The first man walked on the Moon on July 20, 1969. But before Neil Armstrong could make his big leap for mankind, NASA had to make a plan to get there. 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.
Onboard 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, in Chicago, Illinois: 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 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, also from Chicago, 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 the spacecraft was not in a single position — we were floating all the time — so 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 from maybe 40,000 feet. 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., who is also in 4th grade, wanted to know what your single favorite memory was from being in space.
WC: Well, I’ll tell you. 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. But you have to have the self-confidence to count on yourself. If you get to the point in some profession where you’re feeling like you can’t handle it, then you can either do something with your mental attitude or you’re not going to be able to do that job. 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 and things like that. 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.
Everyone that was there had started off in the military, becoming a fighter pilot. Some of them – most of them – were test pilots at the time and then eventually continuing to move up to fly the best equipment they had! In those days, it was Apollo. 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 with the results.
Caroline F.: What food did you eat in space? And was it any good?
WC: [laughs] One of the questions that we’re frequently asked is, “What was the food like?” 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, and then we had other food that we had to put some water in onboard and mix it up and let it sit for a while. So even if we used hot water, they didn’t want us to use water that was over I think 135 degrees Fahrenheit, which is not very warm... and then we let that sit for a couple of minutes. Basically it was kind of lukewarm. …
Particularly, myself, I would say I liked the bite-sized bacon bits that we had. Then we also had, for example, chocolate pudding on there, 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 than it is today. Today they have all kinds of choices of the food they’ve got up there. They store a lot of food and they can pick and choose what they want with it.
But we looked at it as trying to force ourselves to try and eat enough on survival. But even so, during the Apollo program, some people lost as much as 10 pounds up there. I think I lost seven or eight in 11 days. And that’s because we did not really eat as much as we should!
Aubrey, age 8: Did going into space help change how you saw the world?
WC: Well, some people do wonder if that changed our attitude. And 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.
I was a physicist. I had studied about the planets. I knew what to expect. I didn’t know exactly how I would feel on experiencing it because back in those days just being in zero gravity – up until the time of the Apollo program, you weren’t floating around free. You were in your couch, in your seat for Gemini and for Mercury. And you were in zero gravity, and that had an impact on several things. But you weren’t floating around.
So with Apollo 7 we were getting out of couches. And we spent most time in – our position was not even say, upright, with respect to our command module. Now Donn Eisele and I, he and I, that was our first mission. We spent… probably about 15, 20 minutes on the second day just rotating around trying to find out how and why some of the people actually got sick in zero gravity. We did not have any negative feelings like that so we adjusted to it very quickly. Wally had flown a couple of flights before – Wally Schirra – and he had no problem with the zero gravity… And we slept underneath the couches and floated around on it.
And later I talked with another astronaut and I think that he and I both agreed on why we had no problems. We did not see ourselves sitting in a vehicle that was in the right attitude and we were just relative to it. We saw the exact opposite. And that is that I was there and anything around I looked at how it was positioned with respect to me! Not me positioned with respect to it. And so that may have taken a bit of adjustment, but actually I remember it. So I didn’t care if I was up, down, upside-down, or sideways, or what have you. It just seemed normal. Well, not normal, but it did seem fairly common for me. Nobody on our crew got sick, but turns out even in those days about 25 percent of the guys had some kind of sickness for a day or so. Some of them threw up… Today… I think the “getting sick rate” the first time you’re up is probably about 50 or 60 percent. But that’s because it’s a different kind of people today that are flying to what it was in our day.
Sophia O.: Was it hard to say goodbye to everyone on Earth?
WC: When we were getting ready for the first Apollo mission, we were relieved to have the launch date come up. What very few people today realize is that as a crew -- Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and myself -- that was the third mission we were working on at that point. 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 the first Apollo mission was Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
Well, we were living with the contractor, we were living with the systems, we were going through design reviews and testing them when they were getting installed. That’s how early we were on the program. And the schedule kept flipping. So after about eight months of us training as a crew on the second mission they canceled the second mission.
