Apollo Astronauts at KSC

Before the end of February 1968, 18 Apollo astronauts had gone through exercises in the flight crew training building at Kennedy Space Center. This included both prime and backup crews for the first two manned Apollo missions. They used the mission simulators and the emergency egress trainer and were schooled on functional and operational aspects of the spacecraft.25

The saga of the astronaut as a superman had begun and ended with the first seven astronauts, not from their doing, but because the public demanded a space legend. With the Apollo program, it became clear that the astronauts were exceptional men, but human. Even though selection policies tended to produce a type, the crews included diverse personalities. Some were informal and convivial, some serious and tending toward the scientific in outlook, some difficult to deal with, others easy of access. Some astronauts were extremely courteous to the ground crew, totally cooperative; others were not. Some challenged the test teams to softball games or went fishing with them, while others remained aloof. But while the men on the pad knew this, the nation as a whole and the world at large saw a different picture -a group of all-Americans who, if not supermen, had "nary a failing among 'em."

In an article in the Columbia Journalism Review a few years later, Robert Sherrod attributed this stereotype to an unfortunate contract that Life magazine had made to tell portions of the astronauts' stories.26 Sherrod told of a visit with a team of astronauts. He found them freely available. One cooked steaks for the Life crew. Another told of his Lincoln-like rise from obscurity. A third made flapjacks for his son's Cub Scout pack. "These three astronauts. . . . went sailing together," Sherrod wrote, "though they didn't really like each other very much. . . . It took some time for the truth to sink in: these famous young men were doing handsprings for Life because they were being paid for it. . . . My story never came off, except as a picture story; the astronauts came out, as usual, deodorized, plasticized, and homogenized, without anybody quite intending it that way."27

In actuality they were distinct and interesting human beings, and, at times, major problems for the men who had to deal with them.28 One of the heroic astronauts, for instance, was extremely rough in his language with the men on the ground - so much so that one of his most respected colleagues called a meeting of the ground crew to apologize for the man's conduct. One member of the launch team thought the tantrums deliberately contrived for two purposes: to get maximum efficiency out of the ground crew and to release personal tension. He said: "I would trust that astronaut to function perfectly in any tense situation. There is nothing I feel he couldn't do." The majority, however, agreed with their pad partner who remarked after listening to a recording of one outburst: "I hope they burn that tape."

The veteran astronauts were able to get one of their favorite pad men of Mercury and Gemini days, Gunter Wendt, transferred to Apollo. Gunter, a former Luftwaffe flight engineer, had emigrated to Missouri, where his father lived, after World War II. He had worked as a mechanic until he gained his citizenship papers and then joined McDonnell Aircraft Corporation. Sent to Florida, he had served on every spacecraft close-out crew from the launch of the monkey "Ham."29 Wendt had a commanding way, a heavy accent, and a wiry frame - all of which brought him the nickname among the astronauts of "Der Fuehrer of the Pad."30 The entire country was to hear his name in a few weeks. When Gunter looked in the window to make his final check of the Apollo 7 spacecraft, Wally Schirra quipped: "The next face you will see on your television screen is that of Gunter Wendt." Gunter retorted: "The next face you fellows better see is that of a frogman - or you're in trouble." Shortly after liftoff, Schirra asked Eisele what he saw out the window of the spacecraft. Eisele recalled the incident on the pad. As he looked out the window at endless space, he imitated Gunter's accent with words that went out to the television and radio audience: "I vunder vere Gunter vendt." This was to become the title of a chapter in a book of reminiscences by astronauts and their wives a few years later.31

Spacecraft simulator in the flight-crew training building

Walter M. Schirra emerging from the spacecraft in an altitude chamber of the operations and checkout building, July 1968. Escape training was in progress.

