Fifty years ago, this month, a space mission which even its commander—veteran Mercury and Gemini astronaut Wally Schirra—described as having “no sense” was born, thrived and breathed its last, in the final weeks before the catastrophic Apollo 1 fire. Schirra was right: for had it taken place, the Apollo 2 mission, crewed by himself and “rookie” spacefarers Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham, would have offered little more than “a repeat performance” of Apollo 1. By a peculiar twist of circumstance, cruel luck and tragedy, Schirra’s mission was snatched away from him, but he and his crew eventually wound up flying the first manned Apollo voyage into low-Earth orbit in October 1968.
When the first crews for Project Apollo—the drive to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade—were announced by NASA in March 1966, the inaugural piloted missions into low-Earth orbit were expected to get underway the following spring. Leading the way would be the “Apollo-Saturn 204” (AS-204) crew of Commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White and Pilot Roger Chaffee. They were tasked with an “open-ended” mission, lasting somewhere up to 14 days, during which they would put the first-generation “Block I” Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) through an extensive series of engineering tests. Backing them up were astronauts Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart, which an expectation that this crew would rotate into the prime slot for another Apollo mission, further downstream.
The AS-204 designator indicated that the launch vehicle was the fourth production unit of the Saturn IB booster, although Grissom, White and Chaffee had successfully pushed to rename their mission “Apollo 1”. Targeted to launch from Cape Kennedy’s Pad 34 in February 1967, they would have evaluated the Block I configuration of the spacecraft which would eventually deliver the first humans to the Moon. The Block I CSM differed significantly from its Block II counterpart, lacking the requisite rendezvous, navigational and docking hardware to depart low-Earth orbit. “There were hundreds of differences between the two,” explained Deke Slayton, “the major one being that Block I vehicles didn’t have the docking tunnel that would allow you to dock with a Lunar Module.”
Grissom’s Apollo 1 would have been delivered to orbit atop the two-stage Saturn IB, which both he and Schirra nicknamed “the big maumoo”. Its first stage, the S-IB, would boost the Apollo CSM to an altitude of about 42 miles (68 km), under the impulse of its eight H-1 engines, after which the second stage, known as the S-IVB, would continue the climb to orbit with its single J-2 engine. Interestingly, the S-IVB later saw duty as the third stage of the Saturn V, providing the restart capability necessary to initiate Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) as the first humans headed to the Moon between December 1968 and December 1972.
According to Apollo 1 flight planning documentation, Grissom would have uncoupled the CSM from the S-IVB shortly after orbital insertion and maintained a tight formation with the spent third stage, as White and Chaffee recorded the venting of its residual propellants with a battery of cameras. The main reason for this task was in readiness for the subsequent Moon-bound missions, which would require Apollo crews to extract the LM from the S-IVB. Although Apollo 1 was not scheduled to perform a rendezvous, per se, with the S-IVB, the crew were expected to conduct eight test-firings of the big Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine at the rear of the spacecraft. Three of these firings would have been done by Grissom and White, and two by Chaffee, with the astronaut responsible for each “burn” stationed in the commander’s couch on the left-hand side of the CSM cabin. Each burn would be executed at roughly 50-hour intervals, throughout the long mission.
Apollo 1 also carried one of the heaviest loads of scientific instrumentation, together with photographic and medical experiments, ever carried on a manned space mission at that time. Grissom, White and Chaffe would have monitored aerosol concentrations in the spacecraft’s cabin, carried out terrain photography of diverse areas from the coast of Africa to the Mississippi River Mouth and Jamaica’s Oyster Bay to the South China Sea and observed meteorological and marine phenomena, from cloud eddies to dust storms. Using an in-flight exerciser, a photocardiogram and an otolith “helmet”, they would have measured the functioning of their hearts and tracked the influence of the strange microgravity environment on the balance mechanism of their inner ears. On top of all that, Grissom, White and Chaffee would have run the Apollo spacecraft through many performance tests, down to its general habitability and the operation of its rudimentary toilet facilities.
Officially, Apollo 1 was an “open-ended” mission, lasting anywhere from six orbits to 14 days, although it is doubtful that the “barebones” Block I CSM could have supported operations beyond two full weeks. In the weeks before he and his crew lost their lives in an inferno on Pad 34, Gus Grissom joked darkly that so long as they came back alive from Apollo 1, he would consider the mission a success. This fatalistic outlook and a general lack of confidence in the safety and reliability of the Block I hardware was shared by many of Grissom’s fellows in the astronaut corps, not least Wally Schirra.
And Schirra’s involvement in the fortunes and misfortunes of Apollo 1 is interesting, for he went on to lead the first successful manned demonstration of the new spacecraft, although not until October 1968. Like Grissom, he was a member of the “Mercury Seven” and had piloted Sigma 7 in October 1962, then commanded the first successful rendezvous with another piloted spacecraft on Gemini VI-A in December 1965.
However, when Deke Slayton—then-head of Flight Crew Operations—began to assemble the Apollo 1 prime and backup crews in the fall of 1965, Schirra’s name was on neither roster. Since Apollo 1 would not feature rendezvous and would not carry an LM, it made sense to fly a seasoned commander (Grissom) with a pair of “rookie” astronauts. Slayton’s choice was for Grissom to be joined by Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee. Unfortunately, Eisele had dislocated his left shoulder during a zero-gravity training flight, earlier in 1965. He suffered a recurrence of the injury during physical training later in the year and in January 1966 underwent surgical treatment at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas.
As a result, when the Apollo 1 prime and backup crews were announced on 21 March 1966, Eisele’s place had been taken by America’s first spacewalker, veteran astronaut Ed White. Slayton’s three-flight crew-rotation system—whereby the backup crew for a given Apollo mission would rotate into the prime crew slot, three missions hence—meant that the men held in reserve for Apollo 1 would likely fly a more complex mission. And that mission, in the early Apollo manifest, was expected to include an LM, certainly involving rendezvous and possibly an attempt at the coveted first human landing on the Moon. For this reason, Slayton assigned veteran astronaut Jim McDivitt to command the Apollo 1 backup crew, together with rendezvous-trained Dave Scott and “rookie” Rusty Schweickart.
The complexity of the Apollo spacecraft, though, was expected to require more than one Block I mission and on 29 September 1966 NASA formally announced that Schirra would command the flight, joined by the now-recovered Eisele as Senior Pilot and another “rookie”, named Walt Cunningham, as Pilot. No specific target date was revealed, but Apollo 2 was expected to fly in the first half of 1967, some time after Apollo 1.
Thus was born the strange story of Apollo 2, a mission which—literally—ended with both a bang and a whimper. It was a story of a mission which never left the launch pad and which rose, thrived and ended its days within just 49 days in the fall of 1966.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.
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