Apollo 7: From Mutiny To 101% Success

4th Aug 2022
Apollo 7: From Mutiny To 101% Success

Apollo 7 mission was a turning point in NASA’s 1961-1972 lunar program. For starters, it was the first manned flight attempt since the Apollo 1 tragedy in 1967, when the entire crew died in a fire during capsule ground testing. Second, the success of Apollo 7 determined that NASA could land on the Moon at all since the Apollo 1 incident caused great doubt in Congress.

Apollo 7 was launched on a Saturn 1B rocket from Cape Kennedy Air Force Base in Florida on October 11, 1968. The mission lasted 11 days and was considered a success, but was almost recorded in history as the first mutiny in space. So what happened on Apollo 7?

Who flew Apollo 7?

Apollo 7 crew - Cunningham, Eisele, Schirra
Apollo 7 crew: Cunningham, Eisele, Schirra

The Apollo 7 crew members were: Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra, service module pilot Donn Eisele, and lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham. Schirra was the most experienced astronaut, with Mercury and Gemini flights under in his portfolio. Eisele and Cunningham had never flown into space but already had successful careers as Air Force pilots and five years of training as part of NASA’s third selection of astronauts.

Initially, the crew was assigned to the second manned Apollo flight, but was later transferred to be Apollo 1 astronaut stand-bys. The tragic inability of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee to get out of the burning capsule due to a jammed hatch forced NASA to suspend the crewed flight program. An investigation into the causes of the fire and upgrades to the spacecraft followed.

Schirra was deeply shocked by the death of his friend Gus Grissom. Eisele was supposed to have been on board instead of Chaffee. However, Eisele had a sudden shoulder injury, and couldn’t fly. The team was highly motivated to perform and spent 21 months stubbornly studying all the improvements that were made on the command and service modules, as well as new safety procedures to eliminate the risk of another fire.

Jumping ahead, let’s say that Apollo 7 went without accidents but not incidents. Tragedy was averted this time, though it nearly occurred again in April 1970. Find out What happened to Apollo 13.

What was Apollo 7 doing in space?

During the Apollo 7 mission, the team was to conduct a broad array of tests of the command and service module and carry out the first television broadcast with Earth. It was necessary to show NASA and the entire American public that the module was reliable and habitable throughout the entire flight to the Moon and back and that the engines and guidance systems were capable of rendezvous in orbit, precise re-entry, and splashdown.

Did Apollo 7 land on the Moon?

The Apollo 7 mission did not imply landing on the Moon since, at the time, the lunar module was not fully ready. The astronauts had to manipulate the second stage of the Saturn S-IVB, which had a docking gateway similar to the one that was to be used on the Lunar Module. It was necessary to simulate the docking manoeuvre and the rescue of the LM after an unsuccessful attempt to land on the Moon or after taking off from the lunar surface. Any mistake or failure could lead to the termination of the entire Apollo program, so the astronauts carried a huge responsibility, which ultimately affected their psychological condition.

Historical launch of Apollo 7

Apollo 7 launch video

What problems did Apollo 7 have?

The problems began to emerge already at the start. Even though Apollo 7 launch went like clockwork, it should have been scrubbed due to strong winds. This was a gross violation of safety rules since, in the event of a failure or interruption of the rocket’s trajectory, strong gusts of wind could change the path of the CSM, and it might fall onto the ground and not into the water but to the ground.

The cold

Flight Control decided to neglect safety, which stirred Walter Schirra’s indignation. He insisted on cancelling the flight. And within hours of the mission start, Schirra announced that he had caught a cold. He then rejected Mission Control’s request to turn on the power and check the onboard camera, citing the cold, the hungry crew, and a lot of work. Live TV transmissions occurred on most days, however.

Runny nose

The cold really made astronauts uncomfortable, and other crew members got runny noses right after Schirra. However, in weightlessness, this symptom was much more troublesome than on Earth. Mucus accumulates in the nasal passages and does not come out. In the Apollo environment, someone blowing a nose would make their eardrums suffer. As a result, the astronauts had to save themselves with aspirin and decongestants.

Apollo 7 in space
Apollo 7 spacecraft

Insufficient testing

On the second day of the mission, a rendezvous and docking with S-IVB were required, but two peculiarities complicated this manoeuvre. First, there was no rendezvous radar on the ship, and second, the SPS engine, which was supposed to launch the lunar module into orbit and back, was only tested on the bench. During the first engine start, the astronauts were in for an unpleasant surprise — a strong push that made Schirra scream “Yabadabadu!” in the manner of a cartoon character, Fred Flintstone. Fortunately, the SPS worked perfectly for the remaining seven launches, as did most of the ship’s systems, but minor annoyances continued to cause inconvenience.

