Photos courtesy of NASA
By the time Gordon Cooper’s final Mercury mission splashed down on March 15, 1963, the U.S. space program was well aware of the gaps in its knowledge about space travel. Mercury had achieved its goals well, but those goals, while extraordinarily ambitious, had been limited. In 1963, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) knew that humans could function normally in the weightless environment of space for a little more than a day; they knew that they could launch a spacecraft into high Earth orbit; and they knew that both astronaut and spacecraft could be safely recovered after spaceflight.
But the object of both the American and Soviet space programs was the moon, and to NASA, it was not yet clear that the trip could be achieved. A lunar voyage would necessarily demand more than one astronaut, and it would require a command module and a lunar lander to separate, carry out separate tasks, and later rendezvous and dock together. To travel to the Moon and back – a distance, in total, of nearly a half-million miles – would require astronauts to remain in space for at least two weeks. The spacecraft itself would need to be powered for a much longer period than was possible with the kinds of batteries used in a Mercury capsule, and it would have to be controlled by the astronaut to a much greater degree. If there were a problem with the docking mechanism, astronauts would have to exit one spacecraft and make their way to another while in orbit – an extravehicular activity (EVA) or “spacewalk.”
It wasn’t as if NASA had been caught flat-footed by these issues. Even as the hardware for Apollo was being designed, NASA had been developing a separate “Mercury Mark II” program that would test the hardware, systems, and techniques needed to reach the Moon. The program was announced in December 1961, and became officially known as “Gemini,” named for the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini (Latin for “twins”), which symbolized both the program’s two-man crew and its rendezvous mission.
The major goals of Project Gemini were, like Project Mercury’s, stated simply enough to understate their technical complexity:
- to subject astronauts and equipment to spaceflight lasting up to two weeks;
- to rendezvous and dock with orbiting vehicles, and to maneuver the docked combination by using the target vehicle’s propulsion system;
- to perfect controlled methods of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and landing at a preselected site;
- to perform extravehicular activities while in orbit, and to develop the capabilities and techniques for working in space.
To help the seven U.S. astronauts successfully conduct 10 two-man missions into space, NASA selected a second group, informally known as the “New Nine,” to complement the Mercury Seven. On Sept. 17, 1962, Neil A. Armstrong, Frank Borman, Jr., Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr., James A. Lovell, Jr., James A. McDivitt, Elliot M. See, Jr., Thomas P. Stafford, Edward H. White II, and John W. Young were introduced to the public. Gemini missions would also include five astronauts from Group 3, the “Next Nine,” who were introduced a year later: Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Eugene A. Cernan, Michael Collins, Richard F. Gordon, and David R. Scott. As in Project Mercury, each member of the New Nine was immediately immersed in a specialty area in the development of Gemini, such as simulators, cockpit layout, or boosters.
Given its mission requirements, the Gemini spacecraft would differ significantly from the Mercury capsule. It would need to be bigger, in order to accommodate two astronauts. It needed more powerful on-board computers, to handle the complicated changes in its orbital path. It would, for its longer-duration missions, be powered by fuel cells in addition to batteries, and it would be equipped with two hatches that could be opened from the inside by both astronauts, to allow them to exit the craft and work in space.
Astronaut Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, who flew in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, often said afterward that the Gemini craft was the most fun to fly. “[With] Mercury, the flight path was predestined,” he said. “You were aboard a ballistic flight around the world. So if you just went fast enough, you kept going around the world, until you slowed down and you came down,” he said in a 1998 NASA interview with NBC News science correspondent Roy Neal. The pilot of a Gemini capsule could move it forward, backward, and sideways in space, a truly piloted craft.
Cooper, also a Mercury and Gemini astronaut, explained to Neal another significant difference between the Mercury and Gemini capsules. “The noise level in Mercury was really quite high,” he said, “because of the inverters and the motors and all the things running right in the same shell you were in. So in Gemini, we moved all of these systems out into an adapter section. We needed more room, too, for putting in fuel cells and batteries and a propulsion system, to be able to do a little bit of orbital maneuvering for rendezvous.”
Because it was bigger, the Gemini capsule was also heavier, weighing around 8,400 pounds – too heavy to be lifted into orbit by the Atlas rocket that launched Mercury’s orbital flights. For its Gemini launch vehicle, NASA turned to the more powerful Titan II ballistic missile, which the Department of Defense had placed into service in 1963.
