Astronauts are the pillars of American society, chosen for their dangerous and noble profession on account of their intelligence, physical stamina, outstanding moral character, and exceptionally close-cropped hair. Astronauts can do no wrong, at least not where the public can see them. Where the public can’t see them, they can (and sometimes do) do plenty of wrong, and even modern astronauts sometimes screw up in big ways, not just because of making poor choices but because of their exceedingly awful personalities.
We’re not saying that awful personalities go with the job — more than 300 people have served as U.S. astronauts, and many of them have upheld the model-citizen image that NASA has always wanted them to have. But in every profession, there are always a few outliers, and some of them have been pretty exceptionally nasty.
Your car is not designed for re-entry
Retired astronaut James Donald Halsell Jr. was perhaps trying to simulate the experience of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere in 2016 when his rental car plowed into the back of another vehicle, killing two children. According to CNN, the car he struck was crushed, pushed into the median, and flipped “at least twice” before landing in the opposing lane. The two girls, ages 11 and 13, weren’t wearing seatbelts and were ejected from the vehicle. One died at the scene and the other was pronounced dead in the hospital. Halsell later told police he’d had three glasses of wine prior to the incident. Also, ten empty packets of sleeping pills were found in the motel room where he was staying.
So that’s bad, but then Halsell allegedly tried to steal the car of a bystander who stopped to help the victims. And then he told everyone he couldn’t remember any of it.
Halsell was charged with two counts of reckless murder and two counts of first-degree assault for injuring the other people in the car but was able to post a $150,000 bond because astronaut. A few months later (before he went to trial) he petitioned the court to have his driving privileges restored, and the judge said “yes,” again probably because astronaut.
During his career, Halsell flew five shuttle missions and spent 1,250+ hours in space. That might actually be more time than he spends in prison, but we’ll see. The hearing appears to have been delayed indefinitely.
The great diaper chase of 2007
Who could forget Lisa Nowak, respected astronaut, Naval Academy graduate, test pilot, decorated Navy veteran, and aeronautical and astronautical engineer, who put on a diaper and drove 950 miles to confront a romantic rival in an airport parking lot. According to the New York Times, Nowak insisted she only meant to “talk” to the woman, even though she wore a disguise and sprayed pepper spray into her rival’s cracked window.
Nowak was a married mother of three who was sort of but not quite romantically involved with fellow astronaut William Oefelein, who was definitely romantically involved with Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. Her family members said she’d recently separated from her husband and had clearly just cracked under the stress.
Officials planned to charge Nowak with attempted murder, but the charges were downgraded to attempted kidnapping, burglary, and misdemeanor battery on account of the fact that people don’t usually commit murder with pepper spray. In November 2010 she pleaded guilty to felony burglary and misdemeanor battery, which gave her the noble distinction of being the first astronaut ever convicted of a felony. She was sentenced to a year of supervised probation, but she was also discharged from the Navy, downgraded from captain to commander, and her service record got an “other than honorable” label. Probably nothing is quite as long-lasting as a legacy of wearing diapers on a long road trip so you can pepper spray someone in an airport, but there you go.
But I’ll lose my job
America’s original astronauts were more than just celebrities — to say the American public worshipped them isn’t really an exaggeration. They were heroes, and NASA was shrewd enough to understand that public support was about 99 percent of the reason for the existence of the space program, so it made absolutely sure the astronauts projected the image that the public already had of them, even if it wasn’t necessarily the truth.
The first astronaut who felt the full strength of NASA’s fury was Donn Eisele, who was fired after he divorced his wife Harriet. These days divorce is sort of like sleeping in on Saturdays — some people do it, some people don’t, and most people don’t give a crap one way or another if other people do it. But divorce was frowned upon back in the ’60s, so NASA was totally not cool with it, regardless of the circumstances.
