50th anniversary — a rendezvous in space

gemini_7Gemini 7/6

December 4 – 18, 1965
*
December. The first Christmas mission. Gemini 7 going first, launched under a full moon. The moon rises above the vast blue sweep of the horizon, seems to float on top of the fuzzy bands of atmosphere. There – take a photo of it, looking small against the arc of earth. The distant goal, splotchy dark areas barely visible.
The vastness outside contrasts with the closeness inside. Fourteen days confined in a space the size of the front seat of a Volkswagen. Or a sports car, a nifty little two-seater. Deep footwells stuffed with equipment. Tiny windshield close to the eye. Dirty, sweaty, trying to keep the cockpit from become a floating trash can. Spent a good deal of training time poking around finding places to store refuse.
For the first time, astronauts are allowed to take off their spacesuits, special ‘soft’ suits which are less bulky than the standard Gemini suit. First one, then the other, sitting there in their government-issue long johns, beards growing, getting grubbier by the day.
Waiting for us. Through days of tedium, waiting for us, for their spirits to lift with us.
*
Ready for the chase.
Immediately after the launch of GT-7, technicians swarm over the launch pad, finding little damage from the fires of Titan. The next day, they raise up the Gemini 6 vehicle. Racing ahead of schedule, they ready it for launch a day early, just eight days after the GT-7.

‘Five, four, three, two, one – ignition.’
The count reaches zero as Gemini 7 flies overhead.
Turbines spin up with a whir, gushing propellants into the twin engines which burst to life. And with a slamming noise like boxcars banging to a stop, they shutdown. After just 1.2 seconds.
I hear them start, feel the vibration. Hear the screech. I don’t feel liftoff, and know it comes 3.5 seconds after ignition. However, my clock has begun running, signally liftoff.
‘We have a shutdown, Gemini 6,’ the capcom calls.
What’s happening? I didn’t feel liftoff, we seem OK. If I punch us out of here, pull the D-ring that fires our ejection seats, if I do that, an on-the-pad ejection, it could kill us. Those seats are that dangerous, especially at such low altitude.
No, stay with it. I trust my senses.
‘No liftoff, no liftoff,’ the blockhouse calls.
My eyes worry over the dials showing the status of the Titan. ‘Fuel pressure is coming down.’
We’re OK. We’ll live to fly another day.
*
Overhead, Gemini 7 says, ‘We saw it ignite; we saw it shut down.’
*
Re-cycle for launch in four days. Just time enough to pull off the mission.
Technicians swarm over the bird. The fault is quickly found, a tail plug that pulled too quickly, sending a false signal. Something else is found, a dust cover inadvertently left in an engine inlet port. If the tail plug hadn’t aborted the launch, the dust cover would have, but later. At liftoff, when it would have been too late to pull back.
Luck works in strange ways.
With everything shipshape, the crews gain a day. We’re ready for launch just three days after the abort.
We strap in once more, waiting for the moment when Seven is overhead. The blockhouse calls, ‘Gemini 6, you are go.’
‘Go!’ I urge. ‘Did you hear the man – go!’
Ignition. Liftoff. Go all the way. The chase has finally begun.
*
We swing into orbit 1,238 miles behind our quarry. We’re in a lower orbit, meaning we’re gaining on them. Our apogee is a bit lower than planned, so we make an height adjustment burn at the end of the first orbit. It’s a game of small adjustments, keep tweaking the orbit, shaving a path a bit closer to Seven. At 2 hours 18 minutes, a phase adjustment burn to raise our perigee, slow our rate of closure. Next orbit, a 40-second sideways out-of-plane burn to align the track precisely with Seven’s, performed at the point where our two orbits crossed.
We’re talking to the GT-7 crew, out there amid the constellations. Radar lock at 250 miles range. We’re looking at the data, working the calculations. Hardly time to look out the windows.
A one-second tweak to adjust our apogee. The co-elliptic burn, coming at 3 hours 17 minutes, circularizing our orbit 17 miles below our target. Classic orbital mechanics, pure. We’re ready to make the jump to Seven’s orbit.
We notice a bright star out there. It’s the sun glinting off Seven, at a slant range of 57 miles.
Terminal phase initiation at 5 hours 16 minutes. The computer calculates a set of course corrects as we climb into a higher orbit. Computing vectors, comparing ground and radar data. We’re vectoring for our target. Flying in darkness over the Indian Ocean.
About a mile away, GT-7 bursts into sunlight, the brightest thing I’ve ever seen. My dark-adapted eyes take a minute to adjust. We begin our braking maneuvers, our target growing into a half moon, appearing to ride rails straight for us. We ease to a stop 120 feet away from our twin.
‘There seems to be a lot of traffic up here.’
‘Find a traffic cop!’
*
For the next few hours, we dance around Seven, viewing our twin from all sides, moving as close as a foot away. Can see the crew through the small windows, beards showing in the glow of their cabin lights.
Time to pull away for the night. With a blip of our jets, we move off. Sleep time, 15 hours since launch. So tired, we collapse, if that’s possible in weightlessness..
As a voice from our twin says, ‘We have company tonight.’
*
Our job done in a day, we come down the next morning. For the first time, the lifting re-entry works as advertised. We splash just seven miles from the carrier. Ride in the spacecraft all the way onto the carrier deck.
GT-7 comes down two days later. Damn if they don’t best us, coming in 6.4 miles from target. Legs a bit rubbery, they are able to walk across the carrier deck. No dizziness or long-term effects from 14 days in space. The human element is cleared for the longest lunar missions we can imagine.

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