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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

Three to Get Ready: 10 Fun Facts About Apollo 9

Updated: May 29

In March, we celebrated the 55th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 9, the third manned flight of the Apollo program. The mission tested the Lunar Module (LM) in low Earth orbit (LEO) and was the first flight of the full Apollo spacecraft. The mission's commander was Jim McDivitt, command pilot of Gemini 4 in 1965, the first American spacewalk. The command module pilot was David Scott, pilot of the near-disastrous Gemini 8 the following year. Rusty Schweickart, a rookie from the third class of astronauts, was the first true lunar module pilot. Here are ten interesting facts about Apollo 9!

The crew of Apollo 9

Commander McDivitt, CMP Scott, and LMP Schweickart (Smithsonian)

1. Wild Blue Yonder

Apollo 9 was the first crew in which all members belonged to the same military branch, in this case the U.S. Air Force [1]. McDivitt served in the Korean War and as a chase pilot for the X-15 program before retiring as a Brigadier General in 1972. After serving in the Netherlands for a few years, Scott received orders to report to the relatively new U.S. Air Force Academy as a professor rather than to test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base. He later challenged these orders and was sent to Edwards after all. Schweickart was an F-86 pilot in the 101st Tactical Fighter Squadron, Massachusetts Air National Guard, becoming the first astronaut to serve in the Air Guard.

The crew's backup, the prime crew of Apollo 12, were the first all-Navy crew. In return, Apollo 12's backup, the prime crew of Apollo 15 (commanded by Scott), were all Air Force. It's an interesting coincidence these crews were related to each other.

Rusty Schweickart in the Air National Guard

Schweickart while in the Air National Guard (Air National Guard)

2. Patch Me Through

Apollo 9's mission patch was designed by Allen Stevens of North American Rockwell and is the third of his patch designs to be selected by a crew [2]. The design depicts the Command/Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module "station-keeping", or orbital formation flying sometimes used to inspect the condition and performance of spacecraft from outside. The mottled blue background and yellow ellipse represents the Earth orbital nature of the mission. A Roman numeral "IX" (9) is at the bottom. Roman numerals were used in Gemini and Apollo insignia until Apollo 14 and not including Apollo 8. The font used on the patch is Eurostile Extended.

The "D" in McDivitt's name is filled in red, a subtle allusion to the mission's letter designation. Each Apollo mission (beginning with Apollo 4) was assigned a letter, "A" through "J", to test major mission elements in preparation for a manned lunar landing and more complex follow-up missions. Apollo 9 was the "D" mission before the "G" first moon landing. "D" was specifically a manned flight of the LM in LEO to qualify the new spacecraft's equipment and perform the maneuvers that would be involved in lunar flights.

Steven's original design was rectangular and included the CSM/LM preparing to dock as well as the American flag in the background. This emblem was produced into a physical patch along with some of Stevens' other designs for the Apollo program's 40th anniversary.

Stevens' original insignia design and Apollo 9's official emblem (Allen Stevens/Tim Gagnon / NASA)

3. Gumdrop & Spider

Apollo 9 was the first manned American mission to use callsigns for its spacecraft since Gemini 3 in 1965 [3]. It was the first time two spacecraft belonging to the same mission would fly together in space, so a way to distinguish the two was needed [4]. The names Gumdrop and Spider were chosen for a very simple reason— resemblance. The conical command module, while wrapped in blue protective covering during transportation, looked like a gumdrop. The lunar module with its spindly landing legs deployed looked like a spider. While not as symbolic as Columbia, Yankee Clipper, or Orion, they got the job done. This resurrected the old military practice of naming vehicles at NASA, a tradition in the agency dating back to Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 in 1961. NASA and its commercial partners SpaceX and Boeing continue to name their spacecraft.

