the pilots are dressed in the same flightsuit, or even have the same type of shoes.
“Here we are,” Ed said, “very proud of these heroes that had been selected, and we in the public affairs business were supposed to present them to the public and they showed up in this kind of outfit. Immediately, the discussion around the office was that we needed to have a charm school and teach these guys how to dress!”
Even though they dressed shoddily, they took their piloting and astronaut duties very seriously.
In the early days of the program, many test flights were accomplished using chimps to verify systems before the men were allowed to do it themselves. This was a major sticking point for these guys, and Ed knew better than to rub it in.
“I learned early on never to use the word monkey and astronaut in the same sentence. I assure you I never met an astronaut that had anything good to say about chimps, primates, or monkeys, you name it. For a while, they lived together in the same building and the astronauts had to walk by the cages of the animals, and you can imagine what the animals threw at the astronauts as they were walking by. So, I learned early on that you just didn’t mix the two.”
Wally explained how, “we were all very much shook up by [the Soviet satellite] Sputnik. By the time we got started in ‘59, the seven of us mustering up together, the Russians launched a dog into space. It was called Laika, and we called it ‘Muttnik.’ Later, we were trying to get Shepard ready for a flight and suddenly they launched Gagarin. We had one more chimp flight to go. We were getting thousands of telegrams from the ASPCA, so we honored that and we did not fly the chimp, we flew Shepard.”
Our space program was a crash program to catch the Russians and surpass their achievements. This eventually led to our landing the first humans on the Moon in 1969. But getting there took a lot of doing. One thing that had to be done was “man-rating” a booster before an astronaut could take a ride.
Ed mentioned how Al Shepard asked him once how they actually man-rated a rocket, so he told Al, “They put more fuel in it and a bigger package of dynamite in case they had to blow it up. I don’t think he appreciated my explanation of ‘man-rating.’”
Making jokes was the way to lighten the sometimes awful burden all of the people tasked with getting Americans into space had to bear. Wally said, “Levity is a lubricant of a crisis. We resort to jokes, pranks, good-natured kidding to relieve tension, stress, and boredom.”
This led to the establishment of one of the more unusual institutions, The Turtle Club. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here since many of our readers already know of the club and its requirements. Suffice it to say that in a stressful time, such as in the middle of a launch to orbit, someone on the radio asking, “Are you a Turtle?” could easily change your whole attitude. For anyone requiring additional explanation, The Real Space Cowboys provides a full accounting of club membership.
Another way to relieve tension was through what they called “gotchas.” Wally was one of the most famous for pulling these pranks, but others got involved, too. Some gotchas were simple and others were elaborate setups. Ed was involved with a famous gotcha while he was in charge of establishing the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida. This one was played on Al Shepard, America’s first man in space.
“All the guys were donating their stuff and all of the astronauts wanted to know what the other guy had. Shepard kept asking, ‘Has Wally sent his stuff in yet?’ I said, ‘No, but I think it’s coming.’ So I called up Shepard one day and said, ‘The truck arrived today. You won’t believe what Wally has given us.’ We took everybody’s stuff, from all the astronauts, put it in one room, then we put a sign on it that said, ‘Lieutenant Commandeer Walter M. Schirra, Jr. Memorabilia Archives.’ We bring Shepard in and we open up the big doors and here’s this truckload of stuff that belongs to everybody. Shepard says, ‘Holy, #$%&! Wally had all of that?’ It was a good gotcha.”
An interesting piece of trivia is that almost every time the Mercury 7 astronauts made an appearance together they all lined up in alphabetical order: Carpenter, Cooper, Glenn, Grissom, Schirra, Shepard, and Slayton, also know as: CCGGSSS. Four of the group are now gone or, as Wally now likes to point out, “I’m the only S left. I’m the smart S of the group.”
The entire day in San Diego was a lot of fun for everyone involved and the book is highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in space history. But what of the future? I had the opportunity to ask Wally about how he felt concerning the direction we are now headed in space and in a rare moment of complete seriousness, he answered me.
“I think we have a new Administrator who’s making some pretty good marks. He’s talking about going to Hubble, for example, taking his time and getting things organized instead of rushing into it. I maintain that all three times we’ve lost a crew, Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, they all three were part of what I call ‘Go Fever.’ The system started coming apart and got worse and worse and worse. As we look back over the Columbia accident, we see that there was a history of things coming off and impacting the orbiter. Now we’re using our heads and saying that there’s no rush. Let’s do this thing right.”
What seems to be the consensus is that we knew how to do things back during Apollo, and maybe now we are finally going the right way again. Ed talks of the Moon landings and says, “I like to remind people that the scoreboard reads: U.S.-12, Russia-0.”