Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


The immediate aftermath of a launch, Jack Albert said later, was normally something of an anticlimax. Except, that is, on 4 December 1965, when spirits remained high. Another Gemini would be despatched in just a few days’ time, and, judging from the minimal damage sustained by Pad 19, one major obstacle standing in the way of the joint mission had dissolved. The next day, the two stages of GLV-VI had been erected and by sundown the Gemini VI-A spacecraft was added. A computer problem quashed hopes to launch on 11 December, but the installation of a replacement part brightened prospects for Schirra and Stafford to fly a day later.

On the morning of the 12th, the astronauts awoke, showered, breakfasted and suited-up just as they had seven weeks earlier, albeit on this occasion Schirra dispensed with smoking a cigarette. Launch was scheduled for six seconds past 9:54 am and the countdown clock ticked perfectly toward an on-time liftoff. Precisely on cue, the Titan’s first-stage engines ignited with a familiar whine. Then, after less than 1.2 seconds, they shut down. Instantly, Schirra, his hand clasping the D-handle which would have fired his and Stafford’s ejection seats and boosted them to safety, faced a life-or-death decision. The mission clock on the instrument panel had started running, as it would in response to the vehicle lifting off, but Schirra could feel no movement in the rocket. If the Titan had climbed just a few centimetres from the pad at the instant of shutdown, there was a very real risk that its 150,000 kg of volatile propellants could explode in a holocaust, known, darkly, among the astronauts, as a Big Fucking Red Cloud (BFRC).

In his autobiography, Stafford remembered vividly the moment that the behemoth came alive and, just as vividly, the instant at which its roar ceased. ‘‘The sound of the engines died even though the clock started and the computer light came on, both indications that we had lifted off,’’ he wrote. ‘‘But I could feel that we hadn’t moved. More important, there was no word from [Capcom] Al Bean, confirming liftoff, which was critical.’’ In fact, it was the feeling of stillness in the

Titan that convinced Schirra not to risk ejecting. Kenneth Hecht, head of the Gemini escape and recovery office, was surprised that he did not eject, but in reality, neither Schirra nor Stafford had much confidence in the seats and, as test pilots, instinctively desired to remain with their ‘bird’ for as long as possible. Stafford felt that the 20 G acceleration of an ejection would have left him with, at best, a cricked neck for months. Moreover, there was a very real risk of death. ‘‘Given that we’d been soaking in pure oxygen for two hours,’’ Stafford wrote, ‘‘any spark, especially the ignition of an ejection seat rocket, would have set us on fire. We’d have been two Roman candles shooting off into the sand and palmetto trees.’’ Yet Schirra would not have put them in undue danger. ‘‘If that booster was about to blow,’’ he said, ‘‘if we really had a liftoff and settled back on the pad, there was no choice. It’s death or the ejection seat.’’

In emotionless tones, the unflappable Schirra reported that propellant pressures in the Titan were lowering and Martin’s test conductor, Frank Carey, responded in a similarly calm manner with ‘‘Hold kill’’, a missile-testing term denoting a shutdown. Although Schirra knew that the rocket had not left the pad and that the mission clock – which should have started at the instant the Titan began to climb – was wrong, his ‘gutsiness’ that morning would win him deserved praise from his fellow astronauts. Had he and Stafford ejected, the entire rendezvous would have been over. There would have been no way that Gemini VI-A could have been readied for another launch attempt in less than the six remaining days of Borman and Lovell’s mission. Moreover, with the increasing likelihood that another Agena-D would not be ready until the spring of 1966, the crucial step of proving rendezvous as a means of getting to the Moon would have been seriously jeopardised.

When the smoke had cleared, and after receiving assurances that the ejection seat pyrotechnics had been safed, Guenter Wendt and his team returned to the capsule to begin extracting the two disappointed astronauts. ‘‘It took 90 minutes to raise the erector and get us out, a lot longer than it should have,’’ wrote Stafford. ‘‘Although he had kind words for Guenter and the pad crew, Wally was furious.’’ The families of the two men were also understandably anxious and, from then onwards, it would become standard practice to have another astronaut present with them during a launch attempt. The day itself was already a bad one: a Cape Kennedy rescue helicopter had crashed in the nearby Banana River and Randy Lovelace – bane of the astronauts’ lives during their selection – and his wife had been killed in a private aircraft crash in Aspen, Colorado.

Later that same afternoon, President Johnson told Jim Webb that he was ‘‘greatly disturbed’’ by the abort, although he was assured that enough time remained to identify the Titan glitch, fix it and get Gemini VI-A into orbit before the end of Borman and Lovell’s mission. That glitch did not take long to find: an electrical tail plug had dropped prematurely from the base of the rocket and activated an airborne programmer – a clock in Gemini VI-A’s cockpit which should not have started until liftoff. The plug was supposed to require 18 kg of ‘pull’ in order to separate, but had rattled loose from its housing. Although it had been installed properly, tests revealed that some plugs did not fit as snugly as others and pulled out more easily.

