55 years ago, Apollo 7 or the start of the American lunar saga

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From October 11 to 22, 1968, the American lunar program took flight with Apollo 7, a pivotal mission lasting nearly 11 days around the Earth to test the CSM with a crew.

Since the speeches of American President Kennedy on May 25, 1961 and September 12, 1962, respectively before the American Congress and Rice University (Houston, Texas), the United States has been engaged in the race to the Moon. The objective is to send men there before the Soviet rival.

Gain the advantage over the Soviets

When the lunar program was advanced, the Americans had not yet even made an orbital flight. In a few years, they developed spacecraft, prepared and trained crews, first with the single-seater Mercury (May 1961-May 1963), then with the two-seater Gemini (March 1965-November 1966). The latter allows in 20 months with ten flights (Gemini 3 to 12) to deploy the equipment and technologies necessary for the three-seater Apollo spacecraft called to send men to the Moon. At the same time, scout robots were sent around the Moon, starting with the Rangers which, between August 1961 and March 1965, obtained the first detailed photographs of the lunar soil with more or less success (of the nine Rangers, three completed their mission). The Americans regain the advantage over their Soviet rival.

From first attempts to drama

Initially, three unmanned Apollo flights were carried out. The first, AS-201 (Apollo Saturn subsequently called Apollo 1), was carried out on February 26, 1966 to validate the separation technique between the first and second stages of the Saturn 1B launcher (of which this is the first flight), as well as the Apollo command and service module (CSM / Command Service Module), in particular its atmospheric reentry. Flight AS-203 (Apollo 2) followed, which took place on July 5, 1966. the performance of the S-IVB stage (by a Saturn 1B) called to be the third stage of the Saturn 5 lunar rocket, then flight AS-202 (Apollo 3) which, on August 25, 1966, tested in addition to the S -IVB again the CSM. Encouraged by the successes, those responsible decided to carry out the first manned flight with a ground test beforehand. However, the latter turned into a tragedy on January 27, 1967: during the test of the command module, a fire broke out, leading to the death of the three astronauts. (Virgil Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee). The stakes in the competitive race are such that the Americans cannot afford to stop the program.

The race for the Moon, more than ever

In the months that followed, after correcting the imperfections of the Apollo spacecraft, several unmanned flights were scheduled to test all of the equipment. Thus, on November 9, 1967, Apollo 4 (or AS-501) tested the Saturn 5 lunar launcher for the first time; on January 22, 1968, Apollo 5 (AS-204) put the Lunar Module (LM) to the test in space (using a Saturn 1B); On April 4, 1968, Apollo 6 (AS-502) used Saturn 5 for the second time, which despite failures correctly placed the Apollo capsule into orbit. At the same time, robotic exploration of the Moon continued: seven Surveyor probes left between May 1966 and January 1968 as scouts to land on the Moon to study in situ the ground and verify that a manned vessel can land there safely.

The launch of Apollo 7

Finally the time came to send a crew to familiarize themselves with the CSM in Earth orbit: on October 11, 1968, the fifth Saturn 1B took off with a command and service module without the LM, with Walter Schirra on board (commander, 3rd flight), Donn Eisele (1st flight) and Walter Cunningham (1st flight) placed in an orbit between 231 km (perigee) and 297 km (apogee) altitude (with an inclination of 31.6°) . Cheerful and reassured, General Sam Phillips, director of the Apollo program (between 1964 and 1969), declared: “The specter of Apollo 1 was definitively exorcised and the new Block 2 spacecraft, with all its millions of components, functioned perfectly”.

The flight

For nearly 11 days, simulating the duration of a lunar mission in Earth orbit, the three astronauts learn to live in the CSM, operate the spacecraft (propulsion, guidance, attitude control, rendezvous transponder radar, etc.). ), take numerous photographs of the Earth and cloud covers. Between October 14 and 21, they also produced the first live television broadcasts (around ten minutes on average). During the broadcasts, they take a “guided tour” of their ship, describe their day’s work and their daily life.

During the flight, the crew encountered some minor problems, notably with one of the three fuel cells (with abnormal temperature rises), malfunction of the water distribution gun trigger (deterioration of a seal), a condensation problem in the cabin, etc.

The first “space mutineers”

In addition to excessively noisy fans, the three astronauts are also bothered by a cold which irritates them greatly to the point of attacking the teams on the ground when they are faced with difficulties or constraints. Thus, they complain of having a too busy schedule, of carrying out operations that they sometimes consider useless, even ridiculous. For example, Schirra taxes them “Mickey DIYs”, of “poorly prepared tests” or even “procedures designed in haste by morons who think they are the navel of the world”. Those responsible on the ground do not appreciate the behavior of the “mutinous” astronauts who will not fly again.

Return and assessment

The return to Earth took place correctly: on October 22, the service module separated from the command module which landed as planned in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda, recovered by the ship USS Essex. The mission was a total success, demonstrating the proper functioning of the Apollo spacecraft, including its thermal balance, the endurance of the various systems, navigation techniques, etc. Everything is now ready for testing in cis-lunar and lunar environments.

Some references

Two general works : They wanted the Moon, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton, Ed. Ifrane, Paris, 1995; Apollo VII-XVIIJoel Meter and Simon Phillipson, Ed. teNeues, 2018.

A press kit from NASA, Apollo 7, First Manned ApolloOctober 6, 1968

A video documentary from NASA, “The Flight of Apollo 7”, 1967.

Philippe Varnoteaux is a doctor in history, specialist in the beginnings of space exploration in France and author of several reference works

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