On This Date In History: Our old neighbor, Walter Cunningham, on this date in 1968 was in orbit as part of the Apollo 7 crew that launched the previous morning and marked America’s return to manned spaceflight following the fire that killed the Apollo 1 crew about a year and a half earlier. Cunningham, Donn Eisele and Wally Schirra were undertaking a very dangerous mission. It was the initial test flight of the Apollo spacecraft and, from top to bottom, it was a brand new machine that had never been flown before. The mission was open-ended to some degree with no conclusion time scheduled except for the maximum of 11 days. The flight featured numerous tests to systems and procedures and the results allowed for crucial developments that led to the successful first landing on the moon less than a year later. Cunningham said that, “We launched on the longest and most ambitious engineering test flight in history, testing the spacecraft systems, verifying the operating procedures, checking out the worldwide tracking network, and that’s not to mention testing our crew.” Wernher Von Braun said that ” The Apollo 7 performed… as nearly perfect as one can rightfully expect a development flight to be” and NASA’s Apollo Program Office Director General Samuel C. Phillips said, “Apollo 7 goes in my book as a perfect mission. Our official count is that we have accomplished 101 per cent of our intended objectives.” However, the crew of Apollo 7 did not receive NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal as all other Apollo flight crews. Instead, they were given the Exceptional Service Medal.
Now, Cunningham and his family lived around the corner from us. I went to his house a few times as he had a son named Brian who went to my school. I never saw Brian’s father at home, though I did see him when he visited our school once in the early 1970’s. It never occurred to me why he was available to come to an elementary school but I always wondered why he never flew again. The official NASA recount of Apollo 7 gives no reason. But, other accounts reveal circumstances that NASA may have preferred stayed lost to history. The reason was that he and the crew was grounded. The little known story behind the successful and crucial Apollo 7 mission was that the crew were deemed to be uncooperative and “grumpy.” It began when Schirra developed a cold a day or so into the mission. It spread to the other crew members, though Cunningham wrote in his 1977 book (updated 2003) The All-American Boys only that he felt a little “blah” by the 3rd day. In space, there is no drainage from the head of mucus accumulation that fills the nasal passages, The only relief is to blow hard and in space that can be quite painful to the ear drums. Hence, this is the reason behind the grumpiness of the crew, in particular Schirra.
Schirra was one of the original Mercury 7 and had flown in in the Gemini program so one might think, as a NASA veteran, he would know what was kosher and what was off-limits. Then again, perhaps as an original American space hero, he had a little issue regarding hubris. Or maybe, it was just the cold. In any event, the crew members complained about the sleep schedule, which did not correspond to normal earth conditions. They complained about the sleeping arrangements; clasps that held the sleeping bags in place were apparently in inappropriate places. They complained about the food. Following his Gemini mission, Schirra vowed to take coffee with him if he ever flew on Ap0llo; he did. They complained about noisy fans in the environmental control. And, to be fair, I have not read about any complaints about something that would cause anyone to complain but it had to cause irritation. The defication bags were cumbersome and the whole process took some 40 to 60 minutes with malodorous consequences. Hence, the crewmen tended to hold off on releasing body wastes as long as possible. There are all sorts of issues that arise with a test mission and they had to contend with every one. But, it was their reaction to the problems that got them in trouble.
Some problems may have been kept in-house but the crews demeanor became known throughout the NASA hierarchy when Schirra decided unilaterally to cancel one of several scheduled television hook ups with the world. Remember, NASA and the United States was really into the publicity of the efforts of the space program in the midst of the Cold War. Donald “Deke” Slayton was also one of the original Mercury 7 and was in charge of crew assignments, He tried to talk Schirra out of his decision but was tersely told by Schirra that there would be no TV show that day. Eventually, they did broadcast from space several times with the first live TV down-link from space with the crew appearing to have great fun as they managed to hide their discomfort from the world-wide audience. Schirra even shouted “Yabbadabbadoo!” like Fred Flintstone. But, the colds persisted and the complaints continued even as they prepared for their return. They feared that they would not be able to blow their noses during the re-entry process and that pressure build-up might cause their eardrums to burst. Therefore, the crew refused to wear their helmets as they returned to earth. Once again, Slayton tried to convince Schirra to wear the helmet and once again Schirra dug in his heels. The crew took decongestants and returned to earth safely without any problems with their ears.
Schirra was a space veteran and hero and undoubtedly he was in a good spot to receive a mission to the moon. Cunningham and Eisele would also have certainly merited consideration considering the technical success of their dangerous and imperative mission. Nevertheless, Flight Director Chris Kraft wrote in his 2001 memoir that “I told Deke (Slayton) that this crew should never fly again.” None of the men of Apollo 7 did go into space following their return. Cunningham described himself as “NASA Hero, Second Class” in his book, a reference to the lesser honor bestowed on the crew and their subsequent unofficial grounding. But, in 2008, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin looked back at the accomplishments of the Apollo 7 crew and, while acknowledging the decisions by his predecessors, decided that the crew deserved more. So, on October 20, 2008, Forty years after flying NASA’s first manned Apollo mission, the crew of Apollo 7 was honored with the space agency’s highest award, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. Schirra and Eisele had both passed away at the time of the ceremony but my old neighbor Walter Cunningham was on hand as was Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr and Neil A. Armstrong, the first men on the moon as well as fellow lunar astronaut Alan Bean. By video link, the crew of the International Space Station attended and video tributes were received from President George H. W. Bush, Wayne Newton and Houston Mayor Bill White. Everyone acknowledges that the space program may never have gotten off the ground successfully following the Apollo 1 disaster had it not been for the bravery and efforts of Wally Schirra, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele…not matter how “grumpy” they were.
Weather Bottom Line: Our best and only chance of rain in the forseeable future will be on Wednesday with the passage of a cold front. It’s not a huge chance and won’t be a drought buster but we need all we can get as we will return to exceedingly dry, but lovely, conditions for the rest of the week through the weekend.