50 years ago, in October of 1968, Apollo VII carried the first three-man crew launched by the United States, in its bid to put a man on the moon. Its commander was Wally Schirra, who was also one of the Mercury original “Seven” astronauts, and was part of the Gemini two-man program. He would be the only astronaut to take part in all three programs.
This was the first mission to go up for the program, since the aftermath of the tragedy of what would be later called “Apollo I.” Apollo I was supposed to be the first manned flight of the program and was scheduled to launch in February, 1967, but a fire in the cabin on January 27th during a test simulation killed the entire three man crew of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward White (first American to walk in space). What followed was a 21-month suspension, while the cause of the accident was investigated, and the Apollo command and service modules were redesigned.
The flight of Apollo VII successfully tested the command/service module (CSM) system in low Earth orbit. It was a long grueling flight that lasted 11 days and consisted of 163 orbits around the Earth. This would be the final space flight for all of its three crew members, due to their insubordination and creating tensions between themselves and mission control.
During the mission, Commander Wally Schirra became sick with a head cold, which he passed on to his crew Donn Eisele and R. Walter Cunningham. Fearing that sinus congestion inside a sealed spacesuit would be harmful and that they would not be able to do anything about it during a build-up of pressure all through the period of re-entry, Schirra requested helmets off. This request was denied but the crew decided otherwise.
There were other incidents of cantankerous moments: there were complaints about the food, sarcastic remarks about the redundant scenery of Earth below (believe it or not), and the cumbersome waste collection system that smelled. Their cold, motion sickness and the loss of their Apollo 1 comrades probably contributed to the crew’s low morale and irritability.
Despite all that, the mission was a complete procedural and mechanical success, giving NASA the confidence to send the crew of Apollo 8 two months later, from the Earth to the Moon.