October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
As the man responsible for generating publicity for Playboy Enterprises in the 1960s and 1970s, I became more than a little inured to fielding oddball requests. One day in 1966.1 took a call at my Chicago office from a man who said he wanted us to send him photographs of a couple of Playmates. I proceeded to articulate the company’s policy of not promoting nudity out of its editorial context—that is, we did not make Playmate centerfolds available independent of the magazine.
My caller persisted. He explained he was phoning from Cape Kennedy and that his job title was something akin to “Capsule Manager” for the Gemini missions; he would be the last person to tuck the astronauts into the capsule before buttoning the hatch on Gemini X .
It had become a tradition, he went on, to send the astronauts aloft with some sort of humorous memento. He said that, as on military bases everywhere, a number of Playmate centerfolds were taped to the walls of the Ready Room, and that it was traditional for the astronauts to pat their favorite posteriors for luck as they left for the journey to the launch pad.
What he wanted, however, were two mini -Playmate gatefolds reduced to a precise 4½ by 6½ inches, mounted on lightweight cardboard. He would see that these were packed inside the plastic pouch of materials that was always the last object he stowed in the capsule. Upon being instructed by Ground Control to go to sleep, the astronauts would reach into the pouch for cardboard inserts to block sunlight from the capsule’s tiny rectangular portholes—only to discover that they would, so to speak, be sleeping with Playmates.
He cautioned, however, that the little caper had to be carried out in total secrecy. If word leaked out, there would be hell to pay with the NASA brass.
Reflecting on how the mild joke might look if something went amiss with the mission, I agreed to go along with keeping the secret prior to and during the flight. However, I exacted a promise that the Playmate participation would be brought to the attention of the press upon completion of the mission. My plan was to tip off a wire-service reporter who would be present at the debriefing when the astronauts returned. He would simply inquire how they enjoyed their trip with the Playmates.
On July 18, 1966, Jo Collins and B Donna Michelle soared off Cape Kennedy with astronauts Michael Collins (no relation) and John Young in the tight | confines of Gemini X . For the next 71 hours, they orbited the earth 43 times.
When their capsule splashed down in the Atlantic, I half hoped to see Young and Collins emerge clutching their sunshades. To say the least, it didn’t happen.
A few days passed before the debriefing press conference in Houston. During that time, our man at Cape Kennedy told me he had talked with Young and Collins. They had been delighted when they met their bunkmates. However—and it was a very disappointing however for me —they said they just could not go public with this momentous event.
There already had been much too big a flap over the stashing of an unauthorized corned-beef sandwich—Gus Grissom’s favorite—aboard Gemini III . NASA lore has it that the prank was perpetrated by John Young, Grissom’s Gemini twin- who was chewed out for it. There was official concern about “crumbs floating inside the capsule.” Young did not wish to become a two-time offender, and the astronauts passed the word that they would have to deny the Playmate excursion if the question was raised at the press conference.
So what’s a PR man to do? Force the issue? Ask the question at the press conference in what would appear to many to be a cheap publicity stunt—only to have these heroes disavow knowledge of it? To persist in the matter—and put them on the spot? We said farewell to a publicity coup of global proportions.
So here is a long-overdue salute to Playmates Jo Collins and Donna Michelle as America’s first women in space— almost 17 years before Sally Ride!