How the common cold caused problems for Apollo 7

Technically, Apollo 7 was an almost complete success. It achieved all of its objectives with no real issues with the hardware to speak of.

When it comes to the crew, though, things are slightly less clean cut.

Commander of the mission was Wally Schirra. The only astronaut to fly in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, he was known for having an extreme eye for detail and for not tolerating deviations from the flight plans he was tasked with executing. Flying alongside him were two rookies: Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele.

Apollo 7 launched into Earth’s orbit on 11 October 1968. It was NASA’s first flight since the Apollo 1 fire of January 1967, with the crew tasked with proving that the command module (which had been completely redesigned in the wake of the fire) could function in space for as long as a journey to the Moon and back would take.

L-R: Walt Cunningham, Donn Eisele and Wally Schirra | Credit: NASA

Everything went smoothly for the first 15 or so hours. That was until Schirra came down with a very bad cold, one that he soon passed on to Eisele.

With no gravity to help clear their sinuses, they were left very miserable with stuffy noses and a lot of congestion and became increasingly snappy with Mission Control.

It first came to a head when they were scheduled to make the first ever live television broadcast from space. Schirra took a lot of convincing. As had become his trademark over the years, he did not want anything incurring on his flight plan that was not essential to its success. He most likely would have been against the TV broadcast even under normal circumstances, and his cold only made things worse.

“We have a new vehicle up here,” Schirra told Mission Control firmly, “and I can tell you at this point [the] TV will be delayed without any further discussion until after the rendezvous.”

Despite Mission Control pressing him, Schirra was having none of it. “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. I refuse to foul up our timelines this way.”

Although he did eventually relent and conduct the broadcast, things continued to deteriorate.

The astronauts became increasingly snippy with Mission Control as their colds worsened, not helped by the fact that they were now running short of medication and tissues.

Donn Eisele (on the left) is joined by Wally Schirra, who holds up a sign to the TV camera that reads ‘keep those cards and letters coming in folks’ | Credit: NASA

On the eleventh and final day of the mission, it came time for Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham to prepare for re-entry. Mission rules dictated that they wore their helmets, a rule implemented for two reasons. The first was to protect them if there was a breach of the command module’s hull and a sudden loss of pressure. The second was to stop them hitting their heads when they deployed the parachutes or splashed down.

During the Gemini 3 mission of 1965, Gus Grissom had cracked the visor of his helmet when the force of the parachutes opening slammed it against the instrument panel in front of him.

Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham, however, wanted to be able to pinch their noses and blow to relieve the pressure in their ears. Schirra’s fear was that because they wouldn’t be able to do that if they had their helmets on, the changing pressure during re-entry mixed with their colds would put them at risk of bursting their eardrums.

Despite being pressed by Mission Control, and being reminded about the Gemini 3 incident, the trio refused to put on their helmets.

Even Deke Slayton got involved at this point. Slayton was one of Schirra’s close friends and, as Director of Flight Crew Operations, was effectively his boss. One of the hard and fast rules of Mission Control was that only the CapCom was able to talk directly to the astronauts in space, but for a brief and almost unprecedented moment Slayton took over the console.

Deke Slayton (standing) talks to Eisele, Schirra and Cunningham a month before the mission | Credit: NASA

He appealed directly to Schirra. “I think you ought to clearly understand there is absolutely no experience at all with landing without the helmet on.”

“If we had an open visor, I might go along with that,” Schirra replied. Unlike the helmets worn during Projects Mercury and Gemini, the Apollo helmets were ‘fishbowl’ designs that lacked a moveable visor.

“I guess you better be prepared to discuss in some detail when we land why we haven’t got them on,” Slayton said. “I think you’re too late now to do much about it.”

The pair went back and forth for a few more moments, before Slayton signed off with one last warning. “It’s your neck, and I hope you don’t break it.”

“Thank-you, babe,” Schirra deadpanned.

Thankfully, Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham splashed down no worse for wear, and were recovered aboard the aircraft carrier USS Essex.

The crew of Apollo 7 onboard the USS Essex | Credit: NASA

Despite the crew suffering no adverse effects from their helmet-less re-entry, NASA management was still extremely unhappy. Schirra was spared the worst of their fury because he had already announced that Apollo 7 was his last spaceflight and that he would be retiring from the agency. Eisele and Cunningham, however, were not so lucky. Neither flew in space again.

As if to further rub salt in the wound, the trio were the only crew from the entirety of Projects Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, who were not awarded NASA’s Distinguished Service Medal immediately after their flight. They instead received the lesser Exceptional Service Medal.

It took some 40 years for NASA to reverse their decision. The crew of Apollo 7 were finally awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2008 in recognition of having achieved every single one of their mission objectives. By that point, however, only Walt Cunningham was still alive. Donn Eisele had passed away in 1987, and Wally Schirra in 2007.

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