Then, there were the circumstances. According to Lily Koppel’s book The Astronaut Wives Club, Eisele rarely visited his son Matthew, who was dying from leukemia. After the boy’s death, Eisele went back to Cape Canaveral and left Harriet to grieve alone. Then, he cheated on her and told her she was crazy for thinking he was cheating on her. When she offered to go to a psychiatrist, he said she couldn’t because “I’ll lose my job.” So, brave, strong, dedicated to his work — but not exactly a model husband and father.
Getting divorced wasn’t the worst thing this guy did
Duane Graveline had the right stuff — he was a pioneer in the field of space medicine, he was super smart, he was handsome, and he was married. Things were looking good when he joined NASA’s fourth set of astronauts in 1965, but just two months after that he resigned for “personal reasons.” It was pretty clear, though, that the “personal reasons” that led him to abandon America’s most coveted profession were more important to NASA than they were to him.
A month before “his” decision, Graveline’s wife Carole Jane filed for divorce, citing his “violent and ungovernable outbursts of temper.” NASA wasn’t cool with that kind of scandal, so they pressured him for his resignation — according to The New York Times, he’d never even had a chance to wear a space suit. Boo hoo.
Graveline’s bad behavior continued long after his resignation, so it turns out NASA did the right thing. He was married six times and settled into a 20-year career as a family practice doctor, but in 1987 his license was suspended after a whole lot of Demerol mysteriously vanished under his watch. Graveline managed to get his license back two years later, but in 1994 it was revoked permanently after he was accused of sexually abusing five children. Graveline died in 2016 with the noble distinction of having the shortest-lived tenure of any astronaut in NASA’s history.
Please come back but not because I miss you or anything
Four months before he was chosen to be an astronaut, Gordon Cooper was happily splitting his time between his work and his affair with a married woman when his wife Trudy declared she’d had enough and walked out on him after 12 years of marriage. As he watched her go, his hopes of seeing the Earth from a Mercury capsule went with her — almost.
Trudy moved away with their two daughters, but pretty soon Cooper was begging her to come back, not because he really loved and missed her, but because NASA expected him to be a family man.
In The Astronaut Wives Club, Lily Koppel speculated that Trudy returned so her daughters could benefit from their father’s fame, or maybe it was the $70,000 fee they would get for a Life magazine profile. At any rate, the couple stayed married until just before Cooper retired in 1970, when it no longer mattered if he had a wife.
Some of Cooper’s other actions while he was an astronaut weren’t exactly honest, either. While on the Faith 7 flight in 1963, he found evidence of possibly-treasure-laden sunken ships, which he failed to disclose to anyone until decades later, when a treasure hunter turned his maps into a 2017 reality television show. It turns out he was pretty good at spotting shipwrecks from space — the first five of the 100 sites he’d identified were confirmed shipwrecks, with more to follow.
The ‘Go-Go Crew’
After it became crystal clear that NASA wasn’t going to tolerate any marital strife in the ranks, there were a lot of astronauts who became nervous that their wives were going to end their careers, but not nervous enough to do anything so outrageous as, you know, not cheating on them anymore. According to The Telegraph, Alan Shepard, the first American in space, was also an extra-brazen cheater — so much so that his wife Louise earned the nickname “Saint Louise” for her ability to smile and look the other way. Together with fellow astronauts Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon (nicknamed the “Go-Go Crew” because their indiscretions were so adorable), Shepard cruised around in a gold Corvette and pranced around with “multiple women hanging off his arm.”
At one point there was actual photographic evidence of Shepard’s indiscretions — he’d been caught at swingers parties and once picked up a lady of the night at the Mexican border while traveling with NASA on official business. Astronaut John Glenn got the unsavory job of talking the press out of breaking the story, so the whole stupid mess never impacted Shepard’s career, and his wife stayed with him anyway, telling friends she remained loyal because “I’m the one he really loves.” Incidentally, Louise and Alan Shepard’s marriage was one of only seven marriages that survived among the early astronauts.
Man-on-the-moon Buzz Aldrin was famously unemotional, which simultaneously made him both a great astronaut and a terrible husband. According to The Astronaut Wives Club, in 1966 he gave his wife a pet monkey to replace one that had recently died, but this one was, shall we say, not as nice as the first. It would mock her, bare its teeth, and make obscene gestures, until finally she said: “It’s either the monkey or me. Somebody’s leaving.” And her husband reportedly gave her a look that said, “What are you waiting for?”
