Early on 5 March 1969, 45 years ago this week, two men floated through a 4-foot-long (1.2-meter) tunnel from their command ship into a spider-shaped vehicle whose descendants would soon carry astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Apollo 9 was not destined to go to the Moon, or even depart Earth orbit, and yet, as noted in yesterday’s history article, its criticality to the goal of planting American bootprints in the lunar dust before the end of the 1960s cannot be underestimated. During their 10 days circling Earth, the crew of Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott, and Rusty Schweickart would prove for the first time that Apollo—as a complete spacecraft, with its conical command module, its cylindrical service module, and its arachnid-like lunar module—was capable of performing as advertised. However, no sooner had they begun work, the first problem reared its head … for one of the astronauts was sick.
When McDivitt and Schweickart floated through the connecting tunnel into the lunar module early on the morning of 5 March, their actions to prepare it for its first manned flight were honed to perfection by hundreds of hours of training. At 6:15 a.m. EST, Schweickart entered its cramped cabin—about the size of a broom cupboard, dominated by the large, cylindrical ascent engine cover in the middle of its “floor”—and was followed by McDivitt less than an hour later. Both men agreed that the whirring systems, particularly the environmental control unit, were noisy. By 8 a.m., the first major step in preparing their lunar module for independent flight was completed when its four spidery legs were swung away from the body. Time, however, was not on their side, and shortly thereafter McDivitt was forced to admit to Mission Control that they were behind schedule. The reason: Schweickart, two days into his first space flight, was sick.
At the time of Apollo 9, “Space Adaptation Syndrome” was virtually unknown, and the bulk of military fighter and test pilots in the astronaut corps, imbued as they were with seemingly limitless stores of testosterone and The Right Stuff, tended not to report it, lest their susceptibility impair their chances of being assigned another mission. “It had been accepted,” wrote Gene Cernan in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, “that everyone felt woozy on getting up there, and … maybe you might even toss your cookies a couple of times, but you sure as hell didn’t tell anyone … and neither did your crewmates.” Frank Borman only reluctantly admitted to throwing up on the way to the Moon during Apollo 8, swearing Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to secrecy. McDivitt’s crew was determined to avoid such problems and, upon reaching orbit, tried not to make sudden head movements and took the anti-nausea drug Dramamine.
Still, issues of dizziness plagued them for the first couple of days of the mission. Things really got bad on the 5th, when Schweickart was preparing the LM for its first solo flight. He suffered a bout of nausea as soon as he awoke, and then felt increasingly queasy as he donned his space suit in the weightless cabin, finding a vomit bag just in time. As Lunar Module Pilot Schweickart performed his initial duties, flipping switches to begin powering up the lander’s systems, his condition steadily worsened. As fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin explained in his book, Men from Earth: “Rusty … experienced brief vertigo as he floated up through the tunnel into the LM, and ended up staring down at the lander’s flight deck.” When McDivitt, who had also suffered from episodes of dizziness, joined his crewmate, Schweickart vomited again.
Unlike in Borman’s case, it was impossible (and unsafe) to conceal Schweickart’s condition from ground controllers. McDivitt knew that the timeline called for Schweickart to make his EVA on 6 March. “Throwing up inside a pressure suit,” explained Deke Slayton, “would not only be unpleasant as hell, it might be fatal.” And another problem lurked in the shadows. The very act of admitting that one of them was sick, in Gene Cernan’s words, “was to admit a weakness, not only to the public and the other astros, but also to the doctors, which would give them reason to stick more pins in us.” In the hyper-competitive fraternity of NASA’s astronaut corps, racing against the decade to beat the Soviets to the Moon, weakness of any description was not tolerated. Although Cernan would later admit that Schweickart’s sickness opened the door to closer medical exploration of the condition, ultimately he “paid the price for us all. Nothing was ever said in public against him, but he never flew another mission.”
Apollo 9 marked the first time that two American manned craft would rendezvous, dock, and transfer crews, which demanded individual names for them. There were, admittedly, formal international designations—the main spacecraft was “1969-018A” after reaching orbit, the Saturn V rocket’s S-IVB final stage became “1969-018B,” crew-carrying ascent stage of the lunar module became “1969-018C,” and its discarded descent stage became “1969-018D”—but those, surely, would not do. Names it seemed, for the two manned craft, were definitely needed.
Frivolous or “sensitive” names were frowned upon by NASA, but for Apollo 9, names were necessary. The ungainly appearance of the LM and the conical profile of the CSM made the choice of names an easy one for McDivitt, Scott, and Schweickart: The former would be called “Spider,” and the latter “Gumdrop.” Two possible reasons have come to light for the Gumdrop name: Firstly, and quite obviously, the command module closely resembled the cone-shaped, sugar-encrusted candy, and secondly, it may have been on account of the blue-coloured cellophane wrapping in which that module was delivered to Cape Kennedy. Although introduced as nicknames, extensively use by the astronauts and their training teams led to their becoming official radio callsigns.