Then, as engineers pored over engine trace data, it became clear to Ben Hohmann of the Aerospace Corporation that the Titan’s oxidiser pressure and overall thrust had begun to decline before the plug fell out. Subsequent analysis of oscilloscope wiggles identified a blockage in the gas generator and, eventually, an Aerojet technician found the answer: a thimble-sized dust cover had been accidentally left on its fuel inlet port during processing. Months earlier, when the engine was still at Martin’s plant in Baltimore, the gas generator had been removed for routine cleaning and when the check valve at its oxidiser inlet was detached, a plastic cover was installed to keep dirt out. As checkout of the engine proceeded, the dust cap was overlooked and forgotten. To be fair, its location would have been almost impossible to find. However, had the initial tail plug dropout not stopped the launch, the gas generator blockage certainly would have done. “It was serendipitous that we shut down,’’ said Joe Wambolt, then a Gemini propulsion engineer, in an interview published years later in Quest magazine, “because the other engine was not going to thrust.’’ In his autobiography, Wally Schirra wrote that, had he known of this ‘second’ brewing problem at the time, he probably would have chosen to fire the ejection seats.

By 13 December, the gas generator had been cleaned and replaced and the launch was provisionally targeted for the 16th, just two days before Borman and Lovell were due to return to Earth. However, Elliot See radioed the Gemini VII crew with the news that, barring any further problems, the 15th seemed a more likely launch date.

In addition to demonstrating the steely nerves of the Gemini VI-A crew – one of Schirra’s first messages had been ‘‘We’re just sittin’ here breathing’’ – the abort also verified, in the most dramatic manner possible, that the Titan’s malfunction detection system worked. Sensing no upward movement, it had correctly and automatically closed the valves to prevent more fuel entering the combustion chambers and had duly shut down the engines. Catastrophe had been averted. In the Soviet Union, Nikolai Kamanin, fuming over his nation’s failure to catch up with the Americans, admitted in his diary that, despite the abort, a successful Gemini rendezvous was only a matter of days away. Indeed it was.


Deke Slayton and others have freely admitted that they were forced to rethink the practicalities of EVA in the seven-week interval between Geminis IX-A and X. Fortunately, the latter mission would star as its spacewalker a man who, perhaps more so than any other astronaut, knew the G4C pressure suit literally inside out. Michael Collins, who described himself as “nothing special’’, “lazy” and “frequently ineffectual”, would later gain eternal fame as ‘the other one’ on the Apollo 11 crew.

Before that, as John Young’s pilot on Gemini X, he would become the first man to make two extravehicular activities, the first man to physically touch another vehicle in space… and, alas, the first spacewalker to bring home absolutely no photographic record of his achievement.

Slayton saw Young and Collins as a perfect team. Both were obsessive hard – workers, but in contrast to Young’s reserved and publicity-shy nature, the gregarious Collins was “smooth and articulate”. Prior to his selection in October 1963, to improve this smoothness, the Air Force sent its astronaut applicants to ‘charm school’, in which Collins learned more social skills essential for spacefarers: wearing knee-length socks ‘‘that go on forever’’, abhorring hairy legs and needing to hold hands on hips in a particular way ‘‘because people you don’t want to talk about hold ‘em the other way!’’

With a father, uncle and elder brother who would all rise through the ranks to become generals, it was obvious that Collins would follow in their military footsteps. He entered the world in Rome on 31 October 1930, becoming the first American astronaut born outside the United States, and throughout his childhood was often on the move: from Italy to Oklahoma, to Governor’s Island in Upper New York Bay, to Maryland, to Ohio, to Puerto Rico and to Virginia. Whilst in Puerto Rico, Collins took his first ride in a twin-engined Grumman Widgeon, although he would admit that as graduation from West Point neared in 1952, his ‘‘love affair with the airplane had been neither all-consuming nor constant’’.

Nonetheless, he graduated from the Military Academy in the same class as fellow astronaut-in-waiting Ed White and his eventual choice of the Air Force as his parent service was based on two factors. The first was sheer wonder over where aeronautical research would lead in years to come. . . whilst the second was simply to avoid accusations of nepotism, ‘‘real or imagined’’, since his uncle happened to be the Army’s chief of staff at the time! As a cadet, Collins completed initial flight training in Mississippi aboard T-6 Texans, before moving on to jets at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, flying the F-86 Sabre.

Nuclear-weapons-delivery training followed at George Air Force Base in California, as part of the 21st Fighter-Bomber Wing, and Collins transferred with the detachment to Chaumont-Semoutiers Air Base in France in 1954. Two years later, whilst participating in a NATO exercise, he was forced to eject from his F-86 when a fire erupted behind his cockpit. He met Pat Finnegan in the officers’ mess and, despite their differing religious beliefs – she being a staunch Roman Catholic, he a nominal Episcopalian – the couple married in 1957.

