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'Not Supposed To Happen': Remembering Apollo 9, 50 Years On (Part 1)
By Ben Evans, on February 24th, 2019

Apollo 9 was tasked with the first manned test-flight of the Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) in low-Earth orbit. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

The year 1969 was pivotal in so many ways for humanity. At its dawn, American astronauts had newly returned from circling the Moon, and by July it had produced our first piloted landfall on another world. These astonishing achievements continue to resonate today—particularly following 2012’s untimely loss of Neil Armstrong—but there is one mission, flown in March 1969, which is a decidedly unsung hero of the effort to plant bootprints on the lunar surface. It rose only to low-Earth orbit, but without it those historic steps at the Sea of Tranquility could not have been taken.

The mission was Apollo 9, and would be forever remembered as a mission of gumdrops and spiders, sickness and golden slippers…and the flight of “The Red Rover”.

The Apollo 9 crew of (from left) Rusty Schweickart, Dave Scott and Jim McDivitt would have performed the inaugural test of the combined command, service and lunar modules in low-Earth orbit. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

By the beginning of 1969 the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) which would transport men to the Moon had been extensively tested, but an “all-up” demonstration of the entire ship, including the Lunar Module (LM), remained untried. Apollo 9 would be a tough mission, involving two separate manned spacecraft…and for Dave Scott, the Command Module Pilot (CMP), it encapsulated rendezvous, docking and an unspoken need to train for worst-case, what-if scenarios. If Commander Jim McDivitt and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Rusty Schweickart were unable to control the LM, Scott might be able to dock with them manually. But if not, the harrowing alternative was that he might have to abandon them and return home alone.

“Bringing Apollo home as a one-man show,” Scott wrote in his memoir, Two Sides of the Moon, “involved my mastering many aspects of all three jobs performed by the crew, Jim’s as commander, Rusty’s as systems engineer, my own as navigator. The sheer logistics of operating in all three positions, let alone learning the complex procedures this would require, was challenging, to say the least.”

Pictured during training in February 1969, astronauts Jim McDivitt (foreground) and Rusty Schweickart would put the Lunar Module through its paces. They would test its digital autopilot, its descent and ascent engines and its overall controllability. Photo Credit: NASA

During training, Scott had devised a routine in the simulator to handle this daunting role. First, he would check Apollo’s electrical, communications and environmental systems from Schweickart’s seat, then would move to the center couch to fulfil his own duties of setting up the relevant programs on the computer, before finally moving into McDivitt’s couch to perform the re-entry maneuver itself. “It was pretty exacting,” he wrote. Yet it was a dire eventuality for which all Apollo CMPs would have to be prepared.

Equally exacting was the possibility that Scott might have to rescue McDivitt and Schweickart if the LM developed problems. For example, if it was unable to initiate its correct rendezvous maneuver within a minute of when it was planned, he would need to rescue them. If the two craft successfully redocked, but the pressurized tunnel was inaccessible, or if the hatches failed to open, McDivitt and Schweickart would need to leave the LM in their suits and spacewalk back over to the command module’s side hatch. And this was hampered by the fact that McDivitt (who was not scheduled to make an EVA) would have been totally reliant upon Schweickart’s emergency oxygen supply. “If he didn’t make the EVA transfer within 45 minutes,” Scott wrote, darkly, “he would die.”

Mounted atop the most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status – the Saturn V – the Apollo 9 spacecraft rolls out to Pad 39A. Photo Credit: NASA

For months, the astronauts and their backups, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Dick Gordon and Al Bean, methodically rehearsed the complicated steps. “Our launch was almost postponed,” added Scott, “because we could not get enough training, especially for the rendezvous profile. After every sim was finished, we were debriefed and often had to explain why we had failed to deal with a particular situation. It was all pretty intense.”

Apollo 9 was indeed postponed, but not through lack of training. Originally set to fly on the last day of February 1969, the crew arrived at Cape Kennedy three weeks prior to launch to finish their training and quarantine. In the final days, McDivitt’s white blood-cell count was found to be low, hinting that he might be coming down with a cold.

By this time, the giant Saturn V booster had been sitting on swamp-fringed Pad 39A for almost two months and its 28-hour launch countdown had begun. Thirty minutes into a planned three-hour hold at T-16 hours, managers decided to recycle the clock to T-42 hours and give McDivitt time to recover his strength. Indeed, in his autobiography, Deke Slayton related that “all three of the crew came down with colds”, a suggestion which Scott and Schweickart attempted to dismiss by donning jogging clothes and running around the perimeter of the launch complex. Flight International quoted a medical report from the astronauts’ physician, Dr. Chuck Berry, which mentioned “sore throats and nose congestion.” Whatever the truth, it certainly illustrated, in Slayton’s mind, that the crews were being worked hard and were increasingly susceptible to “opportunistic infections”.

