Michel Resigns

Meanwhile, another of the scientist-astronauts had decided enough was enough. Curt Michel, from the first group elected in 1965, saw little prospect for a flight after four years with NASA. They had once been the "Scientific Six,'' then the "Incredible Five,''

but now only four remained: Garriott, Gibson, Kerwin and Schmitt. Michel, however, had seen the writing on the wall, and it had been coming for quite some time.1

"The Astronaut Office, being a paramilitary organisation, is extremely sensitive to the tradition of seniority. However flights might be parcelled out with a given group (a group being those selected at a given time), in every case no-one got a flight from the next group until all those qualified had flown in the previous group. Since we were the fourth group chosen, we naturally expected that the fifth group of nineteen would not fly until we either got a flight or became disqualified (usually through medical problems, the ultimate disqualifier being death, which occurred far too often). The fifth group evidently thought the same, for there was considerable discouragement over the prospects for flights in the foundering AAP."

A dissatisfied customer

Michel would also convey his dissatisfaction in an interview with author David Shayler in 1992. "There was a presumption," he said, "that you would fly in order of groups, which of course didn't happen since they skipped over our group to fly the next group - although that was never official. There never was anything official about where you stood, or how the decisions were made.''2

As Michel attested in his contemporary journal, a lunar landing required proficiency on the Lunar Module; and of conventional vehicles, only the helicopter had control properties that simulated those of the LM. Therefore advanced helicopter training remained an essential requirement for any astronaut who might want to fly to the Moon. But there was a shortage of these vehicles at the time and as a result, it became impossible for the Astronaut Office to conceal the identities of those who might be going to fly any forthcoming missions, and there were some nasty surprises in store. Out of Group 4, only geologist Jack Schmitt would receive this advanced helicopter training. Michel was not impressed.

"It was disappointing that only one of the five of us was to have any expectation of going to the Moon, and by implication, that the remaining four were consigned to the uncertainties of AAP. Such perhaps might have been the status of the program, but no. The stunning fact was that almost three-quarters of the fifth group received helicopter training assignments. I was appalled. Not only did the assignments suggest that the fifth group might not have to wait for AAP, but it meant that those of us untrained could not hope for anything else despite whatever future developments might take place.

"I immediately wrote a memo to Shepard urging that more from our group be trained, even if only to provide back-ups to Schmitt. To appreciate the degree of exclusion of scientists from the possibility of lunar missions, I should mention that two of the nineteen (from Group 5) either had an advanced degree (Don Lind, a physicist) or the expectation of obtaining such a degree (Bruce McCandless). They were informally lumped in with us as scientist-astronauts and neither would fly helicopters. It was therefore pilots eighty-two per cent versus scientists eighteen percent and even the most innocent of us thought that might be significant.

"Shepard asked Owen (Garriott) to prepare a priority list for his consideration.

Garriott complied with the recommendation that, in order of preference, Lind, I, he, Gibson and McCandless should be considered. Shepard responded by adding Lind and Garriott to the list. This decision was interesting in accepting the point I wished to make while at the same time rebuking me for making it. A hollow victory that."

Turning to Apollo Applications

Knowing he now had very little, if any, chance of flying to the Moon, Michel's interest turned to AAP, and in particular the Apollo Telescope Mount (ATM). This advanced solar observation facility was designed to carry a suite of instruments to study and photograph the sun and its spectra, and it would later play a prominent role in the outstanding success of the Skylab series of missions.

In 1969, according to the timetable then in place, the first ATM flight was tentatively scheduled for 1972, but like so many others in the AAP, it remained unfunded. Most of the scientist-astronauts decided to bide their time, although the future of such programmes was clouded by uncertainty. Some, like Joe Allen, remained optimistic about their chances. "I feel that we are playing a vital role,'' he told Scientific Research magazine. "A great deal of support work is required of this office. I feel that if I can serve as a mediator and help on some of the scientific experiments, I have had a big part and done my job. If it should happen that I can get to go along on a mission, that will be just perfect. But I don't feel that I'm wasting my time if I don't go into orbit.''3 Karl Henize agreed with Allen. "We are very anxious to see at least one scientist go. I know that my personal chances are slim, since I was in the last nine chosen and there are over fifty astronauts in the program. I would like to fly one mission, but I'm not eating my heart out about it.''3

Michel was a little more forthright in his opinions, and was well known for his outspoken comments on the many dissatisfactions associated with being a scientist in the astronaut programme. "When we joined the program in 1965," he said, "we were led to believe that some of us would be chosen for flights by 1968. Now the soonest it seems that any of us will fly will be 1972. That means we will have been in training and away from our disciplines for seven years. That's a long time.''3

On the last day of June 1969, the day of his return from a year's break at Rice University, Michel had a meeting with Alan Shepard. Although there was no need for him to see Shepard in order to resume his astronaut duties, he was anxious to resolve several important questions and used his return as a pretext for the interview.

