When the first Space Shuttle, STS-1, launched on April 14, 1981 an Apollo spacecraft was still orbiting the earth.
"What!?" you may ask... well, here's the story.
At exactly 11:00:00 Eastern Standard time on March 3, 1969, Apollo 9 was launched from the Kennedy Space Center's Complex 39A. The goal for Apollo 9 was not the lunar surface... it was Earth orbit. The mission was to test the hardware that couldn't be tested on Earth, yet was critical to landing on the Moon. A number of questions had to be answered by this mission. Could the Lunar Module and all of its complex and delicate systems survive the boost of the Saturn V? Could the trasposition and docking maneuver actually be done without damaging the LEM? Would the Apollo pressure garment assembly, also known as the lunar space suit, and the portable life support system, known as the PLSS backpack actually function in space? How would the LEM's descent and ascent engines operate in the space environment? Would the new rendezvous radar function as designed? Plus a laundry list of other tests that needed to be done in the space environment. You can only simulate so much on Earth.
Launch of the mission was delayed three days because all three astronauts, Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart caught head colds. Considering that there had been a head cold on Apollo 7 and now three more on Apollo 9, NASA decided to put in place a pre-launch quarantine for all future crews. Once in orbit, however, LMP Rusty Schweickart was struck with what is now known as Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS). It is a totally unpredictable nausea whose onset cannot be forecast here on Earth. An astronaut can do all of the "vomit-comet" parabolas in training and never have a twinge, but be struck down with SAS once in orbit. Likewise someone can be prone to motion sickness on Earth, but never feel a twinge in space. Other astronauts could have flown in space before, like Al Bean on Apollo 12, and had no symptoms, yet fly again and be stricken- as Bean was on Skylab 3. At first, Rusty's critical EVA test of the Apollo lunar suit and PLSS backpack was scrubbed by commander McDivitt. But 24 hours later Schweickart's body had adapted to the space environment and he was feeling great, so McDivitt put the EVA back in the mission.
For 37 unforgettable minutes Schweickart went out on the LEM's porch and tested the Apollo lunar suit and backpack. Meanwhile Dave Scott did a stand-up EVA in the hatch of the CSM.
Although the planned live TV broadcast of the EVA never materialized, the whole event happened on my lunch break from school, so I got to sit in front of the family TV and watch a simulation of a space-suited Grumman engineer Scott Macleod suspended on wires. Still, it was cool enough to really inspire a 12-year-old kid like me, plus tens of thousands of others.
Following the EVA the astronauts prepared for the next day's historic accomplishment... test flying the LEM in space.
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At 89 hours into the mission the crew began the process of actually flying the lunar module. For 5 hours and 42 seconds the crew put the LEM, named SPIDER, through its paces.
That included jettisoning the descent stage and flying back to the command/service module, nammed GUMDROP, with the ascent stage.
Less than an hour after they had re-docked with GUMDROP, the crew set the SPIDER free and Mission Control's Booster Systems Engineer remotely commanded the vehicle's computer to fire the ascent engine. It was allowed to burn to propellant depletion. That burn put the SPIDER into a 235 nm X 6,970 nm elliptical orbit. Some said that the SPIDER would likely degrade its orbit and reenter the Earth's atmosphere in about 18 months. That was incorrect... the SPIDER actually fell into our atmosphere on October 23, 1981... six months into the Space Shuttle era.
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