Jim McDivitt (back to camera) politely offers crewmate Dave Scott the chance to climb first into the transfer van on launch morning, as Rusty Schweickart and Chief Astronaut Al Shepard follow. Photo Credit: NASA

The brief postponement did not detract from what promised to be a spectacular, though challenging, year for NASA: the year in which the late President John F. Kennedy’s very public promise to land a man on the Moon would be realized. Up to five missions were planned, each one building on—and dependent on—the success of its predecessor. If the D mission was a success, the stage would be set for Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan on Apollo 10. Only if Stafford’s flight verified the performance of the LM’s engines and consolidated knowledge of the lunar gravitational field, could Apollo 11 stand any chance of touching down on the lunar soil.

Precisely on the stroke of 11:00 a.m. EST on 3 March 1969, the five mighty F-1 engines in the Saturn V’s first stage roared to life. McDivitt, Scott and Schweickart’s ride to orbit was virtually trouble-free, although the experience was truly unforgettable. For Scott, it was like being compressed and released atop a giant spring, as the forces and vibrations alternately threw them against their restraining straps, then smashed them back into their seats.

In space, Scott’s first task would make or break Apollo 9. Less than three hours after launch, he separated the CSM from the S-IVB final stage of the Saturn, whose adaptor panels were automatically jettisoned to expose LM-3. Using the thruster quads on the service module, Scott crisply turned his ship 180 degrees and prepared to dock with the spidery lander. At this point, the first problem arose when Scott found that his translational thrusters were not functioning properly. “If we couldn’t pull the lunar module out from its storage pod,” he wrote, “we didn’t have a mission. We had this short moment when it seemed it wasn’t going to work.” As he held the ship’s position steady, McDivitt and Schweickart scrambled to identify the cause of the problem. Eventually, it was traced to several of the attitude engine indicators, whose propellant valves were showing up as “closed”.

Apollo 9 roars to space on 3 March 1969. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

“After all the pre-flight testing of the valves,” Scott continued, “this was certainly not supposed to happen. At one point ground control thought one of us must have bumped several of the switches closed as we were jostled around during launch, but we were strapped into our seats so tightly this was impossible. Later analysis concluded that the valves had flicked shut as a result of the shock caused by staging.” The problem was fairly straightforward to rectify: McDivitt recycled the switches to “open” and Scott was able to execute a perfect nose-to-nose docking, a little over three hours into the mission.

In completing the first transposition and docking, the Apollo 9 crew had achieved the first American link-up between two pressurized, habitable spacecraft. The next order of business was to confirm that the docking probe and tunnel between the command and service modules and the lunar module was functional. Unlike the spacewalk by Soviet cosmonauts Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev in January 1969, McDivitt and Schweickart would transfer between ships internally, in shirtsleeves.

Jim McDivitt (right) and Rusty Schweickart demonstrate the smallness of the lunar module’s cabin in this telecast from Spider. Photo Credit: NASA

After pressurizing the tunnel between the two craft, verifying the integrity of the 12 latches on the docking ring, connecting umbilicals to provide the lunar module with electrical power, and disassembling the probe and drogue, it was time to separate from the S-IVB for good. Four hours into the mission, Scott threw a switch which fired pyrotechnics to release the lunar module from the S-IVB, and again pulsed the thruster quads to draw the complete Apollo craft free. Forty minutes after separation, the S-IVB’s restartable J-2 engine was lit again to enter an “intermediate coasting” orbit, preparatory for a third and final burn. The final firing, which began some six hours into the mission and burned until the propellant supply was all used up, allowed the S-IVB to escape Earth’s gravitational influence and established it in a solar orbit. Major objectives of the repeat firings were to demonstrate the J-2’s ability to restart and to test its performance under conditions beyond those for which it was designed.

In the meantime, McDivitt, Scott and Schweickart were preoccupied for the remainder of their first day in orbit with checks to ensure that the combined command, service, and lunar modules were spaceworthy. Among their initial tasks was a series of firings of the Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine, one of whose primary roles on missions to the Moon would be to perform the lunar-orbit-insertion and transearth injection burns. The first SPS burn, conducted late on 3 March and lasting five seconds, verified that the combined spacecraft could withstand the stress and gauge their “oscillatory response”.

With this work complete, the time finally came for the mission’s big deal—the checkout of LM-3 by McDivitt and Schweickart. After Schweickart made a dramatic spacewalk, the lunar module was to undock for a series of joint rendezvous exercises. During his planned two-hour excursion, Schweickart was to put the EVA suit with its bulky backpack, designed to enable astronauts to work on the lunar surface, through its paces. He was to exit through the small, square hatch and onto the lunar module’s front “porch”. Scott had spent more than two years perfecting his knowledge of the CSM, so McDivitt and Schweickart had devoted themselves to understanding every inch of “their” ship. Each man had prepared exhaustively for his respective tasks.

What they had not prepared for, or bargained on, was Schweickart’s adverse reaction to the space environment, which almost stalled the mission in its tracks.


