Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele

Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele


In October 1968 Donn Eisele flew with fellow astronauts Walt Cunningham and Wally Schirra into Earth orbit in Apollo 7. The first manned mission in the Apollo program and the first manned flight after a fire during a launch pad test killed three astronauts in early 1967, Apollo 7 helped restart NASA's manned-spaceflight program.

Known to many as a goofy, lighthearted prankster, Eisele worked his way from the U.S. Naval Academy to test pilot school and then into the select ranks of America's prestigious astronaut corps. He was originally on the crew of Apollo 1 before being replaced due to injury. After that crew died in a horrific fire, Eisele was on the crew selected to return Americans to space. Despite the success of Apollo 7, Eisele never flew in space again, as divorce and a testy crew commander led to the three astronauts being labeled as troublemakers.

Unbeknownst to everyone, after his retirement as a technical assistant for manned spaceflight at NASA's Langley Research Center in 1972, Eisele wrote in detail about his years in the air force and his time in the Apollo program. Long after his death, Francis French discovered Eisele's unpublished memoir, and Susie Eisele Black (Donn's widow) allowed French access to her late husband's NASA files and personal effects. Readers can now experience an Apollo story they assumed would never be written as well as the story behind its discovery.


Francis French

Donn Eisele was a curious conundrum. Voted most likely to succeed by his high school graduating class, he was seen as athletically gifted and academically very smart. Yet when interviewed during his Apollo years, his hometown colleagues said they never imagined Donn would do anything as adventurous as flying into space. He was a quiet, hard-working, wellliked guy. No one in Columbus, Ohio, seemed surprised that he had been a success in life. Nevertheless, a few had to look at old photos to confirm that they were talking about the right person. Donn Eisele didn’t seem to leave a bad impression—rather, he breezed through many people’s lives without leaving much of an impression at all.

Born in 1930 in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a newspaper printer, Eisele grew up in a very close, doting family. He hadn’t planned to attend the Naval Academy, but he heard that his congressman was giving appointments on a competitive basis, and it might save his parents some money if the military paid his way through college. the day of the test, Eisele later admitted, was an excuse to be out of school. He felt he had only a slim chance of winning a spot in the prestigious academy, but to his surprise found the test easy.

Eisele had always been fascinated by flying, too, but didn’t think he would ever pilot an aircraft. He hadn’t imagined himself in the military as a youth, and he knew that learning to fly as a civilian was very expensive. He imagined a possible career in aeronautical engineering, as he was attracted to the technical side of aviation, but instead fell into an impressive flying career almost by accident.

Donn Eisele’s story was one that intrigued me when I coauthored the space history book In the Shadow of the Moon. Eisele’s fellow Apollo 7 astronauts Wally Schirra and Walt Cunningham had become extremely help-

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