A gulf of twenty months passing since the flight of Gordo Cooper in Faith 7. A different President in the White House, different music on the radio. Little seemed the same as twenty months before. In March 1965, the first official U.S. ground troops enter Vietnam. And Gemini finally flies. A Mercury-like three orbits on the first manned test.
I remember sprawling out on the dining room floor with an old issue, April 1964, of National Geographic, with a cover showing a Gemini astronaut taking a space walk, the issue’s main story detailing how we would get to the moon, beginning with the next step, Project Gemini, detailed color illustrations showing how the two-man spacecraft would rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle. The sound from the TV in the background giving constant updates on the flight.
Only that couldn’t have been. Fifty years ago, March 23rd was a Tuesday. I would have been in school. Still, I claim to have been up there with Gus Grissom and John Young, flying Gemini 3, the Molly Brown.
Stage-one ignition of the Titan’s twin engines. Three seconds later, liftoff. So smooth I can’t feel it, but I see it on the instruments and call, ‘The clock has started.’ And I see it through the eye-shaped window directly in front of me, the sky wheeling. ‘There’s roll program.’ Onto the correct heading.
The Cape calls, ‘You’re on your way, Molly Brown.’
The Titan, a two-stage rocket, expends stage one in 2 min. 34 seconds. BECO. Acceleration drops from 6 gs two one. Fire-in-the-hole, stage two ignites prior to separation, unlike the design of most rockets. A flash of reddish-orange light is tossed up past the windows. Stage two provides a steady acceleration slowly building towards orbit.
‘Molly Brown is go.’
Just before orbital insertion, the rocket noses over. The horizon rises into view, brilliant blue.
SECO, followed by a 20-second coast before capsule sep. Separation occurs with bark like a howitzer. I blip my aft-firing thrusters for 15 seconds. to move away.
There’s Bermuda, like a map, rising up before us. In the glowing sea.
Sixteen minutes into the flight, I test the attitude control thrusters in several control modes. Gemini is equipped with six, ranging from completely manual to fully automatic.
Everything is go, until just passing beyond range of the Canaries station. The instrument panel goes haywire, indications showing a dramatic drop in oxygen pressure. I slam shut the visor of my helmet. But it’s a faulty power converter for the panel, not the systems themselves. A switch to backup, and everything comes back up green.
Clear skies over Australia. The lights of Perth shine their greeting, just like the Mercury days. Not much conversation with the ground, all work, preparing for the big event of the mission. For the first time, a manned spacecraft is going to change it’s orbit, a test of techniques necessary for rendezvous.
Over Texas, 1 hr. 33 min. since launch, I set the long snout of the spacecraft on the horizon, pull out the throttle on my left, and fire the Orbital Attitude Maneuvering System. OAMS, pronounced ‘Ohms.’ Two jets fire for 74 seconds, slowing Molly Brown. I can’t even hear them burn. Our orbit changes from 140 miles apogee and 100 miles perigee to a near circular 105 by 98.
We’ve fired at perigee, the low point of our orbit. Under the anti-intuitive laws of orbital mechanics, slowing down at perigee lowers the apogee high point on the opposite side of the orbit.
‘It handles easily,’ I report.
Orbit 2, and another kind of maneuver. Instead of changing Molly Brown’s height, I will adjust it’s north/south ground track, called the plane of the orbit. I point the spacecraft sideways to the direction of travel and fire both aft and forward jets, making a S-curve in space. First nudging the track to the south and then to the north. Ending up about a mile south of the original track.
The first plane change of a manned spacecraft, another step toward rendezvous.
Orbit 3, the last, and one final OAMS maneuver, putting Molly Brown into a ‘fail safe’ orbit. I fire at apogee for 109 seconds, lowering the perigee to just 52 miles. If the retrorockets should fail, the low orbit will bring us down safely anyway.
Just 11 minutes later, I cut loose the equipment section at the rear, exposing the four retros. A minute later, I fire them manually, holding the ship steady against the ripple fire. I keep Molly Brown within a degree of the proper position. Just like on Mercury, I feel as if the ship has reversed course.
An orange haze envelopes the capsule as it sears into the atmosphere. The color intensifies into a dark green in a long cone trailing in our wake. Orange sparks fly off the heatshield, wrapping around the capsule.
Unlike Mercury, Gemini can be flown as it descends. It’s designed to provide a slight bit of aerodynamic lift, adjusting course for the landing target in the Atlantic. The Cape tells me to bank left 45 degrees, then reverse right 55 degrees.
My onboard computer still saying I’m going to land short. Apparently, the Gemini doesn’t created as much lift as predicted in wind tunnel tests. We land 58 miles from the carrier, into choppy seas.
My window goes under water and for a moment I think Molly Brown is sinkable. But the parachute is dragging us just under the surface. I cut the chute and we bob to the surface.
It’s been a perfect test mission in just 4 hrs. 53 mins. That was the only thing wrong with the flight – it didn’t last long enough.