Only an accident gave us pictures of a Gemini capsule in flight. If all had gone by the plan, Gemini 6 would have performed the first orbital rendezvous with an unmanned Agena stage. But the Agena blew up during launch, so instead, Gemini 6 rendezvoused with Gemini 7 fifty years ago today, the two crews photographing each other’s spacecraft in what remain among the most stunning space photos ever taken.
Months later, I absorbed every detail of the two spacecraft in the April 1966 edition of National Geographic. “NASA Ektachromes by Thomas P. Stafford…and James A Lovell, Jr.” was print in small type under them. I knew all the parts comprising the spacecraft: The rendezvous and recovery section comprising the nose, the re-entry module of the conical crew compartment with it’s twin hatches, the retrograde section housing four retro rockets hidden under its skin, the white-skirted adapter section holding the fuel cells and fuel for the OAMS (pronounced “ohms,” like a Buddhist chant), the Orbital Attitude Maneuvering System, the thrusters studding the outside of the module. The nomenclature stirred me as poetry.
I was a child of Gemini, at the right age, 10-12, to be transformed and transported by the somewhat forgotten program of two-man flights in 1965 and 1966. Ten flights in twenty months, each expanding on the previous, each a step on the way to the moon. Rendezvous and docking, EVA (spacewalking) and long-duration flights (four, eight and finally fourteen days). Those twenty months stretched as if endless at my age, the moon and 1969 painfully distant in the future. One of the photos, taken by Gemini 7’s Jim Lovell, symbolized the distance, a tiny full moon bobbing just above the blue mists of Earth’s sweeping horizon.
Gemini was a great time to be a kid. I loved — and still do — the look of it, the capsule’s hound-dog face, the two windows like eyes looking out behind a long black snout. Evolved from experience with the Mercury capsule, the compact design was simply elegant, a two-seat sports car of a vehicle, capable of achieving rendezvous in a single orbit (Gemini 11).
My two favorite issues of National Geographic coincidently happen to be April ones, 1964 and 1966. The cover illustration of the April 1964 issue depicts a Gemini astronaut floating outside the capsule. The artist got it wrong in one respect. The painting shows the commander (or command pilot, as he was called) making the spacewalk from his lefthand seat. In reality, the pilot in the righthand seat would always make the spacewalks. The cover story spanned 44 pages, including a fold-out page, packed with photos and detailed illustrations. I saw Gemini rendezvousing with the Agena. Apollo flying to the moon.
The April 1966 issue brought the drawings to reality in seventeen in-flight photos, most of which showed the Geminis in orbital proximity. I learned to tell Gemini 6 and 7 apart (the nose of Gemini 6 held a white plate housing the rendezvous radar). As much as the pictures, the words captured my imagination. The article, subtitled “Milestones on the way to the moon,” begins with a post-flight quote from astronaut Jim Lovell: “It was nighttime, just becoming light. We were face down, and coming out the murky blackness below was this little pinpoint of light” that grew into Gemini 6 Those words sang to me. Still do.
Many writers claim to have began reading literature at an early age, swearing they read Shakespeare at age six. I didn’t read Shakespeare or anything else. Except everything about space. So instead of Proust or Hemingway or any literature great or small, I claim as an influence Kenneth F. Weaver. Science writer for National Geographic, he wrote the feature on the Gemini rendezvous. And I claim Hugh L. Dryden who wrote the April 1964 cover story, not a writer at all but NASA Deputy Administrator. And others on the way to the moon and beyond, such as John Nobel Wilford, space writer for The New York Times and Al Rossiter, Jr., science for the UPI. Also the many space articles in Life magazine. And the voice of Walter Cronkite. Nor can leave out the first space book I owned (and still have, of course), written for young astronauts like me, Walk in Space, about Project Gemini, by Gene Gurney.
I thought my destiny awaited in space, until words pulled me into their orbit. I wrote my first poem in early 1969. It was about Apollo 8’s flight around the moon. For me, there was no coming back.