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The Apollo Mission That Nearly Ended With a Mutiny in Space

October 11, 2018 in History

By Eric Niiler

There were arguments over food, helmets and spacesuits that required 30 minutes for astronauts to use the bathroom.

The prime crew of Apollo 7: (L-R) Command Module pilot Don F. Eisele, Commander Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Lunar Module pilot Walter Cunningham.

By 1968, America’s space program was on the brink. A launchpad fire at Cape Canaveral killed three astronauts as they were conducting tests in their space capsule in January 1967. After 20 months of congressional hearings, political fallout and a spacecraft redesign, three new astronauts prepared for a mission dubbed Apollo 7: Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham.

The crew’s 11-day mission to orbit the Earth was a shakedown cruise for an eventual trip to the moon. It was the first time three men flew in space together, and also the first time NASA broadcast a television feed from space. Apollo 7 was a crucial step toward Apollo 11’s epic journey in July 1969.

But it is also remembered for the testy exchanges between the crew and NASA officials on the ground that almost turned into a mutiny.

Astronauts were unhappy from the start.

The lessons from Apollo 7 continue to resonate a half century on as both NASA and private space companies plan for human missions back to the moon and perhaps Mars. Nearly any technical problem can be solved when crew and ground controllers cooperate, but as Apollo 7 showed, disagreements can turn a mission upside down, experts say.

“The crew was going to do what the crew was going to do,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of space history at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. “You can listen to the audio. It is quite tension-filled. It wasn’t playful banter.”

There were arguments over whether to launch at all, conflicts over a television broadcast, complaints about the food, and unhappiness with spacesuits that required 30 minutes for astronauts to use the bathroom. Schirra, a 45-year-old former Gemini astronaut and a Navy test pilot, was at the center of the disputes. He had already decided to leave NASA when he was selected for the Apollo 7 mission.

“He had very little at stake,” Muir-Harmony says. “That might have something to do with some of his insubordination.”

Apollo 7 lifting off from Cape Kennedy Launch Complex 34 on October 11, 1968.

Wally Schirra was shaken by the death of a fellow astronaut.

Schirra was badly shaken by the …read more


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