Saturday, October 11, 2008

Countdown: Apollo 7

Moonshot’s spring publication date will have the book out in time for the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, and I thought it might be interesting as we approach that date to mark the Apollo flights that preceded 11. Today, October 11, marks forty years since the launch of Apollo 7.

Apollo 7 was the first manned flight of both a Saturn launch vehicle and one of the two Apollo spacecraft designed to travel to the Moon, the joined Command and Service Modules, or CSM. The second spacecraft — the Lunar Module, or LM — was not part of the flight, for two good reasons. One, the LM still being built and, two, the crew of Apollo 7 had enough to do testing out the CSM. This was especially true given the fact that just a year and a half earlier, in January, 1967, in a ground test later designated Apollo 1, astronauts Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffe had been killed when a fire broke out in the Command Module in which they were conducting a launch simulation.

For the ten days that Apollo 7 was in orbit (Apollo flights 2 through 6 had been unmanned tests), Walter Schirra, Jr., Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham worked over the CSM, testings its systems and maneuverability. The mission was a success, in some part at least due to changes in the CSM design that were made in the wake of the tragedy of Apollo 1. It was a success, too, despite the fact that shortly into the mission the crew developed bad colds, which didn’t help anyone’s mood, which in turn strained relations between the crew and Mission Control — a rare occurrence in the history of the program. (Having just gotten over a long cold myself, I’m freshly positioned to sympathize with Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham. Reports suggest that as bad as nasal congestion is on Earth, it’s worse in zero gravity.)

With the accomplishments of Apollo 7, the stage was set for testing the CSM and the LM together, again in Earth orbit. Delays in the production of the LM threatened that mission, though, and with it NASA’s chances of putting a man on the Moon before the end of the '60s. Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” deadline may have had a touch of the arbitrary to it, but the 400,000 people who worked on the Apollo program set out to meet it with an incredible dedication.

So, stay tuned to see how NASA responded to the threat to Apollo 8, a decision which transformed 8 into one of the most daring and moving of all the Apollo missions and which kept the program on its timeline.

Coming next: The Christmas flight of Apollo 8. Watch this space. (No pun intended.)


matt said...

Although I'm sure Moonshot works perfectly as a picture book, I'm kinda beginning to wish you had a couple of hundred pages to tell the full story. This is great, Brian. Keep it coming.

And now I have a very strong urge to rewatch The Right Stuff...

Brian Floca said...

Thanks, Matt! I nearly went back and added a P.S. to assure people that MOONSHOT itself will be much lighter reading than the post, so I’m glad you enjoyed the detail work. And if you do indeed want to go whole hog, the book that you seek—several of those books, actually—are already written. I’d probably start with A MAN ON THE MOON, by Andrew Chaikin. It’s a great read. Thanks again!