Five days after the two Russian cosmonauts crashed in snow-covered trees, the first countdown for Gemini was underway. Days before, Gus Grissom had created some management discomfort. He had never been able to shake off whispers that the sinking of the Liberty Bell Seven was due to his screwup rather than a technical mistake in the hatch. So Grissom named Gemini 3 “Molly Brown,” as in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
Well, we guys in the media loved it, and everyone else thought it was fun stuff except Washington. These NASA suits, looking for recognition of their authority, were not pleased. Orders were issued. No more names. We reporters extended our middle fingers and on the airways and in print, Molly Brown stayed.
Grissom and John Young closed Molly Brown’s hatches and roared off the new Titan II pad. The big rocket easily pushed the first Gemini into orbit, where Grissom and Young were told to stay for three trips around Earth. There they would wring out the new ship by testing Molly Brown’s systems. They fired its onboard rocket thrusters. The rocket blast moved them into a higher orbit, and then they lowered the Gemini into another, and just for the fun of it, they changed their orbital plane. These were not only maneuvers essential for going to the moon, they were essential for rendezvous and docking with other spacecraft.
Gus Grissom and John Young board Molly Brown, the first Gemini spacecraft. (NASA).
The Russians hadn’t done any of this stuff yet.
The new Mission Control in Houston wouldn’t be up and running until the next Gemini launch. Gemini 3 was flying under the direction of Mercury Control at Cape Canaveral, and it came out of orbit with its crew bragging, “Man, does this baby handle right!”
Molly Brown made a perfect splashdown on the Atlantic, where Grissom, taking his title as commander seriously, changed the landing plans. He kept Gemini 3’s hatches closed until navy frogmen secured the bobbing spaceship with a flotation collar. He was to have opened the hatches for fresh sea air, but there was no way he was going to let water into this baby. The delay took time, and Grissom paid for his decision. The Gemini was a great spaceship, but it wasn’t worth a damn as a boat. It pitched and rolled, and Young, the naval aviator, laughed. Gus, the air force flyboy, was green, and John handed him the barf bag.
Finally recovery was over and though Grissom was still sick, his spacecraft didn’t sink, and Young was his usual charming self. He was now the seventh American to fly in space, the first not from the Mercury ranks, and—possibly more important in some quarters—Young gave Wally Schirra a run for his money when it came to high-skilled pranks.
Most any lunchtime you could find John in the Cocoa Beach Jewish delicatessen named Wolfie’s. It was his daily rendezvous with a corned beef sandwich.
Jewish delicatessens are what I love most about New York City, and Wolfie’s was as close as you could get in Cocoa Beach. The night before Gemini 3’s launch I was in Wolfie’s, listening to a fun ruckus in the kitchen. Naturally, my nose for news led me through the kitchen door, where some secret tests were underway. Certain members of the astronaut corps were concerned about crumbs gumming up the works in Gemini 3’s cockpit. Several corned beef sandwiches were taken to the top of a tall ladder and dropped on sandwich paper on the floor. The sandwich that held together the best without crumbling during “free fall” was sealed tightly into a package and given to the care of astronaut Wally Schirra. Wally smuggled it into John Young’s spacesuit pocket before Molly Brown headed for orbit.
A couple of hours into the flight, when the mission was under control, John brought out the tasty surprise, sharing it with Gus. Gus laughed, and Gemini 3’s crew enjoyed its Wolfie’s picnic in space.
Not a crumb was dropped, but when NASA’s medical teams heard about the great corned beef caper, they went ballistic. “Eating the sandwich in flight ruined our tests,” said one doctor. Engineers agreed. Any crumbs floating about in weightlessness could have fouled up any of the spaceship’s equipment and electronic systems.
Seeing a chance to get their faces on television, some members of Congress leaped into the fray, shouting, “NASA has lost control of its astronauts.”
Deke Slayton was caught between that old rock and hard place. His astronauts were aerospace engineers as well as pilots and were as concerned about the machines they flew as they were about their own persons. Besides, he had been told about the sandwich gag before liftoff and as long as it was packaged properly, and knowing the pressure his Gemini 3 pilots were under, he judged it a great way of relieving the tension.
Jay Barbree and Gus Grissom laugh about the great corned beef sandwich caper. (Barbree Collection).
