Precisely 50 years ago, three astronauts exploded in the painfully blue sky and ran into orbit around the Earth. The flight was a decisive passage for the moon landing that occurred only nine months later.
That mission was Apollo 7, the first manned flight of Apollo to successfully reach the space. It was also the first launch of astronauts after the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967 to kill all three passengers during what was supposed to be a routine test.
"All the credibility of the Apollo program was to a certain extent flight – of course, as after all the launch program, which was very aggressive," Space Smith's Michael Neufeld told Space.com at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. [Building Apollo: Photos from Moonshot History]
After the fire of Apollo 1
"He forced a revision from the top to the bottom of the entire project," said Neufeld. NASA has changed the wiring of the control module, the exit doors and more, all to make sure that the future spacecraft does not involve the same kind of disaster. "It's hard to imagine that the lunar landing could have been done, unfortunately, without the death of those astronauts."
When the new launch date finally arrived, astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham piled up in the new command module. This time, the launch took place without major hitches and the trio orbited the Earth for almost 11 days, demonstrating that the Apollo program was safe for humans.
But even if he could be sure, it was certainly not pleasant. All three men caught the cold in the narrow confines of the command module, and did not treat the sobs gracefully. (The colds in space are particularly unpleasant, because without gravity, fluids do not move through the body as they do on Earth.)
The astronauts spent most of the mission acting irritated with the controllers on the ground and protesting against their assignments. When it came time to land again, they refused to wear their helmets, which would have prevented them from blowing their noses. The ground staff of NASA did not welcome the insubordination, and none of the three astronauts arrived on a future mission.
"Certainly, he gave the message to the astronauts: Stay in line or risk not being able to fly again" Neufeld said of the debacle
A moment of tension came from another factor that put jeopardy Apollo 7: the mission was the first time human beings broadcast live television from space. At one point during the flight, Schirra canceled a scheduled transmission because the equipment was not ready. Nonetheless, live video footage became a staple for NASA missions.
The success of Apollo 7 took place in a context of national tension, including high-profile killings and widespread protests against the war in Vietnam, said Neufeld. But even if this mission was an important technological achievement and assured the success of the Apollo program, it did not sell the American public to the idea of spending so much money on the project.
"One of the favorite illusions that Americans like to have that everyone was joined by the moon landing," said Neufeld. "The reality is that there was a lot of dissent."