January 27, 1967, Cape Canaveral, Fla.: At 6:31 p.m. Eastern Time at Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the frantic word “Hey!” was recorded coming from the cockpit of the Apollo 1 capsule, crewed in a “plugs out” test by astronauts Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White, II, and space rookie Roger Chaffee. The exclamation was followed by unusual activity recorded inside the capsule by an adjacent camera. A sickening scene would play out for those listening to the transmissions, ending in seconds as the situation grew more desperate inside the capsule as an oxygen-fueled fire ripped through it. It soon transpired that all three astronauts were lost during the accident, culminating in what astronaut chief and colleague Donald K. “Deke” Slayton would call “the worst day” in his book, Deke!, co-authored with Michael Cassutt.
The poet Langston Hughes once asked in his poem “Harlem,” “What happens to a dream deferred?” The Apollo 1 fire tragedy put America’s Moon-reaching “dream” on hold while an extensive investigation took place. When Apollo was ready to fly in October 1968, NASA flew what was described by authors Colin Burgess and Francis French in the book In the Shadow of the Moon as “three of the most diverse characters ever assigned to fly together”—mission commander Walter Schirra (one of the original “Mercury 7” astronauts), along with astronauts Walter Cunningham (lunar module pilot) and Donn Eisele (command module pilot). Despite some controversy (partly due to discomfort caused by head colds), the mission, according to Cunningham, was truly NASA’s first “return to flight” (referenced in a collectSPACE article from earlier this week). The visible success of Apollo 7 46 years ago, this week, would seal future victories for the program.
The importance of this mission’s success was not lost on anyone, particularly the astronauts involved. Cunningham and Schirra both were upfront about this in oral histories and interviews. In a 1999 Johnson Space Center oral history interview conducted with Ron Stone, Cunningham bluntly related: “Well, Apollo 7 became very important … If we had not had a success on Apollo 7, we really don’t know what would’ve happened to the space program. Another accident and the fainthearted in the country, as we have a tendency to be, would’ve been clamoring to stop it, you know. People don’t realize there are a lot of things worse than dying, and there are a lot of things worth dying for in this life. And certainly we believed that that was one of them … We never even had any hesitation about that.”
Cunningham added regarding his mission commander: “ … We were proud to be assigned the mission, and Wally’s attitude was entirely different. It was important. It was to save the space program. It became known as ‘Wally’s mission.’ I mean, Donn and I hardly even existed in the eyes of the media. And Wally warmed to the task. There was still a lot of work. Wally was not the world’s greatest nose-to-the-grindstone guy, but he began to realize that this was important and he wanted it to be successful.”
In a 2002 interview with Francis French on collectSPACE, Schirra himself confirmed his attitude. Schirra, who had decided to leave NASA after the flight, demanded nothing short of perfection from himself or his crew. French wrote: “Once Schirra had made the decision to leave, he felt that it gave him far more freedom to make criticisms of the spacecraft design that he felt were necessary. He and his crew pushed the spacecraft engineers further than ever before in their detailed rebuilding of the Apollo spacecraft, and pulled no punches.”
Schirra would say in the interview portion: “It helped, and it worked, too! I’m afraid others didn’t always like it – they didn’t realize what a command was. Particularly Chris Kraft. He didn’t make a big issue out of it, but he did say I was kind of grumpy. I wasn’t grumpy, I was merely asserting my authority. The flight controllers felt like they had the right to the last word – they still do! But I was taking the risks. I have yet to hear of a flight controller killing himself by falling off his chair! They were younger men who had not really put themselves physically at risk. They could wear black armbands, but that wouldn’t help me any. The result of it was, when we lost three men on the launchpad, I knew we were facing up to a real problem. I said, ‘We are going to do this one right.’ By then I had responsibility for two crewmen. Then you have the responsibility, much like the skipper of a submarine – it’s your problem. You accept command. That’s the way it goes – if you give me the ship, it’s mine. Then I’ll tell you what I’m going to do or not do, within the rules of the ship. That comes down from the Royal Navy, the authority invested in the commanding officer.”
