NASA Johnson Space Center
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Catherine Harwood
Las Cruces, New Mexico – 13 April 1999
Harwood: It is April 13th, 1999, and we are interviewing Col. Frank
Borman in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Let’s start a little bit pre-NASA.
I want to start with a question that relates to when you were at West
Point [Military Academy, New York]. I guess you were lucky enough
to have Vince Lombardi as your backfield coach, I understand, when
you were there. And–
Well, that was quite a football team. Earl Blaik was the head coach.
I was the lowly manager, but Vince Lombardi was a coach. Sid Gilman
was a coach. Murray Wurmouth was a coach. There were all kinds of
people that went on to greater fame in sports that were working for
Well, one of the questions that the historians behind us wanted to
know is whether Vince Lombardi in your—and your dealings with
him then, did it have any impact? He’s known as such a—you
know, his management style as a coach, other people have adopted in
business. Did it have any effect on you as you went on in your career?
No, I don’t think so. He was very emotional, very intense. And
he was a perfect compliment to Col. Blaik. So, but—you know,
as I said, I was a lowly manager and I—and that didn’t
really much of that rub off.
Let’s talk about: You were teaching at West Point when Sputnik
—in 1957. Do you recall what your thoughts were when that happened?
Yeah. I was really concerned. To be honest with you, I’d never
even thought about rockets or space before. I—you know, I was
into airplanes and I was a fighter pilot and I was only at West Point
teaching over my great regret. I didn’t want to do it, but the
military said, “That’s your job,” so I went to do
it. And when they launched Sputnik, it was a real shock to me because
it appeared that the—you know, there was a real Cold War going
on back then, and it appeared that the Russians had got a big leg
Was it—you know, following that, we tried to launch Vanguard
in December of that year and it failed. Did you have—what were
your concerns right then about our capabilities?
Well, I think the concerns then were: When are we going to catch up?
I believe I was typical of a lot of people my age at that time. We
were very concerned; and, of course, there—the political climate
was exploiting the so-called “missile gap,” which turned
out never existed but it made an impact.
Did you—when we were successful and launched Explorer 1, do
you remember what your thoughts were then?
Oh I was very happy. Very pleased. Of course then the Russians trumped
us with [Yuri A.] Gagarin, so we were back in the mess again.
But even back then, did you see yourself playing a role in any of
it? Or were you interested as a citizen, as a military—
I was interested in it as a Air Force officer and as an American citizen.
I had no idea, no concept, or any desire to participate in that part
of the business.
When you did get involved with rockets and then you played a role
in developing the [Lockheed] F-104 Starfighter, how did that come
about? I mean, how involved did you get personally?
When I left West Point, I went to the [Air Force] Test Pilot School
[Edwards Air Force Base, California]. And then I stayed on there to
teach because they were starting in what they called the graduate
program, an advanced test pilot program, that would lead to, hopefully,
prepare people to fly in space. And as a result of that, we wanted
to get an airplane that would give you some sort of a feeling of reentry
at a fraction of the cost of the Norbet, and so we—a friend
of mine and myself came up with the idea of putting rockets on a 104.
And we were in the process of running that through the Air Force and
got it approved by everybody in the Air Force, and then I went to
NASA. So I never even got to fly it! [laughs]
You never did get to fly in it?
Did you—I guess when you got the word that you were going to
become an astronaut (and I don’t know that you necessarily had
to resign from the pilot school), but I read that your commanding
officer was actually [Gen.] Chuck [Charles E.] Yeager.
Go through that story of what you went to tell him.
Well I applied for the astronaut program, and the Air Force was very
keen on getting people in the program. And as a matter of fact, we—those
of us that were successful were interviewed and told by a Gen. Curtis
LeMay, who was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, in no uncertain
terms that we were warriors in a Cold War and that—that our
job was to go to NASA, do good for the country, and make the Air Force
look good. I went back and I—
Incidentally, I just saw Chuck Yeager in Kissimmee [Florida], too.
But anyway, I went back and I walked in, and I never will forget:
He was sitting at his desk. And I said, “Colonel, I’ve
got some good news.” And he said, “What’s that?”
And I said, “I just heard from NASA that I’ve been accepted.
I’m going to be joining the astronaut program.” And he
didn’t even look up. He said, “Well, Borman, you can kiss
your blank career—Air Force career goodbye.” [laughs]
So that was my sendoff from the Air Force. Actually, I never left
the Air Force but from Edwards.
Right. Did you know, I know, you know, Chuck Yeager—so much
was made of Chuck Yeager years later, and people have this one view
of him. I mean, you worked with him. What were your feelings about
Well, he was a great—he is a great patriot and a great guy to
work for. He’s mellowed a lot, as I said I saw him in Kissimmee
this year. But he would give you a job and let you do it. It was very,
very good to have him at the Test Pilot School because he had a lot
of clout in the Air Force, and we were trying to build up and get
the airplanes and get the resources to really start this program;
and he was very instrumental in helping us.
Do you think his—the bitterness that we’ve all been led
to believe he felt about not getting the chance to be an astronaut,
do you think that was overplayed or—?
I don’t think he even wanted to be astronaut. I think by then
he was a colonel in the Air Force, and I think he was a happy camper
All right. Let’s move on to the NASA experience. What did you
expect when you were—I mean, you had some idea of the astronaut
program because, you know, you had that original Mercury seven to
look to. But what were your expectations? What were your family’s
expectations of the experience?
That we were going into the great unknown, to be honest with you.
I had been to the Cape [Canaveral, Florida] once before in conjunction
with this program we’d started at Edwards, so I knew something
about the Cape. But interestingly enough, we got down there (three
Air Force officers), and NASA wouldn’t let in! So it was a great,
big unknown. I don’t know what to expect. Certainly my wife,
with two small children, didn’t know what to expect. We kind
of went there like babes in the wood.
Now when you say you went down there, “three Air Force officers,”
was that was when you were on Starfighter? Or was—
That’s when we were at the Test Pilot School. We went down to
watch a launch, and we didn’t have the right credentials to
get in. [laughs]
Oh that’s funny.
That’s funny. Were there any goals? Like, back in 1962 when
you were chosen, that you think: “Oh, I have these goals.”
And how—when you were—when you left in 1970, had you met
all those goals? Or—
No, I had not I’ve never been a person that set a goal that—my
reason for joining NASA was to participate in the Apollo Program,
the lunar program, and hopefully beat the Russians. I never looked
at it for any individual goals. I never wanted to be the first person
on the Moon or I and frankly, as far as I was concerned, when Apollo
11 was over the mission was over. The rest was frosting on the cake.
They gave the astronauts kind of these technical assignments, too,
and I guess you had boosters on Titan II. Why did they give you that
specialty, do you know?
I have no idea how they handled out the specialties. I was just told
that I was going to be specializing in boosters; and so I went to
the Titan II and then to the Apollo, the Saturn V Program down at
[George C. Marshall Space Flight Center] Huntsville [Alabama].
Did you have any expertise in that area that—
I had no special expertise in that area. I had a—I had been
teaching Thermodynamics, and I had a master’s degree in Aeronautical
Engineering, so maybe they thought that was some way, you know, helpful.
Did they think maybe your experience with the Starfighter might—?
No, see because the Starfighter—I never—I flew the 104
a lot, but I never got to fly the one with the rockets on it. That
came after I was gone. Now we did an awful lot of work—an awful
lot of work—in high-drag landings (that I hope are helpful to
the—what the Shuttle is doing now) with the 104. But of course
that had no application in the Apollo Program.
There is a committee that you were on that—I don’t want
to say “There’s mystery about it,” but it—the
Crew Safety Committee that you were on, I guess, from ’63 to
’64. Just—can you—do you even remember what that
was? Or can you clarify what it was?
I don’t have any idea what it was. I can’t remember. It
wasn’t very important. I—the main thing that I had as
the rocket specialist was to make certain that the crew had a chance
to escape in the event of an anomaly with the launch. I remember:
We went to Aerojet once to look at—for—to look at a Titan
II firing. And I was concerned (we were all concerned) that—the
Titan has two barrels. And we were concerned that—what we be
the turning moment if one of those barrels failed at launch. And,
the Aerojet people informed us that that could never happen. There
were all kinds of safety devices. We would never have a failure mode
where one rocket would—where one barrel wouldn’t light.
So they proceeded to turn it on, and guess what happened? Only one
barrel lit. You never saw more chagrined Aerojet people in the world.
