Apollo 8

21 December 2008

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of the spaceflight of Apollo 8. Launched from pad 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the morning of 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 was a mission of historic firsts. The crew members of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell, Jr., became the first humans to ride aboard the mighty Saturn V rocket. Of even more significance was the historic journey these men embarked upon. Borman, Anders, and Lovell became the first humans to leave the relative safety and security of Planet Earth and voyage to another celestial body thousands of miles away. Never before had human beings traveled so far from home. However, the crew of Apollo 8 had little time to marvel at their historic undertaking; the mission was chock full of objectives. If human beings were ever going to land on the Moon before the end of 1969, the crew had to demonstrate that the Saturn V and the Apollo Command/Service Module could function properly, successfully execute trans-lunar and trans-earth injections, and demonstrate that the spacecraft could navigate using celestial landmarks and Earth-based instructions. In addition, the crew had to take high-resolution photographs of proposed Apollo lunar landing sites and locations of scientific interest as well as demonstrate the reliably of long-range tracking and data relay equipment. Because of the hard work and determination of the Astronauts and the thousands of Earth-based support personnel, all mission objectives were achieved. After orbiting the Moon ten times over twenty hours, the crew fired the Service Propulsion System engine attached to the Service Module and began their journey back to Earth. After traveling nearly 240,000 miles from Planet Earth, Apollo 8 landed safely in the Pacific Ocean on the morning of 27 December 1968. Shortly thereafter the crew and their spacecraft were picked up by the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown.

Earthrise

Forty years after the crew of Apollo 8 returned from the Moon, their mission is regarded by many as the epitome of human space exploration. Embarking on an untried mission of exploration far from home is part of humankind’s need to investigate and discover. While unmanned spacecraft made similar treks from the Earth to the Moon before Borman, Anders, and Lovell, the crew of Apollo 8 brought a human perspective to the mission that could never be obtained with unmanned vehicles. Take, for example, the Earthrise photograph (see above). Widely attributed to Astronaut William Anders, the photograph was taken while Apollo 8 was in orbit around the Moon. The photograph features the Moon in the foreground with the Earth far away in the distance surrounded by the black void of space. From the viewer’s perspective, the Earth appears to rise from the lunar horizon much like the Sun here on Earth in the morning. The photograph is one of the most recognizable symbols of space exploration ever taken and has graced the covers of magazines, books, and even a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. Aside from the breathtaking scene captured in the photograph, its significance is compounded by the fact that it was taken by a human. An unmanned spacecraft could have taken the picture; however, it would not have attained the status of Apollo 8’s Earthrise picture because a human being was there to observe it, to understand its significance, and to document it. The voyage of Apollo 8 is as significant today as it was forty years ago. The manned lunar landings of the 1960s and 1970s and the deep space missions to other planets in the Solar System were made possible because of Apollo 8. The crew of Apollo 8, along with thousands of men and women on Earth who participated in their mission, opened a new chapter in space exploration.

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Apollo VII

13 October 2008

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.

Cunningham, Schirra, and Eisele

Cunningham, Schirra, and Eisele