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'More Confidence Than Ever': Remembering Apollo 9, Launched 50 Years Ago Today (Part 2)
By Ben Evans, on March 3rd, 2019 [AmericaSpace]

Balanced on the Lunar Module porch – with one of the footpads visible ‘below’ him – Rusty Schweickart puts the lunar suit through its paces on Apollo 9, 50 years ago, this month. Photo Credit: NASA

Early on 5 March 1969, two men floated through a tunnel from their command ship into a spider-shaped vehicle whose descendants would soon carry astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Apollo 9 was not destined to go to the Moon, or even depart Earth orbit, and yet, as noted in last weekend’s history article, its criticality to the goal of planting American bootprints in the lunar dust before the end of the 1960s cannot be underestimated. During their 10 days circling Earth, the crew of Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart would prove for the first time that Apollo—as a complete spacecraft, with its Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM)—was capable of performing as advertised. However, no sooner had they begun work, the first problem reared its head.

Pictured during training in February 1969, astronauts Jim McDivitt (foreground) and Rusty Schweickart would put the Lunar Module through its paces. They would test its digital autopilot, its descent and ascent engines and its overall controllability. Photo Credit: NASA

When McDivitt and Schweickart floated through the connecting tunnel into the LM, their actions to prepare it for its first manned flight were honed to perfection by hundreds of hours of training. At 6:15 a.m. EST, Schweickart entered its cramped cabin—about the size of a broom cupboard, dominated by the large, cylindrical ascent engine cover in the middle of its “floor”—and was followed by McDivitt less than an hour later. Both men agreed that the whirring systems, particularly the environmental control unit, were noisy. By 8 a.m., the first major step in preparing their LM for independent flight was completed when its four spidery legs were swung away from the body.

Time, however, was not on their side, and shortly thereafter McDivitt was forced to admit to Mission Control that they were behind schedule. The reason: Schweickart, two days into his first space flight, was sick.

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At the time of Apollo 9, “Space Adaptation Syndrome” was virtually unknown, and the bulk of military fighter and test pilots in the astronaut corps tended not to report it, lest their susceptibility impair their chances of being assigned another mission. “It had been accepted,” wrote Gene Cernan in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, “that everyone felt woozy on getting up there and…maybe you might even toss your cookies a couple of times, but you sure as hell didn’t tell anyone…and neither did your crewmates.” McDivitt’s crew was determined to avoid such problems and, upon reaching orbit, tried not to make sudden head movements and took the anti-nausea drug Dramamine.

View of the Saturn V’s S-IVB third stage, with the Lunar Module (LM), nicknamed “Spider”, visible within. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

Still, issues of dizziness plagued them for the first couple of days. Things really got bad on the 5th, when Schweickart suffered a bout of nausea as soon as he awoke, then felt increasingly queasy as he donned his space suit in the weightless cabin. As Lunar Module Pilot (LMP), he performed his initial duties, flipping switches to begin powering up the lander’s systems, but his condition steadily worsened. As fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin explained in his book, Men from Earth: “Rusty…experienced brief vertigo as he floated up through the tunnel into the LM, and ended up staring down at the lander’s flight deck.” When McDivitt, who had also suffered from episodes of dizziness, joined his crewmate, Schweickart vomited again.

It was impossible to conceal Schweickart’s condition from ground controllers. McDivitt knew that the timeline called for Schweickart to make an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on 6 March, putting the new Apollo lunar space suit through its paces for the first time. “Throwing up inside a pressure suit,” explained Deke Slayton, “would not only be unpleasant as hell, it might be fatal.” And another problem lurked in the shadows. The very act of admitting that one of them was sick, in Gene Cernan’s words, “was to admit a weakness, not only to the public and the other astros, but also to the doctors, which would give them reason to stick more pins in us”.

For the first time in the Apollo program, the Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM) were flown by humans, autonomously, on the Apollo 9 mission. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

Apollo 9 marked the first time that two American manned craft would rendezvous, dock and transfer crews, which demanded individual names for them. There were, admittedly, formal international designations—the main spacecraft was “1969-018A” after reaching orbit, the Saturn V rocket’s S-IVB final stage became “1969-018B”, crew-carrying ascent stage of the LM became “1969-018C” and its discarded descent stage became “1969-018D”—but those would not do. Names for the two manned craft, were definitely needed. Frivolous or “sensitive” names were frowned upon by NASA. The ungainly appearance of the LM and the conical profile of the CSM made the choice of names an easy one for McDivitt, Scott and Schweickart: The former would be called “Spider” and the latter “Gumdrop”. On 5 March 1969, aboard Spider, concern mounted about how to tackle Schweickart’s EVA. In a bid to preserve his comrade’s privacy, McDivitt requested a closed-loop medical consultation with Mission Control, and it was decided that a planned spacewalk from Spider over to Gumdrop was too risky.

