Crew cuts place in his­tory

Mercury (Hobart) - - NEWS FEATURE - MARTIN GE­ORGE Martin Ge­orge is man­ager of the Launce­s­ton Plan­e­tar­ium (QVMAG).

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.

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