Brian O'Leary, Ex-Astronaut

Brian O’Leary was one of the ”Excess Eleven”, the second group of Scientist-Astronauts hired by NASA in the midst of the Apollo program. In terms of the space program, he’s pretty much a footnote, one of several who left or were forced out of the astronaut corps throughout the past few decades. Unlike most of the other astronauts who who left, he decided to write a whole book on the subject.

I’d seen a copy of ”The Making of an Ex-Astronaut” in a used bookstore a few years before I actually read the book. I’d had a vague idea that there were NASA astronauts who eventually left the program, but I’d not known that one of them had left and subsequently written a tell-all biography afterwards. And then the whole Lisa Nowak astronaut love-triangle thing happened, so I started getting curious and ordered it for a penny, plus shipping, on Amazon. I mean, neither his NASA biography nor his wikipedia page really tells the “why did he leave” story.

It’s an interesting book, especially considering the historical context of what happened before and after, as a time capsule. Afterwards, Brian O’Leary kinda drifted towards the lunatic fringe of science, creating the “New Energy Movement”. I don’t judge him for going what I’d consider a bit odd. Other astronauts have gone on different weird emotional quests afterwards as well.

I’m not sure, if you chatted with him in the 1990s, how he’d describe the whole thing all over again. The book hasn’t been reprinted in a long time.

A very different background

Chapter twelve of the book talks about the other astronauts. They are generally only children or the oldest children in the family. Most of them are from small towns in the Midwest. Brian O’Leary describes them as “boys who were not exposed to the cosmopolitan complexities and doubts which pervade the urban East and California”.

By comparison, Brian O’Leary grew up in the Boston area, then moved to Berkeley, California and in most of the book describes how different the background of the scientists was from the rest of the astronauts. He’d never flown an airplane and didn’t really have much of an interest in learning to fly. After all, when the they recruited the Scientist-Astronauts, they told them that flying wouldn’t be required, only to backtrack on that later on.

Thus, his first day on the job started off with the “Pilot’s Meeting”. It was a general purpose all-hands, but they called it the “Pilot’s Meeting”. When they went to flight training at an Air Force facility, he was trained with a group of Air Force recruits and the instructors had to figure out how to instruct the astronauts to dress in such a way that it didn’t impact their idea of discipline. There were quite a few more examples of this listed. All of the scientist-astronauts seemed to suffer from this, being people from outside the test pilot background.

Astronaut psychological testing

In order to be considered as an astronaut, a fairly high degree of mental acuity is required. The Mercury Seven were said to all have an IQ above 130, and anyone in the scientist-astronaut classes had to have an advanced degree in order to be considered.

Thus, Brian O’Leary describes the entire psychological testing component as a relatively smart person who is trying to figure out what the psychologist wants to hear to maximize his chances of getting through the process. Later on, in his first autobiography, “Deke”, Deke Slayton claims that Brian O’Leary slipped through the gaps of psychological testing. In retrospect, this is a little bit silly.

Some decades later, an astronaut, Lisa Nowak, in the middle of a love-triangle, drove partway across the country to assault her romantic rival… and then it came up a little bit that NASA astronauts were the achiever-type who wouldn’t let any sort of minor issues get in their way, especially psychological testing… and it peeled back the veneer of stability and revealed how a bunch of smart people can easily get past the psychological gatekeepers along the way, figuring out what the psychologist wants to hear and telling them that.

Later in the book, Brian O’Leary talks about his half-hearted desire to stick with the program and then go berserk somehow in space, something I’m assuming that he might have made amusing, had he gotten that far. There were stories of Apollo 7 and Skylab 4, but I think there’s a huge urban legend contingent there. Vietnam protests in Skylab, perhaps?

Are Astronauts scientists or pilots?

In all of Brian O’Leary’s explots before leaving the program, he references the military / test-pilot nature of the program. Test pilots ran the astronaut office and the scientist-astronauts all had to learn how to be pilots, whereas the test pilot astronauts only needed to acquire a smattering of understanding of the sciences. He is able to chronicle off all of the things that the pilots who did fly to the moon during the time he wrote the book were doing wrong in terms of collecting scientific information.

The program was sold to the scientists who applied as a way that they could still spend 25% of their time doing the sciences, as well as not requiring them to go through flight training, but after they had already started, it was explained that jet training would be mandatory.

There were a few reasons given, according to Brian O’Leary, for the flight training.

Slayton explained nonpilot Soviet cosmonauts got sick in space, therefore flying is good practice for space piloting. At this point, we do know that there’s Space Adaption Syndrome and that it’s different than Motion Sickness, but astronauts were afraid to discuss this with their doctors or mission control because astronauts from Apollo 8 and 9 were both removed from flight status after they experienced symptoms.

Furthermore, there was an attitude that pilots would be good at thinking in a fast-changing dynamic situation, which I’d tend to think puts a lot of stock very specifically on test pilots and not the results you’d get with a good training routine including simulations. Gemini 8, where the crew had to handle a stuck thruster is frankly the rarity in terms of astronaut experience, most of the other emergencies have been systems problems.

The other problem that Brian O’Leary discusses is how little actual time that the Scientist-Astronauts were allowed to spend on sciences. The way he saw it, most scientists spend their formative early scientific career years building the foundation for their later career. And then discusses how any promised 25% research time was cut to essentially nothing unless they were lucky enough to do research in Houston. Thus, waiting for upwards of a decade to get a flight assignment out of NASA meant that he’d give up on his research.

