'Apollo Pilot': Late Astronaut's Lost Words Rediscovered in New Memoir

Donn Eisele apollo pilot
"Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele" presents the forgotten manuscript of the late Apollo 7 astronaut. (Image credit: NASA/University of Nebraska Press via collectSPACE.com)

Donn Eisele became the thirtieth person, worldwide, to orbit the Earth as a member of NASA's first crew to launch aboard an Apollo spacecraft in 1968.

An officer in the Air Force, test pilot and later Peace Corps director and businessman, Eisele, 57, died 29 years ago on Friday (Dec. 2) without putting his experiences as an Apollo 7 astronaut to print, or so almost everyone thought.

"It's almost cliché to talk about 'lost' documents — and this one was not truly lost. However, it had been forgotten to everyone except Susie Eisele Black, Donn's widow, who may have been the only other person ever to read it until now," said Francis French, the editor of "Apollo Pilot: The Memoir of Astronaut Donn Eisele" (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). [Best Spaceflight and Space History Books]

French, who is the education director at the San Diego Air & Space Museum in California and the co-author of three space history books including the autobiography of Apollo 15 astronaut Alfred Worden, had befriended Eisele Black in the course of his research and would stay with her and her husband on trips to Florida. It was during one of those visits to her home that Eisele Black suggested he have a look through the contents of a closet in a spare bedroom.

"It was packed with Donn's personal items that had been moved from house to house over the decades," recounted French in an email. "There were packages of flown flags and other items Donn took into space with him on Apollo 7, pieces of the spacecraft and other personal items from his NASA years he had loaned out for display and got back, and piles of personal paperwork."

Among the memorabilia was a stack of typed sheets.

"I realized I had come across something I thought had truly been lost forever, the first drafts of Donn's memoirs. You can imagine my excitement," French told collectSPACE, "a first-hand account of the first Apollo flight that no one else knew about."

Apollo 7 crewmates Donn Eisele (at left), Wally Schirra (center) and Walt Cunningham, looking into the spacecraft's hatch. (Image credit: NASA)

Snapshot of a forgotten spaceman

French co-wrote "In the Shadow of the Moon" (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), his second title, in part because he wanted to get to know who Eisele was.

"Even space buffs generally misspell his name, and they mispronounce it, too — it's "eyes-lee," by the way," French said. "He was in the middle of some of NASA's most contentious issues: astronaut divorce and disagreements with Mission Control during the Apollo 7 mission. And yet, Donn seemed to have breezed in and out of NASA without leaving much of a memory."

French had the chance to interview and the read the books written by Eisele's crewmates, Wally Schirra (who died in 2007, four months before "In the Shadow" was published) and Walt Cunningham, but here were Eisele's own words, put to paper sometime shortly after the end of the Apollo program in 1973.

"To hear the third and final voice, that of Donn's, adding his thoughts, gives some insight. Donn remembers things that Walt remembers quite differently, and I know Wally might also have laughed off," described French. "The fact that he was writing immediately after his NASA experiences gives these words a fresh, contemporary feel that is very difficult for anyone to recall decades later. As such, it makes for not only a fascinating historical record, but also a very raw and fresh personal account."

But the manuscript was also incomplete; it was something that Eisele had started but never finished.

"The sad thing about the drafts is how much was missing," French noted. "Some pages ended mid-sentence and the next page was missing completely. It was also clear that there were many events in Donn's life that he had not yet got around to writing down on paper."

"As such, the book can only be considered a snapshot into one part of his life."

Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham with a copy of his crewmate's memoir, "Apollo Pilot," in November 2016. (Image credit: Francis French via collectSPACE.com)

Assembling 'Apollo Pilot'

Would Eisele have finished the book had he not died of a heart attack in 1987? Did he intend for it to be published? These were questions that could never be answered and weighed in French's decision whether to see the book be released.

"What struck me most was the blistering anger that Donn had towards some aspects of his NASA career; how his colleagues were lost in the Apollo 1 fire — a crew that he was briefly a member of," French said. "He also was pretty detailed about some of the scandalous things astronauts got up to when no one was looking."

"Also, I realized that his account of the flight incorporated conversations [that] did not match the flight transcripts. Clearly, he was trying to take a more novelistic approach and give the reader a sense of what was said in space, rather than the actual words," added French. "However, I felt that if I explained these things clearly in the foreword, the readers would be forewarned."

French decided that for the book to go forward, what was best was a light hand when it came to editing Eisele's own words.

"I did my best to very, very gently edit it into a narrative. I tried to keep all of his words, and his intent, intact," French said. "My regret is that he is not still around to talk more, tell more stories, clarify more aspects and tell his whole life story."

It was Eisele's widow who ultimately provided French the encouragement to release "Apollo Pilot" to the world.

"What encouraged me the most was the support of Susie Eisele Black. When she read my edited draft, she told me, rather emotionally, that it was like her late husband was back and speaking to her," he remarked. "That touched me immensely.”

Continue reading the "remarkable historical record" in "Apollo Pilot" at collectSPACE.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.