Possibilities fade

"After the usual innocuous preliminaries I asked what my duties might be and explained that I did not look forward enthusiastically to an extension of my previous duties. I wasn't quite sure what would happen, but the captain slightly surprised me by taking a very positive view, suggesting that I should explore things with Walt Cunningham, who was now heading up the AAP effort, and with 'William' Hess (Dr. Wilmot Hess, who held the directorship of the Science and Applications Directorate, is known as 'Bill' - the mistake was natural, but calibrates the degree of interaction between the two branches). For some reason, Walt had inherited AAP 'for the duration' and I expected a hard-charging, effective, and opinionated job with him. Hess, on the other hand, might be expected to provide some sensible accommodation between the divergent demands of science versus hardware technology. It was really quite a sensible suggestion on Shepard's part.''

Next, the two men discussed the possibility of operational Apollo experience, and Shepard revealed that crews, including support crews, had been designated up to Apollo 15. Michel then estimated the next available slot, on Apollo 16, could be some two years distant. However, Shepard said there was a possibility that Michel might be offered a role as a part-time Capcom prior to this, which was hardly exciting news. He later admitted he had probably ''lost some brownie points'' by his determination to take the twelve-month leave of absence, and had effectively gone to the bottom of the selection heap for the very few slots available. ''I could count the number of empty seats and that would put me off the whole thing, so things weren't going all that well.''2

He then asked if the main utilisation of the scientist-astronauts would be concentrated on the space station programme, and Shepard thoughtfully conceded this was very likely. ''I returned home,'' Michel recorded in his journal, ''and wrote my resignation.''

By 8 July 1969, with the Apollo 11 mission imminent, Curt Michel decided he had mulled over his decision long enough. He could no longer play the protracted waiting game with NASA, and took a draft notice of his resignation to Shepard's office. Shepard was not in, so Michel left a note along with his resignation, which said: ''I think I should have your comments before sending this in to the Mill -1 know you are busy with 11 but when you get a chance ..."

The next day, Shepard got in touch with his office and asked that Michel call him at the Cape. Michel called twice, but was told each time that Shepard was involved ''in the simulator.'' The following morning, at 11: 15 a.m., Michel finally reached Shepard and apologised for raising the issue of retirement at such an overwhelmingly busy time. Despite this, Shepard was surprisingly understanding, and said he couldn't argue with Michel's reasoning. He added that he thought the current projection of lunar flights would be cut from ten to around six or seven, that Apollo Applications would probably slip by a year, and might even evolve into the proposed space station. Michel decided to pursue the biggest question in his mind: would any of his group get a chance to fly an Apollo mission? Shepard would only say that Schmitt ''had a reasonable opportunity,'' and he was also expecting other astronauts to begin dropping out with the dearth of flight prospects.

Michel had been anticipating problems when talking with Shepard - perhaps an argument, at least an annoyed objection, but there was none. He now found most of what he was going to say to the chief astronaut was irrelevant, and ended by stating that in the light of their conversation his resignation would stand. Shepard said he would send the letter on to Deke Slayton. ''I thanked him for responding," Michel later jotted down in his diary notes, ''and that was that.''

In August, and following the successful flight of Apollo 11, Michel had a late night meeting with Deke Slayton, who also said he didn't have any argument with anything in the draft letter of resignation. The two men also discussed the possible directions of the Apollo programme, and Slayton said he expected each succeeding flight to become more difficult, and that the missions would never become "operational." Then, to Michel's amazement, Slayton began complaining about how he had been coerced into selecting the second scientist-astronaut group, and more recently the seven Group 7 astronauts from the cancelled US Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) programme, when they were clearly superfluous to projected astronaut requirements. At least, he said, he had managed to trim the latter group by imposing a mandatory age limit of thirty-five, which effectively halved the group. It was a sad pronouncement of the way things were headed at NASA, and for Michel it provided the final incentive to resign.

"I signed and dated the draft and thereby made the letter official. The meeting ended cordially with some question over when to make an official announcement of resignation. He said (somewhat glumly) that I could say whatever I pleased. I said that the letter contained the substance of any statement.

"The next day I sent a letter advising Slayton that I wished to make it official on 18 August, and reiterated that I had nothing further to add beyond the letter. Slayton and Jack Riley (from NASA's Public Affairs) phoned to advise me of the release date and read me the press release which excerpted my letter. That night I called the remaining four members of my group. I discussed my decision. The general attitude was one of understanding, yet hope (but not optimism) over possible future developments.''

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