In February of 1969, the first launch of the Soviet Moon Rocket, the N-1, exploded. By April, the Soviets still did not have a clear program of subsequent piloted Soyuz fights. In May, the Soviets watched the successful US lunar orbital flight and practice landing of Apollo 10. In June, a Lunar Sample return mission failed when the Block D stage refused to ignite. On July 3rd the second N1 launch failed with a spectacular explosion…
On July 3, 1969, the same month as the the Apollo 11 Moon landing, The Soviet Union made another secret attempt to fly their giant Moon rocket.
“Hey, Apollo – Houston, this is Apollo 10. Look, I know you ran some studies, but by golly, we can see Snoopy, and he isn’t too far away! He’s catching up with us. Can you talk to the FIDOS? He’s right down below us. We can occasionally see him tumbling end-over-end down below there, and he’s coming in closer each pass. That’s Snoopy’s descent stage. We can see him right down below us now, and he’s right – I thought he was a little out-of-plane, but now he’s looking more in-plane with us.” Tom Stafford Apollo 10
As the lunar module approached, Young saw it through his sextant at a distance of 259 kilometers. Stafford and Cernan got a radar lock on the command module shortly after the insertion burn and watched with interest as the instrument measured the dwindling gap between the vehicles and demonstrated the theories of orbital mechanics in actual practice. Cernan especially liked the steady communications that kept both crews aware of what was happening.
The abort system had two basic control modes, “attitude hold” and “automatic.” In automatic, the computer would take over the guidance and start looking for the command module, which was certainly not what the crew intended to do at that moment. While correcting for a minor yaw-rate-gyro disturbance, the astronauts accidentally switched the spacecraft to the automatic mode, resulting in frantic gyrations.
When Stafford and Cernan were ready for undocking they discovered the Lunar Module had slipped three and a half degrees out of line with the command module at the latching point, possibly due to loose mylar collecting on the docking ring…
The six-minute retrograde maneuver seemed interminable, just as it had to Borman’s crew on Apollo 8, but the engine kept firing and the Apollo 10 crew’s confidence in it kept growing. When the engine finally shut down and they were sure that it had done its job, Stafford and Cernan had time to look at the lunar surface. They likened one area to a volcanic site in Arizona. Shortly, Stafford forced his attention back inside the cabin and told his crew-mates that he thought the best thing to say when they got back in radio contact with mission control was, “Houston, tell the earth we have arrived.”
Stafford, Cernan, and Young were the first Apollo astronauts to be free from illness during the mission, although Cernan experienced a slight vestibular disturbance. Like all their colleagues who had flown before, once they unbuckled from the couches they had a stuffy feeling in their heads. This lasted for 8 to 10 hours for Stafford and Young; Cernan gradually lost the sensation over the next two days.