Gemini 5. Aug. 21-29, 1965
Endure. For the first time, a shot to beat the Russians. Capture the endurance record of five days in space. No spacewalks, no frills. Can’t even take off spacesuits. Just sit there amid the accumulating trash. Watching the world drift by the window. There’s that.
Eight days in space, the goal. Ol’ Gordo Cooper, denied naming his spacecraft, comes up with a logo and theme. He creates the first flight patch, showing a Conestoga wago emblazoned with the moto, ‘Eight Days or Bust.’ Of course the bureaucrats don’t like the slogan. “If they don’t fly the full eight, people will say the mission was a bust.’ The motto goes, but the patch stays, setting a new tradition.
Eight days or bust, along with rendezvous tests. Orbital mechanics, operating against a pilot’s intuition, got the best of us on the last flight. If you want to reach another object in orbit the technique works opposite earthly logic. If you gun straight for it, you move farther away. Thrusting forward, the spacecraft rises into a higher orbit. Like a sprinter in an outside lane, the spacecraft has farther to travel and falls behind. You need to slow down into a lower oribt, in effect taking the inside lane, then come up from under the target.
Sometimes the simplest things appear hard. Rendevous.
Sometimes the hardest things appear the simplest. Endure.
‘Feels might good.’
Some ‘pogo,’ up-and-down vibration as if riding a pogo stick. The stack is shaking hard, then smooths out 13 seconds before staging.
There’s that beautiful view.
Not much time for window gazing, as we begin a rendezvous exercise on the first orbit. Over Australia, we fire our jets to raise our perigee from 100 to 106 miles. Our target for rendezvous is hitchhiking along with us, a larger version of the ‘little rascal’ beacon carried on the last Mercury. Ejection of the Radar Evaluation Pod is set for the next orbit. The REP carries flashing beacons and a radar transponder which will answer ours.
Our Conestoga wagon is the first operational Gemini, equipped with radar and fuel cells. Replacing heavy batteries, fuel cells produce electricity by reverse electrolysis. Instead of zapping water with electricity breaking it into oxygen and hydrogen, the two elements are combined, yielding electricity and water. They’ve proven difficult to develop, and already on the first oribt, ours is acting up. The pressure in the oxygen tank is slowly falling.
I tell the Canaries station at the start of the second orbit, ‘We’re a little bit concerned about the low pressure, but nothing beyond that.’
Just over two hours into the flight, I yaw 90 degrees and eject the little REP from the rear of the spacecraft. We flip on the radar and immediate receive a signal showing it moving off at about 5 mph.
Now out of tracking range, the fuel-cell oxygen pressure has dropped too low to ignore, falling below 200 lbs. per square inch, less than one-forth the pressure at launch. I’ve never seen an fuel cell operate as such a low pressure. We’ve got to do something before the thing fails.
The only solution: Power down. Turn off the radar and abandon the REP.
We concur. Prepare for possible emergency landing, the orbit 6 contingency landing zone in the Pacific.
Pressures continuing to fall, 120 lbs. and lower. We start stowing equipment in preparation for landing.
Fourth Orbit. Oxygen pressure at 71 lbs….but holding. And the power cells continue to work. By the next orbit, the outlook is brightening. We can begin powering up some equipment and suspend our preparations for landing. We’re go for the night.
It’s a cold, uncomfortable sleep. The heat of the electronics usually keeps the cabin warm. Most of the system are still off.
Day two. With the fuel-cell tanks gradually warming, the oxygen flow increases, providing more power. We resume a normal flight plan, although the REP exercise is lost, the pod’s batteries long dead. Photograph forms the bulk of the chores.
‘We’ve got to watch these lens changes. We’ve got every piece of gear in the spacecraft floating around.’
Day three. The highlight of the mission comes in a phantom form. Houston devises a make-up rendezvous game for us to play. They plot the course of an imaginary target. We attempt to make rendezvous with the phantom Agena rocket. Coming out of the gate on orbit 32, I fire our main OAMS jets for 28 seconds. It’s an Apogee Adjust burn, the first of four. The maneuver places the high point of our orbit 17 miles below the phantom.
On the next orbit, I make two burns, their names ringing with the dance. Phasing maneuver, a 20-second raising the perigee to initiate fast catch up. Out-of-plane, a 15.4-second burn to the side to align the track of our orbit to the phantom’s.
One last burn on the 34th orbit, the co-elliptic maneuver, a 23-second burst to raise our perigee 17 miles directly below the phantom. Reaching the high point of the orbit, we would have been within half a mile of our imaginary companion. We end the exercise there; the phantom Agena a ghost that exorcized many of the demons of rendezvous.
Floating through the days in isolation.
Day 4, observe the launch of a Minuteman missile from California. ‘I see it, I see it. …Right through a hole in the clouds. There he goes.’
Day 5, pass the Russian’s endurance record. The fuel cells are producing too much water, have to reduce the electrical load. Power down. Again the cabin becomes cold, our breaths turning the frost, freezing on the windows.
Two yaw-left thrusters fail. The OAMS jets become sluggish.
We observe the tall, cyclonic swirl of Hurricane Betsy. Moving toward our splashdown zone. Houston decides to shift the recovery area, which means we come down an orbit short of a full eight days.
Orbit 120, out last. Houston allows us to position the Gemini with the Reentry Control System, two rings of thrusters on the capsule’s nose. The RSC is a separate control system, usually reserved only for re-entry, thus avoiding the problems of Mercury when fuel ran short.
We fire our retros in darkness. With the nose jets controlling position, I feel like we’re sitting in the middle of a fire, the glow surrounding us. As we pass over the Mississippi, we come into dawn.
We’re banking left, performing a lifting re-entry. Yet the computer shows us coming down well short of the zone. Someone programmed the computer wrong, causing us to come in short.
At least we land in calm seas, after a flight of 190 hours 55 minutes 14 seconds. We show no lasting ill effects from eight days in space, are able to walk unassisted on the deck of the recovery carrier.
Eight days in space, the duration of a flight to the moon. We’ve proven one system can survive the journey, the human system.