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A Sneeze Odyssey

Yes, it’s true, the three once-astronauts paying tribute to Actifed indeed had sneezies in space--and took the medicine.

“It was just one of those typical nasty head colds,” recalled Wally Schirra Jr., one of America’s seven “right stuff” astronauts in the ‘60s.

“No one had ever had a cold in space before. They considered me testy,” he added. He got his cold symptoms while orbiting Earth on Apollo 7--Oct. 11-22, 1968--and was the first person to pop Actifed in space, much to the delight of its manufacturers, Burroughs Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Then fellow crewmen Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham got colds. (Schirra’s daughter dubbed the flight “the 10-day cold capsule.”)

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Schirra said, “We exhausted the supply” of Actifed--their colds could only be dried out chemically because in zero gravity, sinuses don’t drain.

In fact, Schirra said that on re-entry, the three didn’t wear their helmets. They were concerned that with the gravitational pull, they might be harmed if they had worn them and their ears started to pop or they had too much mucous. “Literally, you could drown in it,” he said.

NASA and Johnson Space Center officials confirmed Schirra’s story: “They were kind of grumpy, as I remember,” said NASA spokesman Kenneth Atchison. “A couple of times they were a little bit short with flight controllers down on the ground.” Schirra launched his pitch career in 1983 when Actifed, formerly a prescription drug, first went over the counter. Donn Eisele later appeared with Schirra. Richard Gordon and Alan Bean, who caught head colds on Apollo 12 in 1969, join Schirra in the latest spots.

“You know there’s laws about truth in advertising. Research was heavily done. It’s a matter of record,” said Gordon, now president of Astro Sciences in Glendale. Added Bean, now a Houston-based painter of realistic space landscapes, “I told them I couldn’t do anything unless NASA says I took it.”

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Not all astronauts were eager to sell cold medicine. A spokesman for Rumrill-Hoyt/McCaffrey & McCall in New York, which handles the Actifed account, said 25 astronauts (six of whom took Actifed) were asked to do commercials.

Walter Cunningham, now managing general partner of the Genesis Fund in Houston, was solicited several times: “I happen not to be philosophically and physically comfortable with selling a product,” he said. But then again, if it was “a high-road kind of thing” or “if the price was right. . . .”

What the price was that the other astronauts got, no one would say.


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