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Apollo 7: A Test of Spacecraft and Crew

apollo 7 crew
Apollo 7 crew members, left to right: Walter M. Schirra Jr., commander; Walter Cunningham, lunar module pilot; and Donn F. Eisele, command module pilot.
Credit: NASA

Apollo 7 was an essential reboot of the Apollo program. NASA had spent 20 months fixing problems with the command module that had been revealed in the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew. This mission would need to prove the spacecraft's ability to work in space. It did that in spades, despite a cold that spread among the crew, demonstrating that getting sick in space is a miserable experience.

Apollo 7 was very much a test flight. After Apollo 1, three unmanned launches — designated Apollo 4, 5 and 6 — had tested the Saturn rockets, the lunar module and the command module. (No missions or flights were ever designated Apollo 2 or 3.) The Saturn IB rocket that lifted the Apollo 7 spacecraft from the ground was used for the first time with men aboard when it launched Oct. 11, 1968.

Commanding the crew was Wally Schirra, who was the fifth American in space, flying the Sigma 7 Mercury flight on Oct. 3, 1962, and circling six times around the Earth. He then commanded the Gemini 6 mission, which (along with Gemini 7) did the first manned rendezvous of two maneuverable spacecraft. Schirra was the only astronaut who flew in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

With Schirra were two space rookies. Walter Cunningham was a Navy pilot and also worked on classified defense studies as a scientist for the Rand Corporation. Donn Eisele, an Air Force test pilot, focused on special weapons development prior to joining NASA.

apollo 7 docking
The expended Saturn IVB stage as photographed from the Apollo 7 spacecraft during transposition and docking maneuvers. The round, white disc inside the open panels of the Saturn IVB is a simulated docking target similar to that used on the lunar module for docking during lunar missions.
Credit: NASA

'Yabba Dabba Doo'

After the spacecraft had completed a couple of Earth orbits, Schirra turned the command module around to simulate a docking with the Saturn IVB stage that brought the spacecraft into space. The maneuver was an important practice for command module and lunar module dockings for future moon missions.

Perhaps the most crucial tests for the command module came when it was time to fire the main engine. This engine had to work flawlessly for the moon missions, because this would be the engine the crew would rely upon to go to the moon, go into orbit, get out of orbit and head back home.

In NASA parlance, the engine had eight "nearly perfect firings" in the eight times the crew turned it on and off. The engine gave a powerful jolt to the spacecraft the first time it fired, slightly startling the crew. Schirra, feeling the vibration, yelled "Yabba Dabba Doo!" — an homage to the cartoon character Fred Flintstone's catchphrase.

It was comforting to NASA that the major parts of the mission worked successfully, from an engineering perspective. But the first shakedown of any spacecraft is bound to show glitches, and Apollo 7 did have a few of them.

The windows fogged, making visibility poor (but not impossible) for the astronauts inside. Also, there were minor problems in the electrical and fuel cell systems, and — in the crew's opinion — overly noisy cooling fans inside the cabin. All of these glitches were noted for fixes on future missions.

apollo 7, television
Apollo 7 astronauts Walter M. Schirra Jr. (on right) and Donn F. Eisele are seen in the first live television transmission from space. Schirra is holding a sign that reads, "Keep those cards and letters coming in, folks!"
Credit: NASA

Controversial crew performance

An Apollo spacecraft was cramped quarters under the best of circumstances. On Apollo 7, the crew immediately learned of one of the drawbacks: it was very easy to catch an illness.

Schirra came down with a cold only 15 hours after launch, and reportedly passed along the illness to Cunningham and Eisele. (Accounts differ on the severity of their colds.)

In the microgravity environment of space, fluids don't drain as they do on Earth. This meant blocked ears and noses for the crew, who tried to alleviate the symptoms through taking medication. But with 11 days of space travel, performing their tasks was difficult.

According to several accounts by other Apollo astronauts and mission controllers, the Apollo 7 crew then became unforgivingly snippy with the folks they were talking to on the ground.

Schirra pulled the plug on the one of the television broadcasts. Eisele complained about one test the crew performed, saying he wanted to speak to the person who "thought up that little gem." (The person ended up being a high-ranking NASA official: flight director Glynn Lunney.)

When the crew was asked to make changes to the flight plan, they were reportedly sullen and for the most part, unwilling to deviate.

But they did make one major alteration to the mission: they refused to wear their suit helmets during re-entry because they worried they would not be able to blow their noses. This drew the ire of senior NASA managers. "It was insubordinate ... This crew shouldn't fly again," wrote Chris Kraft in his memoirs, "Flight: My Life in Mission Control."

In his biography, Schirra said the disagreements between crew and ground boiled down to one thing: "I was convinced that the men in Houston were overlooking certain intangible things," he wrote in "Schirra's Space."

While not elaborating on what those things were, he added that the crew had worked with the spacecraft for three years and knew its capabilities.

Conflict aside, the Apollo 7 mission was an engineering success, proving that NASA had moved forward from the mistakes that led to the Apollo 1 fire. The program was ready to move on to the next phase: targeting the moon.

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