Apol­lo 7-10: Step by step to the Moon

The Earth during the first lunar orbit
The Earth dur­ing the first lu­nar or­bit
Image 1/5, Credit: NASA

The Earth during the first lunar orbit

This im­age tak­en dur­ing the Apol­lo 8 mis­sion has be­come a sym­bol of the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of hu­mankind’s home plan­et.
The crew of the Apollo 7 mission
The crew of the Apol­lo 7 mis­sion
Image 2/5, Credit: NASA

The crew of the Apollo 7 mission

From left to right: Donn Eise­le, Com­mand Mod­ule pi­lot, Wal­ter ‘Wal­ly’ Schirra, Com­man­der, and Wal­ter Cun­ning­ham, Lu­nar Mod­ule pi­lot.
Launch of the Saturn IB on 11 October 1968, from the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 34
Launch of the Sat­urn IB on 11 Oc­to­ber 1968, from the Kennedy Space Cen­ter's Launch Com­plex 34
Image 3/5, Credit: NASA

Launch of the Saturn IB on 11 October 1968, from the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 34

Launch of the Sat­urn IB on 11 Oc­to­ber 1968, from the Kennedy Space Cen­ter's Launch Com­plex 34. Aboard the Apol­lo space­craft are as­tro­nauts Wal­ter M. Schirra Jr., com­man­der; Donn F. Eise­le, com­mand mod­ule pi­lot; and Wal­ter Cun­ning­ham, lu­nar mod­ule pi­lot.
Apollo 9: First test oft he lunar module in earth orbitit
Apol­lo 9: First test oft he lu­nar mod­ule in earth or­bitit
Image 4/5, Credit: NASA, Scan: Ed Hengeveld

Apollo 9: First test oft he lunar module in earth orbitit

The Lu­nar Mod­ule was not yet ful­ly de­vel­oped in 1968 - the sched­uled date for the Apol­lo test flight on the Sat­urn V. NASA post­poned the test to March 1969. The ex­trac­tion of the com­mand and ser­vice mod­ule from the Sat­urn up­per stage and dock­ing with the Lu­nar Mod­ule were prac­tised dur­ing Apol­lo 9. The first sep­a­ra­tion of the Lu­nar Mod­ule was par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal. James Mc­Di­vitt and Rus­sell Schwe­ickart moved 183 kilo­me­tres from the moth­er craft, jet­ti­soned the de­scent stage, and fired the as­cent en­gines to re­turn to the Apol­lo Com­mand Mod­ule for dock­ing four hours lat­er. The im­age shows David Scott in the hatch of the Apol­lo Com­mand Mod­ule.
‘Snoopy’ before docking with ‘Charlie Brown’
‘Snoopy’ be­fore dock­ing with ‘Char­lie Brown’
Image 5/5, Credit: NASA

‘Snoopy’ before docking with ‘Charlie Brown’

The com­mand cap­sule (‘Snoopy’) and lu­nar mod­ule (‘Char­lie Brown’) dur­ing Apol­lo 10. On 22 May 1969, Cer­nan and Stafford care­ful­ly backed Snoopy away from Char­lie Brown and de­scend­ed to a height of 14.5 kilo­me­tres above the Moon’s sur­face.

On October 11, 1968, at 16:02 CET, seven-and-a-half years after President John F. Kennedy’s speech to the US Congress announcing the Moon landing project, the first manned Apollo mission lifted-off on a Saturn IB launch vehicle. The aim of this ‘C-Mission’ in the Apollo program was to demonstrate the capability of the command and service modules and their suitability for the crew. The performance of crew, spacecraft and mission ground support facilities during a manned Apollo mission were also to be tested. Finally, the ability of the command and service modules to effect a rendezvous were to be verified. As in the later lunar missions, the crew comprised (for the first time) three astronauts. Mission Commander was Walter ‘Wally’ Schirra who had already gathered space experience in Mercury VIII and Gemini VI-A. The pilots of the lunar module and the command module, Walter Cunningham and Donn Eisele, had not yet been in space. During the 11-day mission, almost all systems in the spacecraft functioned as expected. The propulsion system that was later to put the command module in orbit around the Moon and then to take it out of orbit operated perfectly on all eight test firings. Undocking of the Apollo spacecraft from the second rocket stage as well as several rendezvous maneuvers with the stage worked out perfect. Only the crew was suffering some tension because Schirra developed a cold at an early stage and passed it on to both his crewmates. In the weightlessness of space, a cold has unpleasant side effects. Apollo 7 travelled around the world 163 times. It was the first mission to make live television broadcasts from orbit. This allowed millions of people to look into space for the first time. After leaving orbit and successfully completing the critical re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the mission ended perfectly on October 22, 1968, at 12:11 CET south-east of the Bermuda islands.

