The first man walked on the Moon in 1969. Before he could get there, NASA had to make a plan. That’s why the U.S. space agency created the Apollo program. On October 11, 1968, it launched the first manned mission of the program. Apollo 7 took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, exactly 50 years ago.
On the rocket were three astronauts. They were Commander Walter Schirra, Pilot Walter Cunningham, and Pilot Donn Eisele. The three men tested the spacecraft, flying for 11 days around the Earth. Walter Cunningham (WC) is the only living crew member from the mission. To share that moment in history, he answered questions from News-O-Matic readers like you.
Lucy, age 8: What did you have to do to become an astronaut?
WC: Well, Lucy, I’ll tell you. You have to be serious about it. But my belief is that you have to be willing to stick your neck out. I started out with nothing. I’ve always been willing to do what I needed to to get ahead.
The most important time in my career that prepared me more than anything else to become an astronaut was becoming a Marine Corps fighter pilot back when I was quite young. Also, getting an education. Today, the education is much more important than becoming a fighter pilot. It’s a different kind of world today.
Aubrey, age 7, wanted to know what it was like to be in space and to be able to see the whole world from above.
WC: Today, when you’re in space, there’s always an opportunity to look down and look at the planet that you grew up on because they’ve always got a window — in fact a variety of windows — looking down. During Apollo 7 we had about five windows, but they were not very big.
And we only occasionally got an opportunity to look at the ground. And when we did, everybody was a fighter pilot and they were just getting a better perspective of some of the things they’d already seen. But I’ll tell you, from 150 miles, it is different. It’s beautiful.
We got to see things that we never, ever would have encountered on the surface because there’s no way of traveling to get there. But we recognized how beautiful it was to be in that particular position.
Quin M. wanted to know what your single favorite memory was from being in space.
WC: We were so busy on the first test flight that it was a couple of days before we could even take some thoughts to ourselves. I can only speak for myself — I don’t know about the other two members of our crew. But after a couple days I tried to think a bit about what it meant to me.
And I felt like it was a satisfaction and the next step in my career that had been trying to move ahead and become the best at whatever I tried. Now, I always felt like I was doing well, but was I the best? Who knows. That’s just the attitude that you have or you don’t have. So that’s how I felt about it.
Katherine B: Did you like to be in space or did you prefer being on Earth?
WC: I’ll tell you, there was no question about being in space and the satisfaction it was for us. We enjoyed the physical aspects of it — being able to float around. But we were very busy all the time. We still enjoyed it because we felt like it was the payoff for what you had been doing and committing yourself to do for many, many years.
That was the best spacecraft that had ever been invented by man up until that point. And with Apollo 7, it turns out to be the longest, the most ambitious, the most successful first test flight of any new flying machine – ever! So we were very satisfied.
Caroline F.: What food did you eat in space? And was it any good?
WC: [laughs] We went through three or four months where we were involved with the people preparing the food to try and get a particular diet that we wanted. Something that tasted the best we could get. But in those days we were not able to get any really good food. And some of it was in vacuum-packed little bite-sized things.
I would say I liked the bite-sized bacon bits that we had. Then we also had chocolate pudding, which was not too bad because it had some sweetness in it. But in general, the food we had was more of a kind of a survival pattern. Today they have all kinds of choices of the food.
Aubrey, age 8: Did going into space help change how you saw the world?
WC: Some people do wonder if that changed our attitude. Reading some of the books put out by some of the astronauts that came along after us, they do say something about that. I do not remember it changing my opinion about the world in any way.
Sophia O.: Was it hard to say goodbye to everyone on Earth?
WC: We were relieved to have the launch date come up. What very few people today realize is Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and myself, that was the third mission we were working on. We had originally been, oh about three years before that, we were the prime crew on what would have been the second Apollo mission.
And we were backing up Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. And after three months, Apollo 1 had had a fire on the pad. And the crew had a fire and they were killed. And a couple weeks later, our crew was moved up to the prime crew of the first Apollo mission, which ended up being called Apollo 7.
So by the time we got Apollo 7 launched, 21 months later after all the fixes we had to do in it… Believe me, we were breathing a sigh of relief when we were on the launch pad and getting ready to go after all that work and all that time we’d spent. I had been an astronaut for five years up to that time, and we felt basically relieved that the count was going on and going down.
Kelly E.: How did you feel when you got to Earth?
