High atop the world

Once in orbit, the crew could remove their helmets and gloves to give themselves a little more freedom, but would remain in their suits. As they busied themselves with their tasks, the cabin became cluttered as cameras and lenses were unstowed, ancillary equipment was fished out and installed, and the necessary system checks and alignments made. In addition to their spacesuits, the crew of Apollo 8 were still wearing life vests in case the CM had to ditch in the Atlantic after launch. As Jim Lovell was moving around, his life vest caught something and began to inflate from its internal gas supply.

"What was that?'' asked his commander.

"My life jacket," he replied.

"No kidding?'' laughed Borman.

Bill Anders was aware that whatever they said was being recorded for later transmission to Earth and began a running commentary. "Lovell just caught his life vest on Frank's strut.''

"It's hard to get off, too,'' commented Lovell. The three crewmen soon realised that the vest had been inflated with carbon dioxide, and if too much of that gas was dumped into the cabin it would overwhelm the lithium hydroxide canisters that were carried on board to absorb the toxic gas in their own exhaled breath. Anders came up with the solution: "Tell you what we'll do: we'll dump it out with the vacuum cleaner over the side there.'' The CM's vacuum cleaner worked simply by dumping cabin air overboard, taking dirt with it. By feeding the contents of the life vest down the vacuum cleaner, the carbon dioxide could be removed.

Although they only had about 2% hours in Earth orbit, the Apollo crews usually considered that to be enough time to complete a rigorous series of systems checks and still have an opportunity to look out of the window at the wondrous sights passing below. For some crewmen, this would be their first experience of spaceflight, but this was not so for the Apollo 11 crew, all of whom were Gemini veterans.

"Trees and a forest down there,'' said Mike Collins, as they flew somewhere around the western United States. "It looks like trees and a forest or something. Looks like snow and trees. Fantastic. I have no conception of where we're pointed or which way we're going or a crapping thing, but it's a beautiful low-pressure cell out here,'' he enthused.

This crew, and many of the other Apollo crewmen, had flown in the cramped confines of the earlier Gemini spacecraft - a couple had even been squeezed into the tiny one-man Mercury capsule. Apollo gave them a bit more space to move around. "I'm having a hell of a time maintaining my body position down here,'' noted Collins after he had manoeuvred down to the lower equipment bay where the eyepieces for the optical instruments were stored. "I keep floating up.''

"How does zero-g feel?" asked Neil Armstrong of his crew. "Your head feel funny, anybody, or anything like that?''

"No, I don't know, it just feels like we're going around upside down,'' replied Collins who was still transfixed by the experience.

Flying near Earth was something that all the crews wished could have lasted longer. "Jesus Christ, look at that horizon!" yelled Collins on seeing how quickly the Sun rose in orbit, even though he had already witnessed the spectacle during his Gemini mission in 1966.

"Isn't that something?'' echoed Armstrong. "God damn, that's pretty; it's unreal.'' "Get a picture of that,'' suggested Armstrong.

"Oh, sure, I will,'' replied Collins who then had to contend with the compact and complex space that was an Apollo cabin. "I've lost a Hasselblad. Has anybody seen a Hasselblad floating by? It couldn't have gone very far, big son of a gun like that.'' Eugene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, noted how their night-time launch affected their experience in orbit. "Launching at night, we just had a somewhat different view of the Earth than most other flights have had. The first real view we got of being in orbit was pretty spectacular because it happened to be Earth sunrise and that's a very intriguing and interesting way to get your first indoctrination to Earth orbit.''

Certainly Cernan's LMP, Jack Schmitt, flying for the first time, did not hold back in describing what he saw as he saw it - a characteristic this scientist/astronaut would exercise both on the Moon and in orbit around it. For example, while flying over the dark United States, he described the lights of the American towns and cities to Capcom Bob Parker. "Man's field of stars on the Earth is competing with the heavens, Bob. I think we got the Gulf Coast showing up now, by the band of lights.'' Half and hour later, over the daylight side of Earth, he applied some geological terms with which he was familiar to the delicate patterning he saw in the great cloud systems that lay below him: "Bob, we're over what might be intermediate to low strata that have a very strong crenulation pattern - pulling out some geological terms here. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it flying.''

The exposed desert landscapes of the Sahara brought him back to thinking about rocks. "Bob, we had almost a completely weather-free pass over Africa and Madagascar. And the scenery, both aesthetically and geologically, was something like I've never seen before, for sure. There were patterns like I haven't even seen in textbooks. Maybe I haven't been looking enough, but some of the desert and grassland patterns had the appearance of ice crystals almost.''

The crew of Apollo 12 had been entranced by seeing countless tiny pinpricks of light across the night-time expanse of the Sahara Desert as nomads sat by their campfires. The Apollo 16 crew also spotted this reminder of the human race's relationship with flame, one that had lifted them off the planet.

"What?" asked Young, ever unflappable.

"The fires. Out the right side. Looka there!'' said Duke in some wonder. He had heard the stories from the Apollo 12 crew about them. "They were right. They were really right. Beautiful!''

Ken Mattingly, CMP on this mission, reminded his commander: "The fires of Africa. They're there. Like he said. Isn't that spectacular?''

"That is really beautiful!'' said Duke.

"Can you see them, John?'' asked Mattingly.

"There must be a hundred or so,'' added Duke. "What are they from?''

"Nomads," said Mattingly. "All the nomads and stuff that are out there.''

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