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Apollo 7 launch
The Saturn IB carrying the Apollo 7 spacecraft lifted off from the Cape on October 11, 1968. (credit: NASA)

Remembering Apollo 7

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In one of the most tumultuous and exciting decades of the 20th century, the flight and mission of Apollo 7 in October of 1968 was a triumph over tremendous odds and tragic losses. Its success was largely responsible for getting the Apollo program moving again after a fire inside the Block I Apollo 1 capsule that took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967 during a series of tests of the Saturn IB space vehicle on the launch pad. Apollo 1 was to be the first manned orbital mission using the Apollo capsule, but the catastrophe revealed weaknesses in the capsule’s design and operating procedures.

NASA classified the Apollo 7 mission as an engineering test fight, and its planned 11-day mission had ambitious objectives.

During the Congressional hearings and internal reviews at NASA and at the prime contractors on Apollo, many wondered if America could achieve the ambitious goal set by President Kennedy of sending men to land on the Moon and return them safely to Earth. Many of those critical of the expensive program exploited the Apollo 1 fire to seek to have the program halted. However, the Apollo program was a geopolitical imperative for America against the Soviet Union. All this is well documented, but it bears repeating because the decision to move forward with Apollo was a crucial victory in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and changed the course of American history.

The investigation into the cause of the fire and the inability of the astronauts to escape resulted in a redesign of the capsule hatch and many other hardware changes that improved the Block II Apollo capsule then in design development, and procedural changes to make the capsule environment safer. As NASA launched a series of uncrewed Saturn rockets, it scheduled the first crewed launch, of Apollo 7, for October of 1968.

The crew of Apollo 7

Despite the capsule fire, Apollo crew training continued, but it did result in prime and backup crew changes. Walter “Wally” Schirra, a veteran of both Mercury and Gemini, was assigned mission commander. Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele, both rookies selected among the third group of astronauts announced by NASA, would be lunar module pilot and command module pilot, respectively.

Schirra was a 1945 graduate of the US Naval Academy and flew 90 combat missions as a captain during the Korean War. He became a test pilot and instructor after the war. When he learned of the call for astronaut applicants by NASA, he applied, survived the grueling screening process and was selected as one of the seven Mercury astronauts announced by NASA in April 1959. He piloted the Sigma 7 capsule for six orbits of the Earth on October 3, 1962.

He was selected as command pilot for Gemini 6 with Thomas P. Stafford as pilot; this was a reconfigured mission scheduled for launch on December 12, 1965. During ignition of the Gemini Titan launch vehicle, an electrical umbilical released prematurely, the engines were automatically shut down before full thrust was achieved, and the vehicle hold-down clamps did not release. Schirra’s hand hovered over the abort handle, but the Gemini capsule ejection seats were only designed to be used during flight, not on the launch pad. The launch was scrubbed. Three days later the crew successfully launched and later rendezvoused with astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell in Gemini 7.

Donn Eisele was a 1952 graduate of the Naval Academy and held a master’s degree in astronautics from the US Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. After getting his wings from flight school at Edwards AFB, he became a test pilot at Kirtland AFB.

Walt Cunningham held two degrees in physics from UCLA. He joined the Navy in 1951 and began flight training in 1952. He joined a Marine squadron and remained on active duty until August 1956. He later joined the Rand Corporation and conducted research regarding the Earth’s magnetosphere.

Schirra was the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, and after Apollo 7 he would retire from NASA. Both Eisele and Cunningham were new to the Apollo program and hoped to distinguish themselves during this orbital mission to eventually rotate into a lunar landing mission. Events during Apollo 7 would thwart their ambitions.

The Apollo 7 space vehicle

The main components for the Saturn IB two-stage launch vehicle began arriving at Kennedy Space Center in the spring of 1968. Chrysler Corporation’s Space Division in Louisiana was the prime contractor for the first stage, powered by eight uprated Rocketdyne H-1 engines with a combined thrust of 7,100 kilonewtons. McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach, California, built and delivered the S-IVB stage, powered by a single restartable Rocketdyne J-2 engine. The Instrument Unit was built by IBM. North American Rockwell in Downey, California, was prime contractor for the Apollo Command and Service Modules.

15 hours into the flight, Schirra had a full-blown head cold with severe nasal congestion. Soon thereafter, Eisele developed a mild one as well. In an interview with Mark Mayfield for Launch magazine, Cunningham admitted he never came down with a cold during the mission.

The first and second stages were erected on the Launch Complex 34 fixed launch platform in April, followed by the Instrument Unit. The Command and Service Modules arrived at KSC in May and underwent preliminary checkout in the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building before being delivered to Complex 34 and mated to the conical Lunar Module adapter section atop the S-IVB. Mating the Launch Escape Assembly to the Command Module (CM) was the final assembly step. The complete stack was then referred to by NASA as the Space Vehicle, which then underwent months of checkout and testing. There would be no Lunar Module on this mission, and indeed, the Saturn IB was not capable of lifting such a combined payload to low Earth orbit.

The launch and orbital mission

NASA classified the Apollo 7 mission as an engineering test fight, and its planned 11-day mission had ambitious objectives. The mission profile was designed to achieve the most important goals and gather the most data early in the flight, in the event the mission had to be curtailed. This was the first manned flight of the Apollo capsule, its service module, the Saturn IB and its S-IVB second stage.

