Gus Grissom, commander of the first Apollo, said that disaster can strike any mission, the last as well as the first. He died in the disaster that was the first Apollo. After the successful rendezvous with the Russian Soyuz, after 44 hours linked, after the successful landing of the Soyuz, we were about to experience the wisdom of Grissom’s words on this, the final day of Apollo.
It’ s July 24, 1975, the sixth anniversary of the splashdown of Apollo 11, and also the date for our splashdown aboard the numberless final Apollo, the Apollo-Soyuz mission. We are awakened by Capcom Robert Crippen, saying, “Good morning, gents. Party’s over. Time to come home.”
After nine days of flight, we fire our SPS engine for 7.8 seconds to send us toward splashdown in the Pacific Ocean 330 mi. northwest of Hawaii. Vance Brand is in the left-hand seat, prime pilot for the reentry, watched over by mission commander Tom Stafford in the center seat and Deke Slayton on the right. Everything proceeds nominally through blackout. Communications are poor, but when we hit 35,000 ft. altitude, Stafford manages to get through briefly, telling Houston, “The altimeter is off the peg. This baby is right on.”
Crippen replies, “Apollo, you’re looking super here. We see you on TV.”
Static kills the end of his message. It’s noisy in here, the air rushing by the capsule, control jets still firing, and all that radio static.
We reach 30,000 ft. Deke Slayton from the right reads the next steps on the checklist to Brand: “Arm ELS auto, ELS logic.” Brand should flip to switches to turn on the automatic landing system. However, he does not acknowledge the call. And we fail to note he hasn’t done so.
We reach 24,000. The ELS should jettison the conical apex cover at the capsule’s tip to expose the parachutes compartment. The small drogue chutes should deploy and the control jets switch off. But Brand did not flip the two switches. We continue to fall in ignorance.
At 23,000, realizing the auto system appears to have failed, we hit the manual switches to fire the apex cover and deploy the drogues. And open fresh air vents. Immediately acrid fumes fill the capsule. They’re nearly invisible, but Stafford sees the reddish-brown gas which means one thing: highly toxic nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer from the control jets.
He flips off the jets, but for a few minutes residual oxidizer in the lines continues to be pulled into the capsule. Our eyes are stinging; we’re coughing and hacking.
At 10,500 ft., the three main parachutes should open. But we’re still on manual. If we’d passed out at this point, we would come crashing into the ocean. But we’re hanging in there, OK. At 9,000 ft., we punch to manually deploy the chutes. Three good chutes. And despite coughing our lungs out, we continue to work through the last steps of the checklist.
Sometimes a capsule, if it hits just right, splashes down as gently as a kiss; but sometimes catching the side of a wave, they hit hard. Wouldn’t you know it, we hit like a ton of bricks, flip over upside down in what is called “stable 2” — and will have to wait for three balloon airbags in the nose to inflate and flip us over. we can’t open our submerged air vents and purge the cabin air until righted. And that’s a slow process. We’re hanging upside down on our straps. Stafford unbuckles, drops down and pulls out oxygen masks stored behind the center seat. Brand, nearest the intake vent, took the worst of the gas. He briefly passes out, but revives with oxygen from one of the masks.
We’re feeling better. The plan is to wait until the recovery ship, the USS New Orleans, about 6 miles away, pulls up and hoists us on deck. By God, we’re determined to stick by the plan and not make an early exit. Frogmen jump from recovery helicopter, attach a flotation collar. Through the window, we give them a thumbs up — which isn’t quite true. Stafford insists on opening the hatch to gain more fresh air. Anyone observant would note the deviation from the plan.
It takes 45 minutes to lift us aboard the aircraft carrier, and we exit the capsule, a Navy band playing. We make sure everything appears nominal, sitting through welcoming ceremonies — a long prayer by the Navy chaplain, two speeches by admirals, Then we speak, saying all the right things. Stafford says, “Everything went great . . . This is the end of one era, Apollo, and the beginning of another.” The only hint of trouble, the way he keeps rubbing his irritated eyes. And in a comment by Deke Slayton thanking the recovery crews. He says, “We picked up a little smoke on the way, and we were coughing and hacking pretty good there.”
The comment is overlooked at the moment, the TV networks and initial newspaper stories report a safe ending to the mission with the crew appearing in good shape, moving “briskly.” Nitrogen tetroxide turns to nitric acid in the lungs, producing delayed reactions that do not set in for several hours. The ceremonies continue with a long phone call from President Gerald Ford in which he asks each crewmember several questions. That’s followed by a message from Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
Finally we are taken below deck for medical exams that suddenly become much more than routine. Cortisone injections begin to ease inflammation. And the next day, X-rays show dark streaks of pulmonary irritation, but not dangerous levels of inflammation. Still, for a couple days we feel like we’ve had pneumonia.
We were lucky. NASA estimated the level of toxic gas we inhaled at three hundred parts per million. A lethal level is four hundred parts per million.
It can happen on the last mission as well as first. Or for that matter, the 25th.