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Wonderful Thing Happened in October 1968 – Apollo 7

Posted on Monday, October 23, 2023
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by AMAC, Robert B. Charles
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The Apollo 7 Crew
The prime crew of the first manned Apollo space mission from left to right are: Command Module pilot, Don F. Eisele, Commander, Walter M. Schirra Jr. and Lunar Module pilot, Walter Cunningham. The photograph was taken inside the White Room which is attached to the crew access arm. From here astronauts ingress and egress the spacecraft. Commander Wally Schirra Jr. is seen inside the opening of the Command Module's main hatch.

This week in 1968, something wonderful happened. Perspective changes everything and today, it may seem unexceptional. But in that time, it changed the world’s view of America and ours of ourselves. Apollo 7, manned by Walt Cunningham, Wally Shira, and Don Eisley, did the seemingly impossible. 

Context is important for understanding what happened then and what it means today. A series of events, beginning in 1960, began to rock and reshape America, creating deep fissures and self-doubt.

On the plus side, but not without pain, race relations took a major turn. While some civil rights leaders sought to keep peace, riots jumped the rails. Meantime, America’s proxy war with Communist China and Russia, Vietnam, deepened. A nation not used to domestic violence facing threats and the horror itself.

Three assassinations occurred: a president, a presidential candidate, and a top civil rights leader. Leftist terrorism gained a foothold; bombings occurred on campuses, in courthouses, and at the Pentagon.

The radical left pressed its advantage, setting cities afire. The White House was surrounded by buses to prevent it being overrun. Johnson was president, and the police were called pigs.

Data points are worth recalling. Four black students in February 1960 initiated a “sit-in,” 75,000 followed nationwide, race and anti-war to feminism. In May 1960, a US high-altitude spy plane, the U-2, was shot down over Russia. Pilot Gary Powers was sentenced to ten years in prison and later exchanged a blow to the US.

Then came Soviet space leadership, already a threat in the 1950s. The Soviets put up the first orbiting ICBM, satellite (Sputnik), dog, then two dogs, rocket to the Moon, Venus, and Sun, the first man (Gagarin), the first woman (Tereshkova), first probe to Mars.

The US – via President John F. Kennedy – threw down, challenging the Soviets to put men on the Moon, a surrogate for nuclear war, to test both nations’ technical prowess and systems of government. Americans united but reeled.

JFK began our charge for the moon, but in 1963, he was himself assassinated. Martin Luther King, spokesman for nonviolence and individual racial equality, was killed. Then, Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968. America was in rolling shock.

Even the start of the decade was rough: the loss of Cuba to communism, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, US figure skating team killed in a plane crash. By mid-decade, President Johnson pushed round-the-clock bombings of Vietnam, and hope seemed nowhere.

In July 1967, mass race riots rocked US cities, the USS Pueblo was seized by North Korea, and the first Apollo crew (later called Apollo 1) were killed in a fire on the launch pad. Could it get any worse?

The nation was reeling as that awful year 1968 arrived. MLK was killed in April, RFK in June. By the time October came, the nation was in the pits, and yet this was a mission of daring, this Apollo 7 mission.

Having lost three Apollo astronauts on the ground behind the Soviets, we did not give up the program. Never losing sight of the goal or stakes, out to prove self-determining republics win, Apollo 7 prepared.

For personal insight, having spoken countless times with Apollo 7’s Walt Cunningham, he knew exactly what was at stake – how down the nation was, how vital it was that this pioneering mission succeed.

He also knew that this was about more than daring or even a titanic contest between the US and Soviets, freedom versus communism. It was about setting the trajectory for the Cold War and who would win.

Cunningham, Shira, and Eisley – to borrow a line from the newly debuted Beatles – would “carried the world upon their shoulders. They had to succeed, period. They had no fear, just focus, hope, and courage.

The Saturn rocket – the largest ever built – launched “flawlessly” just past 11 a.m. on October 11 and flew 10 days and 20 hours. Having never put an Apollo capsule in flight, America’s crew tested everything and performed what papers called a “101 percent perfect” mission.

Decades later, Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin said he and Neil would never have been able to walk on the moon were it not for the perfect Apollo 7 flight.

So, here is “the rest of the story.” The entire nation was glued to that flight, as nothing until the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969. The whole world was glued. Soviets and Chinese glued. It was a “must succeed” event; if it failed, as Walt later noted, there might not have been another.

It succeeded, and because it did, a wave washed over America and the world. We now knew again that we could dare with abandon, dream, and do. We got to the moon, the Soviets never did.  In less than two decades, the Soviet Union was history, and the Cold War was over.

But this was the tipping point, Apollo 7’s splashdown, exactly this week, 1968. Wonderful things do happen, and they can still, in one fell swoop changing history, changing the world, and changing what we think of ourselves. May we never forget that, because good things lie ahead if we will only believe and work for them. History is proof.

Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.

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SusanW
SusanW
7 months ago

Once again, Bobby, you have made me smile and restored my faith and hope when I was truly “limping along”. That was an incredible and profound decade that you so carefully documented by highlighting events and incredible leaders that produced positive outcomes. Thank you! It’s so easy in today’s world to just give up and prepare for the worst! You, my friend, often sense this reaction, and step in to remind us of why we can never give up hope. That’s a gift! We need more positive and historically-minded people, like you, to spread the word when times are dark and tragic. Well done!

Rob citizenship
Rob citizenship
7 months ago

As you wrote in the last paragraph ” .. good things lie ahead if we will only believe and work for them .History is proof.” Well Done with this inspirational article Robert. Great uplifting thoughts are surely appreciated — the possibilities for having the world respect things that are good for the mind and spirit ,to make for a healthy , freedom loving place to live — major developments to accomplish those things can happen — and it is through believing in and working toward worthy goals that great things are achieved. You pieced together the history of that time, that period, very well to provide a feeling for why that Apollo mission meant what it did. I do believe it can be said it still means something significant. To remember accomplishment like that provides guidance for positive ventures ahead. This is the sort of thing that helps to make for good character development, having a sense of hope and realizing how courage to do what is right is essential . This article should be of great help in strengthimg the spirit to do what is right and noble.

.

David Millikan
David Millikan
7 months ago

I remember it well. Met several of the astronauts including Neil Armstrong during the Apollo Program. It was awesome. I still have my Apollo 11 Patch that was given to me by Neil Armstrong.
We had a Space Program then until the democrats killed it. Then President Trump got in office and we had a Space Program once again.
Then Dictator Beijing biden killed our Space Program again because President Trump built it back up.
With President Trump we will have a Space Program once again and we are going to MARS and beyond.

Cap'n Bob
Cap'n Bob
7 months ago

This is how everyone will feel in November 2024 when President Trump wins the election. America will have hope again and a positive outlook for our future.

Morbious
Morbious
7 months ago

One of the things lost in the sixties was the difference between peaceful protest and destructive riots. The cowards in charge of universities and cities allowed people to destroy the rights of others with violence. Today we live with this precedent.

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