But they fixed it.
So I guess your role on that committee, you made a difference. I hear
them hammering. You’re—
OFF CAMERA: We are recording again.
All right. I wanted to ask you an interesting story about Gemini III
in that—that you kind of had an idea you were going to be [Virgil
I.] Gus Grissom’s copilot and then he had you over to dinner.
And what happened?
I was told that I was going to be a—fly with Gus on the first
flight of Gemini. No, he didn’t have me to dinner, but I went
over to his house to talk to him about it. And we had a long talk,
and [laughs] after that I was scrubbed from the flight. So I guess
that I didn’t pass the test with Grissom.
Do you know why?
Don’t know why. Nobody ever said anything to me about it.
And you never asked him?
I never asked. Could have cared less.
[laughs] How come you couldn’t care less?
Well, you know, if they didn’t want me, I didn’t want
to be there.
Yeah. But not everybody has that personality.
Well [laughs], I’m stuck with it!
It served you well. Well then, let’s move on to Gemini IV, where
you were the backup crew.
Did you take part in EVA [extravehicular activity] training for that,
No, I didn’t take part in the EVA training. As a matter of fact,
I was against putting the EVA in the mission. They—you know,
they added the EVA quite late in the program in response to [Soviet
Cosmonaut Alexei A.] Leonov’s EVA, and I was concerned about
the ability to pull it off. But [Pilot] Ed [Edward H. White II] and
[Commander] Jim [James A. McDivitt] were very anxious to do it; and,
of course, it worked out very well. I was wrong.
Now you—there’s numerous examples over your career of
when you do speak out about things like that. And you say, you know,
“This is too much.” Or—
What was the—how was that taken at the time? I mean, was it
Well, I thought it was taken well. I thought NASA, at that time, was
about as good a management team as you could get because they expected
everybody to tell how they felt, to express their concerns, to, you
know, reasonably and effectively say what they felt. But then once
the decision was made, they also expected you to pitch in. And when
they made the decision I pitched in. It was—it seems to me that’s
the ideal way for management to work.
Once the decision was made to go ahead with the EVA, I guess the crew
really did push for a spacesuit with a new, special kind of coating:
a G4C with a cover layer. Were you involved in that at all, in trying
to transition to a newer suit?
I was not.
Okay. The mission when you flew, on Gemini VII, in a 14-day mission,
do you remember what your thoughts were when they first said to you,
Well, Gemini VII was looked upon among the astronaut group as, you
know, not much of a pilot’s mission. Just sort of a medical
experiment mission, which it was. And we got the mission as you know,
I think one of the great people in NASA was Deke [Donald K.] Slayton.
He was—he had the integrity that was required; and I never talked
to him once about crew assignments. I’ve heard that other people
would try to lobby him for it, but I didn’t. And I figured when
they gave me Gemini VII, we’d do the best we could with it.
And fortunately I didn’t have a choice in [Pilot James A.] Lovell
[Jr.] either, but it turns out that was wonderful. Jim Lovell was
a wonderful guy to spend 14 days with in a very small place. But the—we
had a lot of interesting things. You know, some of the doctors said,
“Oh well, in order to do that you’re going to have to
simulate it on Earth and see if you can stay in one g for 14 days.”
And I, you know, “They’re out of their mind. Fourteen
days sitting in a straight-up ejection seat on Earth? You’re
And so I was able—NASA at that time listened to the crewmembers
when—in areas. We were able to get that nonsense kicked out
in a hurry. And then we just went about our business, doing the best
So they wanted you all to (what?) simulate—
Yeah! Two weeks in one g! Come on, give me a break! That didn’t
—with no bathroom breaks or anything?
—no. Just in one g.
Just you and—
Well, I don’t think you could do that.
—just you and Jim Lovell?
When things went wrong with hooking up with, you know, Wally [Walter
M.] Schirra’s [Jr.] part of that part of your mission, in hooking
up with VI-A; and, you know,—and that mission was juggled around
and changes were suggested; and you played a role in deciding what
was finally going to happen. Walk us through that.
Well, we were down at the Cape for the launch of Gemini VI, and the
Agena went off and everybody thought they had a good target vehicle.
It turns out it blew up after it was out of sight. But in any event,
before we walked out of that blockhouse, John [F.] Yardley and Chris
[Christopher C.] Kraft and some others were already starting, “How
can we use Gemini VII as a target vehicle?” And it—that
was NASA at that time. There was a tremendous imperative to do—to
reach the Moon before the Russians.
Were you—what was your initial reaction? I guess it was George
[M.] Low and John Yardley were really driving that thing of, “Let’s
let you hook up with—”
I don’t think it was George Low as much as it was John Yardley
and then Chuck [Charles W.] Mathews, who was running the Gemini Program.
Low may’ve had a hand in it. I don’t know. But in any
event, I was all for it. I thought it was great. And this is another
example of the flexibility in management that made NASA so successful.
When—there’s a story about when you were—when Wally
Schirra had hung up this sign in the window: “Beat Army.”
And that you purposely misread it?
That’s right. [laughs]
What are your memories of that moment? Take us through this.
Well, that’s true. We were—we’d—Lovell and
I had been up there for 11 or 12 days (I don’t remember how
long). And we were tired, and the systems on the spacecraft were failing.
We were running out of fuel, and it was a real high point to see this
bright light (it looked like a star) came up, and then eventually
we could see it was a Gemini vehicle. And we found that we could—we
had very limited fuel. But we found that the autopilot for the controls
were perfect. You could fly formation with no problem. And then Wally
slapped up the thing: “Beat Army.”
Wally was always one to inject some levity into the program. And,
God bless him, he really did a good job in everything he did. He just
has a different—he has that little quirk of being able to include
some fun with things. I never had that. I didn’t think much
about the “Beat Army” sign, although it was fun at the
Why do you think you didn’t like to take part in all the practical
I guess it’s just the way I’m built. I don’t have
any other reason. You know, I would have—well, when—on
Apollo (we’re skipping ahead, but)—when on Apollo, when
we opened up the dinner for Christmas and I found somebody had included
brandy in there, you know, I didn’t think that was funny at
all. Because you and I both know, if we’d have drunk one drop
of that damn brandy and the thing would have blown up on the way home,
they’d have blamed the brandy on it. You know, I wanted to do
the mission and I didn’t care about the other crap. I didn’t
care about the food or anything else. I just wanted to get it done.
Were there any other things from your Gemini mission that—and
they specifically want you to tell, maybe things that weren’t
in your book Countdown? Any stories that you’ve—?
No. I—the interesting thing—one of the interesting things
was flying formation with the second stage that put us into orbit
and using an infrared sensor to track that. We referred to it as a
“bogey” all the time, which was natural, normal parlance
for it. And when we got back, True magazine wrote a big story about
how we’d been tracking a UFO and all that nonsense. So I’ve
been plagued with that ever since. People say, “Well,”—if
you run into UFO circles today, they’ll still tell you, well,
we saw a UFO. Which is just foolish.
And look where you moved.
Look where you moved. UFO country. Las Cruces.
That’s right! [laughs] Over here in—
—over here in Roswell [New Mexico]. That’s right. But
the last few days were really trying. And, you know, the—I was
very concerned about the fuel cells. And again, this was another example,
I—of the concern that I had being really put to rest by Chris
Kraft. He came on and told me, “Yeah, we have enough fuel in
the fuel cells. It’s going to be all right to go the whole 14
days.” And so I had so much confidence in him, I quit worrying
It was a tough flight. Talk about readjusting, when you got down.
I mean, were you surprised at—?
Well, we had a—you know, the doctors had made (as they did all
the time in that era)—made more out of it than it really was.
So they had Lovell with garters on that pneumatically contracted and
then let out to try to impede the blood flowing back to the heart
and to make the—trick the body and to think it was in one g.
I was a control mechanism. I didn’t have any. And the thought—some
people even said that when we—when the Gemini snapped upright
as we were on the parachute, that we would pass out or perhaps even
die. And of course, we didn’t. And it—about the only thing
that I really felt after 2 weeks like that were the—our leg
muscles were shot. And it took about 3 or 4 days; and I guess you
could feel it for a week or so afterwards. But it wasn’t any
Can you imagine what it would be like to stay up on [Russian space
station] Mir for, you know, 6 months or—?
