Our SpaceFlight Heritage: 50 years since Gemini XII
On Nov. 11, 1966 – 50 years ago – the final flight of NASA’s historic Project Gemini lifted off from Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Commander Jim Lovell and pilot Buzz Aldrin spent three days pushing the program farther than it had ever been before and conducted the one of the first completely successful EVAs (extra-vehicular activity).
The Gemini program followed NASA’s Project Mercury and served as a testing ground for the development of techniques of space navigation, rendezvous and docking, spacewalking, and many other things that would be needed for the upcoming Project Apollo flights.
“I have given a great deal of thought recently to the subject of how best to simulate and train for extravehicular activities,” said Dr. Robert Gilruth, the director of the Manned Spacecraft Center (which has since been renamed Johnson Space Center) in a memo to Deke Slayton, the director of Flight Crew Operations. “Both zero ‘g’ trajectories in the KC-135 and underwater simulations should have a definite place in our training programs.”
The Gemini spacecraft was of a similar shape and approximate size of the Mercury capsule, but was an entirely different spacecraft. It had a retrograde section containing maneuvering thrusters, drinking water, oxygen, fuel tanks, as well as electrical power and communications systems.
Where Mercury capsules were launched by the Redstone and Atlas rockets, Gemini spacecraft were launched by the Titan II. Additionally, where Mercury was barely large enough inside to fit a lone astronaut, the Gemini capsule was built for two.
Project Gemini pushed the United States, for the first time, ahead of the Soviet Union in the race to the Moon by accomplishing the first rendezvous and docking on Gemini VIII (launched on March 16 of 1966).
Throughout Gemini, numerous spacewalks were attempted. The first, by Ed White on Gemini IV, was brief but successful. The second, conducted by Eugene Cernan on Gemini IX, was a near disaster. Cernan’s faceplate fogged, his tether became like a snake that constantly snarled him, and he was unable to find purchase on the spacecraft in order to complete his task. All total, he spent some two hours and eight minutes outside of the spacecraft, but it taught NASA that it still had much to learn about the complex science of extra-vehicular activity.
As the Gemini program continued, Buzz Aldrin, a.k.a. “Dr. Rendezvous“, helped to develop a series of grips and footholds on the exterior of the Gemini capsule as well as the Agena target vehicle to anchor the astronaut while completing tasks.
When the spacecraft’s rendezvous radar failed, Aldrin, who had completed his doctoral thesis in orbital rendezvous (hence the nickname), used the onboard computer and charts to carry out the rendezvous with the Agena target vehicle.
The Gemini program was instrumental in advancing American space techniques from the primitive and tentative Project Mercury to the refined techniques used by the highly successful Apollo Moon landings that took place between 1969–1972.
Gemini XII returned to Earth on Nov. 15, and its keystone place in getting men to the Moon was highlighted by the president at that time.
“Today’s flight was the culmination of a great team effort, stretching back to 1961,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said. ”It directly involved more than 25,000 people in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Defense, other government agencies, universities, other research centers and in American industry.”
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.