Long before he "vundered vere Gunter vendt," Donn Eisele and his fellow crewmen of Apollo 7, Walter Schirra and Walter Cunningham, had gone through almost endless practice flights in the Apollo command module and lunar module simulators in the flight crew training building. Houston provided the management and operational personnel and KSC the facility support. After a series of lectures, the astronauts entered the simulators to practice all types of docking and rendezvous maneuvers, mission plans, malfunctions, and other situations that the pre-programmed computers threw at them. Gradually simulator work took precedence over briefings, and the astronauts concentrated on specific procedures for rendezvous and reentry.32

Each simulator consisted of an instructor's station, crew station, computer complex, and projectors to simulate stages of a flight. Engineers served as instructors, instruments keeping them informed at all times of what the pilot was doing. Through the windows, infinity optics equipment duplicated the scenery of space. The main components of a typical visual display for each window of the simulator included a 71-centimeter fiber-plastic celestial sphere embedded with 966 ball bearings of various sizes to represent the stars from the first through the fifth magnitudes, a mission-effects projector to provide earth and lunar scenes, and a rendezvous and docking projector which functioned as a realistic target during maneuvers.33

Two years later, when simulated moon landings had become commonplace for the astronauts and the simulator crews, they invited important guests to participate. Surprises were occasionally arranged for special guests. When French President Georges Pompidou moved the module toward the moon, he found the Eiffel Tower in the Sea of Tranquility. Another time, Chancellor Willy Brandt of the Federal Republic of West Germany landed the simulator on a Volkswagen symbol.34

While the astronauts continued their repetitious exercises in the simulators, crews prepared two altitude chambers in the manned spacecraft operations building, adjacent to the flight crew training building, to test the Apollo spacecraft before its first manned flight. One chamber would serve the command and service modules, the other the lunar module. The program called for manned sea-level tests of the command-service module with astronauts on board, an unmanned altitude test, and two manned altitude tests, one with Schirra's prime crew and one with the backup crew of Thomas Stafford, John Young, and Eugene Cernan. These tests were principally designed to prove the machines at very low pressures. Mercury and Gemini flights had already demonstrated man's capabilities.

During the final 90 days prior to their flight, the astronauts lived on a relatively permanent basis in crew headquarters on the fourth floor of the manned spacecraft operations building. From here, they could "big brother" their flight hardware as each system went through its tests. The quarters consisted of three 3-man apartments, a small gymnasium, a lounge, and a kitchen, as well as a small but fully equipped medical clinic.

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Apollo 7 Operations

The Apollo 7 flight crew(Schirra, left; Donn F. Eisele, entering the spacecraft in the background; and Walter Cunningham) during a test in September 1968. They are in the white room atop launch complex 34.

Apollo 7, the first manned mission, was also the last Saturn IB flight in the Apollo program. Originally scheduled for late 1966, the launch had been delayed about 20 months by the fire and its repercussions. In mid-1967 while NASA was scrambling to recover from the disaster, the mission was tentatively set for March 1968. On the eve of AS-501, the Apollo Program Office scheduled the mission for October 1968. If the lunar module test on Apollo 5 went well, Phillips planned to proceed to the first manned flight in July 1968. Apollo 5 had accomplished its objectives, but because of extensive modifications, the command and service modules for Apollo 7 arrived at KSC more than two months late - on 30 May, three weeks after the launch vehicle had been erected on LC-34. In his operations schedule of 3 June, Petrone planned to stack the spacecraft on 19 July and launch in mid-September. 35

Despite the best intentions, North American could not meet Petrone's schedule. The new block II command module was substantially different from the earlier model; there had been nearly 1,800 changes to systems and procedures since the fire. The unmanned altitude run, scheduled for 1 July, was not completed until the 23rd. The following week the astronauts made the manned altitude runs. The prime crew of Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham spent more than nine hours in the spacecraft on 26 July, most of the time at a simulated altitude of 68,900 meters. They performed many assigned tasks to test their ability to work in their pressurized spacesuits. Technicians first purged the cabin, using a mixture of 65% oxygen and 35% nitrogen. Then the test team "dumped" the cabin's atmosphere, the astronauts relying on their spacesuits as the pressure dropped to nearly zero. After about an hour's work in near-vacuum conditions, the cabin was repressurized to 0.4 kilograms/square centimeter (5 psi) of pure oxygen - the normal atmosphere used in orbit. Three days later, the backup crew of Stafford, Young, and Cernan spent eight hours in the spacecraft at a simulated 61,000 meters altitude.36

