Fifty years ago, this week—just three days before Christmas 1966—NASA announced the names of a group of astronauts who would begin the final stages of America’s bold goal of planting bootprints on the Moon before the end of the decade. Crews were already deep in training for prime and backup positions on the Apollo-Saturn (AS)-204 mission, also known as “Apollo 1,” which would put the Command and Service Module (CSM) of the United States’ newest piloted spacecraft through its paces in low-Earth orbit in spring 1967. And with the announcements of the Apollo 2 and Apollo 3 prime and backup crews on 22 December 1966, NASA identified the men who might someday travel to lunar orbit and walk the Moon’s barren surface. Those crews, and the missions they would go on to perform later in their careers, would enjoy ringside seats for the most audacious exploration effort ever undertaken in human history.
As detailed in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, Apollo 2 and Apollo 3 were identified by their program designators. The former was known internally as AS-205/208 and took the form of a “double mission.” AS-205 would begin with the launch of a Command and Service Module (CSM), atop a Saturn IB booster, carrying astronauts Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott, and Rusty Schweickart. Twenty-four hours after McDivitt’s crew reached low-Earth orbit, AS-208 would roar aloft, using an identical Saturn IB, laden with an unpiloted Lunar Module (LM). The crew would rendezvous with the AS-208 vehicle, extract the LM from the booster’s S-IVB second stage, and perform joint operations over several days. Specifically, McDivitt and Schweickart would transfer from the CSM to the LM, undock and perform extensive tests of the lunar lander’s descent and ascent engines, as well as evaluate the Apollo lunar surface EVA suit. They would then redock with Scott in the CSM, discard the LM, and return to Earth after a mission lasting between five and 11 days.
On the eve of the Apollo 1 fire, 26 January 1967, it was expected that as many as three manned missions might be launched by the United States that year. Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee would fly Apollo 1 for up to 14 days in the February-March timeframe, with McDivitt and his men targeted to fly Apollo 2 sometime around August. Then, perhaps as soon as December 1967, the third mission—designated “AS-503,” indicative of the fact that it would be the third production flight of the mammoth Saturn V booster—would deliver astronauts Frank Borman, Mike Collins, and Bill Anders on a voyage which would carry them farther from Earth than any humans ever before.
The previous highest altitude reached by astronauts was 850 miles (1,370 km), attained by Gemini XI crewmen Charles “Pete” Conrad and Dick Gordon in September 1966. Yet on Apollo 3, Borman, Collins, and Anders would launch atop the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status, entering a highly elliptical Earth orbit, with an apogee of close to 4,000 miles (6,400 km). “Mission plans also call for a maximum-distance rendezvous with the LM,” NASA noted, “with the LM rendezvousing with the CSM from a distance of several hundred miles.” Previously, on Gemini X in July 1966, Collins had set another altitude record of 475 miles (764 km), which offered him the opportunity to become the first astronaut to set two personal world spaceflight altitude records. “I would regain my former altitude record,” he wrote in his memoir, Carrying the Fire, “and then some!” It would provide Borman, Collins, and Anders with the opportunity to see “the entire Earth” and to do so “from pole to pole.”
To a significant degree, Apollo 3—subsequently labeled the “E-mission,” under NASA’s seven-step process to achieve American boots on the Moon before 1970—would closely mirror the trajectories to be taken on future lunar voyages. After being boosted into low-Earth orbit by the Saturn V, the booster’s restartable S-IVB third stage would ignite on a second occasion to deliver them into a highly elongated ellipse around the Home Planet. “This little detail created all sorts of planning problems,” Collins recounted in Carrying the Fire, “because one could only escape from this lopsided orbit at certain prescribed intervals and if one had troubles and was forced to return to Earth prematurely, it was entirely possible to end up landing in Red China.”
Had Apollo 3 flown as intended, close parallels could be drawn with the inaugural Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1 mission of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in December 2014. But of course the dual-launch of AS-205/208 and the high-apogee test flight of AS-503 did not come to pass—at least not in their original incarnation. Within weeks of the Apollo 1 fire the crews were disbanded, and it was not until 20 November 1967 that further announcements were made by NASA. The McDivitt and Borman crews remained intact, with some adjustments to their backup crews, but the most notable change was a shift in the AS-205/208 mission configuration. Rather than flying the CSM and LM atop two separate Saturn IBs, McDivitt, Scott, and Schweickart would fly the entire spacecraft to low-Earth orbit in the fall of 1968 … on the first piloted voyage of the Saturn V. Meanwhile, Borman’s high-apogee mission with Collins and Anders would then take place in early 1969.
However, 1968 proved a changeable year. With CIA intelligence reports hinting that the Soviets were positioning themselves for a piloted lunar-orbital mission of their own, efforts entered high gear to bring Apollo into operations and deliver on the late President John F. Kennedy’s goal. In the spring of 1968, Apollo officials at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas, were trying to upgrade the E-mission into something called “E-prime,” which would move the mission to the vicinity of the Moon. Instead of peaking at 4,000 miles (6,400 km), there were discussions of increasing the apogee of Borman’s crew to 240,000 miles (370,000 km)—effectively a circumlunar voyage. Before this could be concluded, in July 1968, Mike Collins was playing handball and realized that his legs did not seem to be functioning as they should. The condition worsened, with buckling knees, tingling, and numbness; a doctor’s examination led to a referral to a neurologist, who diagnosed a bony growth between his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, pushing against his spinal column. Surgery was the only option, which forced Collins to relinquish his position on Borman’s mission.
Collins was quickly replaced in the first week of August by veteran astronaut Jim Lovell and, within a few days, the E-mission changed beyond recognition. The Saturn V had been successfully test-flown and an increasingly emboldened NASA began a process of discussions to expedite Borman’s flight from a high-apogee Earth orbit … to lunar distance. Unfortunately, the LM itself was running behind schedule, and on 19 August NASA announced that the lunar lander would be dropped from Borman’s mission entirely. It was noted that planning for “an alternate Command and Service Module mission” would take place, “for launch in December.”
That “alternate” mission—for a crewed Apollo CSM to travel a quarter-million miles (370,000 km) from Earth to lunar orbit—did not formally enter the public domain until after Apollo 7 had successfully trialed the new spacecraft in a crewed capacity in October 1968. Borman’s revised flight, known internally as “C-prime,” became known to history as “Apollo 8.” In late October, NASA announced that it was “giving serious consideration” to three alternate mission possibilities for Apollo 8: a high-apogee Earth-orbital flight of up to 60,000 miles (96,560 km), a circumlunar flyby, or a full-up voyage into orbit around the Moon. By mid-November, the lunar-orbital goal had been confirmed and for a few days in December 1968, Borman, Lovell, and Anders earned worldwide renown as they spent Christmas Eve in orbit around the Moon.
And what of Jim McDivitt’s flight with the first lunar module? Delayed until the following spring, the mission which originated as the dual-launch AS-205/208 eventually roared aloft atop the second piloted Saturn V in March 1969. Although it has come to be regarded as the unsung hero of the program, Apollo 9 enabled the increasingly more difficult steps which followed by demonstrating the complete CSM and LM spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will look back at how Christmas has been celebrated in space over almost five decades.