Apollo 7 was the first manned mission in the Apollo program to be launched. It was an eleven-day Earth-orbital mission, the first manned launch of the Saturn IB launch vehicle, and the first three-man American space mission. The flight was an open-ended flight which meant that the mission would continue as long as it was safe and there were enough consumables on board, including oxygen. It flew low around the earth so it could track life-support systems, the propulsion systems and the control systems.
Apollo 7 was a test flight, and confidence-builder. After the January 1967 Apollo launch pad fire, the Apollo command module had been extensively redesigned. Schirra, who would be the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, commanded this Earth-orbital shakedown of the command and service modules. Since it was not carrying a lunar module, Apollo 7 could be launched with the Saturn IB booster rather than the much larger and more powerful Saturn V. Schirra wanted to give Apollo 7 the callsign "Phoenix" (the mythical bird rising from its own ashes) in memory of the loss of the Apollo 1 crew, but NASA management was against the idea.
The Apollo hardware and all mission operations worked without any significant problems, and the Service Propulsion System (SPS), the all-important engine that would place Apollo in and out of lunar orbit, made eight nearly perfect firings.
Even though Apollo's larger cabin was more comfortable than Gemini's, eleven days in orbit took its toll on the astronauts. Tension with Commander Schirra began with the launch decision, when flight managers decided to launch with a less than ideal abort option for the early part of the ascent. Once in orbit, the spacious cabin may have induced some crew motion sickness, which had not been an issue in the earlier, smaller spacecraft. The crew also found the food to be bad. But the worst problem occurred when Schirra developed a bad head cold. As a result, he became irritable with requests from Mission Control and all three began "talking back" to the Capcom. An early example was this exchange after Mission Control requested that a TV camera be turned on in the capsule:
Walter Schirra looks out the rendezvous window in front of the commander's station on the ninth day of the mission.SCHIRRA: You've added two burns to this flight schedule, and you've added a urine water dump; and we have a new vehicle up here, and I can tell you this point TV will be delayed without any further discussion until after the rendezvous.
CAPCOM: Roger. Copy.
CAPCOM: Apollo 7 This is CAP COM number 1.
CAPCOM: All we've agreed to do on this is flip it.
SCHIRRA: ... with two commanders, Apollo 7
CAPCOM: All we have agreed to on this particular pass is to flip the switch on. No other activity is associated with TV; I think we are still obligated to do that.
SCHIRRA: 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 time lines this way.
Exchanges such as this would lead to the crew members being passed over for future missions. But the mission successfully proved the space-worthiness of the basic Apollo vehicle, and led directly to the bold decision to launch Apollo 8 to the moon two months later.
Beyond a shakedown of the spacecraft, goals for the mission included the first live television broadcast from an American spacecraft (Gordon Cooper had broadcast slow scan television pictures from Faith 7 in 1963) and testing the lunar module docking maneuver with the launch vehicle's discarded upper stage.
First orbit: perigee 231 km, apogee 297 km, period 89.78 min, inclination 31.63 deg., weight: CSM 14,781 kg.
The splashdown point was 27 deg 32 min N, 64 deg 04 min W, 200 nautical miles (370 km) SSW of Bermuda and 13 km (8 mi) north of the recovery ship USS Essex.
Apollo 7 was the only manned Apollo launch to take place from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 34, as all subsequent Apollo (including Apollo-Soyuz) and Skylab missions were launched from Launch Complex 39 at the nearby Kennedy Space Center.
As of 2009, Cunningham is the only surviving member of the crew. Eisele died in 1987 and Schirra in 2007.