Half a century ago, in October 1968, Project Apollo—the United States’ multi-billion-dollar campaign to plant American boots on the surface of the Moon before the end of the decade—rose from the ashes of despair and triumphantly flew an 11-day mission in low-Earth orbit. Apollo 7 astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham launched atop a mammoth Saturn IB booster from Cape Kennedy’s Pad 34 on 11 October 1968 to undertake a thorough shakedown of the most complex piloted vehicle then in existence. The mission’s engineering success, though, would be tempered by a spell of head-colds and a somewhat testing relationship between the crew and flight controllers.
Two days into the mission, the crew performed the first live televised event from a U.S. manned spacecraft. It was the first of seven scheduled TV transmissions, timed to occur as Apollo 7 passed over the Corpus Christi, Texas, and Cape Kennedy, Fla., ground stations. The crew opened the first telecast with a sign which read “From the lovely Apollo room, high atop everything”, then aimed their camera through the window as they passed above New Orleans and over Florida. Later transmissions included tours of the command module and explanations of how food was prepared and how dried fruit juice was reconstituted with water. The telecasts were well-received and the astronauts enjoyed them, telling viewers to “Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming In, Folks”. After the flight, these “Wally, Walt and Donn Shows” proved so popular that the astronauts won a special Emmy award.
By 12 October, Apollo 7 had drifted about 70 miles (112 km) from the Saturn IB’s S-IVB second stage. The crew’s task was to re-rendezvous with it. This was not as straightforward as it had been on Project Gemini, since the command module lacked a rendezvous radar and the astronauts were unable to read their range and closing velocity to the target. However, wrote Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space, “we made it through the rendezvous, with each of us aging about a year”, and Apollo 7 edged to within 60 feet (18 meters) of the spent rocket stage. The maneuver proved quite traumatic, with no clear awareness of their closing motions, and the S-IVB itself was spinning throughout like an angry whale.
The final days of what Apollo Program Director Sam Phillips lauded as “the perfect mission” were marred by worsening head colds. Schirra’s, indeed, had materialized 15 hours after launch, forcing him to admit that he had “gone through eight or nine Kleenexes”, so he had to endure it for most of the 11-day mission. Years later, Cunningham blamed Schirra’s cold on a dove-hunting trip that the Apollo 7 crew took in a rainy Florida shortly before launch. “Wally was kind of a General Bull Moose complex,” Cunningham told the NASA oral historian. “What’s good enough for Bull Moose is good enough for the world. So, when Wally had a cold, everybody had to be miserable.” A head cold anywhere is miserable, but in the pressurized confines of a spacecraft, it proved much more so, and Eisele and Cunningham quickly succumbed.
Physician Chuck Berry advised them to take aspirin and decongestant tablets and, as re-entry neared, they began to worry that the build-up of pressure whilst wearing their helmets might burst their ear drums. During his days at test pilot school, Schirra had made a short flight with a head cold and “almost busted an ear drum.” The choice he now faced on Apollo 7—not wearing a helmet or running the risk of lifelong hearing loss—was a no-brainer.
Deke Slayton explicitly ordered the crew to wear their helmets, but Schirra refused, agreeing only to keep them stowed in case of emergencies. There were, admittedly, contingencies options in place for returning home without suits, perhaps in the event of contamination, but after almost 11 days it seemed unlikely that cabin pressure would fail during re-entry. Each astronaut took a decongestant pill an hour before hitting the atmosphere and endured no major problems.
Apollo 7 established itself as the second-longest manned space mission at that time, surpassed only by the 14-day Gemini VII in December 1965. With 163 orbits under their belts, Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, to the south-east of Bermuda, on 22 October 1968, not far from the aircraft carrier USS Essex. And in spite of the crew’s alleged testiness, the mission had provided America with a much-needed shot in the arm after a tragic year, which had seen the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the seemingly endless conflict in Vietnam. By year’s end, thanks in no small part to the triumph of Apollo 7, U.S. astronauts would be circling the Moon.