Launched on October 11 from Complex 34 aboard a Saturn IB launch vehicle, the mission lasted nearly 11 days. One goal of the mission was to perform a simulated lunar module docking rendezvous with a Saturn S-IVB stage, despite the mission’s lack of a lunar module; this kind of maneuver would be essential on future missions, beginning with Apollo 9 (the first in-space test of the lunar module). In a previous AmericaSpace article, Ben Evans wrote: “Two hours and 55 minutes into the flight, the spacecraft undocked from the S-IVB and pulsed its reaction controls twice to turn back in a simulated rendezvous approach which Moon-bound crews would use to pick up their lunar module. Although there was no lunar module housed inside the stage, it provided useful practice and Schirra brought his ship within five feet of the spent S-IVB.”
Evans also added: “Elsewhere, the performance of the spacecraft’s big Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine was highly successful. It was fortunate, indeed, that this was the case, for this was a component which simply had to work or lunar crews would not be able to return home.” All in all, the crew made eight firings of this essential Apollo system.
Another success included the first live television transmission from a U.S. spacecraft, as the crew staged what was humorously referred to as “The Wally, Walt, and Donn Show” on Oct. 14. Using a then-high-tech RCA video camera, the crew’s first seven-minute transmission would electrify the nation, as the crew provided unprecedented views of life aboard a spaceship orbiting the Earth. The crew would go on to win a special Emmy for their series of TV transmissions. Since Apollo 7, television transmissions from space have become routine; these days, NASA’s astronauts aboard the International Space Station frequently communicate with Earth via the medium (however, unlike in 1968, they also use social media, as the Internet has further revolutionized how Earth-bound citizens communicate with space travelers). Apollo 7 marked the beginning of a still-continuing era as technology brought the “otherworldly” into regular people’s homes.
Much has been made of the “grumpiness” exhibited by the crew as they fell victim to head colds, a nuisance on Earth, but probably torture in spaceflight as the sinus cavities are already constricted by fluid pushing up from the legs to the head. Upon their Oct. 22 reentry, Schirra, concerned about possible busted eardrums with pressure changes, ordered his crew not to wear helmets upon reentry.
Evans wrote in his Apollo 7 series: “Deke Slayton explicitly ordered the crew to wear their helmets, but Schirra refused, agreeing only to keep them stowed in case of emergencies. … Each astronaut took a decongestant pill an hour before hitting the atmosphere and endured no major problems. As the command module’s pressure was raised to conditions approximating normal sea-level, Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham performed the Valsalva maneuver – holding their noses, closing their mouths, and vigorously exhaling through their nostrils – to keep their middle ears equal to the increasing cabin pressure. In doing so, they avoided ruptured ear drums … but aroused the wrath of flight controllers. All three men would be ‘tarred and feathered’ for their insubordination during the mission. Schirra had already announced his retirement from NASA, but Eisele and Cunningham would never fly again.”
Eisele would be assigned to the Apollo 10 backup crew following his only spaceflight. Perhaps the most inscrutable Apollo 7 astronaut, he worked with the Peace Corps and several private companies prior to his passing in 1987 from a heart attack. Cunningham would work in the Apollo Applications Program, later to become Skylab; in this capacity, he contributed to the development of the first U.S. space station. Schirra would pass away in 2007, leaving Cunningham as the last surviving crew member. This week, collectSPACE unveiled the alternate Apollo 7 patch design he synthesized with artist Tim Gagnon, which depicts a “Phoenix” rising from the flames of Apollo 7’s launch vehicle, symbolic of rebirth after adversity.
Following Langston Hughes’ plaintive question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” the poet continues to ask: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet?” Then Hughes’ adds, “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?” In this case, the “Flight of the Phoenix” from the flames of the Apollo 1 tragedy exploded into life in October 1968 and would alter the course of both spaceflight and human history, as its success would lead in part to men walking on the Moon in less than two years.