The Apollo Mission That Was One Small Step Away From Mutiny In Outer Space

It’s October 1968, and the Space Race has reached a critical juncture. Three U.S. astronauts are orbiting the Earth inside an experimental spacecraft, and the men are pioneers on a pivotal mission. In fact, the stakes here are so high that the future of NASA is in the balance. But even so, the crew in space are discontent – maybe verging on mutinous.

Apollo 7 was a historic mission, marking as it did the first time that a craft in the Apollo program had carried a crew into space. And as such, the expedition blazed a trail for astronauts such as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the Moon in July 1969. Indeed, without Apollo 7, there may have been no Apollo 11 – meaning the United States may ultimately have lost the Space Race to the Soviet Union.

But while the Apollo 7 mission ought to have been a professional high-point for its crew – and, in some respects, this may have been the case – the men’s return to Earth actually spelled the end of their respective astronautic careers. Why? Well, tensions with mission control eventually became so strained that the astronauts preferred to risk their lives rather than obey an order. And their actions subsequently earned them the scorn of NASA flight director Christopher Kraft, who decided in turn that they shouldn’t fly again.

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At that time, NASA was still relatively in its infancy. The agency had been founded in 1958, in part to keep pace with technological and aeronautic developments in the Soviet Union. In October 1957, you see, the USSR had successfully launched Sputnik 1 – the world’s first satellite – earning the communist bloc a significant Cold War victory in this process. And with that achievement, the Soviets secured a significant early win in the Space Race.

Both sides had a bigger prize in mind, though: putting the world’s first person into space. To that end, NASA took charge of Project Mercury in 1958, with the agency settling on a craft design that used ballistic capsules launched atop powerful rockets. But the Russians beat them to it. On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew to space and orbited the Earth inside the Vostok spacecraft.

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After Mercury came Project Gemini – a two-man-spacecraft program that began in 1962. And the initiative bore fruit, since it helped extend U.S. capabilities into the realms of extravehicular activity (EVA) in space, docking and rendezvous. However, the tiny Gemini craft was not suitable for traveling to the Moon. For that endeavor, then, NASA designed Apollo – a three-man craft with a command and service module and a disposable lunar module for landing on the surface of Earth’s sole natural satellite.

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But from the outset, the project appeared doomed. On January 27, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White attended a lockdown rehearsal at Cape Canaveral. However, while the trio were inside the Apollo command module on the pad, a spark caused the pure oxygen environment to catch fire. And, tragically, all three men died in the resulting blaze.

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Naturally, this accident severely rattled NASA, as agency historian Andrew Chaikin has revealed. Chaikin told History in 2018, “It was a terribly traumatic time for NASA. After the fire, they had to do everything humanly possible to make the spacecraft safer and better. Apollo 7 was the final exam on whether they built a spacecraft that was up to the challenge.”

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In fact, the next two iterations of the Apollo craft did not even make it into space. And though Apollos 4, 5 and 6 did manage to reach the stars, all of these crafts were unmanned. It was not until Apollo 7 – nearly two years on from the fire and after months of political wrangling – that the next flight crew was brought together.

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Wally Schirra – a former pilot in the Korean War – got the job of commander. Schirra had had prior experience in space, too; in 1962 he had orbited the Earth six times in a Mercury capsule. In 1965, meanwhile, the old hand had also both flown Gemini 6A with Tom Stafford and completed a historic rendezvous with Gemini 7, which had been piloted by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell. The Gemini 6A mission had become notable for providing the world’s first rendezvous between two manned space vehicles.

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By contrast, the two men alongside Schirra were both astronautic rookies. Donn Eisele was a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force and had a background in weapons development; Walter Cunningham, meanwhile, was a former Navy pilot who had also been involved in top-secret defense studies for the Rand Corporation.

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And the mission the men were entasked to carry out was an 11-day trial of the Apollo spacecraft. During the flight, the astronauts had to complete a large battery of tests on Apollo’s complicated on-board flight systems – including altitude control, navigation systems, sextant calibration and propulsion and thermal control systems, to name just a few.

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But long before liftoff, the mission suffered from compliance issues – and most of them originated with Schirra. The Apollo 7 commander was so at odds with NASA, in fact, that there was an air of palpable tension between the two parties. And owing to this sense of strain, it was not inconceivable that the dispute could derail the whole mission.