Subsequent work as an aircraft maintenance officer, during which ‘‘dismal’’ time he trained mechanics, was followed by a successful application to join the Experimental Flight Test Pilot School at Edwards in August 1960. It involved flying on a totally new level. ‘‘Fighter pilots can be impetuous; test pilots can’t,’’ Collins recounted years later. ‘‘They have to be more mature, a little bit smarter. . . more deliberate, better trained – and they’re not as much fun as fighter pilots.’’ By this time, he had accumulated over 1,500 hours in his logbook, the minimum requirement for a prospective student at the exalted school. (In fact, his class included future astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Irwin.)


An exhausted Cernan puts on a brave face for Tom Stafford’s camera after finally removing his helmet. The world’s longest EVA to date had uncovered a chilling reality: that spacewalking was hazardous and by no means routine.

Two years later, when John Glenn completed America’s first orbital spaceflight, Collins took notice and submitted his application for the 1962 astronaut intake. He underwent the full physical and psychological screening process, narrowly missing out on selection and, despite his disappointment, moved on to study the basics of spaceflight, flying the F-104 Starfighter to altitudes of 27 km and receiving his first taste of weightlessness. He had barely returned to fighter operations when, in June 1963, NASA announced its intent to choose more astronauts. Years later, Deke Slayton would write that the 1962 selection panel considered Collins a good candidate who had been “held back to get another year of experience”.

Initial instruction as part of the third class of 14 spacefarers, whom the press widely dubbed ‘The Apollo Astronauts’, included lunar geology, a subject for which Collins had no great enthusiasm or interest; ironic, perhaps, in view of where his career would eventually take him. Although he felt, like Slayton, that the New Nine was probably the best all-round astronaut group yet chosen, Collins admitted that the Fourteen were the best-educated: with average IQs of 132, an average 5.6 years in college and even an ScD among them.

Completion of initial training led to assignment to oversee the G4C extravehicular suit and he would express annoyance at being left out of the loop in May 1965 when a closed-door decision was made to give Ed White a spacewalk on Gemini IV. In his autobiography, Collins described the suit and the astronaut’s relationship with it, as “kind of love-hate… love because it is an intimate garment protecting him 24 hours a day, hate because it can be extremely uncomfortable and cumbersome”. The suit, and the timeline for which astronauts were to get fitted for it, provided a never – ending source of rumour as to who would be assigned next to a mission slot.

Recognition for this work came in June 1965 with a backup assignment, teamed with Ed White, to Gemini VII. Despite falling ill with viral pneumonia shortly thereafter, Collins recovered promptly and performed admirably, even taping a ‘Home Sweet Home’ card inside Jim Lovell’s window on launch morning. His eventual assignment, with John Young, to Gemini X came in January 1966, by which time White had been named to the first Apollo mission. ‘‘I was overjoyed,’’ wrote Collins. ‘‘I would miss Ed, but I liked John, and besides I would have flown by myself or with a kangaroo – I just wanted to fly.’’


In truth, Air Force Major Donn Fulton Eisele’s NASA career was waning by the time Apollo 7 splashed down. Born in Columbus, Ohio, on 23 June 1930, Eisele had followed the classic path to become an astronaut: a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy in 1952, a master’s credential in astronautics from the Air Force Institute of Technology and graduation from the Aerospace Research Pilots’ School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Prior to his selection as an astronaut, along with Cunningham, in October 1963, Eisele served as a project engineer and test pilot at the Air Force’s Special Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

The easygoing Eisele’s performance as an astronaut is hinted at by Deke Slayton in his autobiography, when he notes that his original intention was to “try out some of the guys who, frankly, I thought were weaker’’ on the Apollo 1 mission. “My original rotation had Donn Eisele and Roger Chaffee as the senior pilot and pilot, working for Gus,’’ he continued. Had it not been for the fact that Eisele damaged his shoulder during a zero-G training flight aboard a KC-135 aircraft just before Christmas 1965, he might have been in the senior pilot’s seat aboard Apollo 1, instead of Ed White. Instead, Slayton considered it easier to swap Eisele for White, the latter of whom was previously attached to Wally Schirra’s original Apollo 2 crew.

Eisele quickly assumed the moniker ‘Whatshisname’, bestowed upon him by Schirra and Cunningham, when nobody seemed to be able to pronounce his surname. Phonetically, it ran EYE-SEL-EE, but when NASA Administrator Jim Webb tried to introduce the crew to President Lyndon Johnson, he mistakenly called him Donn ‘Isell’. ‘‘From then on,’’ Schirra wrote, ‘‘Donn was ‘Whatshisname’’’.

