Walt Cunningham, Among the Last of the All-American Boys
A half-century before Prince Harry published his own “bad boy” reminiscences, NASA’s crown prince Walt Cunningham pioneered the genre.
Walt Cunningham, the last surviving Apollo 7 crew member, died last week at age 90. But many in the space community were surprised he didn’t die at age 45 in 1977 of not minding his own business. That year, Cunningham dropped what remains one of the most “tell-it-like-it-is” astronaut memoirs that served as the Ball Four of the Apollo program and somehow established the “Kermit sipping tea” meme decades before memes even existed. Brian O’Leary’s 1970 book The Making of An Ex-Astronaut only hinted at the disparate personalities, crying jags, and funny business it took to get humans to the Moon; Cunningham took us all the way. Among the first to deconstruct the myth of the “knight in a shining A7L spacesuit,” Cunningham forever altered the space literature zeitgeist by exposing that America’s Apollo heroes weren’t infallible and that certain “sacred cows” could — and would — be tipped over with little ceremony.
Despite the controversy The All-American Boys caused by effectively blasting the doors of the astronaut office wide open and off their hinges, the book remains a classic and the template for tell-all astronaut biographies. It is still considered one of the finest astronaut memoirs, despite resembling an evil version of Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire. Al Worden’s Falling to Earth, published in 2011, struck a careful balance between Carrying the Fire and The All-American Boys; Worden’s memoir married Collins’ dignified prose to Cunningham’s unrelenting candor, also becoming an instant classic.
Was everyone happy about the book’s publication? That’s a firm “no.” One family member of an Apollo astronaut related to me that many in the astronaut suburbs of Clear Lake were incensed when The All-American Boys was released. Indeed, Cunningham did not care about creating a potentially divisive experience for the astronaut cadre. In the 1977 edition’s preface, he wrote:
Writing a book is an unusual experience. It makes people nervous, especially those being written about. Shortly after publication of the first astronaut-authored book I received a call from the Astronaut Office. I could almost hear the caller’s pulse throbbing at the other end of the line. “We have a copy in the office, but the boys are half afraid to open it. I hear it tells everything. I sure hope your book isn’t going to get into a lot of that gamey stuff.”
As I hung up it occurred to me that the world might not be ready for “everything.”
Why another book on the astronauts? Well, why not? Why three volumes on the fall of the Roman Empire? Why a sequel to the Happy Hooker?
Let’s revisit some of the “confessions” Cunningham made in The All-American Boys. It bears mentioning that a revised 2010 edition of the book and an audiobook read by Cunningham himself exist.
Jack Swigert’s Love Life
From the chapter titled “Don Juan the Astronaut”:
Jack [Swigert] had kept her [a “nice-looking female reporter”] on the back burner for ten months, and Sunday night was the night. We could hardly wait till Monday to see if he was still alive.
Jack lived through many such trips with no ill effects. He was single-minded and methodical in affairs of the heart, but his success was in no way comparable to his efforts…
Swigert was the predatory male in the classic sense. And though we had few bachelors, he wasn’t without competition. It came from the few really swinging married guys who, on occasion, worked the same territory as Jack. This was a source of irritation to Jack, who felt his flanks constantly threatened. Whenever he learned that a married buddy was dating one of his girls, Jack would lecture her solemnly on the moral implications of her conduct. “Look,” he’d say, “you shouldn’t be dating him. He’s married. He has kids. You should be dating someone single. Someone without obligations. Someone like me.” How much of an impression this appeal made often depended on whether she was herself married.
(Author’s note: Jack Swigert was still alive when this book was originally released in 1977, so Swigert ostensibly could have read these passages about himself.)
Dave Scott, Professional Buzzkill
I was fast and low — about 100 feet — and pulling up the nose [of my T-38] I hit both after-burners. It was like a bomb going off…
In less than twenty minutes I was walking through my own doorway, but the phone was already ringing. [Apollo 14 astronaut] Stu Roosa had landed a little ahead of me and was calling from the hangar to warn me that complaints were coming in, and I was thought to be the culprit. On Monday morning, Deke [Slayton, chief of the Astronaut Office] summoned me for the traditional commanding-officer-to-young-lieutenant lecture (“Knock off that childish bullshit”) and sent me away to sin no more.
The topper came when Dave Scott, obviously still burning, came storming into my office.
“Walt,” he demanded. “were you flying at eight o’clock Saturday morning?”
I frowned, as if trying to remember that far back. “Yes, come to think of it. I flew in from the Cape.”
“Was that you who buzzed Nassau Bay [Texas]?”
“…If I ever catch you doing that again” — he glared at me — “I’ll…I’ll have your wings yanked.”
For once in my life I was speechless. It wasn’t just that Dave was a hot-rod jet jockey himself and should have known better. It was his attempt to throw around weight that he didn’t have. I mean, he wasn’t a general yet. It was like threatening to make a citizen’s arrest because some guy had parked in your space. (Esthetically, it was a pretty good buzz job…but it was the last one I ever made…in Houston.)
In Which We See Walt Crap a Bit on Jim McDivitt, One of the Most Liked Astronauts:
The members of the Apollo 9 crew were looked upon around the office as fair-haired boys, and sometimes referred to with some cynicism as “the rah-rah boys.” Through all the ups and downs and changing of gears early in the Apollo program, somebody up there always seemed to look out for [Apollo 9 commander Jim] McDivitt’s crew…
No one was more deliberate or meticulous as Jim McDivitt; no detail was too small if it affected his mission. When he presented his case he had the facts — the antithesis of [Apollo 7 commander Wally] Schirra’s patented emotional appeal. Most of Jim’s contemporaries considered him the “anointed one” of the nine Gemini astros. Looking back it does appear he was given every chance, break, prerogative, and option, beginning with command of the second manned Gemini mission.
If you haven’t yet read The All-American Boys, I highly recommend you get it now and devour it; warts and all, it is one of the classic astronaut memoirs. Perhaps this piece should end with one of my favorite paragraphs from the book, which examines how the myth of the “hero astronaut” impacted him and his colleagues for better…and worse. In Walt’s own words:
In the sixties NASA set out to fashion its image, but the myth of the super-hero astronaut was purely a creation of the news media. Most of us found it flattering and easy to go along with. Some even cultivated that image, but few could measure up to it. Most of us recognized it was unlivable only slightly before we realized we were stuck with it for the rest of our lives. We will remain in that image until the public takes off its rose-colored glasses and begins to see us as people.
Top photo courtesy of NASA, 1968.
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