I’ve been rereading Andrew Chaikin’s book,A Man on the Moon, which was first published in 1994. It was the basis of Tom Hank’s HBO series, From the Earth to the Moon which appeared as twelve one hour episodes in 1998. Both the book and the HBO series covered the history of the American space program from its inception to the last human crewed landing by Apollo 17 on the surface of the moon in December,1972.
When people think of the American human space program, they mostly focus on the first Mercury astronauts, the moon landings, and the Space Shuttle program that followed. Most people forget entirely about the Skylab program (3 missions to the first American space station in 1973) and the Gemini program. Some people will forget that Americans are still flying into space to the International Space Station, or that we are in the process of developing three new manned spaceships that will replace the Space Shuttle by 2017: SpaceX Dragon, Boeing CST100, and Lockheed’s Orion, which is designed for interplanetary missions.
The Gemini program is particularly significant, for without it the moon landings would never have been possible. 2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of the first human crewed Gemini flight on March 23, 1965 which carried Gus Grissom and John Young into space for a brief flight of only about five hours. The Gemini program was short, lasting barely nineteen months, and came to an end in November of 1966. During that brief period, ten crews of two were placed into orbit, which meant that the launches came with amazing regularity. In order to get Americans to the moon before 1970 a whole slew of new technologies and techniques needed to be developed, and they needed to be perfected in a hurry. That’s what Gemini was all about.
Primary technologies and skills America needed were space walking, rendezvousing with other spacecraft in orbit, and learning to dock with those spacecraft. We now take all three of those things for granted, so much so that most Americans didn’t even know about the recent six hour spacewalk by to astronauts living on the space station last week; after all, such EVAs are now routine and about as exciting as a trip to the grocery store. When a Soyuz, Progress, Dragon, Japanese HTV or European ATV dock with the space station, it rarely even gets mentioned in the news; it would be like reporting on a UPS truck delivering a package from Amazon to your porch. But Gemini was the rush program that gave the United States the tools it needed for how to do all of that.
During Gemini IV Ed White became the first American to perform a spacewalk.
Gemini VI-A and VII were the first two spaceship to rendezvous in orbit, coming with just a few feet of one another and flying in formation together, ranging in distance from 1 to 300 feet for about five hours. Additionally, the crew of Gemini VII set an endurance record of nearly two weeks in space. They had to do that to demonstrate that astronauts could function well for extended periods in weightlessness: it takes a long time to get to the moon and back.
Gemini VII was mostly a long and boring slog: picture yourself trapped in the front seat of a VW bug with a friend and using depends undergarments for two weeks (Gemini capsules weren’t very big). But other missions were difficult and exciting. And one mission was nearly fatal.
The first docking between two spaceships in orbit occurred during the flight of Gemini VIII. Neil Armstrong was the command pilot of the mission. The goal of the flight was for him to fly his Gemini spaceship to an unmanned Agena Target Vehicle and dock it. The docking itself went smoothly and all seemed well.
And then the two spacecraft began tumbling, end over end. Armstrong’s first thought was that something was wrong with the Agena Target Vehicle and so he quickly undocked with it. Instead of solving the tumbling problem, it grew worse. The Gemini capsule was spinning end over end so quickly that he and his copilot David Scott were on the verge of blacking out. He barely managed to regain control of the capsule. They had to abort the mission immediately.
The subsequent missions of Gemini were less exciting: nothing went wrong that threatened anyone’s life. Gemini XI set the altitude record for human spaceflight up til that time, reaching an altitude of 739.2 nautical miles (by comparison, the current International Space Station orbits at about 250 miles up).
The final flight of Gemini was Gemini XII. Jim Lovell was the commander and Buzz Aldrin (who would go on to become the second man on the moon) docked with the Agena Target Vehicle and then Aldrin went on a spacewalk, setting the then record of five hours and thirty minutes outside his ship. Gemini XII splashed down in the Pacific on November 15, 1966. The first flight of an Apollo would happen on October 11, 1968. The second crewed flight of an Apollo, Apollo 8, took a trip to lunar orbit and back in December of the same year, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would become the first humans to walk on the moon barely three years after the last Gemini flight on July 20, 1969.
The technological jump from 1961, when John F. Kennedy first set a moon landing as a goal until it happened in 1969 is simply astounding. Gemini was an important step in that “giant leap for mankind.”