Page last updated at 21:46 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

The 'flight of the Spider'

Spider (Nasa)
Ungainly maybe: The Spider on its maiden flight in Earth orbit

Forty years ago this week, mankind's attempts to land on the Moon took a giant leap forward with the maiden spaceflight of the Apollo Lunar Module. Continuing his series of essays for the 40th anniversary of the Moon landings, Dr Christopher Riley reminds us of the importance of the often overlooked Apollo 9 mission and the momentous message one of its crewmen brought back to Earth.

Hanging upside down, incongruously, 155 miles above the Earth - the first Apollo Lunar Module to fly in space looked about as much like a flying machine as the preposterous contraptions dreamt up by aviation pioneers 70 years before.

The crew had called their spiky legged spacecraft "Spider".

It lacked any of the refinements of a craft required to fly in air and was constructed on the tightest weight budget engineers had ever had to contend with.

The craft's insect-like form was dictated entirely by the job it was designed for and the environment it would inhabit during its short life.

The Lunar Module had had a difficult gestation, stretching the engineers who'd created her beyond their limits on countless occasions.

[The] new aerospace pioneers, striving to bring us space tourism today, were young impressionable children and teenagers during the 1960s - inspired to take up their careers, in part, by the Apollo programme

The resulting delays in delivering a flight-worthy model had contributed to a crew shuffle which had changed history; throwing Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 mission into line to attempt the first Moon landing in the July of 1969.

But now, in March, the burden of Nasa's "end of the decade" deadline sat firmly on the shoulders of the Apollo 9 crew of Jim McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart.

Their tests of the new Apollo spacesuit and the Lunar Module needed to be perfect.

On the fifth day of the mission, both spacecraft were depressurised and Schweickart climbed out of Spider's side hatch wearing the first Apollo pressure suit to be worn in space.

Supplied with oxygen and other life support essentials from his backpack, Schweickart also became the first US astronaut to spacewalk without life support from his spacecraft.

His unique suit and backpack were as exquisitely engineered as the spacecraft he had emerged from.

Its simplicity concealed years of careful and ingenious research and development. Even though it didn't look like it, many considered it to be a spacecraft in its own right - albeit one you could wear.

Rusty Schweickart (Nasa)
Rusty Schweickart stands on the porch of the Lunar Module

In honour of this "spacecraft" status Nasa had given the suit and its astronaut their own separate call sign - "Red Rover" a reference to Schweickart's red hair.

The Red Rover stood outside on the Lunar Module's porch photographing Dave Scott standing in the Command Module hatch beneath him.

Later that day, with McDivitt and Schweickart back inside at the controls of the Lunar Module, they undocked from Scott inside the Command Module (nicknamed "Gumdrop") and began the Spider's maiden flight.

In the hours which followed, the crew bravely flew the two craft to a distance of over one hundred miles apart - a daring feat which left McDivitt & Schweickart without a life line should anything go wrong.

Their Spider lacked a heat shield and any way of returning to Earth on its own. Rendezvous and docking with the Command Module was imperative if the two test pilots were going to live to tell the tale.

Several engine tests and two more hours of orbital catch-up later, and the Spider and Gumdrop were close together again.

The first Lunar Module to fly in space had proved it could keep two astronauts alive - manoeuvring them safely between orbits and ultimately to a safe and successful rendezvous with the Command Module; something which was crucial for the later Moon landing missions.

Back on Earth McDivitt wrote to the designers with a photograph of his "Spider" in space. The caption below read: "Many thanks for the funny-looking spacecraft. It sure flies better than it looks."

Dave Scott Emerges from the Command Module hatch (Nasa)
Dave Scott emerges from the Command Module hatch

In the years which followed, Apollo 9 would be largely forgotten - squeezed out of documentaries and articles by Apollo 8 - mankind's first voyage to lunar orbit, and Apollo 11 - the first landing. But through an unplanned moment during Apollo 9's flight, the mission has left us with more than its reputation as an overlooked stepping stone to the Moon.

During Schweickart's short spacewalk to test the new suit, a problem had come up with something which Mission Control and the other crew men needed time to fix.

For a few precious minutes, Schweickart had nothing to do except admire the view of his home planet, spread out beneath him in all its marbled blue and white glory.

Here, outside, in the clear vacuum of space, the view through his optically perfect polycarbonate pressure helmet was vividly coloured, super sharp and unencumbered by spacecraft windows.

The greatest view

Crossing almost half the planet in his 38 minutes on the Spider's porch, Schweickart explained years later how struck he had been by his swift passage across whole continents, countries and cultures beneath him; and how familiar and friendly these previously strange lands and distant places had quickly become.

In his 1977 essay entitled No Frames, No Boundaries, he explained how this had made him feel differently about his relationship with the Earth - appreciating it, for the first time, as a single, whole thing.

Schweickart's epiphany had brought home to him the futility of war and the wasted resources and lives spent defending lines marking nations which he wasn't even aware of from his privileged vantage point.

He wrote that he wished he could "take a person in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, 'Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What's important?'"

SpaceShipOne (Scaled Composites)
Schweickart's experience pointed the way to space tourism

Forty years on, as Schweickart approaches his 74th birthday, we are on the brink of an opportunity for his wish to come true, as commercial teams around the world race to launch the first suborbital tourist flights.

These new aerospace pioneers, striving to bring us space tourism today, were young impressionable children and teenagers during the 1960s - inspired to take up their careers, in part, by the Apollo programme.

If these "children of Apollo" succeed, then they may give us the chance to launch those leaders locked in conflict around the world on their own epiphanal flights above the Earth.

For only then, as Schweickart pointed out, will they truly appreciate that we are one people on one planet - "riders on the Earth together".

Dr Christopher Riley is the co-producer of the documentary feature film "In the Shadow of the Moon" and curates the online Apollo film archive - Footagevault. His book, Apollo 11 - an owner's manual, will be published by Haynes in June 2009.

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