Aboard Spider, concern mounted about how to tackle Schweickart’s forthcoming EVA. In a bid to preserve his comrade’s privacy, McDivitt requested a closed-loop medical consultation with Mission Control, and it was decided that a planned spacewalk from Spider over to Gumdrop was too risky. The chances of Schweickart suffocating if he threw up again, inside his suit, did not bear thinking about. The plan called for him to spend two hours outside, exiting the lunar module and working his way by handrails over to the open hatch of Gumdrop, where a fully-suited Dave Scott would conduct a “stand-up” EVA to observe. Schweickart would then return to the lunar module. The purpose of this test, in addition to evaluating the suit, was to show that a returning lunar crew could spacewalk to the CSM in the event of their being unable to pass through the docking tunnel.
Instead, a comparatively straightforward opening of the hatch for 45 minutes, during orbital daylight, was advocated. By thus exposing themselves to vacuum, but remaining inside Spider, McDivitt and Schweickart could conduct at least some tests of the suits in the required conditions. As managers reprioritized the EVA, the lingering question of how much information to release to the media had worked its way to NASA Administrator Tom Paine. Many astronauts were furious and one even declared that he would “never tell the ground a goddamn thing from up there.” Eventually, Paine concurred that the confidentiality of the Schweickart tape should be respected.
If the spacewalk happened—and early on 5 March it seemed unlikely—the astronauts’ third day in space was far too busy for them to worry about it. Their packed schedule of engineering and other objectives got underway at 9:28 a.m., with a five-minute televised transmission from inside Spider, showing its instruments and displays, various internal features, and the faces of McDivitt and Schweickart. Managers were suitably impressed by the quality of the images, but not by the sound, which they considered less than satisfactory. Three hours later, McDivitt executed the first firing of the descent engine. In addition to evaluating the combined spacecraft’s handling characteristics, the six-minute burn demonstrated the effectiveness of the lunar module’s digital autopilot and how the descent engine behaved at full throttle. McDivitt was impressed by the descent engine’s performance. Only seconds after starting the burn, he had yelled, “Look at that [attitude] ball; my God, we hardly have any errors.” Twenty-six seconds into the firing, those errors remained virtually non-existent and the commander even took a few seconds for a bite to eat.
Schweickart awoke on 6 March, apparently much recovered, no longer nauseous or pale, and McDivitt, notwithstanding the reservations of ground controllers, decided to press ahead with his scheduled EVA onto the lunar module’s porch. The cabin was depressurized, although McDivitt found that he had to exert more force than expected to turn the handle and swing the waist-high hatch inward. Clad in a bulky suit virtually identical to that which crews would use on the Moon and anchored by means of a tether, Schweickart began moving onto the porch a little over 14 minutes later.
In essence, he was now a miniature spacecraft in his own right. “What was important about this EVA,” wrote Deke Slayton, “was that the lunar pressure suit was completely self-contained. All the suits used on the Gemini EVAs had relied on the spacecraft to provide oxygen and communications. The consumables and communication equipment for the lunar suit … were all in [the] backpack.” With the satisfying gurgle of water coolant and a stable pressure indicator, Schweickart lost no time. As soon as he was outside, he secured his feet in a pair of so-called “golden slippers”—boot restraints attached to Spider’s porch, painted gold for thermal reasons—and gained his bearings before embarking on his first task: to observe, photograph, and retrieve thermal samples from the exterior of the LM. By now, Dave Scott, clad in a slightly different suit that was dependent on Gumdrop’s systems for life support, had opened his hatch for a “stand-up” EVA.
Next, Schweickart—joking at his own sandy hair color by aptly nicknaming himself “The Red Rover”—began his first abbreviated attempt to evaluate his ability to move and control his body in the lunar suit. His planned transfer to Gumdrop and back had been cancelled, but he was able to obtain photography of Scott’s activities and imagery of the exteriors of both spacecraft. At length, he returned inside Spider and Scott retreated to Gumdrop.
One sound that the astronauts apparently did not hear was the repeated calling from Mission Control; indeed, they were so preoccupied and talkative that the duty capcom was forced to radio 10 times—“Red Rover, do you read? Gumdrop, do you read? Hey, does anyone up there read me?”—before he received a response. The four-way radio chatter between Schweickart, Spider, Gumdrop, and Houston was all loud and clear. The main discovery was that leaving the lander in a pressurised suit was more straightforward than expected, and the depressurisation and repressurisation of the lunar module’s cabin ran without incident.
Another key hurdle on the road to the Moon had been overcome. Said NASA’s public affairs officer Jack Riley: “You heard it here, live, first-hand—the adventures of Red Rover and his friends, Spider and Gumdrop!”
