Monday, December 1, 2008

Space Savvy

The Gemini Program Begins with a Bang

Soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, Eric Sevareid, a CBS news reporter said that his legacy was his attitude and contagious spirit that all things are possible for Americans if only we have the vision and will. In a speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962, President Kennedy sets a goal to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. At this point in time, the USA has a total of 20 minutes of spaceflight experience. This nearly inconceivable challenge is considered courageous and historic by some, arrogant and fool-hardy by others.

But NASA and the nation takes JFK's words to heart. The next step after the Mercury program is to graduate to the Gemini program and two-man capsules. The Mercury missions proved spaceflight was possible for human beings. Gemini will teach man how to fly to the Moon.
On September 17, 1962, a second group of astronauts arrive, four from the Air Force, two from the Navy, and two civilians. They are called The New Nine and several will become famous: Jim Lovell, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin among them. Rivalry between the astronauts is intense. Each wants to be first to step on the surface of the Moon.

John Young, one of the New Nine, and Gus Grissom of the original Mercury Seven are the first two astronauts paired for a Gemini mission. Their comaraderie and enthusiasm gives them a reputation among their peers of being a sort of 'dynamic duo.'

But there's a problem...

A more powerful rocket is needed to launch a two man capsule into space. The Air Force is developing the new Titan missiles but having difficulties adapting missile rockets to a manned Gemini vehicle. The Titans are initially a disaster (see YouTube video). One out of every five fails catastrophically. Astronauts watch as the rockets explode on the launchpad again and again. The odds aren't good enough to risk propelling a manned mission into space.

Engineers attack the problems and create safeguards and backup systems to make the rockets safer. Finally NASA launches two rockets in a row that don't explode with the unmanned Gemini 1 and Gemini 2 capsules. John Young and Gus Grissom will ride the next into space aboard Gemini 3. Their primary goal? Test the brand new rocket and capsule and return...alive. If anything goes wrong with the launch, Young and Grissom will be killed on live television with millions watching.

In a moment of optimism, Grissom names the Gemini 3 capsule The Molly Brown after the Broadway hit "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." He hopes the name will bring good luck and, if the voyage is successful, won't end with the same fate as his Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule which sank before recovery. The Molly Brown was the last NASA vehicle to be named by an astronaut.

The launch aboard the converted ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) goes flawlessly. The rocket stages fall away and the Gemini 3 capsule reaches orbit. Grissom and Young become the first Americans to fly in space together. They make three successful orbits of the earth testing important maneuvers and altitude changes that are essential first steps in reaching the Moon.

With the exception of a contraband corned beef sandwich smuggled aboard by John White (for which the crew was later reprimanded because the crumbs could have played major havoc with the instrumentation onboard), a couple of minor failed experiements and a glitch with the orbital manuevering system thrusters (that would manifest itself again in Gemini 8 as a much larger issue) the flight was without significant problems.

But re-entry is not so perfect. Back on Earth, the recovery task force of 27 ships and 126 aircraft wait while things go amiss. In an interview for the Discovery Channel documentary When We Left Earth, John Young states, "We screwed up on re-entry. When we fired the retro-rockets, we forgot the Earth rotated under us. We forgot to put the rotation of the Earth into the equation."

When the parachutes engaged, the sudden change in orientation in the capsule causes Gus Grissom to crack the plexiglas faceplate of his helmet on a control panel. The Gemini capsule is coming down about 190 miles short of the targeted recovery area. Grissom is able to make up much of this distance during assent, but Gemini 3 still lands about sixty miles off target. The men decide to deviate from standard landing procedures by not opening their capsule's hatch, and by keeping their helmets on for some time after splashdown due to smoke that was present from the thrusters. As the astronauts drift in the Atlantic waiting for rescue, Grissom gets seasick, but both men are recovered safely after an uncomfortable thirty minutes or so.

A large crowd turns out for a ticker tape parade in the cold rain of lower Manhattan to welcome the returning heroes home. The first Gemini flight has been a success and has laid the groundwork for more ambitious missions to come.

Each Gemini mission going forward will involve huge risks and giant leaps in achieving the goal set by President Kennedy. The next Gemini mission will involve another historic first for spaceflight. One of the astronauts will conduct an EVA or Extra Vehicular Activity. For the first time, man will walk in space.

[Series to be continued]

Related Links:

John W. Young, American and International Hero

The Molly Brown (Gemini 3) is on display at Spring Mill Park near Gus Grissom's hometown of Mitchell, Indiana.

More details on Gemini 3 including flight transcripts and chronology.

Official NASA Account of the Mission from On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini, by Barton C. Hacker and Charles C. Alexander is available at the link above. Published as NASA Special Publication-4203 in the NASA History Series, 1977.

Article for, June 17, 2000: Gus Grissom Didn't Sink the Libery Bell 7

Liberty Bell 7 is recovered 38 years after it sank (, July 20, 1999)


  1. Wow. What a concise, fascinating flow of information, Laurie. Imagine where I may have soared to, if only one of the classes I snored through in my formative years could have been so well written and fun to read. Thanks for sharing this historic documentary on the accomplishments of the USA space program.

  2. Oh, so glad you enjoyed it, Arlene. Rediscovering our space program has been a blast for me and an information bonanza. I'm learning so much I never knew and I'm awestricken at the amount of risk these brave men and women took on to advance our knowledge of space and spaceflight.

    I never realized what a monstrous task it was to reach the Moon. Most people know about the near disaster with Apollo 13, but I think few realize that almost every excursion into space has its dramas and moment of jeapardy where the crew and/or the craft could have been lost.

    "To boldly go where no one has gone before" should have been NASAs motto.

    Thanks for your comment. :)


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