So now he had to diffuse the brouhaha. He had to come to Gus and John’s rescue. He told the brass he had known about the sandwich and approved it, and then he wrote a new order: “The attempt to bootleg any item on board a flight without my approval will result in appropriate disciplinary action.” Whatever that is, Deke smiled. The prank was forgotten.
In Houston, the new Manned Spacecraft Center was nearing completion, with workers bolting down the last of the all-new Mission Control Center’s equipment. The mouthpiece for the astronauts in those days was a lovable pilot named Bob Button from New Jersey. He tried to live that down, but what the hell—someone had to be from New Jersey, and we reporters and astronauts loved him. Bob was the one kid who played well with all the others in the sandbox, and he loved to spend his off time around the local airport, where he’d created the Gemini Flying Club.
One of Button’s flying buddies was a pilot named Neil Armstrong. Armstrong wasn’t only an astronaut and one of NASA’s ace test pilots, he was an elite glider driver as well.
One day Button and Armstrong and colleague Jack Riley, from NASA’s Public Affairs office, decided to take a Piper Tri-Pacer up for some night flying. They just wanted to bore some holes in the black sky. Button took the pilot’s seat and Armstrong slid into the copilot’s chair, while Riley got in back and went to sleep.
The weather was CAVU (Ceilings And Visibility Unlimited), with none of those low cumulus clouds that always seemed to hover around Houston like fat moths, and as they passed five thousand feet Armstrong was watching the blackness grow darker. They were headed out over the Gulf of Mexico.
“We flew this way in almost total silence for about an hour,” Button told me. “We kept the lights of Houston barely in sight on the northern horizon.”
Then, Armstrong broke his silence. “Okay, let’s head back.”
“By now,” Button continued, “we were topping ten thousand feet and it was a long way down for the little Tri-Pacer. So, in order not to build up ice in the carburetor while coasting downward, I reached for the carburetor heat, pulled it out. SILENCE! The engine quit. I had pulled the wrong knob, the mixture control, and starved the engine of fuel.
“Riley bounced awake and nearly put his head through the fabric roof of the Tri-Pacer. ‘What happened?’ he yelled. I’m slapping the instrument panel, pushing any knob that’s sticking out, trying to get the mixture back into full rich. The engine comes back to life with a roar; Riley settles down. Neil was his usual cool self. He never uttered a word. Just gave me a half grin. I had done a really dumb thing!
“We shed altitude down to the traffic pattern and I turned on final and made one of my better landings. Having screwed up once, I wanted the landing to be a grease job.”
I looked at Button, who was now laughing heartily at himself. “Do you realize you almost killed the man destined to first step on the moon?”
“That’s me,” Button continued laughing. “But Neil was great about it.”
Neil Armstrong and Bob Button sign flight logs following the loss of their aircraft engine power over the Gulf of Mexico. (Button Collection).
“What did he say?”
“He smiled and said, ‘Bob, I don’t mean to kibitz, but you might want to keep in mind what they teach at test pilot school: When you flip a switch or pull a knob, hang on to it until the airplane does what you told it to do. You might not be able to find it a second time.’”
On June 3, 1965, the Gemini 4 crew, James McDivitt and Edward White, roared into space for four days. On their fourth trip around Earth, White opened his hatch and stepped into space over the blue Pacific between Hawaii and New Mexico. America’s first spacewalk was underway. White took a deep breath to relax. He gripped a handheld gun armed with pressurized oxygen and fired it in timed spurts. It pushed him in the direction he wished to go. This steering jet, right out of the science-fiction comics, did its job. He could maneuver his body to the limits of his twenty-five-foot tether.
The beauty of Earth rolling by beneath him was incredible, and White somersaulted, floated lazily on his back, and pirouetted, grinning like a kid enjoying a summer swim. He could “fly,” and he witnessed one of the strangest satellites ever launched. A thermal glove he had left on his seat drifted up and away to begin its own orbit.
White and McDivitt were so taken by what was happening that the twelve minutes planned for the spacewalk passed quickly. It was time for White to get back inside while they still had daylight. Gus Grissom was the CapCom, the astronaut assigned to talk to the Gemini 4 crew from the new Mission Control south of Houston. He knew that the euphoria White was showing was akin to the dangerous “raptures of the deep” that scuba divers experienced.
Ed White was still frolicking in space, and Grissom called in his best command voice, “Gemini 4, get back in.”
McDivitt repeated the order: “They want you to get back in now.”
