There is a lot of hype building for next year’s 50th anniversary of the first landing on the moon, and deservedly so.
Unfortunately, there are several Apollo missions preceding Apollo 11 that have become all but forgotten in the short time since that climatic experience in human achievement. Sitting in the proverbial dustbin of modern history are the flights of Apollo 7, Apollo 9, and Apollo 10. Apollo 8 is often remembered for being the first to send men to the moon, although they didn’t land. Apollo 10 also went to the moon but doesn’t get the same recognition as Apollo 8 because it wasn’t first.
Oct. 11 was the 50th anniversary of Apollo 7 and it passed without fanfare. One notable exception was the week before when Apollo 7 Lunar Module Pilot Walt Cunningham spoke at Space Center Houston as part of the center’s Thought Leader Series.
The flight was the first for the three-man Apollo spacecraft and was also the first manned flight since the Apollo 1 fire that killed three astronauts during a training exercise. The 11-day mission was the only spaceflight for Cunningham and Command Module Pilot Donn Eisele, and the third and last for Commander Wally Schirra, who flew Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.
Cunningham acknowledged that the public often overlooks his mission.
“I can tell you they rarely recall Apollo 7 and Apollo 9,” he said. “Those were test missions, actually, and we stayed in Earth orbit. So that’s why they don’t think much about them back in those days. And both of those test missions played a critical role in the most historic achievement in our nation’s history. That’s landing a man on the moon.”
Cunningham, 86, is comfortable with his place in history. As he talked about his historic mission in space, he also spoke about adventure, courage, and integrity and the role they played not only during Apollo but also today.
“Why is space not a bigger factor in today’s society? What has changed? Well, our society has changed,” he said. “Apollo was a story of exploration and adventure. My generation had the opportunity and the courage to look around the moon and reach for the stars. We didn’t shy away from the unknown and we were willing to take a risk. We were exploring the next frontier. Today, the entire world takes pride in mankind’s greatest adventure.”
Cunningham spoke of a French swimmer who attempted to swim across the Atlantic Ocean, saying he gave the best definition of adventure. To be an adventure, it must meet three conditions: “It must advance human knowledge, it must have the real risk of dying, and it must have an uncertain outcome. Well, that was the Apollo program to land a man on the moon,” he said.
Comparing the Golden Age of spaceflight to the sea voyages of discovery in the 1400s and 1500s, he said mankind cannot expand his horizons without taking risk.
“Only 193 years after establishing the American flag on this planet we planted it on a foreign body in the universe,” he said. “That took a team willing to stick their necks out. And while our engineers, managers and astronauts were willing to risk failing, I have to tell you, we never really thought about failing. We were racing our competition to land a man on the moon and we refused to lose to anyone or anything.
“Back in those days we shared a common dream to test the limits of man’s imagination and his daring. That attitude enabled us to overcome every obstacle in one of the most challenging and risky endeavors in history. And it wasn’t just for Americans. The entire world takes pride in man’s greatest adventure.”
He added, “Any project as complex as Apollo requires three things. It requires the resources, the technology, and the will to do it. With the Cold War, all three of those came together in the 1960s and we went to the moon.”
The Apollo 7 crew was originally slated as the prime crew for Apollo 2, but as the schedule slipped, that mission was scrubbed and they became the backup crew for Apollo 1. They trained closely with the astronauts who died in the fire.
“Twenty-one months later, after about 1,040 changes we made after the Apollo 1 fire, Apollo 7, it was like the mythical phoenix, it was rising from the ashes of the Apollo 1 fire,” Cunningham said. “Apollo 7 was an ambitious effort to make up for lost time. In the planned 11 days we tested all of the propulsion systems, the spacecraft systems, the docking and rendezvous maneuver, the ground systems, many other things at that time. To our surprise, Apollo 7 survived the full 11 days. Things were going so well they added four additional objectives to the mission while we were up there.
“To this day, Apollo 7 is still the longest, the most ambitious, the most successful first test flight of any new flying machine, ever. My personal feeling about it is I thought it was an amazingly good spacecraft,” he said.
Apollo 7 also marked the first time television cameras were used to broadcast live from space.
“We found out when we got back that we got an Emmy,” he said.
A common theme throughout Cunningham’s lecture was risk-taking.
“Our society today seems intent on eliminating risk and looking for absolute assurances that something can be done before we commit to do it. And we’re overwhelmed with the politically correct decision-making that’s going on,” he said. “Even our space program is beginning to reflect today’s risk-adverse society. NASA has evolved into a more bureaucratic and less efficient agency. That once rambunctious American spirit of innovation and adventure is being paralyzed by a desire for a risk-free society.
“Exploration is not about eliminating risk. It’s about managing risk. Today we hear incessant talk of limits, usually expressed though as a shortage of funds. The only real limits are those that we place on ourselves. Today, grand aspirations are usually at the mercy of politicians – possibly the most risk-adverse segment of our society.”
He said he was not afraid of the mission but he was afraid to fail. That motivated him and his crewmates. It also drives him in civilian life.
“The chance of dangerous adventure means accepting the risk of failure. If you’re not willing to risk failure, I don’t think you deserve to win. When you do win, you win big and that’s true in all kinds of fields of human endeavor.
“We think back on the Apollo program, it had it all, it had challenges, competition, imagination, leadership, teamwork, technological breakthroughs, and it also had its risk and uncertainty,” he said.
Cunningham was asked by an audience member, “What is our next Apollo?”
“Mars. Eventually we will get there because that is the next frontier. We’ve just stuck our foot into it barely by going to the moon… If we go back to the moon we ought to be willing to set up a facility there… I think we need to be reaching out and I think our next step should be establishing a permanent residence on the moon and develop what scientific skills we can out of it and, eventually, some of you might be young enough to live when we might go to Mars,” he said.