Volume 04, Issue 7
A historic rendezvous
The world's first hookup of two manned and maneuverable spacecraft, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7, took place 40 years ago
BY LARRY MERRITT
December marks the 40th anniversary of the world's first rendezvous of two manned and maneuverable spacecraft, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7. This success paved the way for Project Apollo, with its ambitious goal of landing a human on the moon.
But on Oct. 25, 1965, two months before the history-making flight, NASA suffered a disappointing setback that could have thrown the whole Gemini program off schedule. That morning, the launch of Gemini 6 from Florida's Cape Kennedy was canceled 42 minutes before liftoff. The mission was scrubbed because the unmanned Agena target vehicle, with which astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were to rendezvous and dock, failed to reach orbit. It would take six months for another Agena to be readied.
Watching the day's events unfold were three officials from the McDonnell Company (now part of The Boeing Company), which built Gemini: spacecraft chief Walter Burke; his deputy, John Yardley; and Ray Hill, head of the company's launch team at the Cape.
The three devised a bold plan to keep Project Gemini on track. They proposed using Gemini 7, scheduled for a Dec. 4 launch on a 14-day mission, as the rendezvous target for Gemini 6. For the plan to work, Gemini 6 would have to launch within two weeks after Gemini 7—and from the same launch complex, Pad 19, the Cape's only site equipped to handle Gemini spacecraft. The normal time between Gemini launches was two to three months.
Their idea was based on more than just a brainstorming session. It built on a fast-turnaround plan done some months earlier by Martin Marietta, makers of the Gemini's Titan II launch rocket.
The next day, Burke and Yardley flew to meet with Bob Gilruth, director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center. Gilruth was skeptical about the idea but called in his top technical directors to talk it through. They were intrigued but didn't see how it could be done. Discussions continued. After several hours, all agreed there might be a way. They spent the next day refining the details.
On the morning of Oct. 28, NASA Administrator James Webb called a press conference to announce the Gemini 7 and Gemini 6 rendezvous mission. He called it the "Spirit of 76." That the entire series of events unfolded in only three days was a testament to the enormous trust NASA leadership had in its government-industry team.
That same day at Cape Kennedy, Hill rounded up members of the McDonnell launch team and told them about their new mission. He distributed a plan so detailed that every item of work from the launch of Gemini 7 to the launch of Gemini 6 nine days later was scheduled to the nearest 15 minutes.
"They've got to be kidding," assembly foreman George Baldwin remembered thinking. But like everyone else on the team, he brought to the task enthusiasm, confidence to meet any challenge and extensive experience in all aspects of manned-spaceflight preparation.
By noon the next day, Oct. 29, Gemini 6 and its booster had been removed from Pad 19 and placed in storage, and Gemini 7's Titan booster was erected in its place. The Gemini 7 spacecraft was raised to the top of the launch tower on Nov. 11 and mated to its Titan rocket. Then came 23 days of mechanical and electrical checks.
On Dec, 4, right on schedule, Gemini 7 was launched from Pad 19 on its epic 14-day journey. The primary mission of astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell was to evaluate the physiological effects of a long-duration fight on a human crew. Their new secondary goal was to be the rendezvous target for Gemini 6.
Less than 24 hours later, Gemini 6 was erected on Pad 19 and preflight checkouts began. The goal was to have Gemini 6 ready for launch in nine days. But working up to 16 hours a day, hundreds of McDonnell, Martin and NASA technicians had the spacecraft ready by the end of the eighth day.
On Dec. 12, while Gemini 7 began its ninth day in orbit, Gemini 6 sat ready to go on Pad 19. But its liftoff was scrubbed a second time when the Titan's rocket engines automatically shut down one second after ignition because an electrical plug dropped out of the booster. Once again the launch crew moved into high gear. Another around-the-clock effort reduced the normal 96-hour cycle to restart the countdown to 72 hours.
On Dec. 15, with only three days left for Gemini 7's mission, Schirra and Stafford successfully blasted off in Gemini 6.
After a dramatic six-hour chase, the world's first rendezvous of two manned spacecraft took place 185 miles above the Pacific island of Guam.
Back on Earth, flight controllers in Houston's mission control cheered and lit up victory cigars. In St. Louis, the event was marked with typical Midwestern restraint. James S. McDonnell, the company's founder and chairman, made a brief speech on the plantwide public address system. He extended his gratitude to all involved and made a point of thanking those who had spent the past four years developing and testing the rendezvous system.
At Cape Kennedy, Ray Hill and his launch team cheered for a few minutes. Then Hill reminded everybody the next launch, Gemini 8, was three months away. Compared to what they had just been through, it sounded like a very long time.
Meanwhile, in twin orbits above the Earth, Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 spent nearly six hours flying in formation, sometimes no more than a foot apart. Then Gemini 6 headed for home and Gemini 7 went on to complete its endurance mission.
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