This Day in History: Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission

On this day in 1968, Apollo 7 is launched. You are used to hearing about Apollo 11, which famously carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon. But do you know about the crucial missions of the other Apollos?

Those flights laid the groundwork for Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the moon. Their astronauts took unbelievable risks, even going into space shortly after some of their colleagues had been killed.

JFK was the one who started it all, of course. In 1961, he declared that “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

How audacious! NASA was then less than 3 years old. Nevertheless, determined Americans set out to make their President proud—but then a tragedy could have nipped the entire thing in the bud.

On January 27, 1967, the crew of Apollo 1 was sitting on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy, conducting a preflight test. The purpose of Apollo 1? Be the first manned Apollo mission into space. Instead, tragedy struck. The command module caught on fire. Three astronauts were killed.

What had happened? And how could such a tragedy be prevented in the future? The Apollo program took a few steps backwards at this juncture. Space suits were redesigned to be less flammable. The atmosphere inside the module was changed to a mix of nitrogen and oxygen, instead of only oxygen. The hatch cover was changed to allow easier departure from the cabin.

Manned missions would be delayed for months. More study, research, trial & error was needed, and several Apollo missions launched without astronauts aboard. But someone would eventually have to take the risk on another manned flight—those “someones” would be the three men who boarded Apollo 7 on October 11, 1968.

One can only imagine what they were thinking. It had been less than 2 years since the Apollo 1 tragedy. Now these three men would step into Apollo’s command module and try again. We all know the names of the men who finally stepped onto the moon in 1969. But do any of us know the names of the men who took this amazing risk?

They were Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham, and Donn Eisele: Astronauts. Pioneers. Heroes! They successfully completed Apollo 1’s mission—a manned mission in low Earth orbit.

Apollo 8 was next. Its mission? Become the first to leave Earth’s orbit. Travel to the moon. Orbit the moon. Return safely to Earth.

Along the way, these three astronauts became the first to see Earth as a whole planet. What a crazy sensation to witness Earthrise, instead of sunrise.

NASA still wasn’t ready to attempt a landing on the moon. Apollo 9 would carry a lunar module, but it would test many aspects of that module in the relative safety of low-Earth orbit. Apollo 10 would take this mission one step further, and it was effectively a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11’s mission of landing on the moon.

That historical landing, of course, occurred in July 1969. When Neil Armstrong declared that he was taking “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” it had been only 9 short months since NASA launched the first manned Apollo mission into space.

How’s that for a quick turnaround?

In other words, today is the anniversary of an event that represents America at its finest: We are a people who display determination, perseverance, and a pioneering spirit! Such characteristics have always made America great.