Among the objectives was to successfully separate the Service and Command Module from the SIV-B stage, perform a transposition and simulated docking maneuver with the second stage, test the guidance system’s inertial measurement unit during flight, perform numerous firings of the Service Propulsion Module’s (SPM’s) engine, continuous evaluation and monitoring of the Command Module and the crew, check the performance of space to ground communications, validate the full opening of the spacecraft-lunar module adapter panels (even though there would be no lunar module on this flight), and retrofire of the SPM engine for reentry of the CM and deployment of the parachute system for ocean landing.

To achieve most of these objectives early in the mission, there were one-day, two-day, and three-day mission profiles, and alternates within these three profiles. If all systems were performing nominally and the crew remained in good health and spirits, five experiments would also be conducted involving photography, bone demineralization, blood studies, and lower-body negative pressure. In addition, there would be a TV camera aboard so broadcasts could be made from the capsule, which would prove a bone of contention with Schirra at one point and would set the tone between the mission commander and the CAPCOM.

On the morning of October 11, the skies were clear but wind speeds at the launch site were over 20 knots. This was less than ideal during the critical time necessary for the space vehicle to clear the tower. This was also a concern to Schirra because he and the crew knew their couches they were strapped into were designed for ocean landing. If wind direction for any reason changed and the crew had to abort, the capsule might have a hard landing and could suffer injury if the couches collapsed. All these concerns would prove to be a non-event.

The countdown proceeded uneventfully, all eight first-stage H-1 engines read full thrust, and the crew of Apollo 7 lifted off at 11:02:45 AM. Dozens of news crews at the KSC press site panned their TV and film cameras and thousands watched as AS-205 rose into the bright blue sky. Inboard and outboard H-1 engine cutoff times were within one second of planned times, staging was nominal, and the S-IVB stage placed the spacecraft in an orbit of 228 by 284 kilometers. Two hours and 55 minutes into the flight, the spacecraft separated from the S-IVB stage. The crew immediately set about performing the scheduled transposition and simulated docking with the S-IVB. One of the lunar module adapter panels did not full deploy; later adapter panels separated completely from the second stage. Later in the mission, the crew tested the rendezvous radar transponder. All systems had performed perfectly and continued to do so for the duration of the mission, but the astronauts themselves were not doing so well.

Misery in orbit

Three days prior to launch, both Schirra and Cunningham came down with cold symptoms, but these were treated by the flight surgeons and the entire crew felt fine on launch day. However, 15 hours into the flight, Schirra had a full-blown head cold with severe nasal congestion. Soon thereafter, Eisele developed a mild one as well. In an interview with Mark Mayfield for Launch magazine, Cunningham admitted he never came down with a cold during the mission. In zero-G, Schirra’s sinuses could not drain naturally. When he took aspirin and a decongestant, his situation became worse, not better. He went through tissues at an amazing rate and felt no better. Schirra became irritable and proved recalcitrant on several occasions. At one point CAPCOM1, Deke Slayton, got into a disagreement with Schirra on turning on the TV camera for a live broadcast. Schirra balked at the request and listed his reasons why. The broadcast later took place and, in fact, there were seven TV broadcasts made during the mission.

The Apollo crew performed all the mission tasks required of them. All Service Propulsion Unit burns performed perfectly, achieving a critical goal of this mission in preparations for Apollo 8, which would take the first crew to orbit the Moon and return to Earth. Schirra was a veteran of spaceflight, but Cunningham and Eisele enjoyed the beauty of Earth from orbit for the first time and found weightlessness very agreeable.

It was a great day for the Apollo program, for the contractors who built the hardware and worked tirelessly to perfect it, for all the mission support personnel at NASA, and for the United States. Apollo was going to the Moon.

There had been discussion between the crew and Houston about returning to Earth without their suits and helmet on. They all agreed they were concerned they might not be able to clear their nose and throat of mucus with helmet and gloves on as gravity resumed during reentry. Mission Control was pushing them to be fully suited for the reentry. Collectively the crew voiced their strong preference to reenter with no helmet or gloves, but it was Schirra who pushed the hardest for this. With reservations, the flight director reluctantly went along. Some journalists have glibly referred to this incident as a mutiny in space, but the fact remains that neither Cunningham nor Eisele ever flew again on an Apollo mission.

Their mission completed, the crew capsule of Apollo 7 reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean on October 22 only 13 kilometers from the recovery ship USS Essex. It was a great day for the Apollo program, for the contractors who built the hardware and worked tirelessly to perfect it, for all the mission support personnel at NASA, and for the United States. Apollo was going to the Moon.

Wally Schirra retired from NASA shortly after this mission. Cunningham did not receive a crew rotation for a future Apollo flight. Instead, he became chief of the Skylab Branch of the Flight Crew Directorate (earlier known as the Astronaut Office) and was closely involved in Skylab systems design with respect to the crew. He retired from NASA in 1971 and entered private industry. Donn Eisele was selected as backup Command Module Pilot for Apollo 10, but was not selected for the prime crew of Apollo 13; he retired from NASA in 1972.

The astronauts of Apollo 7 were the only astronauts not to receive NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal after their mission. In October 2008, then-NASA Administrator Michael Griffin corrected this by presenting the medal to Walt Cunningham and posthumously to Schirra and Eisele.

The original concrete launch platform at Complex 34 remains as a memorial to the crew of Apollo 1 and as a commemoration to the launch of Apollo 7, which allowed the United States to resume and successfully achieve six lunar landing missions.