Since it is the fiftieth anniversary of the the end of the Gemini program in 1966, with the flight of Gemini XII on November 12-15, I thought it appropriate to reflect on what I refer to as the middle child in the heroic age of space exploration.
Even as the Mercury program was underway in 1961-1963 and work took place developing Apollo hardware, NASA program managers perceived a huge gap in the capability for human spaceflight between that acquired with Mercury and what would be required for a Lunar landing. They closed most of the gap by experimenting and training on the ground, but some issues required experience in space. Three major areas immediately arose where this was the case. The first was the ability in space to locate, maneuver toward, and rendezvous and dock with another spacecraft. The second was closely related, the ability of astronauts to work outside a spacecraft. The third involved the collection of more sophisticated physiological data about the human response to extended spaceflight.
To gain experience in these areas before Apollo could be readied for flight, NASA devised Project Gemini. Hatched in the fall of 1961 by engineers at Robert Gilruth’s Space Task Group in cooperation with McDonnell Aircraft Corp. technicians, builders of the Mercury spacecraft, Gemini started as a larger Mercury Mark II capsule but soon became a totally different proposition. It could accommodate two astronauts for extended flights of more than two weeks.
It pioneered the use of fuel cells instead of batteries to power the ship, and incorporated a series of modifications to hardware. Its designers also toyed with the possibility of using a paraglider being developed at Langley Research Center for “dry” landings instead of a “splashdown” in water and recovery by the Navy. The whole system was to be powered by the newly developed Titan II launch vehicle, another ballistic missile developed for the Air Force. A central reason for this program was to perfect techniques for rendezvous and docking, so NASA appropriated from the military some Agena rocket upper stages and fitted them with docking adapters.
Problems with the Gemini program abounded from the start. The Titan II had longitudinal oscillations, called the “pogo” effect because it resembled the behavior of a human on a pogo stick (then a popular toy). Overcoming this problem required engineering imagination and long hours of overtime to stabilize fuel flow and maintain vehicle control. The fuel cells leaked and had to be redesigned, and the Agena reconfiguration also suffered costly delays.
NASA engineers never did get a paraglider to work properly and eventually dropped it from the program in favor of a parachute system the one used for Mercury. All of these difficulties shot a $350 million program to over $1 billion. The overruns were successfully justified by the space agency, however, as necessities to meet the Apollo landing commitment.
By the end of 1963 most of the difficulties with Gemini had been resolved, albeit at great expense, and the program was ready for flight. Following two unoccupied orbital test flights, the first operational mission took place on 23 March 1965. Mercury astronaut Grissom commanded the mission, with John W. Young, a Naval aviator chosen as an astronaut in 1962, accompanying him.
The next mission, flown in June 1965 stayed aloft for four days and astronaut Edward H. White II performed the first extra-vehicular activity (EVA) or spacewalk. Eight more missions followed through November 1966. Despite problems great and small encountered on virtually all of them, the program achieved its goals. Additionally, as a technological learning program Gemini had been a success, with 52 different experiments performed on the ten missions. The bank of data acquired from Gemini helped to bridge the gap between Mercury and what would be required to complete Apollo within the time constraints directed by the president.