50th Anniversary of the first flight of the Lunar Module

March 3, 2019

President John F. Kennedy on 24 May 24 1961 set a goal for the United States to send men to the Moon and return them safely to Earth by the end of the decade. It was a bold decision because the United States at that time did not have the rockets or spacecraft to accomplish the goal and has a total of 15 minutes of space experience with Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight earlier that month.

The focus of NASA management in early 1969 was to complete the construction and testing of the first Lunar Module, the spider-like craft that was to actually land men on the Moon. But delays with Lunar Module development meant that President Kennedy’s goal of landing before the end of the decade was becoming increasingly doubtful.

A successful test of the Lunar Module in Earth’s orbit was essential if that goal were to be met. March 2019 marks the 50th Anniversary of that crucial test.

Apollo 9, scheduled to be launched in March 1969, was to be the first complete Apollo/Saturn mission, with a Saturn V rocket, Apollo Command and Service Modules (CSM), and, for the first time, a manned Lunar Module. (There had been two previous flights of unmanned Lunar Modules.)

The crew, which had been training together since 1966 as backups to the ill-fated Apollo 1 crew, consisted of veteran commander Jim McDivitt, Command Module pilot Dave Scott and rookie Lunar Module pilot Rusty Schweickart.

Apollo 9 was finally launched into Earth orbit on 3 March 1969, and the crew tested the Lunar Module’s systems and successfully manoeuvred it. The Lunar Module had the radio call sign ‘Spider’ for this mission. McDivitt and Schweickart fired both the descent and ascent engines of the Lunar Module, flying a round trip of 110 miles to and from the CSM, which had the radio call sign ‘Gumdrop’ because of its shape.

This mimicked the lunar landing, using the descent engine to fly away from the CSM, jettisoning the descent stage, and flying back to the CSM using the ascent stage engine

Schweickart was scheduled to perform an extensive spacewalk and test the new spacesuit that was due to be worn by the astronauts on the Moon, but he developed ‘space sickness’. Soon after launch, he was overcome by dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Schweickart was a victim of what we now know as ‘space adaptation syndrome’ (SAS), caused by a delay in adaptation of the inner ear’s vestibular apparatus to microgravity. It affects about half of astronauts, but in 10%, such as Schweickart, it is more severe, and in fact he never flew again.

The success of Apollo 9 in 1969 paved the way for NASA to try to reach the Moon with only 9 months to go until the end of the decade.

About the Author

David Chudwin MD is the author of I Was a Teenage Space Reporter: From Apollo 11 to Our Future in Space to be released by LID Publishing 2 April in the US and a month later in the UK.

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