When they canceled the second mission, we were moved into the backup crew on the first mission then, which people refer to as Apollo 1. And we were backing up Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. And after three months, Apollo 1 had a fire on the pad. They were doing a test with the hatch closed. We had performed exactly the same test the day before. But the hatch was open because we were operating on external power. So the next day when they were doing it on the internal power, they were also having a lot of communication problems, things like that, so they spent a lot of time inside of the spacecraft, hatch closed... 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. We were irritated only by one thing: About a half-hour before the launch, they had to delay things to get one of our instruments back up in the right range and it made us two-and-a-half minutes late on liftoff for our first mission at 11 o’clock. And I can remember that we were kind of irritated because we wanted to go off perfectly.
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 past 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, a post-flight 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 the 1G felt normal again. Some people, maybe it takes a lot longer than that. Especially if you’re exposed to it for a lot longer… Zero gravity, in my opinion, was a very nice feeling. And coming back, readjusting back here, that was a little bit harder than it was getting into zero gravity.
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: When people talk about going to Mars… 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.
And so Mars, they always think about going to Mars for some reason. Now, I’m not on the same line as many of the other people are today. 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. It may eventually get destroyed. But we’re 4.8 billion years old right here on this planet now. And I don’t think we’re gonna survive as human beings by just going to another planet and just trying to create another society. 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.
But, 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. When we went to the Moon, we had to develop the capability of doing it. And it wasn’t just human capability! It was having the equipment to do it… And we are seeing the fallout from that even today, because most of the people today are running around here with a cell phone that has thousands of times as much memory as we had in our onboard computer in the Apollo command module!
Our computer, which is important to us, to take star sightings, control how we oriented the spacecraft for re-entry, things like that, we had 40 kilobytes of memory in a computer that weighted 40 pounds. That’s what it was… So the technology that’s come out of it has been benefiting us and our society even today. And that’s 50 years ago that we did that job! So when we start talking about going to Mars, one of these days we will probably do it. And we’ll do it in the same way… kind of way, you know, humans going to Mars like humans going to the Moon.
We went, spent a little time there, came back and developed the technology to do it. It’s changed our thinking. We’re not going to be able to establish a place to live on Mars unless we start developing that, and developing the capability of having a habitat on the Moon, for example. So we use all these things to develop technologies that can move us ahead. I believe that human beings will eventually want to reach out to another planet and, in my opinion, not for surviving humans but to continue to push the frontiers forward.
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, which was in two years, we had flown 12 Gemini missions, we had demonstrated rendezvous, docking, extra-vehicular activity. We were then ahead of the Russians.
That may not have been a good political statement today, but that’s exactly what happened. We were ahead of them. The Russians have not caught up since, even though today we’re dependent on them just to get up there because we don’t have a vehicle going up to the Space Station today.
Because what has happened in our country, we have, over the years, changed our attitude about things. We are not as willing to push out against everything. Take the risk of moving ahead in some of the really difficult situations, which will be necessary to go to Mars, which I think that eventually we’ll do.
But I have watched in the last 50 years our society, our culture, normally 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 that 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 like 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 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. It was like, back 500 years before that when Magellan was pushing the new frontier going around the planet Earth for the first time. And they were willing to pay the price. And it was very, very, very impactful on them at that time. Same way with us, with the Apollo program. We lost some people.
We had problems that you would have expected some of the crews to die, but we were able to get them back alive. 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 than we were in the past. 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 — civilian, military, including the few astronauts at the time. It takes a huge number of folks that have to be committed to do these things. And so we have to be able to be looking at our culture and quit discouraging sticking your neck out to get ahead on things.
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 had already lost five astronauts in spacecraft and aircraft accidents on it. 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.
So there’s a lot of things that have to be done. But most importantly, 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, 5:03 P.M. (ET)
By Russell Kahn (Russ)
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