The chances of Schweickart suffocating if he threw up again, inside his suit, did not bear thinking about. The plan called for him to spend two hours outside, exiting the LM and working his way by handrails over to the open hatch of Gumdrop, where a fully-suited Dave Scott would conduct a “stand-up” EVA to observe. Schweickart would then return to the lunar module. The purpose of this test, in addition to evaluating the suit, was to show that a returning lunar crew could spacewalk to the CSM in the event of their being unable to pass through the docking tunnel.

On the “D” mission, which later became Apollo 9, astronauts Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart would put the Lunar Module (LM) through its paces for the first time on a piloted space mission. Photo Credit: NASA

Instead, a comparatively straightforward opening of the hatch for 45 minutes, during orbital daylight, was advocated. By thus exposing themselves to vacuum, but remaining inside Spider, McDivitt and Schweickart could conduct at least some tests of the suits in the required conditions. As managers reprioritized the EVA, the lingering question of how much information to release to the media had worked its way to NASA Administrator Tom Paine. Many astronauts were furious and one even declared that he would “never tell the ground a goddamn thing from up there”. Eventually, Paine concurred that the confidentiality of the Schweickart tape should be respected.

If the spacewalk happened—and early on 5 March it seemed unlikely—the astronauts’ third day in space was far too busy for them to worry about it. Their packed schedule of engineering and other objectives got underway at 9:28 a.m., with a five-minute televised transmission from inside Spider, showing its instruments and displays, various internal features and the faces of McDivitt and Schweickart.

Rusty Schweickart’s EVA sought to determine the effectiveness of the lunar surface suit in a vacuum. Unlike previous suits, it was completely self-contained. Photo Credit: NASA

Three hours later, McDivitt executed the first firing of the descent engine. In addition to evaluating the combined spacecraft’s handling characteristics, the six-minute burn demonstrated the effectiveness of the lunar module’s digital autopilot and how the descent engine behaved at full throttle. McDivitt was impressed by the descent engine’s performance. Only seconds after starting the burn, he had yelled, “Look at that [attitude] ball; my God, we hardly have any errors.” Twenty-six seconds into the firing, those errors remained virtually non-existent and the commander even took a few seconds for a bite to eat.

Schweickart awoke on 6 March, apparently much recovered, no longer nauseous or pale, and McDivitt, notwithstanding the reservations of ground controllers, decided to press ahead with his scheduled EVA onto the lunar module’s porch. The cabin was depressurized, although McDivitt found that he had to exert more force than expected to turn the handle and swing the waist-high hatch inward. Clad in a bulky suit virtually identical to that which crews would use on the Moon and anchored by means of a tether, Schweickart began moving onto the porch a little over 14 minutes later. In essence, he was now a miniature spacecraft in his own right. “What was important about this EVA,” wrote Deke Slayton, “was that the lunar pressure suit was completely self-contained. All the suits used on the Gemini EVAs had relied on the spacecraft to provide oxygen and communications. The consumables and communication equipment for the lunar suit…were all in [the] backpack.” With the satisfying gurgle of water coolant and a stable pressure indicator, Schweickart lost no time. As soon as he was outside, he secured his feet in a pair of so-called “golden slippers”—boot restraints attached to Spider’s porch—and gained his bearings before embarking on his first task: to observe, photograph and retrieve thermal samples from the exterior of the LM.

Dave Scott pokes his helmeted head out of the Command and Service Module (CSM) side hatch during joint operations with the Lunar Module (LM). Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

By now, Dave Scott, clad in a slightly different suit that was dependent on Gumdrop’s systems for life support, had opened his hatch for a “stand-up” EVA. Next, Schweickart—joking at his own sandy hair by aptly nicknaming himself “The Red Rover”—began his first abbreviated attempt to evaluate his ability to move and control his body in the lunar suit. His planned transfer to Gumdrop and back had been cancelled, but he was able to obtain photography of Scott’s activities and imagery of the exteriors of both spacecraft. At length, he returned inside Spider and Scott retreated to Gumdrop.

Still to be tested were Spider’s systems when flying independently of the CSM, including the rendezvous radar, descent and ascent engines, guidance computers and the docking mechanism. Early on 7 March, keen to get an early start and get ahead on their timeline, McDivitt and Schweickart shimmied down the tunnel into the lander and sealed the hatches between themselves and Gumdrop. At the appointed time, Scott flipped a switch to release Spider…and nothing happened. The latches, it seemed, had “hung-up” After several more tries, in which he repeatedly flipped the switch back and forth, Scott was successful and the two craft separated cleanly. After performing a brief fly-around to ensure that all was well, Scott pulsed his thrusters to back away.

