On 30 May 1968, a brand-new spacecraft arrived at Cape Kennedy, Fla. Known formally as “Spacecraft 101,” it looked outwardly very much like the Apollo command and service module aboard which astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in a launch pad fire 16 months earlier. Yet appearances were deceptive. Spacecraft 101 was heavily refurbished, and in October 1968—45 years ago this week—would carry astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham on a mission which brought President John F. Kennedy’s goal of bootprints on the Moon a little closer. By the time Apollo 7 ended, NASA would be imbued with such confidence in the spacecraft’s capabilities that it would formally commit the next mission, Apollo 8, to an audacious trip to lunar orbit.
Wally Schirra—one of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts and a veteran of the Sigma 7 and Gemini VI-A missions—had wanted to call his spacecraft “The Phoenix,” in honor of the mythical firebird which was said to end its 500-year lifespan on a pyre of flames and then return from the ashes, but NASA feared unpleasant reminders of the Apollo fire and vetoed the suggestion. The spacecraft itself was much improved, and by the time of their launch on 11 October 1968 Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham had spent nearly 600 hours in the command module simulator, operating 725 manual controls and responding to countless simulated malfunctions. They had tested the Chrysler-built slidewire, which would be used in the event of an emergency evacuation from Cape Kennedy’s Pad 34, had crawled out of a mockup version of their craft in the Gulf of Mexico and had pored over hundreds of pages of documentation and flight plans.
In theory, Schirra’s mission could be achieved in just three days, but according to Apollo Program Director Sam Phillips in a letter to NASA Administrator Jim Webb it would be open-ended to 11 days in order “to acquire additional data and evaluate the aspects of long-duration space flight.” The countdown, punctuated by three built-in holds to correct any last-minute problems, began on the evening of 6 October and proceeded without incident until 10 minutes before launch on the 11th. At that point, thrust-chamber jacket chilldown was initiated for the Saturn IB rocket’s S-IVB second stage, but took longer than anticipated, forcing a hold of two minutes and 45 seconds. The countdown resumed at 10:56 a.m. EDT, and the Saturn IB lifted-off at 11:02:45 a.m., watched by 600 accredited journalists.
Inside the command module, the crew experienced a clear sense of movement, but only Eisele had a clear view of the commotion that was going on outside. “We had a boost protective cover over the command module,” Cunningham recalled later in a NASA oral history interview. “There’s a escape rocket that you can use any time until you get rid of it, and that’s a little after a minute into the flight. Because that rocket puts out a plume, you had to have a cover over the command module so that you wouldn’t coat the windows and you wouldn’t be able to see anything out of the windows in the event you were coming down on a parachute during an abort. So, the only place you can see out is over Donn’s head in the centre seat. There’s a little round window, about six inches across, and he was the only one that could see out. We had no windows until the boost protective cover [was jettisoned].”
Two and a half minutes into the thunderous ascent, the eight H-1 engines of the S-IB first stage burned out and it was released, allowing the S-IVB second stage and its single J-2 engine to pick up the thrust and deliver Apollo 7 into orbit. A little under six minutes after launch, as he, Eisele, and Cunningham became the first men ever to fly atop a load of liquid hydrogen rocket fuel, Schirra reported that the Saturn was “riding like a dream.” On the ground, the situation was not quite so dreamy: for a minute or so, the Manned Spacecraft Center had suffered a power failure which temporarily knocked out its lights, control consoles, screens, and instruments. Fortunately, generator power took over and no telemetered data was lost.
Ten and a half minutes after launch, Apollo 7 was inserted perfectly into orbit and the S-IVB duly shut down. Both stages of the Saturn performed to near-perfection. 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. Unfortunately, said Cunningham, one of the four adaptor panels had not fully deployed, due to a stuck retention cable, although they would be jettisoned explosively on subsequent flights to ensure lunar module extraction. It “had sort of bounced back,” wrote Deke Slayton in his autobiography, Deke, co-authored with Michael Cassutt. “It posed no danger to the crew, but had this flight carried a lunar module, it might have been tough to get it out of there.”
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. During their mission, Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham oversaw eight SPS firings, the first of which posed something of a surprise. In contrast to the exceptionally smooth Saturn IB liftoff, the SPS jolted the astronauts, prompting Schirra to whoop “Yabadabadoo!” in imitation of Fred Flintstone. Eisele said that the entire crew “got more than we expected” and that the boost literally plastered them back into their seats. Later SPS burns simulated virtually everything from a return from the Moon to a rendezvous with a phantom lunar module.
