This Space Available
By Emily Carney
In a previous This Space Available blog post, I wrote about Dr. Brian O’Leary, the “Excess Eleven” astronaut candidate. A planetary scientist by trade, O’Leary applied for and joined NASA’s ranks in August 1967 with the overly optimistic hopes of being one of the first Mars’ astronauts – even though by the late 1960s many NASA programs, including the Apollo lunar missions, would face drastic budget cuts. Indeed, the Apollo Applications Program, which touted incredible possible missions including an early 1970s human-helmed Venus flyby, would be whittled down to merely three crewed Skylab missions and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). But O’Leary is perhaps most famous for uttering this sentence to Deke Slayton, his boss during his short stint as an astronaut, when he resigned in early 1968: “I guess flying just isn’t my cup of tea.”
According to O’Leary’s 1970 memoir The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, he not only believed the National Academy of Sciences would have a “greater relative role” in NASA scientific missions to come post-Apollo, but he gained an impression that somehow the requirement to fly high-performance jets (specifically the T-38) would be relaxed for people with his background. He wrote, “I was aware of the test-pilot emphasis in the program, but I felt optimistic about my potential situation for several reasons: the increase in the number of scientist-astronauts, the feeling of inevitability of science predominating the post-Apollo program with flights coming up in about three years, the greater relative role of the National Academy of Sciences, the relaxation of physical requirements, and the removal of the jet-flying requirement.” O’Leary then added in parentheses: “([T]he academy’s solicitation leaflet said, ‘Where appropriate, [scientist-astronauts] will [spend] one year in flight training to qualify as pilots.)’”
O’Leary seemed to take the words “where appropriate” as an indicator that not all of the astronaut candidates would be held to the same standard of having to qualify as a pilot via U.S. Air Force training. In addition, his memoir made it clear he did not enjoy his ride in a T-38 during the astronaut interviewing process; after completing several rolls and high-g maneuvers flying in the backseat of one, O’Leary remembered, “It scared the hell out of me and I was beginning to feel queasy and reached for a bag tucked in my fight suit leg pocket.” It is obvious to the reader of O’Leary’s memoir that he did not have a positive introduction, or any sort of enthusiasm, about flying in high performance jet aircraft even before he joined the astronaut corps.
Fast-forward nearly a year, and on April 22, 1968, after one month at flight school, O’Leary made the resignation call to Slayton after a short vacation – and a dramatic, emotional car ride while listening to Simon and Garfunkel’s version of “Scarborough Fair” – revealed to him, internally, that he would not be able to fulfill the requirements he discovered he would have to meet to become an astronaut. From his recollections: “…I told [Slayton], ‘Deke, I’ve spent a month now at flight school, have flown fifteen hours and soloed, and after much soul-searching I have decided to resign from the program. I guess flying just isn’t my cup of tea.” O’Leary remembered the conversation as friendly, and within hours he dictated his official resignation statement to NASA Public Affairs Officer Paul Haney.
But what seemed to be a clean break from NASA would soon become O’Leary’s albatross, and according to him, his words to Slayton would be oft-repeated in the press for upcoming weeks, and would become the source of a mix of derision and amusement to his former colleagues for years to come. O’Leary wrote, “The news was released the next day. I first heard it over the radio driving around Nogales, Mexico. It was eerie and somewhat depressing to hear my own name enunciated by this melodramatic, tragedy-oriented broadcaster: ‘And this story in from Houston. NASA has announced the resignation of an astronaut. Twenty-eight-year-old astronomer Brian O’Leary left the program today because, as he says it, “Flying just isn’t my cup of tea!”’” Indeed, the quote made it to national newspapers, television quiz shows, and even Time magazine.
The book NASA’s Scientist-Astronauts, written by David J. Shayler and Colin Burgess, states that “Slayton was said by some to be understandably furious (although one of O’Leary’s group suggested to the authors that there was ‘hearsay evidence of just the opposite’), and in such a competitive field, there was very little sympathy or support from many of his peers. Another scientist-astronaut said that O’Leary should not have applied for selection if he didn’t think he could fly: ‘What the hell did he think astronauts did?’” This brings up questions: why did O’Leary believe that his group wouldn’t necessarily have to become pilots (even though every other astronaut had to fulfill that requirement at the time), and were any other scientist applicants to NASA during this period under the same impression?