Astronaut Ed White on America’s first spacewalk. (NASA).
“What does the flight director say?” asked a happy Ed White.
Flight director Chris Kraft moved to his microphone and barked, “THE FLIGHT DIRECTOR SAYS GET BACK IN!”
White laughed. “This is fun! I don’t want to come back in, but I’m coming.”
But the spacewalking astronaut discovered that maneuvering his body along the Gemini without the use of the jet gun was easier said than done. After seven minutes of tough going, he finally made it back inside.
He had been out twenty-one minutes instead of the planned twelve, and he told Mission Control, “There was very little sensation of speed. The view was something spectacular. I could see the outlines of cities, roads. I could see the wakes of ships at sea.” A smiling Ed White added one more thing. “It was fun.”
Gemini 5, with Gordo Cooper and Pete Conrad, stretched long-duration flight to eight days. After spending that much time together inside a spaceship a little larger than a phone booth they splashed down, and newspapers everywhere ran a cartoon of them holding hands on the recovery carrier’s deck with the caption: “We’re engaged.”
Frank Borman and Jim Lovell bettered 5’s record. They stayed inside Gemini 7’s cramped quarters for fourteen days, prompting Lovell to say, “It was like spending two weeks in a men’s room.”
The monotony of their marathon mission was broken on day eleven by visitors from Earth.
Gemini 6’s astronauts, Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford, flew their spacecraft right up to Gemini 7, put on the brakes, and began station keeping. It was the first rendezvous in space.
“We’ve got company,” Lovell reported.
“There’s a lot of traffic up here,” Schirra told Mission Control.
“Call a traffic cop,” Borman laughed.
Finally, American astronauts had performed a meaningful space-flight feat ahead of the cosmonauts. The two Gemini ships orbited Earth together in formation, doing fly-arounds and circling each other in a series of figure eights. Schirra reported he closed to a distance of six to eight inches, backed off, and flew in again.
As Gemini 6 rendezvoused with Gemini 7 in orbit, 6’s naval commander Wally Schirra’s reputation for pranks was obvious. The Gemini 7 crew read in 6’s pilot window, “Beat Army.” (NASA).
Gemini 6 returned to Earth the next day.
Gemini 7 came home two days later.
Rendezvous of the two ships was another milestone on the way to the moon, but docking two ships in space was still out there. That job would now fall to NASA’s only civilian astronaut, Neil Armstrong, who first raced to the edge of space in NASA’s X–15 rocket ship. He would command Gemini 8 with West Point graduate Dave Scott.
The Agena target stage rode an Atlas rocket into orbit on March 16, 1966, and ninety minutes later Armstrong and Scott were off for the hunt. Gemini 8 caught its quarry, and commander Armstrong circled and inspected the Agena rocket to confirm its stability. Then, with utmost care, Armstrong slowly nudged Gemini 8’s nose into Agena’s docking collar. Electric motors drove the docking clamps together. The two were now one.
“Flight, we are docked,” the all-business Armstrong reported to Mission Control. “It was a real smoothie.”
“Roger there, 8,” came the reply. “Way to go!”
Docking done, they took a breath and Armstrong checked his flight plan. They were scheduled to fire the Agena rocket and let it boost Gemini 8 to a higher orbit.
But it was not to be. In that very instant, the long Gemini/Agena combination—slowly at first—took off rolling like a log in water. Armstrong and Scott had just enough time to realize what was happening before they were thrown into a struggle to survive.
They were, in fact, in the first real emergency in spaceflight. They were 185 miles above China, out of touch with Mission Control, and they were terrifyingly alone. They were linked to a rocket loaded with deadly fuel that had become a twisting, turning, ticking bomb, looking for an opportunity to explode.
The only good news for NASA was that Gemini 8 was in the hands of Neil Armstrong. He managed to reduce the roll to a point that he could undock the two craft. With a bang the ships let each other go, and Armstrong was astonished all over again.
“What the hell!” Dave Scott yelled.
Gemini 8 was spinning even faster. The astronauts now knew the problem had not been with Agena, but with their ship. One of Gemini 8’s sixteen maneuvering rocket thrusters had stuck open. It was spewing fuel at full throttle. Unless they regained control, the severe whirling of the astronauts meant they would soon pass out.