Eisele’s career, in addition to Apollo 7, was harmed by a particularly ugly divorce from his wife Harriet, the result of an affair which caused his work in the astronaut office to suffer. Indeed, the pressures of the job had led many astronauts to look elsewhere, outside the marital home, and after Eisele it would be John Young who would next go through a divorce. Unlike Eisele, however, Young did not allow his personal life to disrupt his work and remained devoted to the space programme. Stories would abound over the years that the funeral of one astronaut killed in the early Sixties – his name was never divulged – was attended not only by his wife and family. . . but also by his long-term mistress, discreetly escorted to the ceremony by a close and trusted friend.

In spite of the criticisms levelled at them in the wake of Apollo 7, both Eisele and Cunningham were at least considered for backup roles on future missions. The former had already been assigned to serve as the backup command module pilot on Apollo 10, the dress-rehearsal for the first lunar landing. For Tom Stafford, the commander of that mission’s prime crew, however, Eisele’s assignment was little more than “a temporary step into oblivion’’. Cunningham, on the other hand, would work for several years on the United States’ space station project, Skylab, and even trained as backup commander for its first mission. He “wanted to fly again,’’ wrote Deke Slayton. “In spite of the flight operations opinion that he shouldn’t, I wasn’t going to rule him out. But it was a numbers game.’’ Cunningham, like Eisele, never flew again.

Ronnie Walter Cunningham was born on 16 March 1932 in Creston, Iowa, and came to be seen as one of ‘the scientists’ among the astronaut corps, owing to his credentials as a civilian physicist. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1960 and 1961, respectively, then began doctoral research, which he completed, save for his final thesis. However, his military experience certainly paralleled his scientific knowledge: he joined the Navy in 1951, began flight training and served on active duty, then as a reservist, with the Marine Corps. ‘‘In the Navy, in those days, you ran the risk of being assigned to torpedo bombers or transport pilots,’’ Cunningham recalled, ‘‘and the Marine Corps guaranteed you that your first tour. . . would be flying single-engine fighter planes.’’ He remained a reservist throughout his astronaut career. Prior to selection as one of ‘The Fourteen’ in October 1963, Cunningham worked for the Rand Corporation, performing research in support of classified projects and problems relating to the magnetosphere.

‘‘I was working on defence against submarine-launched ballistic missiles, trying to write in… the crudest fashion the equations that would intercept a missile on the rise,’’ Cunningham explained. ‘‘At the same time, I was doing my doctoral work on the Earth’s magnetosphere. It was a tri-axial search coil magnetometer and we were trying to measure fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. It was during this period that I applied and got accepted at NASA. I never did finish the thesis.’’

As a non-test pilot, possessing an air of academia and a self-confessed irreverance to authority, Cunningham stood out among the Fourteen. He ‘‘seemed determined to be different from the rest of us,’’ wrote his 1963 classmate Gene Cernan, ‘‘whether reading The Wall Street Journal while we busted our asses during a classroom lecture or driving a Porsche instead of a Corvette.’’ He would also lose support through his criticisms, notably over the performance of Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott during the Gemini VIII emergency. When Cunningham claimed years later that he, Schirra and Eisele had been tarred and feathered for their antics on Apollo 7, Cernan would retort that it was ‘‘probably with good reason’’.


It was third time lucky when Wally Schirra – newly raised from commander to captain in June 1965, part of President Johnson’s spot-promotion of active-duty military astronauts – and Air Force Major Thomas Patten Stafford Jr boarded their spacecraft under clear blue skies on the warm morning of 15 December. Launch at 8:37:26 am was perfect, the Titan behaving flawlessly and inserting them into an elliptical orbit of 160-260 km. The bald-headed Stafford was another of NASA’s 1962 astronaut intake whom Deke Slayton described as ‘‘too green’’ to have been a realistic candidate for the Project Mercury selection. Indeed, as Slayton and his six colleagues were announced in April 1959, Stafford was barely graduating from test pilot school and his height would have rendered him ineligible anyway. Further, had it not been for the decision to increase the height limit for the larger Gemini spacecraft, Stafford would not have been picked at all.

In time, he would become one of NASA’s most accomplished astronauts, flying four times into space, including a lunar voyage and command of the joint Apollo – Soyuz mission with the Soviets. His habit of trying to speak faster than he could think led fellow astronauts to nickname him ‘Mumbles’. During Al Shepard’s training to command Apollo 14, Stafford would also take charge of the astronaut office as its chief. He was born in Weatherford, Oklahoma, on 17 September 1930, the son of a dentist father and a teacher mother, becoming an avid reader and an enthusiastic watcher of each silvery DC-3 airliner which frequently soared above his childhood home. After the Pearl Harbour bombings, Stafford took a paper round to buy parts and build his own balsa wood model aeroplanes and in 1944 he took his first flight in a two-seater Piper Cub. That flight alone, he wrote, ‘‘made me eager to become a fighter pilot and help win the war’’.