By the end of the Mercury program, the United States had pulled even with the Soviets in the space race, and in the first half of the 1960s, the Russian space program, to demonstrate to the world that it still owned the lead, pulled off a series of flashy stunts. In June of 1963, they sent the first woman into space: Valentina Tereshkova, an amateur parachutist plucked from her job as a cotton mill loom operator to join the cosmonaut program. In October of 1964, the spacecraft Voskhod I was launched into space, an occasion which, the Soviets pointed out, marked several firsts. It was the first spaceflight to carry more than one person (it carried three people, crammed into a capsule designed for one, which required each to go without a pressure suit), and it was the highest spaceflight then recorded.
Meanwhile, Project Gemini forged ahead, slightly behind schedule but still on target. The first two Gemini missions were unmanned. Gemini I was launched April 8, 1964, and demonstrated the structural integrity of the launch vehicle and its ability to place the spacecraft in orbit. After a pair of launch pad failures involving the guidance system and the fuel cells, Gemini II, an unmanned suborbital flight, was launched on Jan. 19, 1965, and successfully demonstrated the module’s heat shield protection, the spacecraft’s structural integrity, and the performance of the spacecraft’s on-board systems.
On March 18, 1965, the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stepped out of the airlock of his spacecraft, the Voskhod 2, and floated free in space for 12 minutes and nine seconds. The world’s first EVA was an amazing achievement that thrilled the world, and it proved that the United States still had some catching up to do, but NASA’s leaders remained unflappable. To them, the moon was the finish line, and they remained relatively unconcerned – however impressive the Soviet’s achievements might be – with the lead changes that took place in the interim.
The First American Spacewalk
Before NASA would attempt to match Leonov’s achievement, it launched a brief test flight of the manned Gemini systems, Gemini III, commanded by Mercury veteran Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom and co-piloted by John W. Young, on March 23, 1965. The following month, Ed White opened his hatch and stepped out of the Gemini IV capsule, tumbling out into the open vacuum of space – America’s first EVA. To compensate for being second overall, NASA made sure its images of White’s 22-minute free fall were far superior to the blurry black-and-whites returned from Voskhod 2. The images snapped by Gemini IV’s commander, James McDivitt, were breathtaking: They captured White, tethered to the spacecraft by a golden umbilical, floating high above snowy-looking clouds and brilliant blue oceans. Among all the images NASA has collected since, these remain some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring. Almost immediately after they were developed, one was made into a U.S. postage stamp. The experience was certainly moving for White, who, when ordered back into the capsule, expressed reluctance, and when once again seated next to McDivitt, said, “It’s the saddest moment of my life.”
The next two missions encountered several glitches. Gemini V, an eight-day, 120-orbit flight by Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, revealed balky performances by the craft’s new fuel cells, and Gemini VI, the first mission calling for rendezvous with a target vehicle – an unmanned Agena rocket stage – was scrubbed when the Agena rocket exploded shortly after launch.
Gemini VI and VII: A Hard-Won Rendezvous
Rather than abandon the mission altogether, however, NASA flight controllers devised a bold alternative: Gemini VII, a 14-day flight commanded by Frank Borman and co-piloted by Jim Lovell, would be taking off in December of 1965. Why couldn’t the Gemini VI capsule hunt down and rendezvous with them? The vehicles weren’t yet prepared for docking, but they could still demonstrate rendezvous maneuvers – and place four Americans in space at one time.
Gemini VII launched into orbit on Dec. 4; on Dec. 12, the renamed Gemini VI-A encountered more trouble – this time, a much more frightening situation. During launch, the engines of the Titan launch vehicle inexplicably shut down. The on-board computer indicated that the rocket had briefly left the launch pad, which meant the crew – Commander Wally Schirra and Co-pilot Tom Stafford – would have to forcibly eject themselves from the capsule.