I admire those people. It would take an awful lot of mental toughness,
self-discipline, and it would take a (I hope they have) means to (I’m
sure they do)—they have means to exercise some while they’re
up there. But I have great admiration for those people.
What did you miss the most when you were up there? What comforts of
It wasn’t much—so much miss so much, it was just putting
up with what we had to put up with. The food didn’t bother me
or anything else. It was boring. You know, when you’re out of
attitude control fuel and you’re just drifting, tumbling through
space, time goes slow.
Yet some of the descriptions of what you all had to put up with: the
bathroom facilities are—
Oh the bathroom facilities were primitive. But it’s—
Yeah. That’s being kind.
Well, that’s right; I was being kind. But, again, we were very
fortunate. Well, I was very fortunate because Lovell was a great partner.
We even ended up—I don’t know how in the world we could,
but in that small area, somehow, that small volume, we lost a toothbrush.
We ended up sharing a toothbrush! [laughs]
It’s like being on a Boy Scout camping trip.
You know, you’d been on Gemini and then you were there when
the Apollo spacecraft was being developed. And it was two different
companies: you had McDonnell [Aircraft Corporation]for one, and then
you had North American [Aviation, Inc.] for Apollo. So it’s
kind of like that first taste of switching contractors. What do you
remember from that process? Any differences in the—?
It was like going from night to day. McDonnell was much more informal
and, you know, I think everybody really had a great deal of respect
for Mr. [James S.] McDonnell [Jr.], for John Yardley, and for Walter
[F.] Burke. And it was a sort of a countrified company. I don’t
know: You just had the feeling of people that did their work and weren’t
very fancy about it. You went to North American, and they had layers
and layers of briefers and this and that and the other things, and
customer service or customer reps. I don’t know. It was also
a feeling what—that I had the feeling, “Well, we built
the X-15. We did this. We did that. We know more than everything about
it.” You know, so—
What? That they felt that knew more?
Knew more than you? Do you think that played a role, that feeling,
in then what would later happen with Apollo 1?
I’m not sure. I remember one of the first times I went out there
and flew the Apollo simulator. And I pulled this—the hand controller
back, and the nose went down; and I reversed it, and the nose went
up. I called the engineer over and I said, “You got the polarity
reversed on this hand controller.” And he said, “Oh no,
that’s the way we’re going to use it. That’s the
way we’re going to fly it because it makes rendezvousing easy.
It makes docking easier because, when you pull back on the stick,
your nose goes down but the target goes up. You see,” and “That’s
the way we were going to do it.” But this is another example
of NASA. I said, “Well, look, that may be the way you’re
going to do it, sitting here on your ass as an engineer, but that’s
not the way we’re going to do it.” And I called back to
the Apollo Program Office, and I got it changed right there. Because
these were things that you could do.
And it was—you know, I’ve often thought today in the climate
we’re in that you’ll probably have a Human Factors Committee.
And part of the reason is that they don’t have a real urgent
mission now. We did then. I was very fortunate.
Did—in fact—and they were going to try to make you go
against all those years of instinct?
All the years of training! Everybody was there was a pilot, you know.
Well, “We’ve got a better way of doing it. We’re
North American. We’re engineer—we’re human factor
engineers. We understand this.”
We got it fixed.
Well, let’s talk about North American a little bit and the Apollo
1 fire. I’m—you know, you’ve said that you’re
a straight-shooter. So, you know, it comes out later that there was
criticism before the fire, that there was [Thomas R.] Baron’s
report in ’66 and then [Gen.] Sam [Samuel C.] Phillips had written
(I guess) his unpublished report criticizing North American. Were
you aware of any of that, though, at the time?
I was aware of the fact—as a matter of fact, we were assigned
to the crew early on with one of the Block 1 spacecraft. But Gus [Grissom]
and Ed [White] and Roger [B. Chaffee] were leaders in that, and I
was aware they were having a lot of trouble with the spacecraft. But
you know, when we were assigned our individual missions, we sort of
focused on that; and the feedback would come through Deke or through
meetings we’d have. But nobody felt it as intensely as the people
that were involved in it. But I did know they were having a lot of
trouble with the spacecraft.
Did you know things had been written? Like, that somebody had actually
put down on paper?
About the Phillips report? No, I didn’t know that.
Okay. The other astronauts’ complaints. Like, as you said, what
credence did you give them? You knew about them, but did you—?
I think everybody thought, “Well, it’s a first time. It’s
a very complicated vehicle. These are things that will work out.”
I’m sure that’s the way the crew felt, you know; that
they were disgusted, they were trying to make it happen. But I’m
sure they felt it would get fixed.
Did you have your own individual concerns at that point?
I did not.
I guess when the fire happened, I read that you were actually in a
cabin somewhere in Texas.
Where were you at? In Texas?
We were having dinner with some friends on a lake in Huntsville, Texas;
and a highway patrolman knocked on the door. And how in the world
anybody ever found that, I’ll never know, because I didn’t
tell a soul. It was my family and I were up there.
They said it was a Texas Ranger, I guess. Is that their—?
Well, I think it was a highway patrolman—
Knocked on the door?
Knocked on the door and said that I was supposed to call Houston right
away. And so I did, and that’s how I found out about it.
Did you immediately fly to the Cape?
Went back. Susan [Borman] and I left and drove back to Houston and
went to—went over to Ed White’s house, because Susan was
close to Pat White, and stayed there for—I left the next morning.
Did—what was your initial reaction? I mean, your—the human
Well, Ed White was a close friend of mine and we—our families
were close. And of course, your reaction is one of grief to begin
with. I mean, that’s normal. And then when you see, you know,
the devastation that creates in a family, you it’s difficult.
Did you—I know you said you went the next day, but from—again
from what I’ve read that—I don’t want to say you
were the first person in the spacecraft but—
I was not.
Would you—some people write it that way, that you were the first
person. Maybe what they mean is, were you the first other astronaut
to go in or the first person from the investigating team?
Well, I think what happened was: After they got the bodies out and
everything and we organized the committee down there, I was assigned
to the group that was to dismantle the spacecraft. So under that portfolio,
I was the first one in as we started to monitor—not monitor,
but to document where—what the switch positions were. I’d
go in and say, “You know, the ECS [environmental control system]
is in this position,” and the people would record it. So I was
really the first—I think I was probably the first one on the
investigating committee that went in. But there had been other people
Okay. And the bodies weren’t in there?
Or the—but when you—do you remember what it was like when
you first went in there? I mean, you were somebody who would be riding
in—could have easily been riding in there? I mean, that could’ve
been your assignment. What were your thoughts when you first went
in there and saw it?
Well, it was devastation and it was, you know—it was—your
thoughts were, “I—I can’t believe it could happen.”
I never—if you’re asking, “Did I reflect some personal?”
No, I didn’t do that. Again, I had a job to do and my job one
was recording the switches. Then the next thing was, we went through
and tried to understand where there might be bad insulation on it.
So it was a long, drawn-out process.
Did you ever have a thought like, “Can—we can’t
recover from this as an Agency?”
Never—in one instant.
And why not?
I guess it’s just the inherent optimism that people have that,
you know, we stubbed our toes. And you’ve got to remember: Look,
I’ve been around quite a few people that made holes in the ground.
And that’s it. You press on.
How—there was a lot of criticism of NASA and North American
during the investigation. A lot. I mean, how much do you think was
Very little of it. It was a media frenzy with people who wanted to
get their names in the paper. It—you know, we were—if
today you gave NASA the mission of going back to the Moon, I bet you
they couldn’t do it as fast as they did it back then. This was
uncharted territory, and a very complicated machine, with a very difficult
mission. And to expect that you weren’t going to have problems
It’s like the nitwit that was Secretary of Transportation (I
forgot what his name was) but—we will not—you know, “Our
goal: we’ll never have another accident.” You know, well
he should say, “We’ll do everything to make certain that
we do our best not to have another accident, but you know damn well
there’s going to be another accident.” Well, NASA had
one. And I got really kind of sick of the second-guessers.
How long do you think NASA kept in mind the lessons that they had
learned from Apollo 1?
I have no way of knowing because—I know they kept it in mind
very well while George Low and the people that were there were there.
I have no way of knowing whether that stayed with them or not.
I really can’t comment on NASA management because I left in
’70 and I never looked back.
