First Apollo Flight Crew Last to be Honored
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin (right) presents Apollo 7 pilot Walter Cunningham the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.
Credit: collectSPACE

Forty years after flying NASA's first manned Apollo mission, the crew of Apollo 7 was honored with the space agency's highest award, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

The Oct. 17 presentation at long-last recognized the crew's contributions to the United States' first lunar landing program, granting Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham the same award that all of their fellow flown Apollo astronauts received almost four decades earlier.

"For exemplary performance in meeting all the Apollo 7 mission objectives and more on the first manned Apollo mission, paving the way for the first flight to the moon on Apollo 8 and the first manned lunar landing on Apollo 11," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin read from the framed certificate that accompanied each of the medals.

"I wrote that citation myself," said Griffin, speaking before an audience of astronauts, flight controllers, the crew's family members and friends during a private celebration held at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas. "Looking back ... I recognized that the Apollo 7 crew was the only one which did not receive a NASA Distinguished Service Medal."

Apollo 7 launched on October 11, 1968, just 20 months after the Apollo 1 crew - Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee - were killed in a fire that tore through their spacecraft during a ground test on the pad. Their backup crew, Mercury and Gemini veteran Walter "Wally" Schirra and rookie astronauts Donn F. Eisele and Walter Cunningham were assigned to the first mission of the redesigned spacecraft.

"In its day, the Apollo command module was the most complex machine ever built by man to be operated by man," explained Cunningham on Friday. "We launched on the longest and most ambitious engineering test flight in history, testing the spacecraft systems, verifying the operating procedures, checking out the worldwide tracking network, and that's not to mention testing our crew."

"Apollo 7 was planned as an open-ended mission, lasting up to 11 days. Most of the critical tests of the spacecraft systems took place in the first couple of days because no one really expected the mission to last the full eleven days. There was simply too many opportunities for a system to fail, causing us to come home early, but you know that didn't happen," reflected Cunningham.

Indeed, Apollo 7 was deemed to be a "101% success.?

"On the basis of a superbly built and superbly flown Apollo 7 mission, the NASA managers of that era were able to make the decision, the gutsiest call that NASA ever made and the most crucial, to send Apollo 8 to the moon," said Griffin.

With their mission being hailed by NASA, it would seem only natural for the agency to then award the astronauts accordingly, both literally with medals and figuratively, in the form of future flight assignments. And that would've happened, had it not been for Schirra coming down with a cold on the second day of the mission.

Schirra soon passed the illness to Eisele (although to a lesser extent) and while Cunningham would remain well (he would later write that he felt a 'little blah' by the third day), mission control, and through it, the world, came to the belief that the crew as a whole had been stricken. A cold by itself wouldn't have been much of an issue were it not that it had the unfortunate, but understandable effect of leaving Schirra short-tempered, which when coupled with the normal stress of the mission, led him to directly challenge flight controllers orders. At particular issue was the use of a TV camera - the first to be taken to space - and whether or not to don helmets for reentry.

"It might have generated a little more controversy that the ground during flight is used to seeing today," explained Griffin.

As such, instead of presenting the Apollo 7 crew with the Distinguished Service Medal, NASA gave Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham the Exceptional Service Medal.

"NASA hero, second class," described Cunningham in his book "The All-American Boys" first published in 1977. "At the time, Donn and I discussed what effect Wally's bad temper in orbit might have had on the choice. There was no way of being sure, but later events left little doubt that it was indeed a factor. Every other Apollo crew, ten in all, as well as the nine people who flew Skylab, received the Distinguished Service Medal."

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