Crew cuts place in history
YESTERDAY, Tasmanian time, marked the 50th anniversary of the launch of the first Apollo mission to carry astronauts.
It was Apollo 7, a mission that in 1968 took three men into orbit around the Earth. It did not take them anywhere near the moon, but it was a venture that was full of excitement and anticipation.
There would also have been a lot of anxiety experienced by all concerned, because of a tragic event that had taken place in January of the previous year. It was a setback in the plan to have a US astronaut on the moon before the end of the decade, as famously announced by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy years earlier.
The tragedy took place on January 27, 1967, when three astronauts were sitting in an Apollo command module on top of their Saturn 1B rocket in a rehearsal of what was intended to be the first mission in the series. A fire began in the capsule, and before help arrived the three astronauts were dead.
Analysis of the tragedy revealed many design flaws, and the air in the capsule was pure oxygen, which caused the fire to take hold and spread quickly.
It was necessary to make thousands of changes to the design, which took time. However, the challenge was still on to land an American on the moon quickly, and to do it before the Soviet Union could achieve this aim.
The fire resulted in having an oxygen-nitrogen mix for lift-off, though as the flight progressed this would still become pure oxygen. In space, the pressure could be lower, so the risks were less than having a relatively high-pressure oxygen environment on the ground, as was the case on the day of the fire.
Several uncrewed Apollo tests took place in the lead-up to Apollo 7, the first of the crewed missions.
Three very early tests, involving Saturn 1B rockets, were named AS-201, AS-203 and AS-202, in order of date, and the first test of the Saturn V rocket — the type that would eventually be used for the crewed moon missions — took place on November 9, 1967.
The planned crewed mission that never took place, because of the 1967 fire, was initially designated AS-204, but became known as Apollo 1 out of respect for the astronauts who were killed. It was a fine tribute, and because of the three earlier AS-designation tests, it was agreed that the numbering system of the actual flights beginning with the Saturn V test would begin at Apollo 4.
This was followed by further equipment tests with the launches of Apollos 5 and 6.
So, after all the improvements and tests, NASA was finally ready to launch the first three Apollo astronauts into space in October 1968. The chosen three were Walter (“Wally’’) Schirra, Ronnie Cunningham (better known as “Walter’’, his middle name) and Donn Eisele. They had been the back-up crew for the original Apollo 1 astronauts, so I think it was quite fitting that they were the first to ride an Apollo mission.
It was in the small hours of the morning, Tasmanian time, that the three astronauts were lifted into Earth orbit by a Saturn 1B rocket. (The giant Saturn V was not necessary for this purpose.)
I can still recall switching on the radio on that Saturday morning and learning of the success of the launch — and that the three astronauts were now orbiting the Earth.
They did not carry a lunar module — the spidery craft that would eventually land on the moon. This was a test of the command module (the cone-shaped part containing the astronauts) and the service module, which was attached to the command module.
The Apollo 7 mission lasted nearly 11 days, and this was largely because it was important to fly the modules for about the length of time anticipated for a lunar mission. They orbited the Earth at altitudes varying between 227km and 301km, with the orbit being inclined, or “tipped’’, 31.6 degrees to the Equator. Therefore, they did not fly over Tasmania — the farthest south they passed was over the latitude of the Port Macquarie region in New South Wales.
Apollo 7 was a great success, with the command module splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA was back on track. As it turned out, things moved faster than expected after that, with the amazing Apollo 8 mission taking place only two months later. That anniversary is therefore coming up soon, and I shall have more to say about that in December.