Apollo 9 – lunar module is tested in orbit

Apollo 9 was the next flight to help prepare for a Moon landing and also the first crewed mission to see the Lunar Module fly. But it was a flight that did not leave Earth orbit. 

A view of Spider, the Apollo 9 Lunar Module, photographed by Command Module pilot David Scott inside Gumdrop. Image credit: NASA

Apollo 9, which launched in March 1969, was designed to test out all the manoeuvres that the space vehicles would make on the Moon trip, but at a relatively safe distance.

The mission was commanded by Jim McDivitt, with David Scott and Rusty Schweickart as crew. After launch by a Saturn V, the combined Command Service Module (CSM), nicknamed Gumdrop, separated from the rocket’s third stage, which still had the Lunar Module, dubbed Spider, attached. Panels protecting the LM were jettisoned and, three hours after launch, Gumdrop turned to dock with Spider.

The astronauts rehearsed rescue operations in case the LM lost power, firing Gumdrop’s engines to steer it and also by carrying out spacewalks, or EVAs, from both the CSM and the LM while they were still attached.

Then the LM, piloted by Schweickart and with McDivitt aboard, separated from the CSM, with Scott at the controls, to fly as an independent spacecraft and simulate moves it would make on a Moon mission.

The crew of Apollo 9, from left, McDivitt, Scott, and Schweickart, pose in front of their Saturn V rocket at Launch Pad 39A. Image credit: NASA

The LM’s descent stage was jettisoned as the ascent stage fired its engine, simulating the launch that would return astronauts from the Moon’s surface.

Spider was now more than 120 km behind Gumdrop, but it returned to rendezvous with the mothership just as its successors would from the lunar surface.

Once McDivitt and Schweickart were back in the Command Module, the rest of the space hardware was abandoned and the crew splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean with the mission declared a success. The mission also produced some of the most spectacular imagery from an Apollo mission, with the Earth a highly photogenic backdrop.

Next: Apollo 10 – the Peanuts mission to the Moon