Schirra was faced with an agonizing split-second decision. If the rocket had, in fact, lifted off the ground, even as much as a foot, it would likely settle back down and collapse in a fiery explosion. If Schirra and Stafford activated their explosive ejection seats, they would ruin the capsule for another mission; more important, ejection at such a low altitude could kill them. Schirra, his hand on the ejection ring, waited for the imminent explosion, but heard nothing. Launch controllers quickly figured out the automated system had detected a problem and shut down the engines before liftoff. Schirra’s experience had paid off, and he and Stafford were back in the capsule a few days later. They caught up with Lovell and Borman on Gemini VII’s last day in space, and proved the precise maneuverability of the Gemini spacecraft; at one point, the two capsules were a mere foot apart as they hurtled over the Earth at about 25 times the speed of sound. Borman and Lovell’s 14-day flight was essentially flawless, and the two astronauts splashed down in good health after two weeks in space.
Armstrong Averts Disaster
Now that Gemini VI and VII had demonstrated the fine maneuvering of the capsule, it was time to attempt a “hard dock” with a target vehicle. Gemini VIII, commanded by Neil Armstrong and co-piloted by David Scott, performed the first successful hard dock in space on March 16, 1966, but shortly thereafter, things went horribly wrong. What followed were some of the most terrifying moments in the history of the U.S. space program. A thruster on the Gemini VIII capsule was held open by a short circuit in the electrical system, and sent the capsule and target vehicle spinning end-over-end.
Fortunately, Gemini VIII had a quick-thinking commander. Armstrong had been a test pilot for the X-15 rocket plane, which had also been controlled by maneuvering thrusters – and which had flown at speeds that literally raked the paint from its fuselage. Armstrong, struggling to stabilize the capsule, jettisoned the target vehicle, but Gemini VIII’s tumbling worsened, spinning now at about one rotation per second, a rate that could, in time, cause both Armstrong and Stafford to lose consciousness.
Armstrong made the emergency decision to use re-entry fuel to counter the thrust. His skillful counterfires stabilized the capsule enough that the rate of spin was slowed until the stuck thruster ran out of fuel. Because they had consumed re-entry fuel, however, their mission was cut short, canceling Scott’s planned spacewalk, and Gemini VIII was brought down for an emergency splashdown in the Pacific after a mission that, once again, validated the wisdom of placing a skilled pilot in the cabin of a NASA spacecraft.
Solving the Spacewalk
One of the remaining unsolved questions for NASA, after Ed White’s fanciful tumble through space, was whether an astronaut could work purposefully in space. The first attempt to do so was made by Eugene Cernan in June of 1966, on Gemini IX-A – a mission that had also been delayed by the failed launch of an Agena target vehicle. Though a second attempt was successful, the shroud that was supposed to peel back over the target vehicle’s docking mechanism became stuck, and Cernan and Commander Tom Stafford turned their attention to rendezvous maneuvers and Cernan’s spacewalk, during which he was scheduled to test a new backpack astronaut maneuvering unit (AMU).
Cernan found the going rough in space. With nothing to hold onto or push against, he flailed about ineffectually, his considerable strength of no help at all in the weightless environment. His advisers on the ground became concerned when his heart rate rose to near his maximum, the exertion so great that his visor fogged, obscuring his vision. His EVA was cut short after an exhausting two hours – he was later found to have lost 10 pounds during that time – and Cernan never made it to the AMU. Even with careful direction from Stafford, he barely made it back inside the spacecraft.
The next two EVAs – by Michael Collins in Gemini X and Richard Gordon in Gemini XI – revealed similar difficulties. Collins, on July 19, 1966, performed a “stand-up” spacewalk, bracing himself in the frame of the hatch rather than venturing outside, but a second spacewalk was riddled with problems: After a struggle, he retrieved a micrometeorite collector from the side of the spacecraft, but the collector later floated out of the cabin and was lost. He traveled over the Agena to retrieve another collector, but could not find anything to hold on to, and had trouble making it back to the capsule. The gas gun Collins used for maneuvering in space stopped working, and it took the two men eight minutes to close the hatch as they struggled to tame the 15 feet of Collins’ umbilical cord. Gordon’s first EVA, during which he straddled the target vehicle and attached a tether that would make for an easier rendezvous, was cut short at 33 minutes after he became overtired. The next day, he performed a two-hour, stand-up EVA.
