Wednesday, 8 October 2008

The Flight of the Phoenix - 40 years on

As part of my MA research, I recently had the chance to interview Apollo 7's Walt Cunningham. This article covers his Apollo 7 mission - the 'forgotten' Apollo that got NASA back on its horse and well set for a moonshot.

Copyright on the content resides with Mark Shanahan and none of the interview below can be reproduced without permission.

The Flight of the 'Phoenix' - 40 years on

“You’re prompt!”

There’s nothing more unnerving than an unexpected phone greeting. So Walt Cunningham’s way of answering my phone call threw me a bit when I rang him, as planned, at his Houston, Texas home.

Cunningham is the last surviving crew member of Apollo 7, the phoenix that rose from the flames of the Apollo 1 fire and put the US manned space programme back on track in 1968.

October 11th marks the 40th anniversary of the flight of the ‘Phoenix’ – a near-perfect shakedown of the Apollo Command and Service Modules, although it’s probably best remembered now for Mission Commander Wally Schirra’s head cold and general irascibility.

Ironically, Cunningham, the one Apollo 7 crewman who didn’t suffer from a cold in space was recovering from a bad one when we spoke. He’s not one to spend much time recollecting his past, though he has grown more comfortable speaking about his eight years with NASA as the years since Apollo have progressed.

“When I was in business, I kind of resented the fact that all anyone wanted to know about was my 11 days in space. It used to be a barrier to getting to the real meat of the conversation. My flight was more than half a lifetime ago, and there’s a lot more to me than that one mission. But I’m more relaxed about it today and understand that people are curious about the steps that led up to the Moon landing which remains the defining event of the 20th Century.”

Cunningham rates Apollo 7 as the third most important Apollo mission, headed only by Apollo 11’s moon landing, and Apollo 8’s circum-lunar flight. “An awful lot of people think the Apollo programme started with Apollo 8, the earthrise pictures and the readings from scripture. Perhaps because we tested the CSM in earth orbit we tend to be forgotten. However, this was a crucial mission for NASA.

“After the disaster of the Apollo 1 fire, we were very aware that another failed mission would put the whole Apollo Programme at risk. While NASA was fully committed to the moon landing on Kennedy’s terms, it was clear that the political will in Washington wasn’t as strong as it had been. Our budgets were being pared back and the escalation of the war in Vietnam and Johnson’s Great Society Programmes were putting the squeeze on available dollars.

“NASA needed Apollo 7 to be a success, Johnson wanted to get ahead of the Soviets again in the race to the moon and the whole country really needed a lift after a bad year.”

So did that put extra pressure on Cunningham, Eisele and Schirra? “Personally, I don’t think this was different from any other mission,” Cunningham responded. “We had been together for three years, training first for the Apollo 2 mission until that was scrapped; then as back-up to Grissom, White and Chaffee and then, following their deaths, as the prime crew for what became Apollo 7.

“We’d had 21 months since the fire to work with North American on a much safer, much improved capsule and had all rehearsed our own roles and those of the other crew members hundreds and thousands of times over. I had no thoughts about the fire; I didn’t feel we were taking any unnecessary risks and I fully believe we were aimed at perfection, regardless of whatever was going on beyond our circumstances.

“After we came back, Wally claimed he had felt that he was carrying an extra load of pressure beyond his Mercury and Gemini flight experience. I never saw anything about him at the time that would justify this claim and, with 20:20 hindsight, suspect it was aimed at excusing his irritable behaviour on the mission.

“Leading up to the mission we were totally focused on making it a success and that’s what we achieved. The result of our successful outcome was that we gave management the opportunity to insert Apollo 8 into the schedule as a circum-lunar flight, orbiting the moon just two months after we’d returned to earth. We had six days of intensive debrief after we landed and our experience with the Apollo hardware and software made it a lot easier for George Low and Sam Phillips to press their case to send Apollo 8 to the moon rather than conducting another low earth orbit shakedown.”

Asked for his comments on Schirra’s mood and behaviour on the flight – which ended Cunningham and Eisele’s hopes of another Apollo mission, Walt said: “Wally was a great friend until his death last year – but I do hold his actions on the flight against him. In the end, he had different motives for flying than Donn and I. He’d already been in space twice and had made it clear that he intended to move on once this mission was complete.

“Aside from his cold, he was ticking the mission days off right from the start. He was the kind of character who got in, got the job done and wanted to get out again – and he thought about himself first and his crew second.

“He did start showing cold symptoms from day two, and Donn followed suit with a bit of a sniffle later in the flight. I’m sure it was horrible – in zero-g it’s very difficult to clear your head. Blowing your nose hard is the only way, and that really hurts your ears. But when it came down to it, if Wally had a cold, everyone had a cold.