View of the ascent engine bell at the base of Lunar Module (LM) Spider, during rendezvous operations with Command and Service Module (CSM) Gumdrop. Photo Credit: NASA, via Joachim Becker/

From his station on the left-hand side of the LM, McDivitt performed a pitch maneuver, then yawed, to enable Scott to verify that Spider’s four legs were properly extended. Forty-five minutes later, McDivitt fired the descent engine to insert Spider into a circular orbit “above” Gumdrop. As he throttled the engine for the first time, it ran smoothly until it achieved 10 percent thrust, but when advanced to 20 percent both astronauts noted a peculiar chugging noise. McDivitt paused and resumed and was delighted that the strange groaning did not recur, even when he throttled up to 40 percent.

Next, the pyrotechnics were fired to jettison the descent stage and the ascent engine blazed silently to life to place Spider into an orbit “below” and “behind” Gumdrop. The kick affected more than just the crew: As the two sections of the vehicle separated, a small cloud of debris hit the ascent stage and knocked out its strobe tracking beacon. In accordance with the laws of celestial mechanics, the lander, being in a lower orbit, began to gain on its quarry. A few hours later, the first all-up demonstration of the lunar module in flight was completed in spectacular fashion, with Scott lining up and McDivitt executing a perfect docking. During their 6.5-hour independent flight, the two men aboard Spider had cleared another obstacle on the road to the Moon.

Splashing down on 13 March 1969, the achievement of Apollo 9 and its intrepid crew brought the lunar landing inexorably closer. Publicly, and within NASA, an enormous groundswell of support rose and it was even muttered that the next flight, Apollo 10, should be retasked with the landing, rather than its mandate of a full dress rehearsal in lunar orbit. This was both unwise and impractical, but highlighted the “Go Fever” prevalent at the time. “Whatever the decision,” wrote Time magazine in late March, “there is now more confidence than ever that U.S. astronauts will be walking on the surface of the Moon this summer.”

Never were truer words written.

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Rusty Schweickart remembers Apollo 9 (1)
By David J. Eicher  |  Published: Friday, March 1, 2019 [Astronomy]

The lunar module pilot relives the challenges and triumphs when humans tested their spacecraft in Earth orbit.

The three Apollo 9 astronauts — left to right, Rusty Schweickart, David Scott, and Jim McDivitt — stand in front of the Apollo 9 Saturn V rocket at the historic launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in February 1969. NASA

Before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, becoming the first human to step on another world, we had to be ready. A big part of the readiness came earlier that year, when three astronauts flew in Earth orbit during NASA’s Apollo 9 mission. This 10-day adventure commenced March 3, 1969, less than five months ahead of the Moon landing, and it was a critical milestone. Apollo 9 marked the first complete test of the Apollo system. Commander Jim McDivitt, along with Command Module Pilot David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, put all the systems through their paces.

The mission was a turning point for several reasons. It was the first live orbital test of the lunar module (LM), the lander that would carry two astronauts to the Moon’s surface. The rendezvous and docking procedures between the LM and the command/service module were also tested. And it offered practice runs for astronauts to walk in space in order to conduct maintenance and fix problems that could arise far from home.

Apollo 10 would perform a full test run, circling the Moon, detaching the LM, doing practically everything except for the landing itself. That occurred in May 1969, with a crew of Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan. But without the milepost of Apollo 9, the venture would have stopped and rebooted.

I interviewed Schweickart, now 83 and as razor sharp as ever, about his legendary Apollo 9 experience.

Today, Schweickart is as active as ever. B612 Foundation

Q: With Apollo, there were some crew reassignments. When things finally settled and you prepared for Apollo 9, what sticks out in your memories about that time?

A: Jim McDivitt and I spent day after day, night after night, week after week up at Grumman as Lunar Module 2, LM-2, was coming down the production line. LM-2 was going to be the first flight vehicle. I cannot tell you the agony of Jim and I in that cockpit in the middle of the night, testing things along with the team.

Jim and I kept looking over at one another and shaking our heads. We would work with the engineers and go over the wiring diagrams, and try to puzzle out what had happened, why it did that, why it didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and so on. That happened continually.

At one point, Jim and I finally looked at each other, we shook our heads, and I don’t know whether it was Jim or me, but we looked and said, “Are we really going to fly this thing? Is this something we should fly? Even if we can sweat blood and tears, and get it to the end of the testing cycle, is this the right thing to do?”

That was when we slipped from LM-2 to LM-3. Of course, part of the deal was that, even before the decision was made, I think, Grumman was pushed into redoing the testing team and separating it from the design team.

Q: But you overcame the dilemmas and began training.

A: Yes, and with Apollo, we had the big mission simulators, which were not just complex pieces of gear. From the inside, they looked like and operated like the spacecraft. But when you looked out the window, there was this humongous optical system. The simulator itself was in the middle of this monstrous optical system which, when you looked out the window, gave you a virtual image.

But testing in the suit was rough and exhausting. You would come out of a couple hours in the simulator or neutral buoyancy testing, the underwater testing, just beat. You’re wearing a suit, and you’ve got weights all over it. You’re going upside down and sideways. You get to do a lot of that simulation and training, and you come out of the suit, and you’ve got blood running down your shoulders.