While launch team and astronauts tested the command-service module, other KSC engineers tried out a slidewire that would serve as an alternate route of escape from the 65-meter level of LC-34's service structure. The 360-meter wire, designed by Chrysler, increased the options open to the astronauts and launch crew. If the hazard were a fire at the base of the service structure or any immediate threat, the slidewire offered a better means of escape than the high-speed elevators. Inside the spacecraft, of course, the astronauts could employ the launch escape system. On 16 August after a successful dummy run, the engineer in charge strapped his harness to the slide mechanism and rode safely to the ground. The next test, a mass exit of dummies, revealed some problems. With a strong wind behind them, the 89-kilogram dummies sailed down the wire faster than expected; two overshot the embankment. The mass exit was tried again two weeks later, using a different brake setting on the slide mechanism. Five dummies and then five men rode the slidewire safely to the ground. The system was ready for Apollo 7.37 Petrone revised the Apollo 7 schedule on 1 August, laying out the remaining milestones at an Apollo Launch Operations meeting:

Space vehicle erection

10

August

Space vehicle electrical mate

28

August

Plugs-in test

30

August

Countdown demonstration test

11

September

Flight readiness test

24

September

Final countdown

7

October

There were no serious delays during the last ten weeks of the operations. The flight crew's presence gave the mission extra meaning for many members of the launch vehicle team who had not launched an astronaut since the Mercury-Redstone days. The countdown began at 2:34 p.m. on 10 October 1968 with the launch scheduled for 11:00 the following morning. After a smooth countdown, with only one brief unscheduled hold, the Saturn IB lifted off.38

Apollo 7 went into a circular orbit about 242 kilometers in altitude. The spacecraft, consisting of command and service modules, but no lunar module, separated from the Saturn's second stage nearly three hours after liftoff. The crew practiced docking maneuvers by bringing their spacecraft to within a few feet of a target circle painted on the S-IVB stage. In 11 days the crew demonstrated that three men could live and operate in the Apollo spacecraft for the period of time needed to get to the moon and back. The astronauts appeared to millions around the world via seven live television transmissions from "The Lovely Apollo Room High Atop Everything."

Splashdown was close to home. At 7:11a.m. on 22 October, less than 30 seconds off the scheduled time, the astronauts hit the squally Atlantic south of Bermuda. The command module tipped over after the splashdown, but inflation devices soon righted it. Helicopters from the prime recovery carrier Essex brought the bearded trio onboard for medical assessment. They returned to Kennedy Space Center for further debriefing.39

"The Apollo 7," von Braun stated flatly, "performed... as nearly perfect as one can rightfully expect a development flight to be."40 The Director of NASA's Apollo Program Office, General Phillips, agreed. "Apollo 7 goes in my book as a perfect mission," he stated. "Our official count is that we have accomplished 101 per cent of our intended objectives."41

Apollo 7 evoked more lines from budding poets than most previous launches from the Cape, as well as three memorable letters from youngsters. One small boy volunteered to "ride on a space ship to Mars," and listed three outstanding qualifications he had: he weighed only 27 kilograms, he was very observant, and he would not marry any of the women up there because he was "not fond of girls of any kind or shape." Another asked if he could train for interplanetary space travel, stating: "I have a very high eye cue and am smart." A 14-year old commented, "I would like to congratulate you on your progress. As I see it, you have only two problems remaining to conquer space - how to get there and how to get back."42 No one at KSC disagreed!

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