WC: When we got back to Earth, that was a big change from what we had done for the last 11 days floating around in orbit, sleeping in orbit. So when we got picked up by the helicopter and dropped off at the aircraft carrier… I’ll never forget that the first thing we did was we went down below and they were starting to give us a physical. And I can remember laying on the table, there, and looking up at the ceiling and it just seemed so silly that I couldn’t just flex my back, float up there, and be at the ceiling.
Since we were only there for 11 days up in orbit, it took us, I’d say, a couple of hours before it felt normal again.
Owen, age 10: Do you think people will get to Mars one day? And if so, what can I do to become one of the first people there?
WC: I’m a physicist by education. I was involved in astrophysics at one time before I became an astronaut. I’ve always been familiar with our system – the Earth, our planet, and the planets in our system, here.
I think that there may be some time when we will go to Mars. Not because men are going to be able to live there, not because we’re gonna have to move off this planet because it’s gonna get destroyed. And I don’t think we’re gonna survive as human beings by just going to another planet. My opinion? Not gonna work!
But I think we probably will push out and go to Mars someday. Not when they’re talking about it today, not when they’re talking about… Some people are talking about going there in 2024 or by 2035. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
When it does happen, we’re going to have to develop a lot of technology to get ready to do that! And that technology is going to be helping move us forward as human beings down here on Earth. That’s what happened when we went to the Moon.
Brendan, age 12: Are you impressed or are you let down with how far we’ve come in space travel and technology since Apollo?
WC: That’s a good question. About what have we done since we’ve landed on the Moon. Because many years have gone by, and the accomplishments actually have changed in many ways.
When we look back on it, President Kennedy at the time said, “We’re going to land a man on the Moon in this decade.” That was 10 years. We had never even been in space. When we started that out, we were behind the Russians. The Russians had gone into space before we did. By the time we completed the Gemini program, we were then dead ahead of the Russians.
What has happened in our country, we have, over the years, changed our attitude. We are not as willing to push out against everything.
But I have watched in the last 50 years our society, our culture, right here on Earth, it’s becoming a much more risk-averse society. And everybody focuses a lot on what’s the human risk in doing this. Well I can tell you, space is much safer now than it was 50 years ago. And you still have some people who want to stick their neck out and push out. But a lot of people do not.
Since we had Apollo, we’ve been pushing ahead much more aggressively, I think, with the unmanned exploration. We’ve got many, many satellites up in Earth’s orbit, but also the ones we’ve gone out to for Mars. We’ve had wonderful, unmanned exploration of Mars now.
Marina, age 11: What would you like to see mankind achieve in the next 50 years?
WC: Are we going to continue to push ahead and achieve the things in the next 50 years that we accomplished 50 years ago? That’s very difficult to evaluate.
Only in retrospect, now, 50 years later, can I see how things have changed. At the time, it seemed almost normal for us to just push out to the next frontier. So it takes an attitude of being willing to stick your neck out. And in the next 50 years, maybe we will return to that attitude. Or maybe we won’t. So that means we’ll have to be a whole lot more sure before we go do something. It’ll be very expensive, but I think eventually we’ll push those frontiers out.
But the attitude has to change on it. And I’m talking about the attitude of our culture and our society, not just the individuals. Because you can still find individuals who would be willing to go bet their life on getting into a vehicle and going out to Mars. But you don’t have what all it takes to get ready to do that.
The Apollo program, we had a few astronauts, and of course we got the glory because we were out front. But believe me, we were not the ones who just accomplished that. There had [to be] like 400,000 people around the country. So it takes a huge number of folks that have to be committed to do these things. And so we have to be looking at our culture and quit discouraging sticking your neck out.
Luke B.: Were you nervous when the rocket ship was taking off? How did you overcome that?
WC: Some people wonder if we were worried or if we were afraid in those days. I cannot speak for the others. We started with 30 astronauts when I was there. Before we ever flew Apollo we already lost five astronauts in spacecraft and aircraft accidents. And we were all used to things doing that.
And we looked forward so aggressively to getting ready for that rocket launch. That’s the attitude we had in those days. If you don’t get an attitude like that, it’s hard for me to see that we will be able to do such things as going to Mars.
We’ve got to have an attitude from the public at large that says, “Do this.” And it can’t be afraid of getting up ready to go.
Updated October 10, 2018, 5:02 P.M. (ET)
By Russell Kahn (Russ)
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