Apollo 9 – the duet of Spider and Gumdrop in March 1969


On 3 March 1969, a Saturn 5 rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the Apollo 9 mission. For the first time, NASA brought the complete lunar landing equipment on board. This is the capsule of the Apollo mother ship, which was called “Gumdrop”, and the lunar module “Spider”. The technical concept for a lunar landing is to launch an Apollo mother ship together with the Lunar Module into a lunar orbit. There 2 of the 3 astronauts on board are to change into the lander, uncouple, fly to the lunar surface and land there. To come back the crew module of the Lunar Module should take off from the moon and dock again to the mother ship. The astronauts climb back into the Apollo capsule and fly directly back to Earth with this ship. This means a lot of manoeuvres far away from Earth. To be on the safe side, all the manoeuvres required on the moon will be tested in Earth orbit during the Apollo 9 mission.

The Apollo 9 mission

The goal of NASA’s Apollo9 mission in spring 1969 was therefore to test the undocking and docking of the lunar module and the Apollo mother ship. On the 4th flight day the astronauts test the exit from their capsule. Russel Schweickart moves almost 70 hours outside the Spider Ferry. So one wants to simulate a possible emergency change from ferry to ferry. In case something would go wrong with the docking of the two ships.

Die Apollo 9 Astronatuen.
Apollo 9 – Team of astronauts McDivitt, Schweickart, Scott.

The decisive test with the undocking, removal and redocking of the two spaceships is carried out on the 5th day of flight. In the NASA film documentation of the flight, from which these recordings were taken, a NASA director has placed the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach’s orchestral suite under the scenery. During my work in the National Archives, I found this combination of image and music particularly moving. It underlines how the thrust into space was felt at that time. It took an incredible amount of daring to get several hundred miles away from the Apollo capsule in the lunar module “Spider”. Only the mother ship Gumdrop can return to Earth.
The astronauts James McDivitt and Russell Schweickart had to put everything on one card in the Spider. After undocking, the two spacecrafts move a good 180 kilometres apart. Then the astronauts blast the lander part “Spider” with its spider legs from the lunar ferry and ignite the engines to fly back to Gumdrop. The coupling to the gumdrop capsule works perfectly. Everything goes well. The Apollo system has passed the decisive test for the moon landing. Only 4 months later Apollo 11 launches to the moon.

The name “Gumdrop” was invented by NASA engineers when the packaged Apollo capsules arrived at Kennedy Space Center. A film shows the arrival and unpacking of the modules.

Apollo 9 - Saturn missile
Apollo 9 – Saturn missile before start