Apollo 9 command module Gumdrop in blue protective wrapping

Gumdrop in its blue protective wrapping (NASA)

4. The Sony that Broke the Sound Barrier

Apollo 9 was the first mission to carry mixtapes into space in the form of early versions of the Sony Walkman portable cassette. While they were originally provided to astronauts to record personal observations while in orbit, this crew was the first to be allowed to bring mixtapes, one per person, to play during downtime. McDivitt and Scott brought easy listening and country music tapes while Schweickart, whose tape was missing for most of the flight, preferred classical. Other artists brought by later crews include Frank Sinatra, Glenn Campbell, and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. Playing music in space dates back to 1965 with the first wakeup calls during Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 [5].

Cassette voice recorder and tapes from Apollo 12

Apollo 12's cassette voice recorder and tapes (National Air and Space Museum)

5. Spacewalking

Day 4 saw the first two-person extravehicular activity (EVA) in history. Scott and Schweickart performed the spacewalk while McDivitt remained inside the LM, as was the duty of the mission commander. Scott floated partway outside Gumdrop and Schweickart used the gold-plated foot restraints (called the "golden slippers') to "stand" on Spider's front porch located outside the LM's side hatch. The pair filmed and photographed each other's activities during their 37 minute spacewalk and took thermal samples from the outside of both spacecraft. This was Schweickart's only EVA but the first of many for Scott, and was scheduled to occur during mission day 3 but was postponed due to Schweickart's space motion sickness.

Schweickart and Scott performing their EVA's (NASA)

6. Red Rover

Apollo 9's EVA was also the only spacewalk scheduled before the Apollo 11 lunar landing and therefore, the only opportunity to test the PLSS, or Portable Life Support System— the backpack. Since during this EVA Mission Control was communicating not with two distinct spacecraft but three individuals in three different locations— McDivitt in Spider, Scott in Gumdrop, and Schweickart outside of Spider— Schweickart adopted the callsign Red Rover due to his red hair. The PLSS provided Schweickart with oxygen while outside the spacecraft, a necessity for astronauts traversing the lunar surface (McDivitt's and Scott's life support was provided via umbilicals connected to their spacecraft). In addition to supplying oxygen, the PLSS also removed carbon dioxide, pressurized the spacesuit, and provided temperature and humidity control. These backpacks were worn by all twelve moonwalkers.

Schweickart wearing the PLSS

Schweickart wearing the large, rectangular-shaped PLSS backpack (NASA)

7. The Biggest, Friendliest, Funniest Looking Spider

The most critical objective of Apollo 9 was the success of the first manned test flight of the Lunar Module. Apollo 9 was only the second flight of the LM, the first being Apollo 5 in January 1968. On day 5, Spider drifted about 50 (15.24) feet away from Gumdrop and performed a slow roll (turning on its longitudinal axis) to allow Scott to photograph all sides of the spacecraft. After the LM's Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters backed Spider about three miles from Gumdrop, its Descent Propulsion System (DPS) engine fired and placed the spacecraft 50 miles (80.46 km) from the CSM. A second burn widened the gap to 100 miles (161 km). The DSP engine was designed to land the LM on the moon and was also tested during Apollo 9 to determine if it could serve as a backup engine to the CSM if the Service Propulsion System failed while the two were docked [6].

Since McDivitt and Schweickart were the first humans to fly in a spacecraft not meant to reenter Earth's atmosphere, docking with Gumdrop was literally a matter of life or death. The first step in the rendezvous back to Gumdrop was firing the RCS thrusters on the ascent stage while jettisoning the descent stage simultaneously. Two Ascent Propulsion System engine firings and two small course corrections later, Spider was only 100 feet (30.48 m) from Gumdrop. Spider performed a pitchover maneuver so Scott could photograph the spacecraft's bottom end and APS, which were obstructed from view by the descent stage prior to the excursion, calling it the "biggest, friendliest, funniest looking spider" he'd ever seen a. After nearly six and a half hours of flight, the Spider docked to Gumdrop successfully was was jettisoned a few hours later.

Spider's descent stage remained in orbit until March 22 and burned up while reentering over the Indian Ocean. Its ascent stage was placed into a highly elliptical orbit and circled the globe until October 1981 [7].

