The United States has had six manned space programs. First program was Project Mercury. The sixth program, the International Space Station (ISS), is active today. Between the two, we saw Projects Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and the Space Shuttle.
This is Part 3 of this series and focuses on Project Gemini.
Project Gemini Builds on the Foundation
In orbit 160 miles above the Earth, everything was going just as planned. The two astronauts had found their prey, closed on it and captured it. Locked together in orbit, they raced across the ocean below at 17,000 mph. Minutes later, entering a communications blackout the astronauts signed off from ground control. Now on their own, they worked their way through the rest of the docking maneuver. Without warning, their capsule and its attached Agena docking target swerved first left, then right. The rookie astronauts struggled to understand what was happening to them. Still out of radio contact with their flight controllers, their capsule was soon spinning rapidly, and their vision blurring. Knowing they would soon be unconscious, astronaut Neil Armstrong knew he had only seconds to act if they were to live to return to Earth…
Before Mercury had even come to its successful conclusion, Gemini was underway. In Latin, the word Gemini means “twins,” a good name because the new space capsules carried not one but two men on each flight. It was 1961 and the US and Soviets were engaging in a fierce race to the moon. But the moon was still distant – a quarter million miles away. By comparison, a commercial airliner that takes 7.5 hours to fly from New York to London, needs 22 days to reach the moon. That’ll will get you 600 bags of free peanuts, but leave your comfort animal home with your best friend.
Gemini’s goal was to build upon the progress being made by Mercury. To meet that goal, it had to start out relying on military technology. Its main launch vehicle, for example, was the Titan II. The Titan was a U.S. Air Force ballistic missile used to carry nuclear warheads. NASA changed it to carry astronauts instead. As a ballistic missile, its purpose was to kill hundreds of thousands. As Gemini’s launch vehicle, its purpose was to expand human understanding.
Where the Mercury missions were short, the Gemini missions grew in length. The goal: fly a mission long enough to simulate flying to the moon and back.
Gemini would be the push Apollo needed to get to the moon. And Apollo could not succedd unless the astronauts of Gemini could prove they could dock and undock two spacecraft, work outside their spacecraft and could sleep and eat well while in space.
As Gemini was ending in 1966, American astronauts were doing each of those things and more, including improving America’s ability to navigate in space and be more precise in where they landed back on Earth.
They learned something else. It’s best not to pair astronauts who annoy each other and then expect them to enjoy time together in a space the size of your car’s front seat.
Along the way: the program flew ten manned missions (the capsules are on display today at locations across the U.S.) and produced memorable events.
The first mission that used the new Houston, TX Mission Control Center for control (think Ed Harris in Apollo 13). On the same flight astronaut Ed White became the first American to walk in space.
The first to use fuel cells in spaceflight. But, when it came time to land, it missed its target landing spot by a whopping 168 miles. It was the biggest target miss in the program.
Set the American record for longest space flight at 14 days.
The mission was going well as the two rookie astronauts, Neil Armstrong and David Scott, had just docked with their Agena target docking vehicle. They and their ground controllers were in a celebratory mood, having just carried out the first ever docking of two vehicles in Earth orbit. NASA would not reach the moon if they could not dock spacecraft. Have accomplished that, they were now in a planned communications blackout period where they could not speak with flight controllers.
As the pair of spacecraft emerged from the blackout, ground controllers found themselves with a crisis on their hands. Astronaut Scott told Controllers “We have serious problems here.” Control thrusters on the space capsule were firing on their own, and the two docked vehicles were tumbling end over end, rolling over and over, the crew on the verge of blacking out. Astronaut Armstrong reported “We’re rolling up and we can’t turn anything pff.” Despite his vision blurring from the capsule’s high roll-rate, Armstrong was able turn off the main thrusters, and use the separate re-entry thrusters to stop the rolling mere moments before blacking out. Armstrong’s quick decision and piloting skill saved his life and that of his crewmate.
Because Armstrong had to use the re-entry thrusters to stop the capsule from rolling, the crew did not have enough fuel left in them to reach their intended landing site – the warm Pacific Ocean. Instead, the crew wound up landing in a rough Atlantic ocean. The U.S. Navy retreived them, but not before their spending 3 hours being sea-sick inside their capsule, bobbing atop the large Atlantic waves.
Both rookie astronauts walked on the surface of the moon as part of the Apollo program. Gemini 8 was the least well known near-fatal space flight accident in the history of the American space program. Apollo 13 would be the other in-flight emergency to threaten the lives of American astronauts.
In its return to Earth, Gemini 9 hit the bulls-eye, missing its target landing spot by less than half a mile, the second most precise landing ever of a U.S. space capsule. Gemini 9’s flight objectives
But in Gemini 9, the U.S. suffered a tragic first for America’s space program. Both members of the primary flight crew died in a training accident. For the first time, the backup crew had to fly a mission instead of the primary crew. In a tragic irony, their jet trainer hit the building in which their space capsule was being assembled. Today, their names catch and show sunlight on the Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
This mission set a manned Earth orbital altitude record of 739.2 nautical miles (1,369.0 km) in September 1966. The record still stands.
Until this flight, earlier astronaut spacewalks had each ended with the astronaut exhausted. This had the effect of keeping alive doubts whether they realistically could work outside their spacecraft. If they couldn’t, America would never leave footprints on the moon. One of the Gemini 12 crew, “Buzz” Aldrin, proved an astronaut could spacewalk without becoming exhausted. His success proved NASA had mastered space walking.
At four times the size of Mercury, Gemini was a big program. And it served as was a learning ground for, among others, astronauts Neil Armstrong (the first man on the moon) and Jim Lovell (commander of the historic Apollo 13 mission).
Gemini 9’s Angry Alligator
One of the more amusing moments in Gemini was when the Gemini 9 astronauts could not dock their space capsule their target docking adapter. Launched two days before Gemini 9, the adapter could not complete its separation from its nose cone. With part of its nose cone still attached, the vehicle was worthless, but it made for a funny picture.
“It looks like an angry alligator out there” said astronaut Tom Stafford.
A Little Known Fact
There was not a Project Gemini planned when Projects Mercury and Apollo programs began.
In 1961 Mercury was making progress and gaining ground on the Soviets. Apollo was gaining traction. But it was fast becoming plain to U.S. space program managers – they needed a third program. Apollo needed more capabilities than those Mercury could produce. So, on December 7, 1961, 20 years to the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, NASA approved Project Gemini. It was with Gemini that America’s space program caught its wind and pulled ahead of the Soviets in space.
Look For: Lost in Space: Part 4 – Project Apollo