You know, you’re on the review board and you’re sent out
to Downey to kind of lead that spacecraft redefinition team. And you’re
also trying to train for your Apollo 8 mission. How did you juggle
Well, no, I didn’t—I wasn’t training for the Apollo
My sole job then was: remember, I met Dr. [Robert R.] Gilruth in the
hall somewhere and he said, “Look, we’re going to put
George Low in charge of the Apollo spacecraft or Project Office, and
we’d like you to go out to North American and implement or help
to oversee the implementation of the changes that the Program Office
in Houston were mandating for the spacecraft.” And so I just
said, “Yes, sir,” and went—and then I went.
What was that like to be out there? I mean, you described your initial
perception of the company; and now you’re sent out there to
kind of be—
Well, I had a good team: Aaron Cohen, Doug [Douglas R.] Broome, and
we had—and Scotty [Scott H. Simpkinson]. We had about four or
five people that knew their job, knew their business, and we just
worked our fannies off.
Any stories that stand out from that experience of changes you think
you were able to make and—?
Well, a lot of the changes that they were proposing weren’t
changes at all that wouldn’t have maybe really been effective.
Like the change in the oxygen system. But we were able to make an
input there. But, you know, George Low was one of the giants of the
program, and he ran that Change Board so that things didn’t
get by him that were too frivolous or that were—and then I was
faced with the problem: Guys would fly out and try to put their own
changes in. So we controlled it all pretty well.
We had an argument with George [E.] Mueller once about the—we
added a lot of weight to the spacecraft. And as a result of that,
they were going to have to change the way the parachute de-reefed.
And he didn’t want to test the new parachute. But I won that
battle, too. See, NASA was really—NASA at that time would listen
to people that were on the spot and that were not—that were—that
they had confidence in. I was very fortunate to be a part of that
Do you know why, or have you ever found out why, looking back, that
you were selected to be on the Apollo 1 Review Board?
I don’t know.
Any speculation on your part about why? I mean, there was a lot of
Oh, I’d been working on the spacecraft. Maybe they felt I had
some familiarity with the [spacecraft]. I have no idea. Like I said,
if Slayton said, “do it” I went and did it.
Maybe it’s because you were the only one who didn’t play
those gotcha games. Who knows?
I don’t know. [laughs]
I don’t know.
How did you view your management style? I mean, in a way that was—in
some ways kind of your first taste of managing. You had sub-panels
to management. How did—how would you describe your management
Well, I think that the management that NASA had there (which I think
is the appropriate one), you gave people responsibility for doing
it, you checked on them, but you did not try to micromanage it. And
you were—you know, NASA at that time demanded the best; and
if you didn’t cut it, you were gone. And we had the best. At
North American, NASA flexed its muscles and the whole hierarchy was
gone. Bill [William B.] Bergen came in and Buzz [Bastian] Hello. So
North American really became almost a sub [contractor] to NASA after
Do you think that played a role in being able to so quickly recover?
Absolutely. Just take a look at the difference in recovery time between
the Apollo and the Shuttle.
Yeah. It’s remarkable.
In fact, did you have a moment where you’d think, “We’re
not going to fulfill [President John F.] Kennedy’s goal of doing
it before the end of the decade” after the fire?
I guess I’m an optimist. I never doubted that we’d do
it. I never doubted we’d do it. And in that, you know, I wanted
to beat Kennedy’s goal—I wanted to meet Kennedy’s
goal. But the more important thing to me was beating the Russians.
There—this—I took very seriously this Cold War and the
idea that we were somehow second-rate to a Communist country.
Did—in terms of your Apollo 8 training and I guess the backup
mission, you know, in case they decided you weren’t going to
go orbit the Moon was (I guess) to spend 10 days in orbit.
Did you train for that contingency?
You just refused to acknowledge it existed?
[laughs] We figured we’d figure out what to do if it came about!
Did they make you train? Or did you just—
They didn’t—they—I—look we—I really
think that that would’ve been wired or called up to us telling
us what to do. We didn’t train for it.
What were your thoughts about being the first flight on a Saturn V?
Well, I had worked with the Huntsville people a lot. And I was confident
that when [Wernher] von Braun told me he’d fix the Saturn V
I, you know—I sure figured he’d fix the Saturn V. They—they
had some pogo problems before. But I was involved with a guy that
worked at Huntsville by the name of Jack Keutner in the crew safety
committee there, where we put in the crew safety automatic ejection
or automatic abort system. So I knew it pretty well. And I thought
it was a reasonable design.
We started off with—there were certain parts of the launch where
if you had a failure, crew reaction time wasn’t enough to abort.
So we said, “Okay, we’ll put in a gyroscope,” for
instance if you get a—“Well, then you get a gyroscope
failure,” then you’re gone with—“Well, we’ll
put in two gyroscopes.” Okay, you put in two gyroscopes; “Which
one are you going to believe?” So we ended up with three. And
we voted it: “If two out of three said go, you went.”
And that was a development of many—over many weeks of the people
at Huntsville. And it was, you know—I was confident in the Saturn
You know, I sound like a, you know, “People, if you believe
me, I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.” But I understood.
I had been with these people. And I had confidence that they would
do their job.
The—you know, you’re going to go do something that’s,
you know, nobody’s ridden on a Saturn V before. How do you prepare
your family for that?
I didn’t do a good job of it, but part of the reason that I
didn’t do a good job is that: my wife is a wonderful, wonderful
person who was a complete support system. When we got married in the
’50s, it was like a team. She had her job and I had my job.
And one of her jobs was to (I guess she had assumed it)—was
to not in any way show any kind of fear or any kind of trepidation
over what I was doing.
And so I never had the—I never really understood her concern.
Particularly after the fire, because she and Pat White were close
and she saw how Pat White was devastated. And, look, it’s as
I said: it wasn’t as if she hadn’t consoled widows before,
because she had. And not a lot—not too long before we come to
NASA. But in any event, I misread that; and so I just assumed that
she was as strong—stronger than she really was.
How did you manage to pick—to be lucky enough (speaking of your
wife) to pick July 20th, Moon landing day, as not only your wedding
anniversary but the birth of one of your children?
I know. I don’t understand that. I—and as a matter of
fact, you’re the first person that’s ever pointed that
out to me. [laughs]
You had to have thought about it, when we landed on the Moon on July
20th, that—the coincidence—
I didn’t even—I had forgotten it was July 20th.
You had a premonition. So it’s the day before your launch on
Apollo 8. And I had read that Charles Lindbergh actually came to visit
you all in the crew quarters. What did you all—?
Charles Lindbergh and Anne Lindbergh came and had lunch with us and—the
day before the launch; and we talked and talked and talked, and they
stayed and stayed and stayed. And we eventually got the conversation
around to his flight. It was a delightful afternoon. It really was.
Was he a hero of yours?
Not really. No.
I—my family was very, very pro-British and very, very pro-let’s
go help the British. And of course, Lindbergh was an America First’er.
And so Lindbergh was not a popular name in our house when I was a
child. On the other hand, I admired his (as I grew into the Air Force)
what he had done, and I liked him a lot. He was a—he was intellectually
very, very curious and very, very intent—even when he was asking
about the Apollo 8 flight.
So it’s—now it’s launch day, and they actually count
down, and they don’t delay. You’re really—I mean,
when did you have this sense, sitting up there, that this is really
going to happen and you’re really going to go?
Well, I think the big—greatest concern was that it wouldn’t
happen. I had two great concerns: I think the worst fear that I had
was that somehow the crew would foul up, and that was the one thing
that I did not want to happen. I want—you know, I had a great
team in Bill [William A.] Anders and Lovell, and I wanted to make
certain that we did and we could handle whatever was handed our way.
The second thing was, I didn’t want—really want the mission
to get fouled up because we really weren’t certain that the
Russians weren’t breathing down our backs. So I wanted to go
What was it like to lift off on that? I mean, there’s never
been another rocket like the Saturn V.
No, the Saturn V was a unique vehicle. And of course, it was powerful
and noisy and vibrated, and the stagings were really kind of violent.
But when you got on the third stage, the S-IVB, it was smooth and
quiet and was just like the upper stage of the Gemini. Actually, it
was less demanding than Gemini from a g standpoint, because it didn’t
reach the high-g’s. It burned, I think, 11 minutes or something
like that. It didn’t get to the high-g’s.
No fear at liftoff?
I on’t think there was any fear. The main fear, as I said, was
that somehow we’d screw up. I remember I had my hand on the
abort handle; and all I’d [have] had to do was like that and
it—we’d have been gone on. And so I was worried that the
vibration might—and yet I didn’t want to take my hand
off there, so that kind of concern was [it].
So the human element of things—
No, I’m not saying that, you know, it wasn’t exciting
and that there wasn’t a lot of anticipation of what was going
on. But Lovell and I had been there before. It wasn’t that bad.
The—you know, you—there’s the little things, like,
the closeout crew does before launch. And one of the little stories
(I know this was in the book A Man On the Moon) was that they gave
you a tiny stocking hanging from a paper Christmas tree. Do you know
why that was the gift they gave you?
I don’t even remember that. [laughs]
They had given Jim Lovell a clean, white handkerchief.
Where was that? Where did they do this?
It—on launch morning, as they’re suiting you up.
And you have—Guenter [Wendt] would always—.
I thought you meant at the pad.
No. You know how Guenter at the pad would give you little gifts.
Yeah. To be honest with you—
You don’t remember.
—I didn’t focus on that in that light.
I mean, obviously it was right before Christmas—
It was, yeah.
— I don’t know. What were your feelings when you knew
that you were going to have to go around to the dark side of the Moon?
It’s hard for us to fathom now that that was even, like, such
a big deal, that you don’t know. You know, can you come back
around? And, but—
It’s hard for us to fathom now. But the thing that’s interesting
about that mission was that, I don’t know, maybe half a dozen
of us sat in Chris Kraft’s office one afternoon and we went
over the flight plan, to try to understand what would we do on the—on—when
we got to the—or on the whole flight. And I’ve always
thought, again, it was an example of NASA’s leadership with
Kraft and their management style that we were able to hammer out,
in one afternoon, the basic tenets of the mission.
You know, the Tracking people wanted us to stay up there a month.
I didn’t want to stay more than one—it was a give-and-take,
and Kraft called the shots. So we ended up going around 10 times,
and I never really thought about, you know, going around behind—you’d
lose radio contact; but that’s about all.
It was—actually, the far side was lit, because the Sun was over
there. And it was a—I remember that, in order to go 10 revolutions
around the Moon, we had to launch at a certain time; but the recovery
would then be before sunrise. And the Recovery people were concerned
about that. But all this was thoroughly discussed, and then Kraft
made the decision. It wasn’t a committee; it wasn’t a—you
know, it was one man who had the knowledge to fly like that.
Well, you know, you’ve kind of been portrayed in some of the
things I’ve read as “Let’s do the mission and not
one thing more.”
Well, because—well, I—some idiot had the idea that on
the way to the Moon we’d do an EVA. Naw. You know, I guess I
shouldn’t call him “an idiot.” He was just stupid
to—you know, to put a—what do you want to do? What’s
the main objective? The main objective was to go to the Moon, do enough
orbits so that they could do the tracking, be the pathfinders for
Apollo 11, and get your ass home. Why complicate it with a bunch of
You had to decide: What is the primary objective? And then forget
it! I was—I couldn’t believe it when people proposed that
we open that damn hatch so you risk (or not risk) but you subject
the main mission to the possibility of failure with some of these
trivial things on the side. And I just wouldn’t buy that.
Now maybe it’s the—maybe it’s the thing—maybe
it’s the military background, you know. Because you always say,
“Okay, what’s the main objective? Let’s make sure
the main objective gets done, and put all your resources into your
main push. And don’t forget about the rest.”
Do you know what your feelings were when you all first dropped out
of that radio contact? And did you have any sense of the tension on
the ground as they’re waiting to pick you back up?
Not at that point. I think our—the time of greatest tension
in the spacecraft was when we fired the rocket to slow us up, and
when we fired the rockets to get us out of there. That was the time
To slow up, to go into Moon orbit.
Into lunar orbit, right.
And how did you know that—didn’t you actually, like, turn
it off, even though the computer would have shut it off? You shut
it off yourself to be safe?
Lovell, I think we—he had a—we back up the computer—we
backed up the computer on that. And also on starting we did, too.
But, the—we really didn’t know where we were from the
standpoint of, we knew where—from the standpoint of how high
we were in the lunar orbit. Except we had a—one of the timeline
things in the flight plan that would give you a pretty good idea that
you were on course is when you lost radio communication. And we lost
it right at the time we were supposed to.
When you got home and somebody sent you a telegram and—do you—that
said, you know, “Thank you for saving 1968,” did you—was
it a telegram sent to you that said that? What were—
To the crew of Apollo 8.
To the crew. I mean, did you know what they meant right away? And
Well, ’68 was a rotten year. [laughs] So you’re darn right
I knew what they meant! Yeah.
And did you—did it make you proud? How did that make you feel
to get that telegram?
Well, I was glad because, in a way it sort of endorsed what we had
done. You know, there were still naysayers about spending the money
on the Moon and all that whole lunar project, you know.
The—you didn’t want to bring the television camera along.
I didn’t want to bring a television camera.
So that’s true.
You didn’t want to bring it on?
I did not.
You wound up bringing it on.
I was dumb in that.
But you wound up bringing it along and you do the broadcast that,
to this day, I still remember watching—
—as a child. And it gives me chills right now thinking about
it. How did you come up with reading from Genesis and—?
Well, it’s another example of the wonderful country we live
in. Because Julian Sheer, who was the head of public information for
NASA in Washington, called me one day. He said, “You’re
going to have the largest audience that’s ever listened to or
seen a television picture of a human on Christmas Eve; and you’ve
got” (I don’t know) “5 or 6 minutes.” And
I said, “Well, that’s great, Julian. What are we doing?”
He said, “Do whatever’s appropriate.” That’s
the only instructions. But—and that’s the exact word,
“Do whatever’s appropriate.” Whatever you feel is
And to be honest with you, we were so involved in the mission (and
this was a peripheral one), so I just kind of farmed that out to a
friend of mine, Si [Simon] Bourgin, and (from Washington)—and
he came back—well, I guess he consulted with some of his friends
and came back with the idea of reading from Genesis. And I discussed
it with Bill and Jim, and we had it typed on the flight plan; and
that’s—I didn’t give it anymore thought than that.
And then the line at the end, you know, “on the good Earth.”
I think—On the good Earth. I think that Sy—I think that
Sy had printed that, too. Had sent it back.
Did you know when you were reading it, the effect—I mean, did
it have that effect on you all up there?
Looking back at the Earth on Christmas Eve had a great effect, I think,
on all three of us. I can only speak for myself. But it had for me.
Because of the wonderment of it and the fact that the Earth looked
so lonely in the universe. It’s the only thing with color. All
of our emotions were focused back there with our families as well.
So that was the most emotional part of the flight for me.
Speaking of that a little bit, I get the sense from—(again from
reading some of the recollections, especially Bill Anders’ recollections),
you know. He would’ve liked to look out the window a lot more;
and you were like his taskmaster in a way.
Well, he had a job to do. And again it gets back to, “Let’s
do the mission.” And you know, we weren’t there simply
as observers. We had a lot of job—Bill had a lot of jobs, and
he did them very well. And, you know, I think he felt, “Well,
you know, I don’t want to go to sleep here. We’re—”
But by the same token, I wanted everybody alert so that we ended up
getting home and that nobody fouled up their part of the procedures
to get us home.
So you literally made him take a nap at one point, right?
I sent him—yeah. We—I sent he and Jim underneath to get—they
were making mistakes. They were getting tired.
Any other recollections from Apollo 8 that you didn’t necessarily
include in your book? Stories you might’ve left out that [pauses].
No. I think I may have put in the book, but one of the other things
that always struck me was: when we were going over to—when I
was going over to testify before Congress on the results of the investigation,
I rode over with Mr. [James E.] Webb (Jim Webb), who was the Administrator
of NASA. And I never will forget, he said, “Look, I don’t
want you to do anything to try to protect me or to try to protect
NASA. The American people have a right to know exactly the unvarnished
truth, and you tell them.” That impressed me. I was going to
do it anyway but here was the man—you know, I just don’t
think that happens today. I can’t imagine the President today
telling me to say the unvarnished truth to anything, when he’s
such a liar himself!
Probably so. When your friend Jim Lovell went on to command Apollo
13 and all the problems happened, did you reflect back on your mission
at all? Or—you said you left and never looked back. But he was
a friend of yours obviously—
A good friend. Still is.
—still is. Did it make you reflect on your mission and what
if that had happened to—?
You know, I had a job then because the—no, that was Apollo 11.
