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!