The young Stafford would not engage in combat in the Second World War, but his dream would one day come true. In high school, he excelled in football, eventually becoming captain, although he recounted in his autobiography that he was far from perfect: shooting out streetlights with a BB gun, throwing a firecracker into the police station and attempting, with his friends, to disrupt their English lessons with a cleverly orchestrated symphony of coughing. ‘‘The neighbours could always tell when I had been caught,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I would be out front painting the fence as a punishment, like Tom Sawyer.’’

His footballing abilities, though, drew the attention of the University of Oklahoma’s coach, although Stafford had also applied for, and would receive, a full ROTC scholarship from the Navy to study there. He had already undertaken some military training in 1947 as part of the Oklahoman National Guard and was even called to temporary duty when the small town of Leedey was hit by a tornado. Stafford also worked on manoeuvres to plot howitzer targets and his calculations contributed to his battery receiving an award for the most outstanding artillery unit. The following year, 1948, brought both success and tragedy: acceptance into the Naval Academy, tempered by the death of his father from cancer.

During four years at Annapolis, he was assigned to the battleship Missouri, where he met another midshipman named John Young. ‘‘We would have laughed,’’ Stafford wrote, ‘‘at the suggestion that someday we would become astronauts flying in space and circling the Moon together.’’ After graduation in 1952 with a bachelor’s degree, his decision to opt for an Air Force, rather than naval, career was inspired by his eagerness to fly the F-86 Sabre jet. He achieved his coveted silver wings from Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, late the following year. By now married to Faye Shoemaker, Stafford underwent advanced training in the F-86 – ‘‘the hottest thing in the sky’’ – and the T-33 Shooting Star. He was then assigned to an interceptor squadron, based in South Dakota, and later moved to Hahn Air Base in Germany as a flight leader and flight test maintenance officer for the Sabre.

Few opportunities for promotion almost led Stafford to resign from the Air Force in 1957 and he even drafted application letters to numerous airlines. . . before deciding to stay in the service when he first saw the F-100 Super Sabre jet and the forthcoming F-104 Starfighter. “If I went to an airline,” he wrote, “I’d be flying the equivalent of cargo planes and could say goodbye to high-performance fighters.’’ He tore up the letters and was promoted to captain the following year, together with selection for the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School at Edwards. His time there, he remembered, saw him working harder than ever before. “Each morning’s flight generated a pile of data from handwritten notes, recording cameras, oscilloscopes and other instruments. We had to reduce this data to a terse report that we submitted to the instructors and we had a test every Friday.’’ From such schools, pilot astronauts were, are and will continue to be drawn.

Stafford graduated first in his class in May 1959, stayed on at Edwards as an instructor and, over the next couple of years, oversaw a number of newer test pilot candidates, including Jim McDivitt, Ed White, Frank Borman and Mike Collins. He also met a visitor from the Navy’s test pilot school, an aviator named Pete Conrad. Additionally, he co-authored two flight test manuals: the Pilot’s Handbook for Performance Flight Testing and the Aerodynamics Handbook for Performance Flight Testing. By the spring of 1962, he was due for a permanent change of station and confidently expected to study for an advanced master’s degree in a technical field, but was picked to attend Harvard Business School; a business administration credential, he realised, would benefit both his military career and any subsequent plans he had. In April, Stafford also learned that NASA was recruiting its second class of astronauts and submitted his application. Five months later, and three days after starting his master’s degree at Harvard, he received the call from Deke Slayton that would truly change his life.


Gemini X overcame many of the obstacles encountered by its predecessors; for during the course of Young and Collins’ three days aloft, the techniques of rendezvous, docking, spacewalking and boosting themselves into a higher orbit would all be successfully accomplished. Nor would Gemini X perform just ‘any’ rendezvous. Its crew would conduct joint activities with not one, but two targets: with their own Agena and, after raising their orbit to around 400 km, with the now – dead Agena left in space by Armstrong and Scott back in March 1966.

‘‘We were going to be navigational guinea pigs,’’ wrote Collins, ‘‘and were going to compute on-board our spacecraft all the manoeuvres necessary to find and catch our first Agena, instead of using ground-computed instructions to get us within range of our own radar.’’ To help them, Gemini X would have an expanded computer memory, known as ‘Module VI’, which required Collins to use a portable sextant to measure angles between target stars and Earth’s horizon. ‘‘Combining Module VI data with a variety of charts and graphs carried on-board,’’ he continued, ‘‘we would be able to determine our orbit and predict where we would be at a given future time relative to our Agena target.’’

The downside was that Module VI would operate in a totally different manner to Apollo’s navigation system, rendering it, in Collins’ words, a ‘‘technological dead­end’’. Still, he and Young were being granted the test pilot’s dream job: to compute their own manoeuvres, autonomously of Mission Control, and the two men embraced it warmly. Yet there would be no avoiding the fact that completing all of their objectives in just three days would be a tough call. Young even approached Charles Mathews with a view to extending Gemini X to its four-day consumables limit, but his request was flatly rejected.

