This week marks the fortieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 7. The mission of Apollo 7 was to test the performance of the command and service module in Earth orbit. According to an official NASA press release before the flight, Apollo 7 was intended to “demonstrate command-service module/crew performance, demonstrate crew/space vehicle/mission support facilities performance during a manned command-service module mission and demonstrate command-service module rendezvous capability.” The flight of Apollo 7 began at 11:02:45 am EST on 11 October 1968 when it was launched atop a Saturn IB from pad 34 at Florida’s Cape Kennedy (originally known as, and later re-named, Cape Canaveral). The crew of Apollo 7 consisted of commander Walter Schirra, Jr., lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham, and command module pilot Donn Eisele. While Schirra was a veteran of Mercury and Gemini flights, Cunningham and Eisele were both rookies. According to eye witness accounts, the weather at the Cape “was hot but the heat was tempered by a pleasant breeze when Apollo 7 lifted off in a two-tongued blaze of orange-colored flame.” The Saturn IB, a multi-stage rocket carrying a crew for the first time, performed as expected leading mission commander Schirra to report, “She is riding like a dream.”
The mission of Apollo 7 was vitally important to the American space program. On 27 January 1967 while conducting a test at Cape Kennedy’s launch pad 34, the crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed when a flash fire erupted inside the command module. Following the tragic loss of Apollo 1 and her crew, NASA had to demonstrate that the Apollo spacecraft could function safely before a manned crew could be sent to the moon. While encountering minor problems typical of the first flight of any mechanical vehicle, the Apollo 7 spacecraft performed quite well during its mission. Like many space missions, Apollo 7 can claim an important first: the first live television downlink from space. Though crude by today’s standards, the images broadcast from Apollo 7 allowed viewers to see astronauts living and working in space for the first time.
Apollo 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda on 22 October 1968 at 9:03am. The spacecraft and her crew were carried by helicopter to the nearby recovery ship, U.S.S. Essex. The mission of Apollo 7 accomplished its goals of qualifying the command and service module and proving that it could operate safely in space. Because of the success of Apollo 7, NASA was given the confidence it needed to embark on the mission of Apollo 8 which sent three humans away from Earth and into lunar orbit for the first time.
The Apollo 7 spacecraft (numerically known as CM-101) resided for many years in Ottawa, Canada where it was on loan from the Smithsonian Institution to the National Museum of Science and Technology of Canada. In 2003, the spacecraft was returned to the Smithsonian Institution and is currently on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas. Command Module pilot Donn Eisele made his first and only spaceflight on Apollo 7 and died of a heart attack in Tokyo, Japan on 2 December 1987. Mission commander Walter Schirra, unique for having flown in Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, passed away on 2 May 2007. Like Donn Eisele, lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham did not fly in space again after Apollo 7. Cunningham would go on to write a best-selling book about America’s space program: The All-American Boys.