No, I—on Apollo 13, I was just a bystander. No, I did have a
job in Apollo 13. Excuse me. I had—after Apollo 8, I had been
assigned to the White House as liaison to prepare for Apollo 11. And
so I got to know Mr. [President Richard M.] Nixon pretty well and
the people up there.
And on Apollo 13, Bob Gilruth called me and he said, “Look,
we just got the word that the Vice President, [Spiro T.] Agnew, is
coming down here.” He said, “That’s the last thing
we need. We’ve got a problem. We don’t want all the press.
We don’t want—” You know, Agnew was head of the
[Space Task Group]. He said, “You’ve been up in the White
House. Can’t you do anything? Please see if you can put him
to put that off.” So I called Bob (oh, I’ve forgotten
his name)—Bob—(What was Nixon’s right-hand man?
the hatchet man?)
I called Bob Halderman. Thank you. And I explained the situation to
him, and they stopped Agnew from taking off and sent him somewhere
else. So I performed on Apollo 13. [laughs]
You were still with the Agency?
I was. Yeah.
Yeah, you were still with the Agency. Did it—did you reflect
on what it would be like to be the astronaut in that experience?
No. Oh I figured that, again, Lovell knew that thing. I had confidence
in him, confidence in the people in the ground. If they could get
them back, they’d get back. If they couldn’t, they’d
be dead. It was as simple as that.
You know, Apollo 8 in many ways was a real gamble and it really took
a lot of guts on the part of the team who said, “We’re
going to go do this. And we’re going to try to get it done.”
And many people feel that we really wouldn’t have made it to
the Moon without doing that, that in some ways it was, like, the defining
mission that made Apollo 11 possible. Did you have that sense at the
I had the very—I was delighted when they changed the mission
to go to the Moon, because I didn’t want to go around the Earth
for another 14 days or whatever it was. But I think Apollo 8 was a
very important mission. But, you know, you also have to say: It wasn’t
just Apollo 8 that was an important mission, because 8 couldn’t
have happened without 7. If 7 hadn’t and if Wally and his crew
hadn’t done a perfect job, we couldn’t have gone on 8.
And 11 couldn’t have happened unless 9 and 10 were perfect.
It was a well-thought-out plan; and Apollo itself couldn’t have
happened unless Gemini had done the job; so I think that every one
of these flights was very, very important.
And for me, the interest ended with Apollo 11. Now 12, 13, 14, they
were all extremely important from the standpoint of lunar exploration
and lunar—and so on and so forth. I wouldn’t have volunteered
to go pick up rocks. For me it ended when we beat the Russians on
11! 11 was the defining flight for me. That’s the one that did
Now why, though, after Apollo 8, you know again, there’s—you
know, you could’ve been the one to go to the Moon. From every—from
the historical record shows Deke Slayton would’ve let you command
the first flight to land on the Moon. Why did you not want to?
Well, I—it wasn’t that I didn’t want to. But when
you look at, again, who’s going to do the mission, the—I
had never even been in the lunar simulator. I had—when all this
was going on, I had been on that committee and then I’d been
out at North American. I knew the—I think I knew the Apollo
spacecraft as well as any other astronaut. I didn’t know a damn
thing about the LM. And I’m not—I don’t recall Slayton
ever discussing it with me. But I would’ve been flattered if
he had. But I would’ve thought that there [would’ve] been
better people, better prepared to do that—to do that.
Well, how did, then—you say you didn’t have a direct discussion
about putting you in that role. But was it just the crew rotation
that would have naturally put you in that role?
The crew—No. The crew rotation, which was he had established
and which he followed, put the backup crew in that role. [Neil A.]
Armstrong was on that flight. And nobody knew for certain Apollo 11
was going to be the lunar lander. What if 9 would’ve fouled
up? Or what if 10 would’ve fouled up?
Deke established a rotation system. I was the backup on IV in Gemini,
and I flew on VII. And Neil was the backup on 8 and he flew on 11.
You know, there’s always speculation about how did Neil Armstrong
get picked to be—and you could say it was a quirk of fate, you
know. And then some people say, “Well, he happened to be the
only civilian astronaut at the time—”
I think that’s nonsense. I think that Slayton looked at us all.
I don’t think he knew whether we were military or civilians.
I think Neil was picked because he was a competent guy, and he had
a good team.
He’s a quiet astronaut.
He’s an introvert.
An introvert. He’s much more intellectually curious than I am.
Were you surprised at terms of—you know, when we landed on the
Moon. Where were you when we landed on the Moon?
I was with Mr. Nixon in the White House.
You were? And do you remember what your recollections were? And what
the President thought?
Well, it was a great euphoria. You know, he didn’t have else
much—he was still getting battered over Vietnam and everything
else was—this was before Watergate. But nevertheless, this was
a very bright and shining plus for the American people. It was a happy
Were you surprised at—I mean, the reaction when they came home?
I mean, it was—you know, they were heroes. And for many people,
though, that’s probably the last astronauts they could name.
You know, that after that—
Well, [John H.] Glenn [Jr.]. I think they all could name Glenn.
Yeah, everybody can.
And [Alan B.] Shepard [Jr.] I guess, maybe.
But—because he hit a golf ball on the Moon? Do you think maybe
Because—I hope it was because he was the first man in space—American
Yeah, I would hope so, too.
—the point is, that you had brought up earlier, about how after
we went to the Moon it was all over for you.
And in many ways, it was for the American public. I remember Chris
Kraft telling me once that he knew it was all over when he looked
at his little monitor in Mission Control and we were driving on the
Moon for the first time. And he looked over at the networks, and they
were all still showing soap operas.
And he knew it was over.
You know, as it wound down so quickly after that, and no one’s
been back since, you know, what were your thoughts as the program
closed out completely? And I know you weren’t even with NASA
anymore when it happened.
Well, I think that NASA remains a very important—a very important
entity in our—in the country’s future. And I think it’s
important, extremely important that we have this continually grasping,
grasping, looking for things. I lose it when we talked about colonizing
the Moon and all the other baloney that you read about. We’re
going to mine—once we’re going to mine oxygen and—I
just don’t have that belief. I—maybe I’m too practical.
I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.
So, I was with NASA with the objective of being part of the team that
beat the Russians to the Moon. We did that. And that, you know, I
thought the other flights were just as dangerous, just as—and
probably much more adventurous and brought back much more knowledge
of the Moon. I just don’t happen to be interested in that. I’m
not going to lie to you.
Do you think we’ll go back to the Moon?
I’m certain we’ll go back to the Moon someday. And I suspect
someday there’ll be a permanent scientific base on the Moon
like there is at South America—South—the South Pole, Antarctica.
But I have a hard time understanding how we’re going to have
apartments on the Moon.
How are we for tape?
OFF CAMERA: We’re doing fine.
off camera: Would you like some more water?
I just want to stop at a good place.
OFF CAMERA: All right. Recording again.
Okay. Let’s talk about the Apollo Program closing out and making
the decision. Did you really make the decision to leave before you
even did Apollo 8?
Well, as I said: I thought that I had carried my end of the bargain.
I’d done—contributed as much as I possibly could. I wasn’t
a pro on the LM. It would have taken me longer to learn it. And like
I said: I would not have gone to the Moon after the first one. To
me, it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth assuming the risks
because I wasn’t inclined to go pick up rocks.
A few little things from your missions. I don’t know if this
is safe to say, but I know that you had space adaptation sickness
on Apollo 8. Right?
—Not on Gemini. Or did you have it on Gemini?
No, we never had a thing on Gemini.
Okay. But on Apollo 8. I mean, it’s safe to say that—I
guess, were you the first person to get sick in space?
Oh I don’t know whether I was or not. But—and at the time
I didn’t know it was motion sickness.
But you thought it might be the flu. And they actually considered
your worst fear, which is shortening the mission.
Yeah, well, but that’s another example. You know the damn doctor’s
(what?) 100,000 miles away; he doesn’t know what’s going
on. And I got over it very rapidly. And Jim and Bill both told me
that they felt queasy, too, when they started moving around. And I
threw up a couple of times, and it was over with. It wasn’t
a big deal.
Well, and now it’s so common. I mean, it’s like half the
Well, there’s a lot more room to move around in the Shuttle.
And I gather some people just don’t get over it.
But I didn’t have any trouble with it. Well, I—somebody
said that Glenn puked when he got back, too. I don’t know.
He admitted that he did, yeah.
I don’t know why he would do it on reentry, but you would think
maybe in space you might. I don’t know.