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Part of the problem, perhaps, was that Schirra had already made the decision to quit NASA when he was chosen to lead Apollo 7. That meant there was nothing for him to gain and little to lose – from a career perspective, at least – while on board. Still, thanks to the experimental nature of space travel, he did have something very important at stake: his own life.

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And perhaps because Schirra had lost a friend in the Apollo 1 disaster, he considered safety the utmost priority on Apollo 7. According to Time magazine, who published a posthumous eulogy for Schirra in May 2007, the NASA commander was therefore “a bear about the job, stalking the factory floor, poking his nose into whatever the engineers were doing and making it clear he did not like what he saw.”

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In addition, Chaikin has noted that Schirra found himself in a power struggle with NASA. “[Schirra] wanted to make the point that the crew was in charge,” the author told History. “Nobody on the ground is taking the risk that he and his crew was. They weren’t risking their butts. He felt strongly about that, and he had an ornery streak anyway.”

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Then, on October 11, 1968, the launch manager ignored the on-shore winds at Cape Canaveral – conditions that should have delayed the launch, according to their own provisions – and proceeded with the mission. Apollo 7 was therefore launched into orbit aboard an enormous Saturn IB rocket, although relations between the crew and mission control had already become fraught.

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The size of the craft was certainly a factor in these disagreements. You see, while Apollo may have had four times the interior space of Gemini, it was still a tight squeeze. The unappetizing space food probably didn’t help matters, either. However, possibly the most perturbing thing about Apollo’s on-board conditions were the provisions made for urination and defecation – not least because the process could take up to an hour to complete.

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Even a later NASA report noted the issues with the craft’s so-called “waste management system.” This the agency deemed “adequate, though annoying,” with the report continuing, “The bags certainly were not convenient, and there were usually unpleasant odors.” The system proved so much of a trial, in fact, that the crew used these facilities just 12 times over 11 days.

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But problems really began around 15 hours into the mission. Schirra woke up with a bad head cold that the zero-gravity conditions of outer space made even worse. On Earth, gravity helps mucus to drain from the nasal passage and thus relieve pressure on the sinuses and eardrums. In space, however, no such succor can be achieved.

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Plus, the cold quickly spread in the tight confines of the ship, meaning the entire crew were soon all sniffing, sneezing and snorting. Indeed, according to an account of the mission given by NASA ground controller Hamish Lindsay, Cunningham even went so far as to describe their “cozy little spacecraft” as a “used Kleenex container.”

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Disagreements between Schirra and mission control then soon escalated into conflicts. Scientists at NASA had included numerous experiments with the flight plan, but Schirra considered the voyage to be an engineering mission first and foremost. And at times when such scientific investigations coincided with engineering operations, the commander simply canceled the experimental component.

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Then there was the matter of the live TV broadcast that NASA wanted the crew to engage in for audiences at home. Schirra was keen to postpone this effort as he first wanted to complete a technically challenging rendezvous with a booster. And the official NASA transcript reveals that the astronaut pointedly refused to participate in the TV stunt.

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According to the record, Schirra said of the broadcast, “We do not have the equipment out. We have not had an opportunity to follow setting; we have not eaten at this point. At this point, I have a cold, [and] I refuse to foul up our timelines this way.” Ultimately, though, Schirra lost the battle, and the crew did seem to be having fun when they finally performed for the camera.

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Nevertheless, journalists soon noted conflicts between mission control and the three “snappish” astronauts who complained about their equipment and flight plan. One Russian newspaper wrote – not inaccurately – that the crew suffered from “increased irritation due to the monotony of the space flight and the imperfect design of the systems for controlling the vital functions of the spacemen.”

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Eventually, then, NASA flight director Christopher Kraft asked Deke Slayton – chief of the astronaut office and himself a former astronaut – to confront Schirra about his behavior. Slayton therefore told the commander that the world was watching, that the crew didn’t look too good and that he’d better up his game. According to Slayton, though, Schirra’s response was short and curt: “Go to hell.”

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But perhaps the most serious act of insubordination came at the close of the mission. As per space-flight regulation, NASA demanded the crew wear helmets during their re-entry. Yet the crew flatly refused. According to Schirra – who had once burst an eardrum while flying a jet with a cold – the headgear prevented them from blowing their noses and so relieving the pressure exerted by re-entry and descent.