The first question is perhaps unanswerable, given that O’Leary died in 2011, but two astronaut-scientists from that era (respectively from the 1965 and 1967 astronaut groups) did confirm with me that they were well aware they would need to successfully complete flight training in order to stay in the program. I’m not saying or suggesting O’Leary is lying – maybe, at some point, someone or something did lead him to believe he wouldn’t need to be a pilot, or maybe he simply misinterpreted the leaflet from the National Academy of Sciences. Or maybe this is the narrative he stuck to in his book to partially explain his reluctance to continue with NASA, which was also spurred by his (very understandable and logical) frustration with the agency’s lack of interest in space sciences during that period. This split between engineering and sciences at NASA would inspire more astronaut-scientists to resign in coming years, including 1965 candidate Curt Michel, and 1967 candidate Phil Chapman.
Others had very different memories about O’Leary’s resignation. It bears mentioning that by 1970, O’Leary was teaching at Cornell University, and had recently become politically active, publicly protesting the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. These activities probably did not further endear him to his former colleagues, who by large were more politically conservative. He appeared on the CBS Evening News in a story called “Colleges, Cambodia, and Confrontation” on May 9, 1970; according to an online biography, “Nixon administration officials invited O’Leary and his fellow Cornell professors into the White House to present their grievances, and their meeting appeared as the lead story.” His image during this time – a young professor festooned with peace signs and love beads – made him look as radical as Jane Fonda to many of his former colleagues, who were still sporting military crew cuts.
Crew-cut wearing Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham wrote in his 1977 opus The All-American Boys, “True, [O’Leary] was afraid of flying, but he was also out of step even with his associates. In the six months he spent in our office he had not learned what motivated us, but it was apparently long enough to convince him he did not like the whole setup, including the city of Houston.” (Indeed, O’Leary dedicated an entire chapter of The Making of an Ex-Astronaut to how much he hated Houston.) Cunningham suggests directly that O’Leary joined the astronaut corps just to see how far he could get, adding, “When he found out pilot training scared him to death, his mind was made up. ‘Well, I just wanted to see if I could get selected, and I did.’ No motivation.”
Slayton’s memories of O’Leary’s resignation and ultimate status as the “most famous ex-astronaut” are recounted in his book, Deke!, co-authored with Michael Cassutt, and are as follows:
He called me one morning and told me he wanted out. I had a certain amount of sympathy; he was a young guy who came to NASA straight out of college with a lot of mistaken ideas. He didn’t like being ordered around by me or Al Shepard, he didn’t like living in Houston, and he didn’t like doing grunt work when he wanted to be spending his time on research.
He sure shouldn’t be flying a spacecraft if he didn’t like flying a Piper Cub. I offered him a chance to move somewhere else in NASA, but he just wanted out.
A couple of years later he published a book called The Making of an Ex-Astronaut, which pretty much confirmed my impressions. As far as I was concerned, he never was an astronaut. (Until the scientist-astronauts finished flight school they were only candidates as far as I was concerned.)
Slayton ended his recollections bluntly with, “O’Leary became a big critic of the [Space Shuttle], then a big proponent. Last I heard he was into psychic phenomena.” While these tidbits Slayton offers are true, O’Leary’s space career did not end with his infamous 1968 quote. He would go on to teach at Cornell and Princeton, and would rub shoulders with visionaries such as Dr. Carl Sagan, and Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill. In future This Space Available posts, O’Leary’s life will be compared and contrasted with that of O’Neill’s, a 1967 astronaut group finalist, who, like O’Leary, would allow his vision of the world and future to color his writings and career.
Featured Photo Credit: 1967’s astronaut class, Spacefacts.de photo. Top row, from left: John Llewellyn, Anthony England, William Thornton, William Lenoir, and Phil Chapman. Bottom row, from left: Bob Parker, Karl Henize, Brian O’Leary, and Joe Allen (astronauts Donald Holmquest and Story Musgrave are not pictured).
Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.
Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.