Overcoming the obstacles

In September 1966, O'Leary was reading some pamphlets pinned to a notice board at Berkeley, when he saw one issued by the National Academy of Sciences, urging qualified scientists to apply for selection in a second NASA scientist-astronaut group. The final selection would not be made until the following summer, and with his doctoral thesis on the planet Mars scheduled to be completed in the next few months, he considered the timing to be perfect. "My childhood dreams had told me that this would be the most exciting thing a man could do in this age, and that other things society offered were relatively extraneous. I was convinced space science was my calling, so what better way was there to answer that calling than to become an astronaut?"

Despite his enthusiasm, O'Leary realised he had several slight physical impairments that could easily go against him, which he and Joyce discussed prior to his application. He was nearsighted, with 20/40 vision in his left eye and 20/100 in the right, and he held deep concerns about his lifelong inability to sufficiently distinguish reds and greens. He knew he would eventually have to face an Ishihara test for colourblindness, which consisted of a pattern of coloured spots, and his failure to correctly perceive several numbers had earlier prevented him from qualifying for the Naval officer programme. It was an obstacle he would have to face when he came to it, and with his wife's backing he filled out the form and sent it off.

It was not until the following February that he finally received a telegram from the National Academy of Sciences, requesting further information. They also wanted five reprints of his published papers and an essay of 250 words or less on experiments he would carry out in orbit or on the Moon. In his usual meticulous way, he completed this using exactly 250 words, and sent off everything that had been requested. On 3 March, he was advised that he had passed initial screening and was "scientifically qualified'' for the programme.

Early in May 1967, O'Leary was asked to report to the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks AFB in San Antonio, Texas, for a week of physical and mental examinations. The Ishihara test was still preying on his consciousness every day, and in desperation, he even resorted to memorising the numbers embedded into patterns on each page. In the end, all his concerns were dispelled on the first afternoon of testing, when he passed the colour vision test without a problem. "Oddly enough, it was not the Ishihara test which I had memorised. The technician giving me the test was lax and paid no attention to my answers, although many were probably correct anyway. I passed the same test that had eliminated me from the Naval officer program.''

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