“His attitude and run-ins with Mission Control were a somewhat different issue, stemming more from the fact that he wasn’t a detail-guy. Wally painted with a broad-brush and hadn’t gotten too involved in the minutiae of the flight plan which was pretty crowded – especially in the early days of the flight. So, given that he was feeling bad, he was less than pleased to see anything added to the plan.

“Unfortunately, we were all tarred with the same brush by Chris Kraft back at Houston which meant that Donn and I were grounded. Looking back, Wally should have been more of a mentor. . Other Commanders worked with their crews to help them into seats on later missions.

“Perhaps I should have spoken up more at the time, and I regret I didn’t, but my role on Apollo 7 was an unusual one for me. I’m normally pretty blunt, but I found myself in the peacemaker’s role, sometimes between Wally and Donn and sometimes between the pair of them and Houston. However, things were never as bad as they were reported afterwards. We got along pretty well – in the end, the mission came first and it was probably the best test flight of a new craft that NASA ever had.”

General Sam Phillips, Apollo Programme Manager at NASA HQ in Washington described the mission as 101% successful, yet reading Cunningham’s book The All American Boys, there’s a sense it could have been even more productive.

“The mission was front-loaded,” he explained, “with about 75% of our core activities packed into the first four or five days. Frankly, Donn and I were a little worried that Wally might try to bring us home early. What that meant is that we weren’t exactly overloaded with stuff to do in the later days of the mission. That meant it actually got a little boring towards the end. The food was bland; the craft was a little noisy and Wally’s focus was clearly fixed on getting back to terra firma. He had a wrist calendar and used to tick the days off one by one. By the second half of the mission, he was ticking them off after breakfast!”

My assumption from reading the book was that Walt didn’t rate Donn Eisele too highly in terms of performance, noting that he once fell asleep on watch . “No, actually Donn did rather well,” he countered. “He was a rookie too and felt he had to perform well. If that meant taking his lead from the Commander, so be it. Donn’s natural style was to be a joiner. And, as Wally had an ego big enough for all three of us, Donn usually took his cue from him.”

One thing I’d never understood, and was eager to question Cunningham on was what the designated Lunar Module pilot did on missions where there was no LM? He laughed, replying: “Actually, my role was to be the systems expert on the spacecraft. Together with Jack Swigert, I’d spent months developing and refining the systems malfunction procedures. I had to know every one of the dozen systems throughout the spacecraft and was responsible for solving any problems that might occur in flight.

“We didn’t have many, just enough to keep things interesting. We got some high temperatures on a fuel cell, and the two AC buses dropped out momentarily once when the cryogenic oxygen tank heaters were cycling. We were able to overcome any issues very quickly. The whole purpose of the mission was to test the spacecraft and the systems , and it came through with flying colours.

“The mission was far more important than the crew, and it encompassed thousands of people across NASA and its contractors. When you compare Apollo to what the Soviets were attempting, it’s clear to see why we were moving into the lead. The Russian centralized command and control system produced relatively simple hardware that constrained them to relatively simple missions.

“By comparison, we produced complex spacecraft and outsiders may still not understand how so many different contractors could come together to fashion such staggering success. But the programme was too big for any single company, and our triumph was in systems management. The American way enabled us to produce a complex spacecraft with a far greater chance of success with complex missions.”

Demonstrating that success, the crew made eight firings of the Service Propulsion System – the engine that would place later Apollo craft in and out of lunar orbit, and brought firsts such as a daily TV show to the curious public back on earth some 200 miles below.

Apollo 7 splashed down on October 22 just a third of a mile from its planned landing point, bringing to a close a flight that vindicated the continuance of Apollo.

Next, I asked Cunningham for his thoughts on the mission’s legacy. “Its legacy is threefold,” he commented. “First, it got the programme back on track after the loss of Apollo 1 and its crew. Second, it gave management the collateral to change the programme and speed our progress to the moon with Apollo 8. Third, in so doing, it was an essential step towards Neil and Buzz stepping onto the lunar surface.”

So, I concluded, how does Cunningham feel about NASA’s stated aim of returning to the moon and then heading for Mars. “I find it hard to get excited about,” he concluded. “Apollo was a one off from days when America showed real leadership and wasn’t afraid to take risks. Everything about the future missions seems too woolly and lacking in direction. In this risk-averse society, I can’t honestly see the kind of decisive action and collective will necessary to turn the plans into reality. The Cold War provided the edge we needed to demonstrate the superiority of one ideology over another. The world has moved on now and I fail to see that necessary edge.”

Walt Cunningham remains busy with writing and speaking engagements. You can find out more about him and Apollo 7 at Mark Shanahan is a freelance writer based in the UK and is currently studying for an MA in international Relations at Brunel University focusing on Superpower politics in the Cold War.

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