The ABC’s of the Apollo Program

Courtesy of NASA

Apollo 9 was the third manned mission of the United States Apollo space program. It followed on the heels of the very successful Apollo 8 mission which was originally planned to be the first manned flight of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) or Lunar Module as it was renamed. This was to be called the D mission, which was to be flown in December 1968. But this mission got swapped with James McDivitt’s crew of Apollo 9.

In September 1967, NASA created a list of mission types that would lead to the first manned moon landing. As stated in a previous article, all Apollo missions leading up to the actual landing were considered test missions. So, the test phase missions were given designations with letters A through F, followed by the G mission which would be the first manned lunar landing mission. This list of alphabetized missions would be later extended through letter J to cover actual lunar missions that involved extensive exploration of the lunar surface.

A test of the Saturn V first stage, S-1C-5, is conducted on Aug. 25, 1967 on the B-1/B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center. NASA

After the Apollo 1 catastrophe, there were several unmanned Saturn V test launches leading up to the first Apollo 7 manned mission. Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 were called the A missions, and they carried an unmanned CSM or Command Service Module. The first Lunar Module, LM-1 was flown unmanned (B mission) as Apollo 5. Walter Schirra’s crew flew the C mission, which was the first manned flight of the CSM (Block II CSM-101) as Apollo 7 in October 1968.

The E mission was planned as an elliptical high Earth orbit test of the operational LEM with the CSM in a simulated lunar mission to an apogee of 4,600 miles and not to be a lunar orbital excursion. It was to be commanded by Frank Borman in March, 1969. The missions were swapped because of fear of the Soviets planning to upstage the Americans with an unmanned lunar orbital flight of their own. The D mission test of the LEM in low Earth orbit was reasoned not to be ready until at least February, 1969.

The swap of crews would also be decisive in who would be the first man to walk on the Moon. The swap of the crews and by the process of crew rotation would change who would be in line for Commander of Apollo 11 three flights later.

Apollo 9 was launched 50 years ago on March 3, 1969, the second mission to be launched on a Saturn V rocket. The crew performed the first crewed flight of a LEM, the first docking and extraction of said spacecraft, and the docking of two crewed spacecraft. The mission proved the LEM worthy of crewed spaceflight. The mission’s three-person crew consisted of Commander James McDivitt, Command Module Pilot David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart. The crew spent ten days in low Earth orbit testing critical parts to landing on the Moon, particularly backpack life support, navigation systems, and docking maneuvers.

Two months later, Apollo 10 was the F mission and would be the final dress rehearsal for the first manned landing which would fly the CSM and LEM all the way to the Moon. The G mission would be the first manned landing slated for Apollo 11.

More to follow on the future Letter designated missions following the F mission and who would or who could have been the first man to the moon to fly the G mission.