Young’s concerns, wrote Barton Hacker and James Grimwood, were twofold. Firstly there was the issue of whether he could slow the docked vehicles – his own Gemini and Agena-X – sufficiently to avoid hitting Agena-VIII and secondly was the very real possibility that he might be unable to find the second target using only on­board optical equipment. “The problem with an optical rendezvous,’’ Young said later, “is that you can’t tell how far away you are from the target. With the kind of velocities we were talking about, you couldn’t really tell at certain ranges whether you were opening or closing.’’

Moreover, since Agena-VIII was by now out of action and totally passive, Young and Collins and their Agena would need to be despatched from Cape Kennedy at very precise times, which presented its own problems should there be a launch failure or delay. By the opening months of 1966, a plan had crystallised: Gemini X would rendezvous and dock with its Agena during its fourth orbit, after which the second day of the mission would be dedicated to experiments and Agena-VIII operations would be deferred to the third day. Since many of its planned experiments could not be conducted whilst Gemini X and the Agena-X were docked, a happy balance of compromise would have to be struck between the engineering and scientific communities. In the eventuality that Young and Collins’ Agena, like that of Stafford and Cernan, should meet an unhappy end, it was decided to press on with the Agena – VIII rendezvous instead.

Preparations for Gemini X had gone relatively smoothly both before and after the assignment of the crew and their backups (Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin) in January 1966. In fact, when Young and Collins were named to the mission, their launch date did not change: they were scheduled for 18 July… and on 18 July, without a single delay, they would fly. The only change came in March, when Lovell and Aldrin were shuffled to the backup slot on Gemini IX and their places were taken by rookies Al Bean and Clifton ‘C. C.’ Williams.

Bean, who would one day become the fourth man to walk on the Moon, has been seen by some historians as an astronaut whose talent was overlooked by Deke Slayton; indeed, he would be the last of the surviving members of the 1963 class to fly in space. However, in his autobiography, Slayton vehemently disagreed. ‘‘Al was just a victim of the numbers game,’’ he wrote. ‘‘I would only point to the fact that he was the first guy from his group assigned as a crew commander. I was confident he could do the job if anything happened to John Young.’’ Ultimately, Bean would draw two of NASA’s best missions: a lunar landing and command of the second Skylab crew in 1973.

Meanwhile, the Titan II’s second-stage fuel tank had to be replaced with one previously earmarked for Gemini XI when a leaking battery caused some corrosion of its dome, but the remainder of the processing flow ran smoothly. After formal acceptance by Martin in mid-April 1966, the Titan’s two stages were shipped to Cape Kennedy late the following month, mated together and installed on Pad 19 on 7 June. Two days later, the Gemini X spacecraft itself arrived at the launch complex


The crew of Gemini X: the gregarious Mike Collins (left) and reserved John Young.

and was attached to the top of the booster. Processing of the mission’s Agena target vehicle – designated GATV-5005 – proved similarly faultless and it was accepted by the Air Force and moved to the Eastern Test Range on 16 May. Nine days later, it was mated to its target docking adaptor and, following several weeks of further testing, was taken to Pad 14 and mounted atop its Atlas carrier rocket on 1 July.

There was no avoiding the reality that the Gemini X double rendezvous would be by far the most complex ever attempted. A late afternoon liftoff was necessary to intercept the Agena-VIII and, in the final few weeks, Young and Collins found themselves shifting their sleep patterns accordingly. “For the last couple of days,’’ Collins wrote, “we were staying up until 3 or 4 am and sleeping until noon. Granted, we were staying up studying, but somehow the late hours carried with them a connotation of leisure and relaxation.’’

They were awakened in their Cape Kennedy crew quarters around noon on 18 July 1966 and their Agena lifted-off without a hitch at 3:39 pm, barely two seconds late. It was followed promptly into orbit by the two astronauts at 5:20 pm. Collins would describe ‘feeling’ the rumble of the Titan, with minute sideways jerks, virtually no sensation of speed and, at first, a noticeable increase of little more than 1 G. The vibrations intensified as the rocket continued to climb, with mild pogo effects causing ‘‘a high-frequency quivering of body and instrument panel’’.

The violent shock of staging – as the Titan’s first stage, exhausted, fell away and its second stage picked up the thrust – was soon replaced by a sense of serenity as Gemini X headed towards its initial orbit. At one point, spectators at the Cape thought the rocket had exploded. In fact, it had. “An instant after the two stages separated,’’ Collins related, “the first-stage oxidiser tank ruptured explosively, spraying debris in all directions with dramatic, if harmless, visual effect.’’ The G forces gradually began to climb, peaking at close to 7 G, before ending abruptly when the Titan’s second stage shut down, precisely on time.

On the ground, Capcom Gordo Cooper flipped the wrong switch, opening the communications loop and allowing Young and Collins to overhear him summoning all launch personnel to a debriefing in the ready room. Collins radioed that he and Young were otherwise engaged and would be unable to attend.

