Oct. 25, 1965
Rendezvous, the key to the moon, to our future in space.
Rendezvous, a slight mysteriousness in the word, evoking the feeling of midnight meetings at foggy oceanside docks.
But this is real.
No more phantoms, a real chase in space. A double launch, 90 minutes apart. On Pad 14, an Atlas is counting down for launch just before 10 a.m. It’s carrying the Agena rocket stage, basically a long tube, rocket engine on one end, cone-shaped collar on the other. The docking collar into which the nose of a Gemini will lock.
Up missile row on the Cape shores, at Pad 19, Gemini 6 is ready to rocket 90 minutes after the Atlas. Our liftoff is timed to occur as the Agena passes overhead after it’s first orbit. We will enter a lower orbit behind it and, because a lower orbit means a faster track, begin catching up, raising our orbit in steps until we circularize 17 miles below the Agena. Then we initiate terminal phase, pitching our nose up at the Agena, raising our orbit the final gap. On our fourth orbit, we’ll loop in front of the target, stationing keeping at 120 feet. Then moving in for the docking. Over the next few hours, we’ll practice docking with it several times, in daylight and darkness.
We’re buttoned up in the Gemini minutes before the Atlas launch. Liftoff of our target right on time. After about five minutes, the Atlas shuts down. Separation, and the Agena, on its own now, coasts a minute before firing it’s big Primary engine for three minutes to insert into orbit.
And all telemetry signals are lost. All tracking is lost. We await for the Canaries to acquire the bird. The word comes back, ‘No joy.’ Nothing, no radar contact, no signals.
Still we wait for final confirmation, perhaps the Agena made orbit, perhaps the Carnarvon station will pick it up over Australia.
They scan the skies, and the word is relayed to us. ‘No joy.’
The Agena had exploded at ignition. No joy, as we exit our spacecraft. Helmet off, I run my fingers through my hair. No joy. We’ve lost our target; that means we’ve lost our mission.
However, within minutes, managers from the contractors who built our Gemini and its Titan booster are talking of a new mission. The plan quickly moves up the management chain of command and is approved just four days.
Gemini 7 is to be launched in December on a 14-day marathon. Within 14 days, the launch team thinks they can repair the single Gemini pad, erect our Titan and spacecraft and launch us. We’ll rendezvous with Gemini 7. No docking, but we can prove rendezvous, the meat of the mission.
It’s audacious, and it’s going to happen within weeks of the failed Agena.