Suddenly, some good news. The tumbling and spinning Gemini 8 had completed its crossing over China and was now heading out over the far Pacific. Coastal Sentry Queen, a Gemini tracking ship, was listening. “We have a serious problem here…We’re tumbling end over end up here. We’ve disengaged from the Agena.” The ship was hearing Neil Armstrong’s calm voice.
“It’s rolling and we can’t turn anything off,” Armstrong continued his report. Then he threw away the book. He decided to use Gemini 8’s nose rocket thrusters—a no-no. The nose thrusters were there for reentry only. But he had to regain control. One by one he shut down the fifteen other maneuvering thrusters, and slowly, by switching to the reentry nose thrusters, he regained control. He would have to wait now until the thruster that was stuck open, the bastard causing all their pain, spewed all its fuel into space.
The runaway thruster kept spewing—for almost half an hour; then, and only then, did NASA’s top rocket man have full control of his ship.
“The X–15 was never anything like this,” said Armstrong, reaching for the book. With control, the rules were back, and the rules said that once reentry thrusters had been fired, for any reason, the astronauts were to bring their ship home.
Armstrong and Scott now had to land at the first opportunity, before they depleted the reentry thrusters’ fuel supply—before they would be left with no control of Gemini 8 whatsoever.
There was only one problem: They were nowhere near a main recovery area. Flight controllers huddled. Then they said, “To hell with it,” and ordered Armstrong and Scott to set up for an emergency landing in the western Pacific.
High over the African Congo, in darkness, Neil Armstrong fired Gemini 8’s retro-rockets. The braking rockets started their half-hour ride through an atmosphere of total darkness—there was not even the suggestion of a light in the African jungle or on the ocean below, and there was not even a voice from a tracking station to give comfort.
Armstrong and Scott performed the reentry with great skill. They splashed down 480 miles east of Okinawa, their shortened mission lasting just under eleven hours. Soon an air force rescue plane roared overhead, dropping rescue teams. Three hours later the astronauts were safe, enjoying hot food and showers aboard a navy destroyer.
Flight director Chris Kraft handed out his own statement: “The spin rate was up as high as 550 degrees per second, about the rate where humans lose consciousness, or the capability to operate. That was truly a fantastic recovery, and really proved why we have test pilots in those ships. Had it not been for the good flying, we probably would have lost the crew.”
Deke Slayton took a few days for Gemini 8’s emergency to settle some obvious facts in his mind. He told himself Neil Armstrong’s abilities to reason, to think, to handle emergencies, to fly the hell out of anything from the Wright brothers to rocket ships, made the civilian test pilot the leading candidate to land the first Apollo lunar module on the moon. He expected, and received, no objections from other department heads within NASA.
Deke also conceded that Gemini 8 proved rendezvous and docking would work, but the shortened flight left the technique without a track record. The final three Gemini missions would give NASA that needed history—not only in rendezvous and docking, but in using the Agena rockets to relaunch their Gemini ships into higher and different orbits.
The fan effect of the gantry being lowered and the Titan lifting off was achieved by eleven separate exposures on one sheet of film when Gemini 10 was launched July 18, 1966. (NASA).
But surprisingly to Deke, spacewalking proved to be the most difficult challenge for the Gemini crews. The problem had first raised its head when Ed White had so much trouble getting back in Gemini 4. In fact, Deke Slayton had talked to the Gemini commanders after that, telling them bluntly, “If your spacewalker becomes disabled, and he can’t make it back inside, cut him loose. Do not risk your life too.” It was a tough order, but they agreed.
Gemini 9’s Gene Cernan was picked to be the second American to take a stroll in space. Once he and commander Tom Stafford were in orbit, Cernan stepped outside, attached to a twenty-five-foot tether, looking forward to the frolicking good time Ed White had had. He charged off to do the things he’d been told to do—to spend two hours outside having a ball. But he couldn’t make any headway. He wasn’t trying to move in broad steps; he was just trying to move his body a few feet to the rear of the Gemini, to the equipment storage unit where he would strap on an astronaut’s maneuvering pack and attached himself to a 125-foot tether. But he couldn’t float, he couldn’t pull himself, he couldn’t walk, and he told me after the flight he sure as hell wasn’t having a ball. Without handholds and footpads, it was a fight for every inch he moved.
A snail could have made better time, but finally he was there. “Whew!” he radioed Stafford with a breath of relief. “It’s a strange world out here!”
“Take a rest,” Stafford ordered him.
