Apollo 7 launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida, October 11, 1968. Onboard was a three-man crew of commander (Schirra), command module pilot (Eisele), and lunar module pilot (Cunningham). They remained in orbit for 10 days, 20 hours before splashing down October 22. The mission aimed to achieve several key objectives, including the demonstration of successful crew, mission support, and spacecraft capabilities in preparation for manned missions to the Moon.
Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham were the first to fly in the Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM), which provided housing and power for Moon-bound astronauts, as well as a re-entry and recovery vehicle. After launch on future Apollo missions, the CSM was manually docked with the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM), the lunar landing vehicle. Despite Cunningham’s designation as lunar module pilot, Apollo 7 carried no lunar module. However, its mission goals included testing the CSM’s rendezvous capability with a LEM, which on future excursions would sit inside the third stage of the Saturn rocket, the S-IVB, during launch.
Early in the mission, the Apollo 7 crew moved the CSM ahead of the rocket stage and turned it around to dock with a target mounted where the LEM was to reside. One of the four adapter panels connecting the base of the CSM to the Saturn rocket — which would be jettisoned on future missions but left attached to the rocket stage during Apollo 7 — had caught on a retention cable and become stuck only partially open. After several orbits, the panel deployed completely, allowing the crew to successfully simulate the docking procedure used on subsequent Apollo missions to connect with and extract the LEM.
Apollo 7 also performed the first live television transmissions from an American spacecraft. During the mission, the astronauts completed seven short TV sequences, showing the audience the spacecraft that housed them and other aspects of living in space, including demonstrations of weightlessness, food preparation, and the removal of condensation from the spacecraft’s interior. “We were not looking forward to doing that,” Cunningham recalls. “We knew it was in the plan because it was a deviation from the professional kind of technical things we were accomplishing. But we did, it turns out, enjoy it after we got started. … We actually saw it as kind of a break that we could enjoy while we were flying.”
For the crew, “[broadcasting]was the least significant and important thing for the mission that we did in those whole 11 days; it was an outside entertainment,” says Cunningham. “But I don’t think the public saw it the same way as we did. They saw it as their chance to share in what was going on with the Apollo program.”
As for the effect on the mission, “it kind of tied him up a little bit. He was not as efficient the first couple of days, but after that, he went back on,” says Cunningham. “He was the most experienced one — the only experienced one — in the cockpit, and we did very well with accomplishing the mission objectives. But the fallout from that was that Wally irritated the ground controllers to some degree.”
Apollo 7’s crew spent more time in space than the initial Moon landings would ultimately require. They took with them a packed list of objectives to complete, and they were so successful that Mission Control added several more tasks to maximize the mission’s benefits during the flight.
“In the end, it was declared 101 percent successful,” says Cunningham. “And historically, if you look back at it, it is still today, 50 years later, the longest, the most ambitious, the most successful first test flight of any new flying machine ever.”
You can follow mankind’s journey to the lunar surface in our free downloadable eBook: Project Apollo: Reaching for the Moon.