But it wasn’t a factor.
Was it was certainly uncomfortable.
Well, nobody likes to throw up.
But it was short-term.
Short-term. I thought I had never—take—I don’t take
pills if I don’t have to, and I had taken a Secanol and I thought
it was a reaction. I honestly didn’t think it was motion sickness
because we had been for 14 days in that space and never had any trouble,
because we had worked—we couldn’t move around in Gemini.
So you might not have affected your inner ear as much. When you—when
Jim Lovell (and you talked about your crew, how you said you didn’t
want “us” to mess anything up)—a couple of the stories
that I want to check the facts and have you reflect and tell stories.
Jim Lovell inflates his life vest, because he’s—and he
says, he’ll “never forget the disgusted look” you
[laughs] Well, that’s true. [laughs]
What did he do? And what did you think when that happened?
Well, it wasn’t a big deal. But, you know, again, it was an
anomaly. [laughs] And Lovell, as I recall, he squirted it out the
urine dump system or something so we didn’t get too much CO2
in the cabin. But that—the worst thing he did was he fouled
up the computer!
When did he do that?
Oh he did that, I think, we were either around the Moon—in or
around the Moon. He hit the wrong number on the computer, the wrong
button, and had the spacecraft think it was back on the launch pad.
And we had to reinitialize everything again for the reentry! All—they
read up stuff, and we had to re—we had to refill all the memory.
It’s a good thing you—
He was getting tired!
—it’s a good thing he made those mistakes on your flight,
and then he was ready for Apollo 13 then.
Boy, I’ll tell you what: I think the only person that hasn’t
made a mistake was crucified about 2000 years ago. Everybody’s
going to make a mistake. Everybody’s going to have a day when
they wish they didn’t. So you just have to plan not to make
it bad. And Lovell didn’t have any bad mistakes. He did a great
job. He’s—he could whip that computer like you couldn’t
We talked about how, you know, some astronauts like Wally Schirra
being famous for their jokes and their pranks.
Were you ever a recipient? I mean, did they play jokes on you? Do
you remember any of them?
I don’t remember much about it. I—to be honest with you,
I’m sure I was a participant in some of them, but I don’t—they
don’t remember—I don’t remember that.
Did you didn’t really take part, though, in flying jokes? Like
on Guenter Wendt or—
And why not?
It’s just not my nature. You know, I enjoy Wally and his wife
and Jo and Susan and I went for 30 days around the Far East on a good
will tour in the—in a 707 without windows. And Wally, I think,
is great; and I think he contributed enormously to the program. More
than any of the other first seven, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton
did the job. But he just is a different person [laughs] than I am
from that standpoint.
What were some of the technicians, the engineers, and the managers
behind the scene who you felt really made noteworthy contributions,
that are—their names are worth being mentioned. And tell us
stories about them and your interaction with them, and why you single
Well, if you have—if I have to go back in the people that made
NASA work, you start with Jim Webb. Okay? He was—he’s
not an engineer. Then you go down the line to people like Gilruth
and Kraft, Slayton, [Kurt H.] Debus, von Braun. I’m sure I’ll
leave some—left some—Low. My goodness. How could you leave
George Low [out]? These were all the giants that made it work.
On the other hand, there were just hundreds of—well, thousands
of people that cared, that knew what they were going to—that
their one goal in life was to do their job and do it perfectly. And
they’re the George Pages, the Aaron Cohen, Doug [Douglas R.]
Broome. You could just go on and on and on with people at a lower
level of management who were motivated. Who cared. And you know their
contributions were what made it work. They’re the ones that
made it work. And they weren’t just all at NASA. They were just
as motivated in all the contractors, too.
Any stories that stand out? You told us your story about Jim Webb
and riding in the car with him. Any stories about Chris Kraft? I mean,
Well, Kraft, I told you, was spending one afternoon in the—in
his office and defining the parameters for the Apollo 8 mission. And
then also I told you that he was the guy that really gave me the confidence
on Apollo—on Gemini VII. They were just wonderful people. I—you
know, I’d just go to Hell for them. They were really—that’s
what made it work.
And now if you go back and talk to the people—you see, we were
fortunate. We had a goal; we had the money; and we had the support
of the country. With those three ingredients, this country can do
whatever it wants to do. If one of those ingredients is missing, it’s
going to mess up.
Well, that kind of leads to the next question: Which is, what do you
see as the future for manned spaceflight? Are those elements there?
Those elements are not there; and I think it’s going to be very,
very difficult to pursue an aggressive manned space exploration program.
I think we should, but I think it—and you know, I believe that
the Space Station is right. I hope it’s not so complicated and
so big and so expensive that it doesn’t fulfill its promise.
I would have preferred to see a less ambitious program, but I’m
not there. And I don’t know the people that are running it.
I know George [W. S.] Abbey, but he was a minor functionary when I
was there. So—I don’t know [Daniel S.] Goldin from the
hole in that wall. And I don’t have any confidence that the
political constituency is there to spend a lot of money on it.
Did you know, you talked a lot about what motivated you to become
an astronaut. What made it—motivated you to take the risks you
take. And for you it all came down to the Cold War and the Russians.
Did you ever think, in your wildest dreams, that we would now be partners
with them in space?
I—you know, I was sent over to Russia by Mr. Nixon with the
goal to starting the process that led to the Apollo-Soyuz Program;
and I spent 10 days there on the—July of ’69. And
we then invited the cosmonauts back. So, you know, I had hoped that
it had ended in Apollo-Soyuz. So—but I never had the in my wildest
dreams, did I ever have any idea that the Russians would essentially
become a Third World country. You know, I looked upon them as the
Big Bad Bear in the Cold War. And now they’ve sort of disintegrated
economically and every other way. So, the answer to your question
(the long-winded answer) is: No, I never did.
Well, you said—you know, the role that you played in Apollo-Soyuz
coming together, you kind of helped your friend Deke Slayton finally
get to fly. I mean, any stories from remembering what it was like,
that he was finally going to get fly so late in his career?
No. I did Deke—I think it’s fortunate that the doctors
took him off flight status, because he had the integrity and the dedication
to run that Flight Operations—Flight Crew Operations Division
with integrity and in a way that makes sense. So I think—and
Deke, you know, so he didn’t blow up and leave or any—he
just stayed there and did his job. He was committed. He was one of
the great people in the program.
So, you mean it’s fortunate that he—
Fortunate for the program.
—fortunate that he was kept on the ground?
Yeah. Fortunate that he was kept on the ground. I really believe that.
You know, if you ask me where I think I contributed the most to the
Apollo Program: I think I contributed the most to the Apollo Program
out in Downey, California, as part of the redefinition team, not as
an astronaut on Apollo 8. I think I contributed more to the program
there than it’s a strange part of our society. All attention
is on the celebrities (who happen to be the astronauts). And, you
know, I don’t care what you say: there’s nobody that flew
that did as much for the program as George Low or Chris Kraft. You
could go down the line. But they didn’t get all the hoopla.
What do you think was the most challenging milestone of your career
then? That—your time at Downey, or—?
The time at Downey was the most challenging, I think. We had a lot
of balls in the air there. And we—I think that our team out
there did a really important job.
Did you—when you left NASA, were there—what did you draw
on from your NASA experience to go on to your experience at Eastern?
Well, I tried to draw on the management style that I’d seen
at NASA which was, to me, the most effective management team this
country’s ever produced, and the most effective management style.
And I still think it is.
Are there any things that stand out, you know, from any of your time
at NASA that—any stories that you think, “Oh I need to
tell these stories. I need to get these stories on the record.”
Well, I have a—I—well, you know, after the fire—when
I went out there—I never will forget Mr. Webb, in his very nice
way, managed to change the management at North American (as you know).
When I sat out there with the North American people and Bill Bergen
came in and said, you know, “Look around to your left and your
right because a lot of you aren’t going to be here in a week.”
[chuckles] There wasn’t any touchy-feely kind of crap. It was
just “Let’s get the job done. We got to get it done.”
And there was another very traumatic time in an office when—after
the fire, when one of the really respected civilian—contractor
people had a nervous breakdown, and they had to haul him away in a
Somebody you can name, or—?