There was much to do. Immediately after unstrapping, Collins unstowed the Kollsman sextant to begin the lengthy optical navigation procedure and Young manoeuvred the spacecraft into position to begin its six-hour pursuit of the Agena – X. Minor difficulties were encountered when Collins mistook the thin line of atmospheric airglow for Earth’s horizon, then could not get the lens of the sextant to work properly. He tried an Ilon instrument instead, with limited success.

Eventually, Gordo Cooper told the two men that they would have to rely on ground computations instead. More trouble, however, was afoot. When Young pulsed the OAMS thrusters to adjust Gemini X’s orbit to 265 x 272 km, he did not realise that the spacecraft was slightly turned, introducing an out-of-plane error, and needed to perform two large midcourse corrections. It was not Young’s fault, Deke Slayton wrote, because “there had been a mistake in loading the initial guidance program into the Gemini computer, so the spacecraft was never quite where the instruments said it was’’.

The computer had actually yielded a figure some 2 m/sec greater than that radioed up by Mission Control. Collins’ own slide-rule measurements agreed with Gemini X’s computer and, satisfied, Young opted to follow this double-checked on-board solution. Ten minutes into the OAMS manoeuvre, he quickly discovered that he had ‘overthrust’ the spacecraft and was heading into an orbital path several kilometres ‘behind’ and ‘above’ the Agena. He tried to ‘dive’ Gemini X back onto its correct trajectory through sheer brute force and succeeded in saving the manoeuve, but at the expense of losing a large quantity of fuel. Radar acquisition of the Agena-X was achieved during their second orbit. Young’s all-out effort to reach the target consumed 180 kg of propellant – three times more than any previous mission, leaving just 36 per cent remaining – but a successful docking was ‘in the bag’ at 11:13 pm, almost six hours after Gemini X’s launch.

The excessive fuel usage prompted Flight Director Glynn Lunney to abandon plans for ‘docking practice’, in which Young would have pulled away and then redocked with the Agena, and the astronauts were instead advised to press on with the Agena-VIII pursuit. In support of this goal, the Agena-X’s main engine roared to life, precisely on time, increasing the combined spacecraft’s velocity by 420 km/h and setting them on course. ‘‘At first,’’ Young explained later of the first ‘space switch’, ‘‘the sensation I got was that there was a pop, then there was a big explosion and a clang. We were thrown forward in the seats. Fire and sparks started coming out of the back end of that rascal. The light was something fierce and the acceleration was pretty good.” With abrupt suddenness, and precisely on time, the Agena-X’s engine shut down with what Young described as “a quick jolt’’. Since the Gemini and Agena were docked nose-to-nose, the firing propelled the astronauts ‘backwards’, producing so-called ‘eyeballs-out’ acceleration forces, as opposed to the ‘eyeballs-in’ experienced in a launch from Earth.

Comparing notes, Young and Collins both felt that the Agena’s acceleration and their change of direction – now travelling ‘backwards’ – were much greater than they had anticipated. The closest terrestrial analogy to the swift onset of thrust, they thought, was that it was similar to riding the afterburner of a J-57 jet engine, which Young had done as an F-8 Crusader aviator and Collins had experienced during his days flying the F-100 Super Sabre.

The first burn had effectively increased Gemini X’s apogee to 763 km, allowing the two astronauts to gaze down upon Earth from a greater vantage point than had ever been witnessed by human eyes; far higher than the 473 km achieved by Pavel Belyayev and Alexei Leonov aboard Voskhod 2. It also marked the first time that a manned spacecraft had employed the propulsion system of another vehicle to power its own flight, a technique which had important implications for future orbital refuelling. As they busied themselves with calculations for the remainder of the pursuit and rendezvous, they snapped photographs through the windows, including some of the Red Sea, and both would later recount that their home planet from an altitude of 763 km possessed a definite curvature.

Sleep posed its own problems for Collins. ‘‘My hands dangle in front of me at eye level,’’ he wrote, ‘‘attached as they are to relaxed arms, which seem to need gravity to hold them down.’’ Fearful that they may accidentally trip switches whilst asleep, he debated whether to tuck them behind his head (uncomfortable) or in his mouth (ill – advised), before finally telling himself not to worry. Such worries were further allayed by the two window shades, onto which had been pasted ‘‘photos of two voluptuous, wildly beautiful girls’’. Nursing a painful knee, Collins popped a couple of aspirin and tried with limited success to nap.

After their first restless night, the astronauts were awakened early on 19 July by updated computations for their next Agena burn, which Young duly executed for 78 seconds to reduce Gemini X’s velocity by 300 km/h and lower its apogee to 382 km. This second firing of the rocket’s engine impressed them both: after almost a day in microgravity, the 1 G acceleration, said Young, was ‘‘the biggest 1 G we ever saw!’’ Since the thrust was against the direction of travel, it produced a braking effect, after which a third firing circularised the orbit by raising the perigee to 377 km, barely 17 km ‘below’ Agena-VIII. At this point, they were trailing their target by less than 1,800 km.