Puddles on board

The crew complained about the noisy fans and turned off two of them. The coolant lines in the cockpit condensated heavily, causing water to collect in small puddles on deck. Schirra and the team solved this problem by pumping excess water into space with a urine drain hose.

Misted windows

Three of the five windows on the ship constantly fogged up due to improper insulation with a sealant, which worsened visibility. However, as the crew members admitted, their general condition remained satisfactory for observations and photography.

Daily 10-minute TV broadcasts with Earth also strained Apollo 7 crew members. Schirra postponed the first broadcast altogether and later categorically stated: “We’d resist anything that interfered with our main mission objectives. On this particular Saturday morning, a TV program clearly interfered.”

Sleep schedule

Another difficulty that catalysed the crew’s acrimonious relationship with Mission Control Center (MCC) had to do with the sleep schedule, which required one crew member to stay awake at all times. Eisele was supposed to stay awake while Schirra and Cunningham slept, taking his turn to sleep when they were awake. But it didn’t work. Cunningham later recalled waking up to find Eisele sleeping.

Mutiny alert

On the 9th day of the flight, Schirra even burst out at MCC when he forced the crew to repeat the launch of the Revision Control System many times to maintain the stability of the ship during the tests. “I wish you would find out the idiot’s name who thought up this test,” said Schirra, immediately joined by Eisel, who asked MCC to find out who thought of the P22 horizon test. “That is a beauty also,” he added sarcastically. Such behaviour was already starting to look like an Apollo 7 mutiny, a.

The crew’s last skirmish with Mission Control arose from Deke Slayton’s order to put on the helmets and keep them on when re-entering the atmosphere. Such a measure was designed to protect the crew from sudden spacecraft depressurization. But the team, who had a cold, flatly refused to do this because they wanted to be able to clear their nasal passages. In the end, Slayton had to give in.

Was Apollo 7 successful?

apollo 7 crew
Apollo 7 crew: Wally Schirra, Donn Fulton Eisele and R. Walter Cunningham

On October 22, 1968, Apollo 7 successfully splashed down 200 nautical miles southwest of Bermuda and 7 nautical miles north of the rescue ship USS Essex. The mission was considered a complete success. Despite the constant squabbling with MCC, the crew fully performed their primary tasks — they qualified the CSM and cleared the way for the proposed lunar orbital mission. General Sam Phillips, head of the Apollo program, called Apollo 7 the perfect mission, achieving 101% of its goals. Landing on the Moon again made sense in the eyes of Congress, while NASA recognized its shortcomings and eliminated them in the following missions.

Apollo 7 mission also gave rise to national enthusiasm. The first broadcasts from space were a resounding success. A special edition of NASA’s collection of news clippings, Current News, appeared on the front pages of 32 major newspapers across the country.

None of the Apollo 7 crew flew to space again. Even before the flight, Schirra announced his resignation from NASA, while Cunningham and Eisel fell out of favour with flight director Christopher Kraft, who declared that they would never fly again.

Apollo 7 crew became the only Apollo mission that was not awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. In 2008, NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin decided to correct this error, but, by that time, Cunningham was the crew’s only surviving member. Eisel died in 1987 and Schirra — in 2007.

Apollo 7 facts

Apollo 7 facts
Apollo 7 facts
  • The first manned flight under the Apollo program and the first manned launch of the Saturn IB rocket.
  • The first launch of the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) with astronauts on board.
  • Mission duration: 10 days, 20 hours, 9 minutes, 3 seconds.
  • Orbits completed: 163
  • The Lunar Module (LM) was not used. Instead, operations were performed with the Saturn IB second stage (S-IVB) with Lunar Spacecraft Adapter (SLA). The CSM was separated from the S-IVB stage and performed rendezvous manoeuvres with the launch vehicle, simulating future docking with the real LM.
  • During rendezvous and hold-in-place manoeuvres, the CSM approached 70 feet from the decommissioned S-IVB stage.
  • For the first time in space, eight launches of the Apollo Service Propulsion System (SPS) were conducted to change the orbital trajectory.
  • Seven live streams were broadcast from the spacecraft to Earth, shown on commercial television in the US and abroad.
  • During the flight, all astronauts caught a cold and suffered major inconvenience aboard the spacecraft.
  • The crew’s constant squabbling with the MCC and their refusal to obey orders resulted in each astronaut’s future suspension from flights.
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