50 years ago today: Gemini 8

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A wild ride in space

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      March 16, 1966.  We’re set to inaugurate the second half of Project Gemini, five practice mission similar in shape.  All planned to last just three days.  All involving docking with an Agena stage launched just ahead of the Gemini.  All performing a spacewalk.  Each building on the flight before, honing the skills necessary to fly to the moon.

        And a special burden falling on Gemini 8, to make up the lost docking flight of the original Gemini 6 and press the pace forward.  From the pilot’s seat, we’re earmarked to make a spacewalk expanding the experience well beyond Ed White’s 20 minutes, to 2.5 hours outside.  We’ll don a prototype backpack stowed in the base of the Gemini Adapter and using an improved hand-held maneuvering gun and connected with a long umbilical line, fly from the Gemini to the Agena parked nearly 100 feet away.

*

In orbit now, docked.  Evening down there, in the U.S.  We’re getting word from Houston.  Back away from that beast, the Agena an unreliable creature.  If that thing goes wild, punch in a Command 400 to shut it down, undock, and burn some distance between you and that thing.  The final words of advice before we entered a long gap out of communications range.  Riding along nuzzled and muzzled to that Agena.  That Agena fat with fuel.  And an untrusting Mission Control not sure the rocket stage has received all the uplinked computer commands.

So far, though, the day has proceeded perfectly.

Agena launched 101 minutes prior to GT-8 – Check.

Gemini launched on time – Check.

Start M = 4 rendezvous profile, meaning rendezvous on the 4th orbit – Check

Five major maneuvers leading to rendezvous. – Check.

Stopped and station keeping six hours into the flight.  Houston calling, “You are go to dock.”

We move in at less than half a mile an hour, nosing the Gemini into the Agena docking collar.  “Flight, we are docked.  It was a real smoothy.”

*

Exactly 27 minutes after docking, now out of communications range, we notice that the combined stack is listing 30 degrees, building up a slight roll.  Could be the Agena going wild.

Command 400, switching Agena off.

Still rolling, beginning to tumble in all three axes.

Reset command, commanding Agena on, then off again.

Still tumbling, needing to pull away from the heavy Agena before it breaks the nose off.  But tumbling too fast to undock.  Firing the the OAMS thrusters, enough to momentarily steady the pair.  “Undock now!”  And from the pilot’s side, we hit the disconnect switch.  And back away cleanly from the Agena.

…And our Gemini, lightened, begin tumbling even worse.  The horror dawns, the problem is not with the Agena, but with us, with the Gemini.

Gemini 8 has gone wild, spinning out of control.

*

Coming into contact of the tracking ship Coast Sentry Quebec.  “CSQ,CSQ, Gemini 8.”  Signal spraying all over the sky from our pinwheeling craft.  Only a broken bit of message gets through, “We’re tumbling end over end.”

“Say again, Gemini 8.”

SCQ relays to Houston: Fragmentary contact, then LOS; loss of signal.  Loss of contact.     We’re spinning like a top, begin to black out.  Vision blurred, collapsing. Kill the OAMS system, and activate the Re-entry Control System, use the RSC’s separate system of nose jets to gradually wrestle Gemini 8 from its death fits.

But we’ve hosed out fuel vital for the re-entry.  “We’ve gotta land and soon.  What’s the next contingency splash zone?”    In the Western Pacific.  We align the crippled Gemini on the nightside by lights of Shanghai for retrofire.

Too dark to see where we’re heading. ‘I hope it’s water.’

*

Aboard the contingency recovery ship, USS Mason, a startled radio operator hears, “Recovery, this is Gemini 8, Gemini 8.  “We’re at 50,000 feet and descending on drogue chute.”

 

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