45 years ago: A flight with no number

July 15, 1975

Forty-five years ago, this is how we flew.

Come aboard Apollo.

Come aboard the last, with the last of the first.

Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton riding the right-hand seat, grounded in 1962 weeks before he was to make the second U.S. orbital flight, due to an occasional, minor flutter in his heart beat.  Scratched by a panel of cautious doctors who never even examined him. “BS” he’ll tell you. 

Deke overcame the problem with years of exercise and restored to flight status in 1972, just in time for this final flight of the era.

*

Come aboard Apollo Command/Service Module CSM #111 built to fly to the moon as Apollo 15 in 1970 or ’71 before the program was cut, Apollo 15 shifting to one of the more capable “J Series” spacecraft.

CSM #111 shifted to the Apollo Soyuz Test Project (ASTP)

a joint mission with the Soviet Union involving a link-up with a Soyuz spacecraft with a crew of Alexei Leonov, (the world’s first spacewalker in 1965) and Valeri Kubasov aboard.  They’ll launch 7.5 hrs. before us from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in central Asia.  They’ll lift off from the same pad that sent Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961.

*

We’re a unique mission, added in 1972 in response to President Nixon’s desire for an international flight with the Soviet Union.  A product of detente, already as faded as Nixon’s name, we fly a one-time mission, an Apollo carrying no number.

The Russian Soyuz, our friendly target, lifts off aboard their 162-ft.-tall rocket powered by twenty engines at 8:20 a.m. EDT with traditional call, first used by Yuri Gagarin — “Poyekhali” (“Let’s go). For the first time in history, the launch is televised live in the U.S.S.R.  Indeed, the mission marks the first time a Soviet launch has been announced ahead of time.

After a ride of 9 min. 5 sec, they enter their planned orbit of 142 by 112 mi. and a few minutes later radio, “”Moscow, this is Soyuz.  We are entering earth’s shadow.”

The pressure is on us now.

It’s war — a publicity war on a political mission under the guise of developing a space rescue capability, or at least a new universal docking system, the possible forerunner of joint missions.  For us, it’s a chance just to fly one more time.

*

Settle in you seat for the last Saturn rocket ride aboard the ninth Saturn 1B vehicle (the first launched in 1966),

the fifth time with a crew aboard,

the fifteen Apollo launch with crew

and the 31st U.S. manned spaceflight.

Here in 1975, the final U.S. flight in a capsule before the Space Shuttle currently due to begin flights in 1979.

Tell Soyuz that “we will be up there shortly,” says our commander, Tom Stafford

*

Our moment arrives at 3:50 p.m. EDT.  Liftoff from Pad 39-B, on the fire of eight engines.  “Moving out, the tower is clear.”  — for the last time the familiar Apollo launch tower, swing arms pulled back, feels the fire of launch, recedes into history.

And 124 seconds later, the first stage is expended, and for the last time, the call of BECO.  Booster Engine Cutoff.

*

For the first time in history, television is broadcast from inside U.S. spacecraft during launch.  We do this to match the Soviets, who transmit TV from the cabin of their spacecraft.  It’s that kind of game between the two programs and nations, no longer a race to the moon but still one for publicity.  Ironically, the cabin TV from the Soyuz failed during launch.  

*

Now riding the second stage, the same S-IV state that send us to the moon. Capcom Dick Truly calls up, “Apollo, Houston at 5 min.  You’re go.”

Stafford replies, “Roger 5 min.  Looks good onboard, Dick.  And we’ve got a beautiful sight.

And Deke Slayton, who has waited so long for this moment, adds, “Man, I tell you, this is worth waiting 16 years for.”

After a ride toward orbit of 9 min. 52 sec., “SECO” — Sustainer Engine Cutoff — into a low initial orbit of 93 by 104 mi.   Like in the days of the Apollo moon missions, we remain attached to our third stage for the familiar maneuver of transposition and docking.  An hour after entering orbit, we pull away from the S-IVB, turn around180-degrees to face the stage as four large panels at the top of the stage peel away to expose not a Lunar Module as in past glory days, but something just for this mission.

We move in to dock with a dark cylinder 10.4 ft. in length with a maximum diameter of 4 ft. 8 in.  This Docking Module, weighing 4,436 lbs. will serve as our connection to Soyuz.  At the end now exposed is the usual Apollo docking system, a funnel-shaped drogue into which we insert a probe at the tip of our spacecraft.  

At the other end of the module is the new universal docking system, an “androgynous” system — a ring with three pedal-like guide plates spaced on its circumference.  The Soyuz carries an identical system.  In the future, any spacecraft with such a system can dock with any other so equipped vehicle.

The Docking Module also serves an as airlock between the different atmospheres used by each country — pure oxygen in the Apollo and oxygen/nitrogen in the Soyuz.

*

Glare off the earth blinds us as we move in for the docking.  We halt a few feet away, station keep until the light angles improves.  The old pro, Tom Stafford moves in.  Makes a perfect docking — indeed, the best alignment ever.

It’s a relief — the Apollo docking system can be finicky — just ask the crews of Apollo 14 and Skylab 2.  It’s much more complex than the universal system.  We move away from the spent stage, perform the first maneuvers to set up rendezvous in two days.  We are trailing the Soyuz, but in our lower (therefore faster) orbit, slowly gaining on it.

*

Yet our day, seemingly over, is not.  Just before sleep, we try to remove the docking probe to open the tunnel into the docking module.  A tool to do so will not fit through the opening in a plate — it’s being obstructed by a cable which is out of place.

Mission Control says to get some sleep while they figure out how to move the cable.   We’ve had our first glitch for the mission, abet a minor one.  We sleep, hoping it’s our last.  

*

Forty-five years ago, this is how we flew

an Apollo vehicle for the final time.

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