Still to be tested were Spider’s systems when flying independently of the CSM, including the rendezvous radar, descent and ascent engines, guidance computers, and the docking mechanism. Early on 7 March, keen to get an early start and get ahead on their timeline, McDivitt and Schweickart shimmied down the tunnel into the lander and sealed the hatches between themselves and Gumdrop. At the appointed time, Scott flipped a switch to release Spider … and nothing happened. The latches, it seemed, had “hung-up.” After several more tries, in which he repeatedly flipped the switch back and forth, Scott was successful and the two craft separated cleanly. After performing a brief fly-around to ensure that all was well, Scott pulsed his thrusters to back away.
From his station on the left-hand side of the lunar module, McDivitt performed a pitch manoeuvre, then yawed, to enable Scott to verify that Spider’s four legs were properly extended. Forty-five minutes later, McDivitt fired the descent engine to insert Spider into a circular orbit some 12 miles (19 km) “higher” than Gumdrop. As he throttled the engine for the first time, it ran smoothly until it achieved 10 percent thrust, but when advanced to 20 percent both astronauts noted a peculiar chugging noise. McDivitt paused and resumed and was delighted that the strange groaning did not recur, even when he throttled up to 40 percent.
Next, the pyrotechnics were fired to jettison the descent stage and the ascent engine blazed silently to life to place Spider into an orbit “beneath” and “behind” Gumdrop. The kick affected more than just the crew: As the two sections of the vehicle separated, a small cloud of debris hit the ascent stage and knocked out its strobe tracking beacon. In accordance with the laws of celestial mechanics, the lander, being in a lower orbit, began to gain on its quarry. Despite the apparent grace of this orbital ballet, the dangers were still present. Spider had no heat shield, so could not return the crew safely to Earth, which meant that if McDivitt and Schweickart encountered insurmountable difficulties, Scott would have to rescue them. A few hours later, the first all-up demonstration of the lunar module in flight was completed in spectacular fashion, with Scott lining up and McDivitt executing an almost-perfect docking.
Almost perfect, that is, because lighting conditions were less than ideal: the Sun was shining directly through the small rendezvous window directly above McDivitt’s head. “Using my alignment device,” Scott wrote, “I talked him through the manoeuvres and he was right on target, though there were more than a few tense moments.” Retracting the docking probe produced the welcoming “ripple-bang” of the capture latches engaging. McDivitt quipped that “that wasn’t a docking … that was an eye test!” During their six-and-a-half-hour independent flight, the two men aboard Spider had ventured around a hundred miles from Gumdrop and had cleared another obstacle on the road to the Moon.
Two hours after docking, McDivitt and Schweickart rejoined Scott inside Gumdrop for what would be a fairly relaxed final few days in orbit. The now-unneeded ascent stage was jettisoned and one of the astronauts wistfully remarked that they hoped they had not left anything important behind. When the capcom asked if they had left the LMP—Schweickart—aboard by mistake, McDivitt replied that, no, “I didn’t forget him … I left him there on purpose!” A hairy start to Apollo 9 had given way to a huge success … and an opportunity for humor.
The two parts of Spider would ultimately meet the same fiery fate, burning up in the dense layers of Earth’s atmosphere, although at very different times. The descent stage lasted barely a couple of weeks, re-entering on 23 March 1969, with its remnants showering into the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of eastern Africa. For the ascent stage, on the other hand, more than a decade would pass before it finally took its destructive plunge. Shortly after being jettisoned by McDivitt’s crew, its engine was fired for just over six minutes to put it into an eccentric orbit with an apogee more than 1,000 miles high. Trajectory specialists predicted that it might burn up in the atmosphere sometime in the mid-1970s, but not until 23 October 1981—this author’s 5th birthday—did the last relic of what had been the Spider finally return to Earth in a firestorm of glowing debris.
As for the Apollo 9 crew, with the jettisoning of the ascent stage more than 97 percent of the mission was over and the final days were devoted to catching up on scientific and navigation experiments, Earth observations … and some well-earned rest. In his autobiography, Two Sides of the Moon, Dave Scott recalled McDivitt turning to him on their final night and telling him that Apollo 9 would be his last mission. The exhaustion caused by the tremendous responsibility and the burden of command had taken its toll. “It was easy to burn out on missions,” Scott wrote, “get permanently tired and not want to fly again. The great NASA team made them look too easy. They were really, really hard.”
Splashing down on 13 March 1969, the achievement of Apollo 9 and its intrepid crew brought the lunar landing inexorably closer. Publicly, and within NASA, an enormous groundswell of support rose and it was even muttered that the next flight, Apollo 10, should be retasked with the landing, rather than its mandate of a full dress rehearsal in lunar orbit. This was both unwise and impractical, but highlighted the “Go Fever” prevalent at the time.
“Whatever the decision,” wrote Time magazine in late March, “there is now more confidence than ever that U.S. astronauts will be walking on the surface of the Moon this summer.”
Never were truer words written.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on Gemini VIII, a mission in March 1966 which promised to solve many of the problems facing America’s bid to land a man on the Moon … but which almost ended in tragedy.