It digs into you. You’ve got your whole weight into it sometimes. You’re lying on your side, and your arm is hard as a rock because you’re pressurized with 3.5 psi. There were many, many days when, if you didn’t actually have blood running down you when you got the suit off, you had bruises all over your body.

A nighttime view of launchpad 39A shows the Apollo 9 Saturn V rocket and capsule ready for countdown during preparations for the 10-day mission. NASA

Q: When the mission approached, what was it like to ready yourself and then launch in a Saturn V rocket?

A: Even several months before the spacecraft is at the pad, the whole spacecraft gets stacked and put together, and connected electrically. So, you begin doing some of the final testing on the vehicle itself when it’s stacked on the launchpad. Now, you’re no longer in the Rockwell factory or the Grumman factory, the factory floor and people walking all around. You’re now on the launchpad, on top of that big Saturn V, 360-some feet in the air, and the gantry all around.

You take a break for lunch, and all of the guys in the control room have taken a break for lunch, and you’ve got a brown bag there with your sandwiches and your drink. Regularly, along with everybody on a crew, you would walk out along the steel structure of the gantry up at that 360-foot level and sit out dangling your legs over the ocean, looking out over the ocean, the highest thing in Florida, in more ways than one, probably. Those kinds of moments are the things that are so personal and stay with you. They’re just wonderful moments.

The celebrated Günter Wendt was one of the old Peenemünde guys. He had sort of average height but was a very thin guy. He had a wonderful German accent, you know. He had this terrific sense of humor. He knew all of the guys very personally. He was the guy who put every astronaut in the spacecraft, from Mercury through Gemini and well into, if not all the way through, Apollo. He literally was your friend in terms of the last guy who patted you on the shoulder, and gave you a thumbs-up and said, “Go vor it!” in a German accent.

Then you get strapped in, and it gets serious. Let me tell you another interesting and very personal part of it. One of the things, of course, when you get strapped into the spacecraft and ready to launch, is that something might go wrong, and you’ve got the world’s biggest firecracker 300 feet under you. If there’s a problem, you need to get your butts out of there fast and get over to the slidewires and into the little dolly, and jump in and cut it loose, and slide to safety, right? That’s a big deal.

Yet, when you’re lying there side by side, ready to launch in Apollo, and especially with the slight amount of pressure in the suit — they’re not fully pressurized, but they’re pretty bulky and a little bit of overpressure — you can’t lay side by side with your arms down at your side. It’s not wide enough. So, with Dave sitting in the middle and McDivitt on the left and me on the right, either Dave’s arm was over mine or mine was over his, and the same with Jim on the other side. So, you had to take turns with whose arm was going to be on top, especially if you were strapped in tight because you couldn’t shift sideways as you could during training.

So, Günter tightened us in. Of course, the last thing Günter does is put an extra pull on the straps to tighten you in before he pats you on the shoulder and says goodbye. Then he closed the hatch. Dave and I waited until the hatch was closed, and then we both reached up, and we loosened our shoulder straps a little bit. We did that, of course, because in an emergency it would make a real difference.

The Mission Operations Control Room — in Building 30 of what came to be called the Johnson Space Center in Houston — was a beehive of activity during Apollo 9. NASA

Then we launched that way. No big deal — we weren’t thinking anything about it. We get up to the end of first-stage burn. Of course, picture yourself doing that two and a half minutes or so into flight, the first stage is going to burn out. You started out at 1.1g or something like that at liftoff, but burning 6 million pounds of fuel. By the time you’re up there, you’re at 6.5g.

If you’ve got those five big engines at the bottom end of this now-hollow tin can pushing up with 7.5 million pounds of force, that tin can is compressed. When those five engines shut off suddenly, that tin can expands. It gets something like 6 inches longer, quickly. When it did that, it kicked us in the back. Dave Scott and I went flying toward the instrument panel, and both of us stopped with our helmets and visors about an inch away from it.

We looked at each other and it was like, “Whoa man, was that close!” So, that was one of the things we briefed the next crew on before their launch. Don’t loosen your shoulder straps, buddies.

The astronauts imaged a huge cyclonic storm system some 1,200 miles north of Hawaii. NASA

Q: And then what do you feel as you move skyward?

A: Very slowly, you go up, and after 10 seconds or so, you’re past the top of the gantry. Now you’re 300 feet above the ground right there. That blastoff sound has to go down 300 feet and then back up 300 feet because the sound you’re hearing is not coming up through the structure, it’s coming through the air. Very, very rapidly, after 10, 15, 20 seconds, you can no longer hear the engines.

You can still feel them. What do you really feel? You’ve been in a train and probably in a sleeper in a train. You’re going down the tracks fairly fast and occasionally you get this sideways motion as the tracks aren’t exactly lined up. It’s a very solid and somewhat even gentle, rounded kind of sideways acceleration.