In advance of their last manned Gemini mission, NASA astronauts had arguably not demonstrated an efficient working EVA. Its crew for Gemini XII, its last shot, would prove well-chosen: Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, a Ph.D. who had written his thesis on orbital mechanics, studied the problems reported by White, Cernan, Collins, and Gordon, and developed underwater simulations to study the mechanics of moving in low gravity. Based on his experiments and the input of the other spacewalkers, NASA engineers tried to improve the odds of a successful EVA by adding handholds and railings to the capsule and target vehicle, as well as shoe restraints in the area where Aldrin would be working.
Gemini XII, commanded by Jim Lovell, launched on Nov. 11, 1966, and performed its rendezvous, docking, and orbital adjustments relatively smoothly – even demonstrating, after the failure of a radar guidance unit, that the docking procedure could be conducted manually. After a two-hour stand-up EVA on Nov. 12, Aldrin ventured out of the hatch on Nov. 13 to photograph star fields, retrieve a micrometeorite collector, and tether Gemini XII and the Agena target vehicle together. Each of his movements was planned in advance, and Aldrin didn’t break a sweat during the two-and-a-half hours he spent in space. His approach to planning and simulating an EVA became a standard for NASA.
With Gemini XII, NASA had at last achieved what had, perhaps unexpectedly, become the trickiest of its mission objectives – the purposeful spacewalk. After Aldrin’s pioneering studies and successful demonstration, NASA had the EVA down.
Surveyor I, NASA’s first unmanned lunar lander, had, just a few months earlier, sent back close-up images of the surface of the Moon – a milestone, but still behind the Russians, whose Luna 9 probe had performed the first soft Moon landing in February 1966. By the end of the Gemini program, however, as the Apollo launch complex was being constructed at the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, the achievements of American astronauts had surpassed those of Soviet cosmonauts. The Moon had never been closer.
March 23, 1965
Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom
Pilot: John W. Young
4 hours, 52 minutes, 31 seconds
June 3-7, 1965
James A. McDivitt
Pilot: Edward H. White II
4 days, 1 hour, 56 minutes, 12 seconds. This marked the first extravehicular activity (EVA) by an American, a 22-minute spacewalk by White.
Aug. 21-29, 1965
Pilot: Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr.
7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes, 14 seconds. Gemini V made the first weeklong flight and the first use of fuel cells for electrical power. It also completed 120 orbits.
Dec. 4-18, 1965
Frank Borman, Jr.
Pilot: James A. Lovell, Jr.
13 days, 18 hours, 35 minutes, 1 second. Primary objective was to see whether humans could live in space for 14 days. Gemini VII was also used as a rendezvous target for Gemini VI-A.
Dec. 15-16, 1965
Walter M. “Wally” Schirra
Pilot: Thomas P. Stafford
1 day, 1 hour, 51 minutes, 24 seconds. Achieved the first space rendezvous with Gemini VII, maintaining an assigned orbit (station-keeping) for more than five hours at distances from 1 to 300 feet apart.
March 16-17, 1966
Neil A. Armstrong
Pilot: David Scott
10 hours, 41 minutes, 26 seconds. Accomplished first hard docking in space. Armstrong overcame a thruster malfunction that caused a near-fatal tumbling. He also made the first emergency landing of a manned U.S. space mission.
June 3-6, 1966
Thomas P. Stafford
Pilot: Eugene A. Cernan
3 days, 21 minutes, 50 seconds. Three different types of rendezvous, two hours of EVA, and 44 completed orbits. Docking attempt aborted when the shroud on the target vehicle did not completely separate.
July 18-21, 1966
John W. Young
Pilot: Michael Collins
2 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds. First use of the Agena target vehicle’s propulsion systems. Collins had 49 minutes of stand-up EVA and 39 minutes of EVA to retrieve an experiment from the Agena stage.
Sept. 15-16, 1966
Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr.
Pilot: Richard F. Gordon
2 days, 23 hours, 17 minutes, 8 seconds. Gemini record altitude reached using the Agena’s propulsion after rendezvous and docking.
Nov. 11-15, 1966
James A. Lovell, Jr.
Pilot: Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin
Docked manually with the target Agena. Aldrin set an EVA record of 5 hours, 30 minutes, with one spacewalk and two stand-up exercises, demonstrating improvements on previous EVA problems.
This story originally appeared in Apollo 11: 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing.