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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

From Fights to Fred Flintstone: 10 Fun Facts About Apollo 7

Today, October 11, 2023, we celebrate the 55th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 7, the first manned flight of the Apollo program. Apollo 7 tested the command/service module (CSM) in Earth orbit and Apollo mission support ground facilities' performance during manned missions. The mission's commander was Wally Schirra, veteran of Mercury-Atlas 8 and Gemini 6A. The command module pilot was Donn Eisele, a rookie from the third group of astronauts. Walt Cunningham, also from the third class, was designated the lunar module pilot despite the mission not having a lunar module. Let's look at ten interesting facts about Apollo 7!

Apollo 7 astronauts in spacesuits

CMP Eisele, CDR Schirra, and LMP Cunningham with their spacecraft in the White Room (NASA)

1. Order of the Phoenix

The story of Apollo 7 began in 1966 with the announcement of the crews of Apollo 1 and Apollo 2, or AS-204 and AS-205, as they were known at the time. Donn Eisele was originally assigned to Apollo 1 with Gus Grissom and Ed White, but a shoulder injury caused him to be replaced by Roger Chaffee and reassigned to Schirra's Apollo 2 crew. In November, the Apollo 2 mission was cancelled and the crew was reassigned as backup to Apollo 1. Following the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, Schirra, Eisele, and Cunningham were named the prime crew of Apollo 7 [1].

Apollo 7 originally planned to use the Block I Apollo spacecraft designed for the program's early Earth-orbital missions. However, the Apollo 204 Review Board, which investigated the Apollo 1 disaster, recommended the use of the Block II for all future manned missions. The Block II was originally purposed for manned lunar missions, but the numerous shortcomings of the Block I made it too dangerous for crewed flight. The existing Block II underwent 1,300 changes in preparation for Apollo 7. The Apollo 7 spacecraft's unofficial callsign was Phoenix, as the mission "rose from the ashes" of Apollo 1. This name was chosen by Schirra, who was close friends with Grissom, but NASA felt the reference was in poor taste. In fact, no American manned spacecraft had been given a callsign since Grissom's Gemini 3 Molly Brown in 1965, and the first Apollo mission to have named spacecraft would be Apollo 9 in 1969.

AS-205 crew in training before becoming Apollo 7

The crew of AS-205 wearing Apollo A1-C suits at the North American Aviation plant

(NASA/Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)

2. Patch Me Through

Apollo 7's mission patch was designed by Allen Stevens of North American Aviation with input from the crew. His original design followed the crew's request of including a Phoenix, the mythological bird said to rise anew from the ashes of its former self, but after NASA refused any reference to the creature in connection with Apollo 1, the design was drastically changed. The flown patch highlights the Earth-orbital nature of the mission by depicting the firing of the CSM's service propulsion engine, a crucial mission objective. The mission number is displayed in Roman numerals, a common design choice for older Gemini mission patches. The original patch has a black background, while reproductions tend to have either blue or purple backgrounds.

Stevens' original patch design was in the shape of an Apollo capsule with a large red, orange, and white phoenix in the center. On the physical patch, which was produced along with some of Stevens' other designs for the Apollo program's 40th anniversary, the head and beak of the phoenix resemble the Apollo command module and launch escape system. Each point is accentuated with a silver star. The crews' names and Roman numeral VII are also included.

The official Apollo 7 mission patch versus an early concept

(NASA / Allen Stevens/Tim Gagnon via Aeryn Avilla)

3. Cape Crusaders

Apollo 7 was the only manned launch from Launch Complex 34, and as of 2023, the last crewed launch from Cape Canaveral, which at the time was called Cape Kennedy in honor of the late President John F. Kennedy. The Air Force Station was too small to support Saturn V launches, resulting in the establishment of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). Every crewed launch from Florida since Apollo 8 in December 1968 has taken place from either LC-39A or LC-39B. Launch Complex 34 was mothballed in 1971 and only the launch platform remains, the service structure and umbilical tower having been scrapped the following year. It currently serves as a memorial to the Apollo 1 crew and their sacrifice.

Crew of Apollo 7 at Launch Complex 34

Crew of Apollo 7 at LC-34 (NASA)

4. Cluster's Last Stand

Apollo 7 was the first manned launch of the Saturn IB rocket, which would have been used to launch Apollo 1 and was later used by Skylab 2, Skylab 3, Skylab 4, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The Saturn IB was an upgraded version of the Saturn I rocket, the predecessor to the Saturn V. In 1957, the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency began developing the Saturn family of rockets using technology developed during the Jupiter and Redstone missile programs. The S-I first stage was a cluster of small tanks, earning it the nickname "Cluster's Last Stand," a play on the iconic "Custer's Last Stand", or the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. Two Saturn IB's launched from LC-34 prior to Apollo 7 while two others lifted off from Launch Complex 37. The crewed Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz launches took place from KSC's LC-39B.

Apollo 7 launch from Launch Complex 34

Apollo 7 launch from LC-34, October 11, 1968 (NASA)

5. Hello, Wally!

Commander Wally Schirra became the oldest person to fly in space at the age of 45, a record broken by 47-year-old Alan Shepard, fellow Mercury astronaut and the first American in space, during Apollo 14 in 1971 [2]. He also was the first person to make three spaceflights on three different launch vehicles— the Mercury Atlas, the Gemini Titan Launch Vehicle (GTLV), and the Apollo Saturn IB— an exclusive club still to this day. Other astronauts of the era who are members of this "club" are Pete Conrad (GTLV, Saturn V, and Saturn IB), Tom Stafford (GTLV, Saturn V, and Saturn IB), and John Young (GTLV, Saturn V, and the Space Shuttle). Numerous current astronauts have launched on the Space Shuttle, Soyuz, and SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicles.

Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra

Wally Schirra in front of replica Apollo spacecraft (NASA)

6. Conquering Space

About 15 hours into the flight, Schirra developed a bad head cold. In a weightless environment, mucus does not drain from the head naturally as it does on Earth. Relief was only found in blowing his nose hard, which is painful, and in aspirin and decongestants. Cunningham and Eisele also became sick, understandably so due to the confined living space of the Apollo capsule. A few days before the crew was scheduled to return to Earth, they began to wonder how they would clear their heads while wearing their reentry suit helmets, as well as if the buildup of pressure would burst their eardrums. Deke Slayton, the Director of Flight Crew Operations and one of Schirra's Mercury Seven brothers, tried to persuade the crew to wear their helmets for safety reasons. Schirra insisted otherwise. The commander got his way and the crew returned home just fine.

The medication prescribed by the flight surgeons was called Actifed, a combination of antihistamine and decongestant. When the drug became available over the counter, the makers hired Schirra as a television commercial spokesman for the product. Each of these commercials, which I have compiled into a YouTube playlist, featured references to spaceflight and even other astronauts, including Apollo 7's Donn Eisele. Actifed was included in every Apollo mission's standard medical kit and was also used during Apollo 12.

Schirra and Eisele's Actifed commercial from 1986 (YouTube)

7. Yabbadabbadoo!

A key objective of Apollo 7 was testing the service propulsion engine (SPS) located at the base of the Apollo service module. On Earth orbital flights, the SPS was used to slow the spacecraft down for service module jettison and reentry. On future lunar missions, the SPS would be fired to insert the spacecraft into lunar orbit and, most importantly, place it on a trajectory back to Earth. On the second day of the flight, the SPS was fired for the first time. According to Schirra, the 20,500 pounds (9298 kilograms) of thrust was a "real kick", earning the exclamation "Yabbadabbadoo!" The Hanna-Barbera character Fred Flintstone, already a staple of popular culture, is now immortalized in America's journey to the moon.

Woman stands next to Aerojet AJ10-137 engine with nozzle

Woman stands next to Aerojet AJ10-137 engine with nozzle (NASA)

8. The Wally, Walt, and Donn Show

Apollo 7 performed the first live television broadcast from an American spacecraft on October 14, the fourth day of the flight. It opened with a view of a card reading, "From the Lovely Apollo Room high atop everything," a callback to radio broadcasts of the 1930s. Cunningham operated the camera while Eisele served as the emcee, showing audiences back home the inside of their spacecraft and views of the southern United States. At the end, Schirra held up a sign that read, "Keep those cards and letters coming in folks", a tagline used on The Dean Martin Show. Each daily broadcast, referred to as "the Wally, Walt, and Donn Show", was about ten minutes in length and continued to educate the American people on how NASA was using their hard-earned tax dollars. The crew was later awarded a special Emmy, which was accepted on their behalf by the crew of Apollo 10 in 1969.

Apollo 7 live TV broadcast

"Keep those cards and letters coming in folks" (NASA)

9. Mutiny on the Bounty

Schirra's head cold and the crew's lack of sleep created tension between the trio of astronauts and Mission Control. They believed the mission's technical goals— namely rendezvous and SMS tests— took precedence over television broadcasts and science objectives. Furthermore, they did not appreciate the addition of other tasks to their already-full schedule. On day 8, a new procedure from Houston caused the onboard computer to freeze, frustrating the crew to no end. The final straw was when the crew was ordered to wear their helmets during reentry (which, as we know, did not go over well). Though it is the commander's prerogative to do what is best for his crew, it was highly unusual at the time for such intense disagreements between astronauts in space and ground control.

Saturn V S-IVB stage in Earth orbit

The empty S-IVB stage used as a rendezvous target (NASA)

10. Live From Houston, Texas

On November 3, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the crew with Exceptional Service Medals for their success in returning America to space. Three days later on November 6, they appeared on The Bob Hope Show filmed in the auditorium of the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center) with Paul Haney, the center's Director of Public Affairs and the "Voice of Mission Control". Also featured was actress Barbara Eden, star of the television series I Dream of Jeannie, a show about astronauts that took place in Cocoa Beach, "a mythical town in a mythical state called Florida." a

Apollo 7 crew with Bob Hope and Barbara Eden

Haney, Schirra, Cunningham, Eisele, Hope, and Eden at MSC (NASA)

Apollo 7 was the first manned mission of the Apollo program and was highly successful, testing the command/service module in Earth orbit. The mission also helped restore the public's faith in their country's manned space program before the most daring mission to date, Apollo 8.

Author's note: Thanks for reading and be sure to like and share this post!


[1] AS-204 was posthumously renamed to Apollo 1, and unmanned Apollo test flights resumed with Apollo 4, Apollo 5, and Apollo 6.

[2] The oldest person, as of October 2023, is William Shatner (aka Captain Kirk) who flew on Blue Origin NS-18 in 2021 at age 90.



Intellectual Properties that I don't own

  • The Flintstones — Hanna-Barbera, now Warner Bros.

  • Hello, Dolly! — Michael Stewart, based on Thorton Wilder's The Merchant of Yonkers

  • The Order of the Phoenix — J.K. Rowling

a — from the opening narration of the first few episodes of I Dream of Jeannie

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