Other systems aboard Apollo 7 performed equally well. Occasionally, one of the three electricity generating fuel cells would develop unwanted high temperatures, but load-sharing hook-ups prevented any power shortages. Visibility through the windows was mixed, with sooty deposits noted shortly after the jettisoning of the Saturn IB’s escape tower and spots of water condensation seen at other times. Two days into the flight, however, Cunningham reported that most of the windows were in fairly good condition, although moisture was gathering between the inner panes in one case. A similar situation was seen by Schirra a few days later. Nonetheless, the windows proved adequate, particularly during the rendezvous and station-keeping with the S-IVB, when they were almost clear.
On a more mundane level, the “waste-management system”—a euphemistic term for Apollo’s rudimentary toilet—proved adequate, if annoying. Its defecation bags, which contained a blue germicidal tablet to prevent bacterial and gas formation, could be sealed easily and stored in empty food containers in the command module’s lower equipment bay. However, they were far from ideal, still produced unpleasant odors and took each astronaut 45-60 minutes to complete. Bill Anders, who flew Apollo 8, would later tell Andrew Chaikin in A Man on the Moon that, since nothing in microgravity “falls,” it was necessary to “flypaper this thing to your rear end and then reach in there with your finger—and suddenly you were wishing you’d never left home!” To add insult to injury, the germicidal tablets then had to be kneaded into the contents of the defecation bag to ensure that they were fully mixed. Not surprisingly, many astronauts found themselves postponing their “need to go” for as long as possible.
Sleep brought mixed blessings, with Schirra complaining about the around-the-clock operations which disrupted their normal routine. Sometimes they might go to bed as early as 4 p.m. or as late as 4 a.m., he said, and a consensus was finally reached whereby Eisele kept watch on Apollo 7’s systems whilst Schirra and Cunningham slept and vice versa. Two sleeping bags were mounted beneath the couches and the astronauts typically zipped themselves inside, although the incorrect positioning of restraint straps made them less than ideal. Cunningham preferred to sleep in his couch with a shoulder harness and lap belt to keep still. However, if two crew members did this, they invariably disturbed their colleague who was awake. By the third day of the flight, thankfully, they had worked out a routine to get enough sleep.
Not so fulfilling were the head colds which, first Schirra and then Eisele and Cunningham, developed during the mission. To be fair, this caused severe discomfort, because it proved extremely difficult to clear the ears, nose, and sinuses in microgravity. Mucus rapidly accumulated, filling their nasal passages and stubbornly refusing to drain from their heads; indeed, their only relief was to blow their noses hard, which proved painful on their ear drums. A little under a day into the mission, an irritable Schirra, already annoyed that Mission Control had added two thruster firings and a urine dump to their workload, cancelled the first planned television transmission from Apollo 7, “without further discussion.” It was the first of many conflicts with Mission Control.
According to Schirra, it was Donn Eisele who began the dispute with the ground over rescheduling the first television transmission early on 12 October. “When I awoke,” Schirra wrote in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, “I could hear Eisele in an argument. I put on a headset and heard a ground controller say, rather insistently, that our first television transmission was on the agenda for that day.” Schirra backed Eisele that they had enough to do on their second day in orbit, with engineering objectives, rendezvous practice, and SPS preparations, without having to worry about the transmission. However, there was more to it than that. “We were scheduled to test the TV circuit later that day,” explained Schirra, “and we’d test it before using it. It was an electrical circuit and I had not forgotten than an electrical short had resulted in the loss of the Apollo 1 crew.”
In fact, Schirra had complained about the scheduling of the transmissions on the ground before launch. He “hadn’t been able to win the battle,” wrote Deke Slayton. “He probably figured there wasn’t much we could do to him while he was in orbit, and he was right, but it made my life kind of difficult.” The commander’s antics also upset the flight directors, including Chris Kraft and Glynn Lunney, when he began sarcastically criticizing “the genius” who designed a particularly balky piece of equipment. “He might have been right,” continued Slayton, “but it sure didn’t endear him to the guys on the ground to have the astronaut implying they were idiots over the open line for everyone to hear.”
After one test which he perceived as pointless, Eisele, clearly annoyed, quipped that he “wanted to talk to the man, or whoever it was, that thought up that little gem.” The man turned out to be Flight Director Lunney himself. Going over the mission tapes and transcripts after the flight, Cunningham would conclude in his NASA oral history that he “never had any problem with the ground,” although Deke Slayton felt that all three men “were pretty testy.” One flight controller even muttered, only half-jokingly, about letting the Apollo 7 crew land in the middle of a typhoon. …
It was a difficult beginning to a mission which would establish itself in the annals of space exploration—perhaps fairly, perhaps not—as one which generated a particularly difficult relationship between a flight crew and a flight control team. However, as will be discussed in tomorrow’s history article, the enormous success of Apollo 7 and the incredible achievements of her crew would enable NASA to commit the next flight to lunar orbit … and bring John F. Kennedy’s goal of human boots on the Moon significantly closer.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.