Fifty years ago, 10 days in space pushed human spaceflight forward with spectacular, groundbreaking testing. On March 3, 1969, a Saturn V rocket launched three brave astronauts into low Earth orbit as part of Apollo 9, a mission on which the crew tested the spacecraft that would later land humans on the lunar surface.
The second mission to be launched into orbit by a Saturn V rocket, Apollo 9 was the third crewed mission in the U.S. Apollo program. Apollo 9 saw the first flight of the command and service module (CSM) with the Apollo lunar module (LM). Aboard Apollo 9 was Cmdr. James McDivitt, command module pilot Dave Scott and LM pilot Rusty Schweickart.
As the NASA-produced Apollo 9 documentary “Three to Make Ready” from 1969 highlights, the Apollo 9 mission was not only critical to a future moon landing; it also tested technologies and capabilities that, at the time, were cutting-edge. As Schweickart told Space.com, while the testing done in space during that mission may seem “incidental” compared to the work astronauts have now done aboard the International Space Station, it was monumental at the time.
Of all the groundbreaking testing completed during the mission, perhaps the most obviously critical for the lunar landing was the LM testing Schweickart did. Although it was the spacecraft’s first test in outer space, Schweickart wasn’t the least bit nervous, he told Space.com.
The training and experiences he’d had as a fighter pilot were far more nerve-wracking, he said. “Not always, but certainly in my case and in the case of most of the people back then, you’ve been flying high-performance fighter jets around in situations which are, in some sense, more dangerous,” he said. Schweickart also commended the extensive training he received at NASA, saying that because of this preparation, “I certainly never felt the least bit of fear or anxiety about coming out of it alive.”
Apollo 9 paved the way for the lunar landing that took place just a few months later in 1969. Today, unlike during the Apollo era, international partners collaborate instead of compete (for the most part) in space exploration, and commercial entities have sprung up, eager to explore the possibilities of private space enterprise.
Schweickart, for one, is thrilled about the evolution of spaceflight. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said, “the entrepreneurial juices that began flowing again within space exploration with commercial spaceflight coming into play has been a tremendous reinvigoration of space activity.”