Today is the 50th anniversary (50 years and one day for those of us on this side of the dateline) of the Apollo 9 mission and it’s probably the one that will have almost no fanfare, which is a shame because it was absolutely critical to the success of Apollo 11. The mission achieved a number of firsts in the Apollo programme, including the first test of the Lunar Module (LM) in space, the first independent life support system on a space suit test and the first flight of the Command Service Module (CSM). It was a complex mission conducted in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) over a ten day period that started on the 3 March 1969. A few months ago we wrote an article on the Apollo 8 mission that was also ground breaking as it was the first time humans orbited the Moon. Apollo 9, though it didn’t test the transit to the Moon, it did test the complex docking and and other flight manoeuvres required for the actual Moon landing.
The crew was commanded by James McDivitt, who was a serving United States Air Force officer at the time of the Apollo missions. He had seen service in the Korean War and flew 145 combat mission. He joined the space programme in 1962 as part of the Astronaut Group 2 cohort. McDivitt took part in the Gemini programme and retired from the USAF in 1972 in the rank of Brigadier-General (Air Commodore equivalent). One of his crew members was another USAF officer, David Scott, who later went on to command Apollo 15 and became the seventh person to walk on the Moon. Scott flew into space for the first time on Gemini 8 with Neil Armstrong as his crew mate. For Apollo 9 he was the Command Service Module pilot. He retired from the USAF in 1977 in the rank of Colonel (Group Captain equivalent). The Lunar Module pilot was Russell (Rusty) Schweickart. Unlike McDivitt and Scott he was not a serving USAF officer at the time of Apollo 9 but had spent 7 years flying jet aircraft with the USAF and Air National Guard prior to joining NASA and being selected for Astronaut Group 3. Apollo 9 was the only spaceflight for Schweickart who went on to be on the backup crews for Apollo and later Skylab missions.
The Apollo 9 mission was the first test of the entire assembly that would eventually go to the Moon in Apollo 11. This included the Saturn V rocket used successfully for the Apollo 8 mission. The rest of the assembly included the Command Service Module and the Lunar Module. Spider was the name given to the LM and Gumdrop was the name given to the CSM. One of the test flights included flying the LM nearly 180km from the CSM before turning around and returning for a docking manoeuvre. This was the first time that a spacecraft, that wasn’t intended to return to the Earth’s surface, was crewed. This was also the first mission where the spacesuit was tested that would be used by astronauts on the Moon. This required a suit that operated independently of the spacecraft so the crew could do extended operations. This meant the spacesuit had to have all of the life-support for the astronaut contained in the suit.
The mission was a complete success and paved the way for the Apollo 10 and 11 missions. Well done Apollo 9 crew and all of the thousands of people who supported the mission!