50 Years Ago Rusty Schweickart Had 5 Minutes Alone

Daniel de Zeeuw
daniel@b612foundation.org

March 6, 2019

Fifty years ago today, astronaut Rusty Schweickart had 5 minutes alone above the Earth.

2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 9 mission, crewed by Jim McDivitt, Doug Scott, and B612 co-founder Rusty Schweickart. There will be many celebrations of the mission. Some were this past Sunday on March 3rd, the 50th anniversary of the mission’s launch. Some will be on March 13th, the 50th anniversary of its landing.

But here at B612 we want to celebrate the day Rusty had a life-changing experience that ultimately led to his founding of the B612 Foundation.

It started with a mistake.

On March 6th, 1969,  the fourth day of the mission, Rusty went on an EVA (also known as a spacewalk) to demonstrate that the crew could use the external handrails to travel between the command module and lunar module in case of a failure of the tunnel between the two spacecraft.

He got no further than a couple of feet along the handrails when the movie camera Dave Scott was using to photograph Rusty’s traverse jammed. Dave got 5 minutes from their commander, Jim McDivitt, to either fix the camera or they would have to cancel the exercise.

“Stay right there Rusty, don’t move,” Rusty heard in his headset. “Yes, sir,” he responded, and considered himself unemployed for the next 5 minutes.

Rusty doesn’t know exactly why, but for some reason, he decided not to start reviewing the mission plan in his head or think about the handrails beneath him, but swung around to take in the earth below. He describes it as an incredible sight: beautiful and blue with the bright atmosphere marking a clear boundary between life and infinity. The most important border that exists in all of humanity, relatively as thin as the peel of an apple, it separates all of life as we know it from the emptiness of the rest of the universe.

As Rusty took in this sight, existential questions flooded into his mind: “How did I get here?” Why am I here?” “What do I mean when I say I?” He says he took them in as a human sponge, not even trying to answer them in the moment.

Five minutes later his time alone was up. They continued the mission and Apollo 9 was a success, testing the equipment that would later be used by Apollo 11 to land on the moon.

However, Rusty’s five minutes alone, and those questions lodged in his mind and his heart. And he began to think about of his life differently. It became one with a responsibility to the Earth, to life, and to humanity.

It was this change that led to him founding the Association of Space Explorers, B612 Foundation and, most recently, Asteroid Day.

So rather than celebrate the 50 years since the launch of Apollo 9 or its landing, we’re celebrating the 50 years since a happy accident, a broken video camera, gave Rusty a moment of incredible perspective, and changed his life and through his work, the lives of millions all over the Earth.

Rusty wrote an essay on his experience and the significance of Apollo. I encourage you to read it here.

Daniel de Zeeuw
daniel@b612foundation.org