I don’t think you ought to name him because, you know, he’s
since recovered and played a very important role. But he started drawing
a organizational chart of Heaven. And I never will forget—I
forgot he had Big Daddy. And then he was—when he just lost it
all. And you know, the—poor Joe [Joseph P.] Shea lost it. But
it was—I was very at home there because the overriding goal
and the mission drove things. And it was—to me, it was a very
The—one of the things that some people have said that from that
era when they look now at the space program, that now so many people
sign off on things, that the responsibility is so watered down that
no one’s responsible.
Can you believe that they could get one flight plan today with one
man, Chris Kraft, making the decision? I can’t. I don’t
know much about NASA today, but I just can’t believe that would
And when I left NASA and went to Eastern, you know, I just—I
don’t think you can keep one foot on the beach and one foot
in the boat. So I got off the beach and went on the boat, which was
Eastern; and I never looked back much to see what went on at NASA.
And I—last thing I ever wanted to be was a professional astronaut.
As you know, there are some around. And so I’m not competent
to really analyze current NASA. But a lot of the old-timers that stayed
on afterward have told me or written me or called me and said, “God,
you can’t believe what it’s like now.”
Well, what let you go and do—you know, so many people (and I
don’t want to say “so many”)—but you’re
right. That spaceflight—there’s this sense that it changes
you somehow. That, you know, you have this experience and you’re
not the same and—
Well, I don’t understand that. To me it was a—look: Apollo
8 was a definite success. It was a dangerous mission. But while I
was doing that, guys were flying to Hanoi [North Vietnam] with 105s,
in F-105s. Now tell me: I figured that the risks were about the same.
And we got all focused on going to the Moon. You know, it was interesting.
Looking back at the Earth was inspiring. But, you know, you go to
the Grand Canyon and look around I find beauty looking out here in
this (what you call)—the barren desert! I think you either have
an innate belief in a Spiritual Being or a God or you don’t
have. You don’t have to go to the Moon to—you know.
Well, but some people come back; and, you know, Buzz Aldrin has talked
a lot about how he had a rough time after the Moon. You know, you
He had a very rough time. Buzz had a very difficult childhood. And
Buzz, unfortunately, I don’t think has recovered.
And knowing that, it has been hard for him to go on.
I mean, what let you go on and have, like, this life after—I
mean, there’s—I bet there’s people who know you
as the head of Eastern Airlines who may not have ever known. I mean,
people of a younger generation. I mean, the fact that you had success
outside of (as you said) being “a professional astronaut,”
what let you do that?
I don’t know. I—as I said, I’ve been very fortunate.
And I just have been able to compartmentalize my life after I left
Eastern (involuntarily). I was the first guy Lorenzo fired. But nevertheless,
you know then I started with something else. And I just try never
to look back. Like Satchel Paige said: Somebody might be gaining on
you if you look back. So, I just feel very, very privileged to have
been part of NASA in that era. I was with Chuck Yeager this last weekend,
and he said, “Aw, you know, you should’ve stayed with
the Air Force.” (He’s mellowed a lot). But still, I think
I contributed more to the country there than I—in—than
I could have if I had stayed in the Air Force.
Of course he was right. When he told me I could kiss my Air Force
career goodbye, I did kiss it goodbye. I didn’t fill in all
the blocks. You know, I hadn’t gone to any of the schools and
so on and so forth. When I left NASA, the Air Force offered me an
opportunity to come back and head their Military Man in Space Program.
Well, it didn’t take a genius to realize that there weren’t
going to be two space programs. So I left.
The—you told us some stories about Chris Kraft. Any stories
stand out about any of the other folks you mentioned, like George
Low? I mean, any little anecdotes?
Well, George Low was a brilliant guy. And the one thing that all these
people had in common was this devotion to doing the thing on time
and to getting it done, to beating the Russians, and to doing what
seemingly was an impossible task. You know, when President Kennedy
said “We’re going to the Moon and back in 8 years,”
we hadn’t even launched—we hadn’t even orbited anybody!
Think about that! Unbelievable! But they all had this dedication,
this—and you know Max [Maxime A.] Faget, a brilliant engineer,
scientist. But probably not the [manager]—Low was the consummate
manager. He was an excellent manager.
Was there any times that you tried to talk him out of doing something?
That you spoke you mind to George Low and—?
George Low and I were pretty much on the same page. I don’t
think he didn’t—I can’t recall ever disagreeing
with anything that he said. But Joe Shea, who was the head of—Joe
didn’t have the experience in [managing]. He didn’t have
that. So Joe—and Joe didn’t—took it awfully hard
after the fire. That was the end of him.
Did you mentioned getting close to Nixon and doing the roles for Nixon;
and he played such a role in where the space program went after Apollo
in terms of Shuttle. Were you privy to any of that? Or did you counsel
him at all?
I was not.
No. You know another man that you should mention that was really a
giant, too, was Sam Phillips. He was really the one person, the Apollo
Program Manager Office in Washington, that I think had a practical
head on his [shoulders]. He was a good—he was a wonderful leader.
What were your recollections of Guenter Wendt?
I didn’t have much—you know, Guenter Wendt was a German
guy who I would trust to do everything right. All the funny—fun
and games and—it was a bunch of crap as far as I’m concerned.
Von Braun? Did you have a personal—?
Von Braun was wonderful. I knew him very well because I spent a lot
of time at Huntsville on the—he was—he had a rare combination.
He was a wonderful engineer. He was a great visionary (I’m sure
he would be saying we’re having apartments [on the Moon]), but
he was also a super salesman. He had a rare combination. And his people
were really devoted to von Braun. And if he said something, I believed
him. But—all of the people that I’ve discussed with you:
they told me something, you could put it in the bank.
Was there anybody who you didn’t trust or didn’t—
Well, George Mueller I didn’t think was as—I didn’t
distrust him. But I think he was sort of a gadfly; and Sam Phillips
provided the guts in that program, as far as I’m concerned.
George is still alive. He’s out trying to launch some new, lost-cost
rocket; and I hope he succeeds. But I think Sam Phillips was the man
Do you still follow the space program and keep up with things
I read Aviation Week.
Yeah. There you go
You’ve moved on. Where do you think—what do—what
would you like to see as the direction of the space program?
Well, I’d like to see the Space Station lead to a long-term
mission to put humans on Mars. I think that would define a goal in
the mission and a well thought out—I think it’s more difficult.
Bill Anders has convinced me it’s much more difficult than people
have projected because of the requirement for shielding (radiation
shielding); but I think that would be a good goal for it. And I hope
the Space Station works out well and that we do find things on orbit
that we can do that will help, you know, people here on Earth. I’m
—sure we have—you know, we’ve talked about the Shuttle
and their flying fishes and worms and all that crap. You wonder what
it’s all about. You know, you have a—kids send up experiments
on a billion-dollar launch? Come on! Where’s the mission there?
Did you—the science portion of your mission; I mean, the exploration
part of it. I know you said the motivation that you sensed at the
time was this Cold War and to beat the Russians.
But did you see any other benefit coming out of it? Or was that a
It was a side benefit for me.
It really was for you?
Not the sense of—? Okay.
No. I just have to be honest with you.
Yeah. No, that’s—no—that’s what I want you
It was on the side; and it was fine as long as it didn’t get
in the way of the main mission.
But you know that just the fact of Apollo changed our life on Earth
more than, probably, almost anything of this century?
I agree with you.
That was the important thing: to do it. You know, and to—and
to have it accomplished. And to extend humans’ horizons. That
was what came out of Apollo, not how do you make Teflon pots and pans.
And whether that is a lasting thing? I think it is. I think it’s
a—and I think that Apollo was extremely important. I think it
may have been, other than World War II,—it may have been the
most important project in this century.
Do you look up at the Moon a little differently than the rest of us?
Or are you—?
Sometimes I do. I try to. I try to feel like everybody thinks I should.
Which is, in awe: “I can’t believe I was really there.”
And sometime I do. But sometimes I do. But most often I find I just
revel in the beautiful Moon.
All right. Anything that—I mean, I’ve really gone through
all my questions. So anything that you think is—?
No, I think I’ve been—I’d be repetitive just to
say that I was very proud to be associated with that team. You can
fault people for what they did or what they didn’t do. But when
you think what that team accomplished in a decade, it was a remarkable
group of men and women.
And I think it was one of the rare moments in history, when people
can look back and say, “Everything was together, and the people
did it.” And I was proud to be part of it. And as I said, I
think that my part—the more important part was played on the
ground. But nevertheless, I certainly was overwhelmed to be in Apollo
And Gemini VII.
Yeah. All right.