With those engines going back and forth, it’s like balancing a broomstick on your finger: You’re moving your finger back and forth, left and right, in and out, to keep the broomstick straight up. Those engines are doing exactly that with you. So, you’re feeling this almost like a train, this very solid, sideways, small oscillations and things.

Q: Apollo 9 was critical in docking and redocking the LM with the command module. Did you have a lot of confidence in performing the docking maneuvers that were required for the mission?

A: Yeah. There’s a little bit of yes and no, but for the most part yes, in the sense of the simulators were pretty good. If you’re looking at it from the standpoint of the command module docking with the lunar module, you’re sitting there like you’re in a chair, and you’ve got a controller on each side, a very controllable spacecraft. You’re moving in and lying face up. It’s like pulling into your garage with your car. Easier in some ways, almost. It’s not just right and left, but it’s up and down, so there’s a little bit of that; you’re adding a dimension to it. But it’s pretty damn straightforward.

Left: In Earth orbit, the LM Spider appears to remain attached to the Saturn V third stage, as photographed from the command/service module March 3, 1969. Right: Spider hovers above Earth in lunar landing configuration. NASA

The thing which was the most attention-getting in terms of the docking and transferring between the two vehicles was the fact that you are going through a tunnel. Unlike the docking mechanism that exists now and has existed ever since Apollo, where the docking mechanism is on the periphery of the cylindrical tunnel, in the command module in the Apollo program, the docking mechanism was in the middle of the tunnel. It was a probe which was a Rube Goldberg device cube sitting in the middle of the command module tunnel, and you stuck the tip of that probe into a funnel, which was the drogue, which was mounted at the top of the tunnel in the lunar module.

So when McDivitt and I went 100 miles away from the command module to test all the engines and the rendezvous procedure that would be used coming up off the Moon, the big question was, “OK, when we get back, are we going to be able to get through the tunnel?” You not only had to dock, but you had to get all that crap out of the middle of the tunnel if you were going to get back to your heat shield.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your spacewalk, and what it was like psychologically to be out there? You had the first self-contained life support system with your suit. What was it like floating? What was it like looking down on Earth?

A: That was the lowest and the highest point in my life. I barfed on the third day of the mission, which was the first day we got in the lunar module. I was the lunar module pilot, and I had to test the lunar module. We thought seriously that we may have to cancel the mission — not just that it was uncomfortable, but we talked very seriously about canceling the mission. We did cancel the extravehicular activity, the spacewalk, and it was a very serious question, whether if we had to cancel the mission because yours truly was sick. We were going to miss John Kennedy’s commitment to go to the Moon and return a man by the end of the decade.

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Rusty Schweickart remembers Apollo 9 (2)

Schweickart holds a thermal sample retrieved from the LM’s exterior during his spacewalk on March 6, 1969. He is wearing a backpack that enables him to fly freely in space, held by a tether. NASA

Now, let me tell you, a little guy named Rusty Schweickart feeling damned ill and having that hang over your head as you’re trying to go to sleep the night before the scheduled EVA that you’ve already canceled is one hell of a low time in your life.

So, as we were coming up to that point in the checklist, McDivitt looks at me and says, “You seem to be feeling a lot better.” I said, “Yeah, I am.” We’re out of touch with the ground. He said, “What do you think?”

We’re really good friends, and our lives depend on one another. On an EVA, if you’re going to barf, it equals death. Because if you think about it, if you barf and you’re locked in a suit in a vacuum, you can’t get your hands up to your mouth, you can’t get that sticky stuff away from you, so you choke to death. You don’t fool with it.

I looked at Jim and Jim looked at me, and he said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think it’s OK.” He knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t playing a game. He looked at me and he said, “OK, we’re going.” We came up over the ground station, and Jim called Houston and said, “Houston, we’re going to go ahead with the EVA.”

Now, if you take the 12 hours preceding that EVA, you can pretty easily picture going from the low point in your life to the high point in your life. That’s a pretty personal thing.

The EVA itself, great. Incredible. Everything worked fine, except Dave Scott’s camera, but I had five minutes because Dave had to try and fix the movie camera, which he never got fixed. So you will see two seconds of movies of Schweickart on his EVA. It was supposed to be 35 or 40 minutes of movies, but the movie camera jammed, and Dave never could get it working.

Schweickart (left) and McDivitt appear during a live television broadcast March 6, 1969, from inside the Spider. NASA

Q: How about the end of the mission? How did it resolve, and what are your memories of reentry and splashdown?

A: After four days, the checkout day, the EVA day, and then the rendezvous day, when Jim and I separated and then came back in for rendezvous and docking, after that was over, we checked the ascent stage of the lunar module off the nose. The last five days of the mission, I guess, or four days of the mission, were really all Dave Scott in the command module because the lunar module was gone. So, I was playing tour guide in the right seat. Dave was doing most of the work for the last four days.

