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This Day in History: Apollo 9, lost in Apollo 11’s shadow

On this day in 1969, Apollo 9 launches into space. It has been called one of the “lost and forgotten missions” in the Apollo program. Such a pity. Without Apollo 9, Apollo 11 never would have gone to the moon in the first place.

Apollo 9’s crew was the first to test the lunar module in outer space.

The massive cake given to the astronauts aboard USS Guadalcanal.

Did you know that the lunar module was considered a very flimsy vehicle? We’ve become so used to photos of Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin stepping out of one; the image has become almost like wallpaper in the background. Who would have guessed that the astronauts considered it to be so lightweight?

“My impression when I first saw a LEM,” Commander James A. McDivitt would later say, “was ‘Holy Moses, we’re going to really fly that thing in space?’ It’s a very flimsy craft—like a tissue paper spacecraft. If we’re not careful, we could easily put a foot through it.”

Of course, the delicate design makes more sense if you consider the LM’s function: It wasn’t meant to make a hard landing, re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and safely delivering a crew back home, as the command module was. Instead, its only function was to fly in the vacuum of space and to make an easy landing on the moon.

Other aspects of the lunar module could surprise you as well: It was small, and it couldn’t weigh too much. Thus, there were no seats for the astronauts. They piloted the module standing up! If they needed to sleep during a moon visit, then they strung hammocks across the small interior compartment.

Of course, the Apollo 9 astronauts never needed to sleep in the lunar module because they never went to the moon. They stayed in low Earth orbit throughout their mission. They did test the LM by separating from the command module—but they never drifted too far astray, either.

How odd it must have felt, floating out into space, untethered, knowing that you were in a spaceship that could *never* return you safely home.

On a lighter note, maybe you won’t be surprised by the one thing that Apollo 9’s astronauts were obsessed with on the day they were scheduled to return to Earth: food! The astronauts had been promised a 350-pound cake aboard USS Guadalcanal. They got it, along with a steak and baked potato dinner.

One final challenge is often forgotten when it comes to recounting the story of Apollo 9: That exact same crew had originally been the back-up crew for Apollo 1. That mission, you may remember, ended in fire and disaster as the command module sat on the launch pad.

The Apollo 9 astronauts had been so close to tragedy then. But they still volunteered to be the first men to entrust their lives to a “tissue paper spacecraft.”

Such bravery. But, then again, they were pioneers—and Americans! They were just doing what they’d been called upon to do.

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