Aldrin’s take on the monkey was significantly different than his wife’s. “Other pastimes and hobbies I had chosen provided nowhere near the diversion [the monkey] offered,” he wrote in his memoir Return to Earth. “Joan realized this and tolerated him accordingly.” Because clearly it was her wifely duty to let an obnoxious, smelly primate treat her like a second-class citizen.
It got worse after Aldrin’s famous Moon landing. When he returned, he fell into depression, took up drinking, and had a bunch of affairs. Joan divorced him in 1974. Years later, he sued two of his children for misusing his legacy for “their own self-dealing and enrichment,” and for “slander” for suggesting that he might be suffering from “cognitive decline.” Who was on the right side of the argument is up for debate, but the whole mess still says a lot about his reputation as a cold-hearted dude.
Insects have all the fun
Womanizing was a popular pastime for the early astronauts. According to Gerard Degroot’s Dark Side of the Moon, Gus Grissom once told a reporter that he was jealous of bugs that could mate in midair because “they do the two things I like best in life … and they do them at the same time.” He didn’t seem to have his wife in mind for that particular fantasy, though. One astronaut legend had him leaving a party so he could take his wife to the airport, meeting another woman while he was there, and then bringing her back to the party. This was after his wife had worked night shifts as a telephone operator for years to help put her husband through engineering school.
Gus Grissom died in an Apollo launchpad fire in 1967, after taking some flak for a Mercury mishap in which his capsule’s hatch blew open prematurely, resulting in the whole thing sinking to the bottom of the ocean, where it remained for 38 years. We don’t generally like to criticize people who die in the service of their country, especially when that death is horrible, so maybe we won’t go so far as to say that Gus Grissom was awful, just that he sometimes behaved in an awful way.
It’s okay to keep a cookie on the side
Marge Slayton met her husband Deke in Germany after World War II. He was kind and charming, but that was probably because he hadn’t yet been exposed to all the celebrity temptations that would turn a lot of honest astronaut husbands into dishonest cheaters.
Slayton had a heart murmur, and just after John Glenn’s historic flight, NASA decided that Slayton’s heart murmur was a deal breaker and grounded him. Not wanting to be left out, the Air Force grounded him, too. He did stay on at NASA in a non-flying capacity and was given the title “Coordinator of Astronaut Activities,” which must have stung.
Anyway, according to The Astronaut Wives Club, Slayton’s coordinator activities evidently involved coordinating whether or not astronauts were allowed to “keep a cookie on the side” (they were), and at some point Marge got fed up and followed Harriet Eisele, Carole Jane Graveline, and all the other distinguished NASA divorcees with some paperwork of her own, citing a feeling that her husband had traded his family for Cape Canaveral, that “harlot of a town.” And so yet another astronaut marriage was proven to have all the wrong stuff.
Love on the Moon (sort of)
And finally, this guy really gets more of an honorable mention because he didn’t technically ever become an astronaut. He did sort of do some stuff on the Moon, though. Sort of.
According to CBS, 25-year-old NASA intern Thad Roberts already had a reputation as a bad boy — which NASA seems to like even though they won’t ever admit it. His worst transgression before being expelled in 2002 was sneaking into the Space Shuttle Simulator. Then he decided he really wanted to make some waves, not by impressing the higher-ups and proving his worth as a future astronaut, but by stealing a safe full of Moon rocks, mostly because NASA wasn’t doing anything with them.
So that sounds kind of noble if Roberts had actual, scientific plans for the Moon rocks or something but he didn’t. Instead, he wanted to sell them to a Belgian collector. On a road trip to meet the collector to sell the rocks, he and his girlfriend (not his wife, he’d left his wife at home) put them under the blankets of a motel bed so they could become the very first members of the 250,000 Mile High Club. When they arrived at the meeting place, it turned out the suspicious mineralist had called the FBI, and they were busted.