Gene was grateful for the order, and as he rested, he wondered. Could Ed White’s steering jet have made the difference?
He caught his breath and tackled getting the astronaut-maneuvering unit on his back. He couldn’t. He had failed at everything he’d tried, and Cernan quickly came to the conclusion he was useless. Nothing really worked, and when it was over, the second American to walk, or whatever, in space had been outside two hours and nine minutes. All of it had been a terrible nightmare.
Mike Collins on Gemini 10, and Dick Gordon on Gemini 11, wrestled with the same problems as Gene Cernan and Ed White did. Collins, who used a steering jet to move from point to point, reported: “I found that the lack of a handhold is a big impediment. I could hang onto the Agena, but I could not get around to the other side where I wanted to go. That is indeed a problem.” Gordon, like Cernan, sweated and his visor fogged. “I’m pooped,” he said simply after cutting his walk short.
Deke Slayton wasn’t pleased. “What the hell is the matter with these spacewalk planners?” he demanded. “We’ve racked up rendezvous, docking, changing orbit, stopping and restarting rocket engines—all the things you need to do to get to the moon, but no one can function outside. What the hell is their problem? Can’t they figure this spacewalk thing out?”
There was one Gemini mission left and Deke Slayton, the director of flight crew operations, demanded a solution.
Veteran Jim Lovell would command Gemini 12. His spacewalking pilot would be Buzz Aldrin, an MIT graduate, and Aldrin had been listening. He was not only smart; Buzz was a tinkerer.
For his mission Aldrin fashioned special devices like a wrist tether, the same type of tether that window washers use to keep from falling, and he made portable handrails and handholds he could mount onto the Gemini or the Agena rocket. These would keep his body under control, but he needed shoes. He crafted himself a pair of “golden slippers,” foot restraints resembling wooden Dutch shoes he could bolt to a workstation in the Gemini 12’s equipment bay, and he was bringing along tools—a whole bunch of them that he could grip with his thick space gloves. But more important, they were tools that would function in weightlessness, in the extreme temperatures of space.
On November 11, 1966, the last Gemini thundered from its pad and hunted down its Agena target. Docking went perfectly, and then Buzz Aldrin went outside and banished the woes of spacewalking. He proved a master. He took his time, stopping here and there to do some work as he moved down the nose of the Gemini and then to the Agena, making his way without effort along a six-foot rail he had locked into place.
Aldrin hooked different equipment to the ship, removed other equipment, and reattached it. He used a unique “space wrench” to loosen and tighten bolts. He snipped wires, reconnected cables, and set in place a series of tubes.
Mission Control was stunned. John Young said, “You’d think he graduated from Georgia Tech instead of MIT,” and CapCom could only ask, “How’s them slippers, Buzz?”
“They’re great. Great!” Buzz sang: “I was walking through space one day…”
It was a great engineering achievement right out of Buzz Aldrin’s book, “Tinkering for Astronauts,” to end the Gemini program.
Deke smiled, and when the Gemini 12 crew returned to their quarters on the Cape, they were slack-jaw surprised.
James Lovell and Buzz Aldrin, are met in the astronauts’ Cape Canaveral quarters with the sign “WELCOME BACK RECORD BREAKING COSMONAUTS.” Their den mother, Lola Morrow, gave them the traditional Russian cosmonauts’ welcome of vodka, roses, and cosmonaut caps. From left to right: the astronauts’ nurse Dee O’Hara, Morrow, Aldrin, and Lovell. (Morrow Collection).
My good buddy Martin Caidin had the undisputed best sources within the Russian space program. His ancestors were Russian, and from the time Yuri Gagarin made the planet’s first flight into space, Martin was in and out of Russia; as previously mentioned, he coauthored cosmonaut Gherman Titov’s book, I Am Eagle. Marty never told me how and why he was over there so often, and I never asked. But when he returned a few days before Gemini 12’s flight, he brought back much memorabilia from the cosmonauts.
Our friend Lola Morrow was the astronauts’ den mother. Because James Lovell and Buzz Aldrin had such a record-breaking success to end Gemini, Lola had an idea. She plastered a huge sign on the wall: “WELCOME HOME RECORD BREAKING COSMONAUTS.”
When Lovell and Aldrin walked through the door, they were quickly adorned in cosmonauts’ fur caps and given the traditional red roses and vodka. The Gemini 12 astronauts loved it. Washington wasn’t pleased.