Fifty years ago: Apollo’s first spacewalk


Rusty Schweickart tests the Lunar Module handrails


We’re now on Day Four of our Apollo 9 flight, and spirits are dampened.  We were scheduled to take the first EVA of the Apollo program, a test of the Portable Life Support System (PLSS) backpack that will sustain astronauts during moonwalks.  And also test the ability of an astronaut to spacewalk between the Lunar Module, code named “Spider” for this flight, and the Command Module, code named “Gumdrop,” such as would be necessary if the internal tunnel between the two were blocked by a failure of the finicky docking device.

We can’t do it now, not after the events of Day Three, the first day we actually entered the LM.  Before transferring over, while suiting up in bulky pressure suits, we suffered a bout a motion sickness and lost our breakfast, space sickness the dirty little secret of the space program admitted publicly for the first time.  Russian cosmonauts, they suffered motion sickness, not astronauts.  We were better trained, superior, immune.  That immunity has proven to be a function of the small cockpits of Mercury and Gemini, where astronauts remained firmly strapped to their seats.

Throwing up once, maybe that would end the problem.  We proceed into the LM, the Lunar Module Pilot first, who suffered the queasy bout but is able to work for an hour to power up the Spider, the first time a spacecraft has been powered up in space rather than on the ground.  We extend the landers legs, fire the Descent Propulsion System (DPS) that in the future will power a LM to a landing, for a six-minute test mimicking the start of a descent to the lunar surface.  In addition, the engine burn tests how well the LM can maneuver the combined spacecraft, as in an emergency, something that it should never have to do again.   Of course we have no way of knowing that in little more than a year, the LM will be called upon to do just that.

Then, while in a quiet period, at rest with no warming, the nausea and vomiting hit again.  That does it — we can’t risk having a bout of vomiting inside a helmet during a spacewalk.  Instead, we will put on the backpack, test the procedures for leaving the LM, maybe to the point of depressurizing the cabin.  Maybe opening the hatch.

`           Now on Day Four, we again go through the tasks of suiting up and entering the LM.  As we work through the checklists we are feeling . . .  not just OK, but good.  Our vestibular systems as solid as a rock.  Hey, why not continue?

It’s on-the-fly planning.  Our commander, Jim McDivitt says, “This is Spider.  Just so everybody is familiar.  I think we’ll do one daylight pass out on the porch.”

The original plan called for more than two hours outside, two daylight periods with a night pass in between.  We would stand in “golden slippers” on the porch platform outside the hatch, the ladder that someday will lead to the lunar surface.  Then we would have proceeded up handrails over the top of the LM to the open hatch of the Gumdrop, simulating a transfer, then return to the LM to end the spacewalk.

Now McDivitt tells us, “You go outside, get accustomed to what you are doing, and I’ll take a couple pictures of you.  You look around and when you look like you’re stabilized and you think you can handle something, I’ll send out the camera to you.”

And that’s what we do.  As we squirm through the square hatch, he calls, “Take it easy out there.  I don’t want you getting — ”  He doesn’t have to finish the sentence.  And he doesn’t have to worry, we’re on the porch.  Dave Scott opens the hatch of the command ship.  Exhilarated, we call, “OK, Dave, come out!  . . . Come out Dave, wherever you are!”   And that’s what he does, poking his head out of the hatch, camera in hand.  “We’re all taking pictures of everyone taking pictures,” he jokes.

That’s what we do — and more.  Feeling fine, we test the handrails leading toward him.  We don’t go all the way, time is short — just one daylight pass, about forty minutes over the U.S., but it doesn’t take much to prove that control is excellent using the handrails.  We could easily transfer to Gumdrop.

We’ve done it — “We’re feeling great.”   We’ve done it, fifty years ago today, another step, a weightless one, toward the moon.


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