Apollo 9 lunar module

Spider over Earth (NASA)

8. Flight of the Pegasus

The crew of Apollo 9 also tracked the Pegasus 3 satellite while in orbit at a range of 1,000 nautical miles (1,609 km). The Pegasus satellites measured meteoroid abundance in Earth's orbit at altitudes the Apollo spacecraft would occupy. The satellites' namesake derives from their outstretched solar panels and sensors, which resembled wings. The 208 panels measured the direction, frequency, penetration, and size of micrometeoroid impacts b and these findings aided in the composition of the Apollo spacecraft's skin. Pegasus 3 launched atop a Saturn I rocket on July 30, 1965 but had been powered off since August 1968.

Artist's conception of the Pegasus satellite

Artist's concept of the Pegasus in orbit (NASA)

9. Splashdown!

On March 13, Apollo 9 returned to Earth and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, the last manned spacecraft to do so until the privately-funded SpaceX Inspiration4 in 2021. Every subsequent mission landed in the Pacific Ocean before expendable capsules were ditched in favor of the Space Shuttle orbiter [8]. The return trajectories for the subsequent lunar missions (and Apollo 8) targeted what the Naval recovery forces called the "Mid-Pacific Line", located at a longitude approximately 165 degrees west. Since the U.S. Pacific Fleet was headquartered in Hawaii, recovery forces were plentiful. Nowadays, SpaceX Dragon capsules frequently splash down in the Atlantic upon returning from the International Space Station.

Apollo 9 capsule splashdown

Gumdrop preparing to splash down in the Atlantic (NASA)

10. The Golden Guad: There When Needed

Apollo 9 was recovered by the USS Guadalcanal, an Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship commissioned in 1963. Nicknamed "the Golden Guad", she was the second ship to be named after the Battle of Guadalcanal, a major military campaign fought between Allied forces and the Empire of Japan during World War II. As part of the Amphibious Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, she carried out operations in southern Spain with NATO and in the Persian Gulf. Guadalcanal also retrieved the Gemini 10 astronauts and capsule in July 1966. She was decommissioned in 1994 and sunk as target practice in the Virginia cape area in 2005.

USS Guadalcanal patch

USS Guadalcanal Apollo 9 recovery patch (Popular Patch)

The Apollo 9 mission was a huge success and was depicted in the episode "Spider" of the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Now that it was proven the Lunar Module could operate in Earth orbit, it was time to send the little spacecraft to the moon. But it wouldn't land just yet...

Apollo 9 gag crew portrait

A gag crew portrait of Apollo 9 when they were still the backup of Apollo 1 (NASA/Tumblr)

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


[1] Unless you want to count Gemini 4 and Gemini 11, but three is more impressive than two.

[2] The other two were previous Apollo missions, Apollo 1 and Apollo 7.

[3] NASA forbade its astronauts from naming their spacecraft after Gus Grissom, command pilot of Gemini 3, named his spacecraft Molly Brown after the popular Broadway music (and real person) The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Apparently, that name was unprofessional. This did not discourage pilot John Young, though— his Apollo 10 capsule was named Charlie Brown while his Apollo 16 capsule was named Casper, both after popular cartoon characters.

[4] The first time two American spacecraft flew together was in December 1965 with Gemini 7 and Gemini 6A, but their callsigns were simply their mission numbers. The first dual spaceflight was that of the Soviet Vostok 3 and Vostok 4 in 1962, and both craft had unique callsigns.

[5] One of Gemini 7's songs was the overture to Lawrence of Arabia, the Best Picture winner of 1963 and one of my favorite movies.

[6] This is exactly what happened during Apollo 13 the following year.

[7] It's pretty cool both a Lunar Module and a Space Shuttle were orbiting Earth at the same time.

[8] SpaceX Demonstration Mission 2 and SpaceX Crew-1, the two missions that occurred between the end of the Shuttle program and Inspiration4 (as well as before SpaceX Crew-2's return to Earth), splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico.



Intellectual Properties I Don't Own

  • "Wild Blue Yonder" — Nickname for the official song of the U.S. Air Force

  • "The Sony that Broke the Sound Barrier" — a 1981 Sony Walkman advertisement

This post was written without the use of AI (sorry HAL).

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