Apollo 8 - First manned flight to the Moon

One thing followed another in 1968. The next mission was to launch only two months after Apollo 7. Apollo 8 was a sensation that allowed the USA to take the lead in the space race. For the first time, human beings escaped from Earth’s gravitational pull and flew to another celestial body, the Moon. The crew members were Frank Borman (Commander), James Lovell (Command Module Pilot), and William Anders (Lunar Module Pilot). However, NASA attempted the ‘step after next’ instead of (from a technical point of view) the next logical step: The development of the lunar module had not yet been completed and thus it was not yet possible to test the docking and undocking maneuver in low-Earth orbit. Therefore, NASA chose to carry out a first mission to the Moon. In addition, and maybe even more important, the USA wanted to establish facts and avoid leaving this psychologically important success to the USSR whose progress at that time was unclear. On December 21, 1968, at 7:51 local time, a Saturn V rocket, the ‘actual’ lunar vehicle, lifted off manned for the first time. Never before had an Apollo spacecraft been fired by a third rocket stage away from Earth orbit on a journey to the Moon. At a distance of 24,000 kilometers, Apollo 8 passed through the Van Allen radiation belt. Although the effects had been predicted in theory, the astronauts carried measuring devices. It was found that the dose inside the capsule did not exceed normal levels. After 69 hours, Apollo 8 reached the Moon on December 24, fired the engines and went into orbit. When the crew read the biblical narratives of creation from the Book of Genesis, and millions of people on Earth listened to the broadcast, they were witnesses to one of the most moving moments in the history of space travel. After 20 hours and 10 orbits around the Moon, Apollo 8 made its way back to Earth and splashed down safely on December 27, 1968, in the North Pacific – a tremendous success!

Apollo 9 - Test flight of Lunar Module in Earth orbit

The beginning of 1969 would have been the last chance to perform a first flight with a lunar module and still achieve the goal that had been set to land on the Moon “before this decade is out”, as John F. Kennedy asked for. The most important objective of the Apollo 9 Mission was therefore to show that the rendezvous maneuver of the lunar module with command and service module could be carried out safely and reliably under realistic conditions. On March 3, 1969, James McDivitt (Commander), David Scott (Command Module Pilot) and Russell ‘Rusty’ Schweickhart (Lunar Module Pilot) lifted off on their mission from Cape Canaveral precisely on schedule at 11 a.m. local time. Ascent and insertion into low-Earth orbit went according to plan. The first major maneuver was the docking and separation of the command module and the lunar module from the third stage of the Saturn V. The next task was to separate the two spacecraft and then to bring them together again at a later time from different orbits. With the help of computer and radar-assisted systems, McDivitt was able to perform the rendezvous operation with the lunar module. The first tests on the descent of the lunar module and ascent engines were also completed successfully. To simplify radio traffic, the command module and the lunar module were given nicknames: ‘Gumdrop’ and ‘Spider’ (the latter because of the spider-like legs of the landing stage). For the first time on an Apollo mission, an extravehicular activity (EVA) was carried out in order to check the performance of the spacesuits and portable life support system backpacks. This test too was successful and at the same time Russell Schweickart was able to complete several smaller tasks outside of the lunar module. In further tests with the lunar module, McDivitt and Schweickart relocated to a distance of about 183 kilometers from the Apollo command module and flew the complete maneuver intended for the later lunar orbit. After a mission lasting 10 days in the Earth orbit, the crew landed safely in the Atlantic on March 13, 1969. The most important result was that the lunar module had been successfully qualified for operation on the Moon.

Apollo 10 - Test flight of Lunar Module in Lunar orbit

After three Apollo missions, NASA was quite confident that the Moon landing could succeed. There were serious discussions with a view to not carrying out a further test in lunar orbit whereby the rendezvous maneuvers successfully completed by Apollo 9 were to be repeated ‘on site’. In the end, a strategy based more on safety was adopted and a ‘dress rehearsal’ was planned for the spring of 1969. Had it been decided otherwise, then the Apollo 10 Commander, Thomas Stafford, might possibly have been the first man to place his foot on the Moon and not Neil Armstrong. Even so, together with Eugene Cernan as Lunar Module Pilot and John Young as Command Module Pilot, Stafford was able to successfully complete a tremendously important mission as an essential preparation for the last big step to the Moon. On May 18, 1969, at 11:49 local time, Apollo 10 launched on its way to the Moon, fully equipped for the first time with command module, service module and lunar module. The names given to the command module and the lunar module, ‘Charlie Brown’ and ‘Snoopy’, caused a few eyebrows to be raised in NASA management and in Washington, but it did demonstrate the growing self-awareness among the astronauts. At the Moon, the performance of the command and service module as well as that of the crew and ground-based equipment was to be tested, and of course the operational capability of the lunar module in the lunar environment. At the Moon, all flight phases were performed except for the Moon landing as such. On May 22, Stafford and Cernan in the lunar module separated from the command module and descended to a height of 14.5 kilometers above the surface. Apart from an unplanned rapid rotation while testing the automatic abort guidance system on ascending again (a manual operating error), all tests worked out perfectly. The lunar module redocked to the command module eight hours after having separated and the crew began the return trip back to Earth. The Apollo 10 command module splashed down in the Pacific on May 26, 1969.

The texts presented here were created by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and space expert Gerhard Daum for the exhibition ‘Apollo and Beyond’ at the Technik Museum Speyer. Among other things, the history of the Apollo programme is showcased in detail using both text and images. In addition, full-scale models of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module ‘Eagle’, the Apollo 15 Lunar Roving Vehicle and an Apollo space suit for visiting the Moon’s surface, as well as a 3.4-billion-year-old rock collected from the Apollo 15 landing site can be seen in a lunar landscape.

  • Ulrich Köhler
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of Plan­e­tary Re­search
    Rutherfordstraße 2
    12489 Berlin
  • Elke Heinemann
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Me­dia Re­la­tions
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-2867
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
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