This is a problem that was not just Brian O’Leary’s. All of the scientist-astronauts had a problem and a good chunk of them didn’t fly for over a decade.

NASA’s problems with killing astronauts while flying T-38’s

Coming from a test pilot background, NASA had all of the astronauts routinely flying T-38’s to keep their flying chops relevant. The T-38, which is still in use, is an advanced jet trainer with two seats. Being a high-speed very maneuverable jet, there’s a lot of ways to die while flying a T-38.

In the early days of NASA, quite a few astronauts died in training accidents.

In 1964, Ted Freeman died in a T-38 crash.

In 1966, Elliot See and Charles Bassett died in another T-38 crash.

In 1967, C.C. Williams died in yet another T-38 crash. Brian O’Leary describes meeting C.C., and then a few months later finding out that he died in a T-38 crash.

Brian O’Leary points out that they were dying in T-38 crashes at a faster rate than the T-38’s used for training Air Force pilots. I can see the logic. It’s one thing to die actually in space because of a problem with the spacecraft. It’s completely another thing to die in a training accident on the ground for something you personally think is dumb.

I’ve wondered about how important it really was for an astronaut to spend a bunch of time flying in a T-38. The rules of piloting are all very much different than the rules of space travel. Brian O’Leary saw it like requiring someone to ride a bike before they were allowed to drive a car. Orbital mechanics are completely different than flying mechanics and a considerable amount of the Gemini program was spent trying to figure out rendezvous and spacewalking.

This is the crux of Brian O’Leary’s issues with the space program. He was starting to fly on his own, as part of the Air Force program, surrounded by people who really loved the idea of flying. He was having difficulties, and maybe he’d have washed out on his own accord later. But at the same time, there was a fairly high chance that continuing down that path meant that there was a fairly high chance that he’d give up the sciences, he’d not be getting a chance to fly any time soon, and he’d risk dying in a T-38 accident.

And, in his view, it was cumulatively more risky than actual spaceflight to be required to maintain flying proficiency on the T-38.

Hitting the end-of-Apollo-wall

During that time period Brian O’Leary applied, NASA could do no wrong. Despite never having more than majority support for space exploration, NASA was given carte blanche privilege on the budget to spend and spend and beat the Russians to the moon. However, even before the first successful moon landing, the wolves were already circling.

On Brian O’Leary’s first day as an Astronaut trainee, he describes being sent to the Pilot’s Meeting and then being told that they received word from Washington that the post-Apollo budget was going to be curtailed and they wouldn’t be able to recover for quite some time.

There was a wide variety of manned missions that NASA wanted to accomplish after the moon landing. Top on the list was visiting Mars, but also was building a space telescope, a manned flyby mission to Venus, an extended series of progressively longer lunar missions, both Skylab and a larger space station, as well as an unmanned “Grand Tour” that eventually became the Voyager program and an unmanned Mars mission that started out being called the Voyager program but eventually was completely redesigned to create the Viking program.

Brian O’Leary was brought on as someone who might go on one of the early Mars missions, but given the state of the space program when he joined, you can’t really argue that he probably was correctly reading the oncoming storm.

One thing that he does suggest is that part of the problem was connecting with the rest of the world and that astronauts from a slightly more diverse background could have connected better with the public. As well as providing a more useful set of explanations about what was going on and why the geological features of the moon were interesting.

Story Musgrave

We can’t talk about the eventual fate of the Scientist-Astronaut program without covering Story. When Brian O’Leary met him, he was thirty four, with six university degrees and 5 children. He was already enjoying flying much more than any of the other Excess Eleven.

Story wasn’t given a flight until the Space Shuttle program, almost 16 years later, after which he accumulated a truly stunning number of hours of flight time. However, despite having more flying hours than most of the pilots of the shuttles he flew on, he was never classified as a pilot astronaut because of being part of the Excess Eleven.

Furthermore, he was the oldest astronaut to fly, after which he had mandatory retirement, after which his record was broken by John Glen’s flight, which was really an opportunity to thank him for being willing to sit on a rocket that had a statistically fairly high chance of blowing up underneath him, but was mostly sold as science and perceived as political favoritism.

If I had to learn to fly a T-38…

The book is a very conversational styled autobiography and I found myself easily able to empathize with 1960’s Brian O’Leary. Like Brian O’Leary, I did get a fascinating opportunity to move to Texas but unlike him, I turned it down. His experience of going to Texas from Berkeley rather mirrored mine.

Frankly, if you told me I had to learn to fly a T-38 to do my job and you’d pay for all of my flying lessons, I suspect I’d consider that a plus for the job. At the same time, I empathize with Brian O’Leary’s logic. Dying in a T-38 on the way to becoming an astronaut is lame compared to cratering in an out-of-control space capsule.

On one hand, he gets the last laugh, because NASA did create the category of a non-flying astronaut later on. On the other hand, NASA stopped crashing T-38’s and killing astronaut candidates in the years after he wrote the book.

Riding Rockets, even though Mullane did fly on three flights, did a good job of peeling back the mythos of The Right Stuff and the officially licensed pieces out of the Time Life deal. Of the test pilot astronaut mythos where Mike Mullane realizes, decades later, how much of a jerk he was to the first female astronaut. This book, although written earlier, tells a different section of the same story. An astronaut who decided to bail on the program, instead of a lifelong culmination of a person’s effort to explore space, bookended by the inevitable glamorous retirement.