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And despite the obvious risks of splashing down in the ocean without a helmet, Schirra won the argument. The crew thus prepared for re-entry by cushioning their heads with whatever articles they could find. The men also each took a decongestant tablet before settling back into their headrests and waiting.

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So, on October 22, 1968 – after 11 days in orbit around the Earth – Apollo 7 successfully made a watery touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean. The mission had been a record-breaker, too. You see, the journey marked the first time that three men had traveled together in space; not only that, but it also yielded the inaugural NASA live-television transmission from outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Plus, of course, the Apollo 7 mission saw NASA astronauts take the unprecedented step of acting insubordinately.

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Thanks to this refusal to toe the line, then, Schirra, Cunningham and Eisele were not employed for further NASA missions. Neither Kraft nor Slayton had the inclination to use any of them again. And unlike all other future Apollo crew members, the astronauts did not immediately gain Distinguished Service Medals – the space agency’s most coveted accolade. A further 40 years passed, in fact, before the men finally received the honors owed to them.

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Nonetheless, Apollo 7 didn’t entirely spell the end for Schirra’s career prospects. On the contrary: he actually branched out into interesting avenues after leaving NASA, including becoming a TV anchor and working with Walter Cronkite. And somewhat appropriately, the former astronaut also worked as a spokesperson for the nasal decongestant Actifed, which he apparently took to relive his cold symptoms during the ill-fated mission.

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Furthermore, regardless of the interpersonal failings that took place during the mission, Apollo 7 was highly successful from an engineering perspective. The men achieved all of the primary objectives, in fact, and so set the stage for an eventual trip to the Moon. Despite being difficult to work with, Schirra did his job well.

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Plus, of course, there were future missions. And in July 1969 NASA completed the goal that had been set by John F. Kennedy: to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. American astronauts successfully landed on the Moon a further five times before NASA retired the Apollo program.

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It’s worth noting, too, that NASA did not experience another major act of mutiny until 1973. During that episode, three astronauts aboard the space station Skylab had become increasingly tense during an endurance mission that ultimately lasted 84 days. Close to breakdown, Commander Gerald P. Carr informed ground control that he and the crew were taking an unscheduled day of rest. And to make sure they weren’t disturbed, he turned the radio off.

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“We looked out the window, took showers and did that sort of thing,” Carr told The New York Times in 1997. “We said, ‘We want time off to mess around and do anything we want.’ They acquiesced.” And after their break, Carr and ground control agreed a new schedule that included an 8:00 p.m. clock-off time.

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Even Russian cosmonauts have indulged in an act of insubordination. In June 1995 Gennadi Strekalov and Vladimir Dezhurov refused to complete a space walk to check some solar arrays on the Mir space station, with the pair claiming to be too tired and on edge to carry out the procedure. Their refusal was taken as a de facto mutiny, however, meaning they were subsequently fined. Strekalov and Dezhurov also had to resort to litigation in order to receive their bonuses.

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But space mutinies have nonetheless done much to enhance our understanding of the psychology of space travel. Currently, robots and probes conduct most space exploration trips; but with the growth of the private space sector, humans are set to travel to space in increasing numbers and for longer periods of time than ever before.

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Indeed, crewed flights to Mars are now under discussion. And at our current level of technological development, a round-trip flight to Mars may last between two and three years, meaning the psychological and interpersonal implications of long-haul space travel ought to be thoroughly analyzed. Crucially, crew members for such a journey are likely to face rigorous psychological screening.

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That said, space travel is not all stress and endurance. According to a study of 125 astronaut memoirs, traveling to space can actually be a salutogenic or health-promoting experience. The astronauts questioned for the study reported an enhanced appreciation for both nature and people as well as a sense of spirituality and empowerment after returning to Earth. It seems, then, that space travel may promote personal growth in humans.

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So, perhaps Apollo 7 was a defining moment for NASA in more ways than one. After all, the mission not only opened the way for a lunar landing, but it also provided vital insight into the psychological effects of space travel. And as humanity takes to the stars more often in the coming century, the events of Apollo 7 will no doubt be referenced as providing a classic case study in astronautic mutiny.

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