Forty-one years ago this month, NASA successfully conducted the first manned Apollo Earth-orbital mission with the flight of Apollo 7. This mission was a critically-important milestone along the path to the first manned lunar landing in July 1969.
The launch of Apollo 7 took place from Launch Complex 34 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida at 15:02:45 UTC on Friday, 11 October 1968. The flight crew consisted of NASA astronauts Walter M. Schirra, Donn F. Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham. Their primary goal was to thoroughly qualify the new Apollo Block II Command Module (CM) during 11 days in space.
Apollo 7 was not only the first flight of the Block II CM, but in fact the first manned mission in the Apollo Program. Apollo 7 also featured the first use of the Saturn IB launch vehicle in a manned mission. Apollo 7’s critical nature stemmed from the tragic Apollo 1 fire that took the lives of Virgil I. (Gus) Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee on Friday, 27 January 1967.
The Apollo 1 fire was attributed to numerous deficiencies in the design, construction, and testing of its Block I CM. The Block II spacecraft flown on Apollo 7 was a major redesign of the Apollo Command Module and was in every sense superior to the Block I vehicle. However, it had taken 21 months to return to flight status and the Nation’s goal of a manned lunar landing within the decade of the 1960’s was in serious jeopardy.
The Apollo 7 crew orbited the Earth 163 times at an orbital altitude that varied between 125 and 160 nautical miles. In that time, they rigorously tested every aspect of their Block II CM. This testing included 8 firings of the Service Propulsion System (SPS) while in orbit. Apollo 7 splashdown occurred in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bermuda Islands at 11:11:48 UTC on Tuesday, 22 October 1968.
The Nation’s Lunar Landing Program overwhelmingly got the unqualified success that it desperately needed from the Apollo 7 mission. The Apollo Block II CM would provide yeoman service throughout the time of Apollo. The spacecraft would also go on to see service in the Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project programs.
While the technical performance of the Apollo 7 crew was unquestionably superb, their interaction with Mission Control at Johnson Spacecraft Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas was quite strained. The crew suffered from head colds through much of the mission and the food quality was poor. Coupled with Houston’s incessant attempts to cramp more tasks into each moment of the mission, Apollo 7 Commander Schirra took control of his ship and made the ultimate decisions as to what work would be performed onboard the spacecraft.
The flight of Apollo 7 would be Wally Schirra’s last mission in space as he had announced prior to flight. Schirra holds the distinction of being the only astronaut to have flown Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.
Interestingly, Apollo 7 was not only Schirra’s last time in space, but it was Donn Eisele’s and Walt Cunningham’s first and last space mission as well. That there is a direct connection between this historical fact and the crew’s insubordinative behavior during Apollo 7 is obvious to the inquiring mind.