This week is the 45th anniversary of the first manned Apollo space mission, Apollo 7, which lifted off from Cape Kennedy, Florida on October 11, 1968. The three astronauts on board were Wally Schirra, veteran of the Mercury program, Donn Eisele and Walter Cunningham.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Apollo 7? Most people haven’t. Among the Apollo missions, everyone knows 11 (first one to land on the moon), 13 (thanks to the Ron Howard film), some people know about Apollo 8 (first mission to orbit the moon), and space buffs at least know about 17 (the last mission). But Apollo 7 gets lost in history, even though it was an extremely important mission–in many ways the most important.

What eventually became Apollo 7 originally started as Apollo 1. That was the flight that astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were training for when their capsule burst into flames on the launch pad on January 27, 1967, killing all three of them. The flight was supposed to test the basic Apollo hardware in earth orbit, the “command module” space capsule and the “service module” that carried its supplies. After the tragic disaster, NASA completely overhauled the Apollo program, and after five more unmanned tests, they deemed the program ready for prime time–a manned launch in Earth orbit–in October 1968.

Although the launch of Apollo 7 was successful, not everything went according to plan. The astronauts were supposed to practice a maneuver that simulated the spacecraft pulling the lunar lander (which was not equipped on this flight) from the rocket stage. This maneuver didn’t go so well because one of the panels on the rocket didn’t deploy correctly. Then, most famously, commander Wally Schirra got sick with a head cold. What happens when one guy in a space capsule, breathing sealed air in a closed system, gets a cold? Everybody gets a cold.

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This is what an astronaut (Wally Schirra) looks like after nine days in space. With a cold. And pissed off. Can you blame him?

Getting a cold in space is a big deal. On Earth, mucus will drain out of your sinuses and nasal passages from gravity. In zero-gravity it just sits there, building up. How disgusting is that? Not to mention a space capsule cluttered with used tissues and droplets of snot floating around in the air. Oh, and did I mention that the toilet in the capsule wasn’t working right?

Can you imagine the misery of having a bad cold while flying in space, in zero gravity? It’s not like these guys could stay home from work. They did their best, but tempers frayed. Mission control in Houston overburdened the astronauts’ schedule. At one point Schirra utterly refused to follow mission control’s orders to fuss about with a TV camera inside the capsule; there was just too much going on. “I refuse to foul up our time lines this way,” he told Houston.

Later in the mission there was a controversy about whether the astronauts should complete re-entry with their space helmets on or off. The issue was, again, the colds. All that fluid building up in their heads was weightless in orbit, but as the spaceship came down and gravity took effect again, the pressure would increase. With a space helmet on you can’t blow to “pop” your ears. Schirra was worried that their eardrums might rupture. Houston insisted they wear the helmets. The astronauts refused. Apollo 7 splashed down on October 22, eardrums intact.

The NASA brass was so ticked off by the “mutiny” in space that they effectively blacklisted astronauts Eisele and Cunningham from future missions. Schirra had already decided to retire. In subsequent years when awards were handed out to Apollo and Skylab astronauts, the Apollo 7 guys were always passed over. Very belatedly, NASA finally gave them the Distinguished Service Medal–in 2008. Only one of the astronauts, Cunningham, was still alive. Donn Eisele died of a heart attack in Japan in 1987. Wally Schirra passed away in 2007.

Call me crazy, but after what these astronauts went through, I think they deserve a little recognition. Neil Armstrong rightfully gets the kudos for being the first to take that big step, but he didn’t have to do it with a bad head cold and snippy Houston controllers griping at him.

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