That was nice because it was a chance to really look at Earth and appreciate Earth. Up until that time, I was busier than a one-armed paper hanger. But that was a nice time. To add a little personal story in it, about the ninth day of the 10-day mission, you get thinking about going home, and you get thinking about a shower.

It’s like a camping trip up there. That’s the closest analogy in those days when, of course, you didn’t have a space station and all of the amenities. It was a camping trip. It was the same clothes on the whole damn time, right? You were really ready for a shower. So, you couldn’t help about the ninth day thinking about whoa, is that going to feel good.

The Apollo 9 command module descends into the Atlantic Ocean, ready for a soft landing and retrieval by the U.S. Navy on March 13, 1969. NASA

Of course, right behind that, or maybe even a notch ahead of it, is food because you had been eating a lot worse than camping food. I don’t know who did it first, but I’m just going to say Dave did it. About the ninth day, we’re somewhere between ground stations and doing some kind of a test. Dave says, “Pepperoni pizza!” We all go, “Ah, pepperoni pizza!” I mean, it was agony. Then another two hours, and somebody would say, “Fresh lobster!” Finally, somebody said, “Chocolate cake!” and I guess we must have done that over a ground station because Houston heard it and they said, “What was that?” So, we’re all laughing about it.

As we’re ready to come in for landing, coming up to the de-orbit burn, Houston said, “Well, you guys, happy landing. When you get on the carrier, we hope you enjoy the 200-pound chocolate cake they’ve prepared for you.”

After we splashed down, they wheeled out a 200-pound chocolate cake on the ship. This 200-pound chocolate cake tastes like chalk. It was so dry, it was almost astringent. We’re looking at each other thinking, oh God, can we pull this off? We go to the microphone, we said, “Oh man, is that delicious!” It was one of the toughest things that we did. Oh God, it was terrible.

OK, back to the descent. You’re coming down and you do the retro burn. You do the burn with the service module. You jettison the service module. You turn around the command module, check everything out. It’s a whole new spacecraft now. You’ve been using the service module this whole time, by the way, and all of a sudden, your life is dependent on this almost new spacecraft working right. So, it’s really kind of a conceptual shock at the end of the flight.

At any rate, everything is working fine. You’re heading down toward the atmosphere, a very shallow angle. What happens first is the heat pulse. The heat pulse comes before the deceleration. Most people don’t know that, but that’s the case.

The Apollo 9 astronauts salute as they greet a crowd of media, Navy, and NASA personnel. From left are Schweickart, Scott, and McDivitt. NASA

The first thing you’re noticing is you’re going backward and upside down, by the way. You’re looking back on where you came from, and what you begin to see is that the air is glowing. It’s glowing because your heat shield is beginning to vaporize, and it gets ionized, and it is streaming behind you in a tube. You’re literally going upside down and backward at 17,000 mph in a neon tube. It’s getting brighter and brighter and brighter. To complicate it and make it even more dramatic, you’re seeing pieces of the heat shield flake off and go back like a burning mask. Small mask, but a mask.

Yeah. You’re seeing this thing. Then, you’re rolling clockwise and counterclockwise in order to orient your lift vector to the left and to the right of the ground track to land next to the carrier. So, you’re literally corkscrewing down into the atmosphere in this neon tube of bright yellows and oranges and reds and flashing light, watching your heat shield burn off. It’s pretty dramatic.

Then, that closes off or gets a little bit dull, and then you can begin to feel the G forces going up. Wow, that is pretty impressive after 10 days in weightlessness. Unlike the shuttle, we’re lying there on our backs. So, it’s relatively comfortable in that sense because it’s eyeballs in, not eyeballs down.

But I can remember feeling the Gs build up, and I kind of glance over at Jim without turning my head too much. I grunt into the microphone because the G meter is in front of McDivitt. I said, “Hey Jim, how many Gs we got now?” Jim looks up at the G meter and he says, “0.1.” I was like, what? 0.1, and we’re going to go up to 4.5 or 5?

You go through the high G period, and then you’re just falling through the sky. Then the drogue chutes come out, and it’s like you’ve got your fingers crossed. OK, did the drogue chutes pop out? Boom!

All of these things toward the end are triggered by explosive bolts and chargers, mortars that blow the drogue chutes out. Then, more explosive bolts cut the lines so that the main chutes can come out. Then, they’re reefed and the explosive bolts, the electric explosive things, cut the lines so that they de-reef. All these things are failure modes, right? They’re failure points.

So, here we are after 10 days of everything going right, and you’re looking for that shower and that chocolate cake. One or two more explosions have to happen, and everything has to work right. One at a time, they work right, and it’s like wow, man. Bang! Then, you’re in the ocean. So, a pretty exciting time.

It was a truly amazing journey, and we helped to pave the way for the great mission to come, a few months later, that would land Neil and Buzz on the Moon’s surface.


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