In addition to the rendezvous commitment, the two astronauts also busied themselves with their load of experiments. Twenty minutes after reaching orbit, they activated the tri-axis magnetometer to measure radiation levels in the South Atlantic Anomaly, an area in which the lowermost portion of Earth’s Van Allen belts dip to within a few hundred kilometres of the surface. Elsewhere, two other devices – a beta


“The light was something fierce,” said John Young of the first Agena-X firing, “and the acceleration was pretty good.” Unfortunately, the astronauts’ view ‘outside’ was somewhat impaired by the bulk of the target vehicle.

spectrometer and a bremsstrahlung spectrometer – also monitored radiation dosages. “I only know that if I ever develop eye cararacts,” wrote Collins, “I will try to blame it on Gemini X.”

The radiation measurements, however, left investigators on the ground surprised and relieved. In fact, they were so disbelieving of the small numbers reported by the astronauts – 0.04 rad here, 0.18 rad there – that they mildly accused them of having their detectors switched off. In truth, radiation levels, even passing through the South Atlantic Anomaly, were much lower than anticipated. Several other experiments could only be done outside Gemini X and their deployment was one of Collins’ main tasks during the first of two EVAs on the mission.

Midway through preparations for his first excursion, Deke Slayton came on the radio, asking the crew to “do a little more talking from here on’’. Neither Young nor Collins was in any mood for idle conversation, having their hands full with systems checks, Agena commands, navigation and a 131-step checklist to get everything ready for the EVA. Young’s ho-hum response to Slayton’s request was typical: “Okay, boss. What do you want us to talk about?’’

Gemini X’s cabin atmosphere was completely vented to vacuum at 4:44 pm, approaching orbital dusk, and Collins poked his head out of the hatch three minutes later. His first period of extravehicular activity actually took the form of standing up on his seat, during which time he set up a 70 mm general-purpose camera to study stellar ultraviolet radiation. “It was not enough simply to lift the camera above Earth’s atmosphere,’’ Collins explained later. “It had also to be moved outside the spacecraft, because the protective glass of the spacecraft windows screened out most of the ultraviolet rays which the astronomers wished to measure.’’ As a result, Collins aimed the camera towards the southern Milky Way and scanned it from Beta Crucis to Gamma Velorum. In total, he acquired 32 images.

The view, even from his vantage point, hanging out of the hatch up to his waist, was astonishing. “The stars are everywhere,’’ Collins wrote, “above me on all sides, even below me somewhat, down there next to the obscure horizon. The stars are bright and they are steady.’’ Since it was now orbital nighttime, he could see little of Earth, save for the eerie bluish-grey tint of water, clouds and land. Minutes later, approaching dawn and with a rollful of 20-second ultraviolet exposures completed, he prepared to move onto his next task.

This involved photographing swatches of red, yellow, blue and grey on a titanium panel to determine the ability of film to adequately record colours in space. Unfortunately, Collins was unable to complete this objective in its entirety, when his eyes suddenly filled with tears; as, indeed, did Young’s. “That’s all we need,’’ Collins related, “two blind men whistling along with the door open, unable to read checklists or see hatch handles or floating obstructions.’’ They wondered aloud if a new anti­fog compound on the inside of their visors, added in the wake of Gene Cernan’s experience, had caused the irritation. Mission Control’s suggestion that perhaps urine had contaminated their oxygen supply was rejected by the astronauts, who described the odour as nothing of the sort.

Eitherway, the first period of EVA on Gemini X ended six minutes early, at 5:33 pm on 19 July. In total, Collins had been ‘outside’ for 49 minutes. It would later become clear that lithium hydroxide, used to scrub exhaled carbon dioxide from the cabin atmosphere, was mistakenly being pumped into the astronauts’ suits. Switching off a troublesome compressor device, wrote Deke Slayton, solved the problem. “I was crying a little all night,’’ Young quipped later, “but I didn’t say anything about it… I figured I’d be called a sissy!’’

Alongside the Agena-VIII rendezvous commitment, the astronauts’ third day in space was consumed with further experiments, though, thankfully, M-5, the much – loathed bioassays of body fluids task, which required them to collect, store and laboriously label their urine, was deleted from Gemini X’s roster. In fact, Charles Mathews had removed M-5 on 12 July, barely a week before launch, together with an experiment to measure the ultraviolet spectral reflectance of the lunar surface as a means of devising techniques to protect astronauts’ eyes from ultraviolet reflectivity. Other work included measurements of the ion and electron structure of Gemini X’s wake after separating from Agena-X and terrain and weather photography targets.

Undocking from their Agena came at 2:00 pm on 20 July, after almost 39 hours linked together, which both men found tiresome. Young would describe the sight through his window as a little like backing down a railway line in a diesel engine with “a big boxcar in front of you… the big drawback of having the Agena up there is that you can’t see the outside world’’. Their view with Agena-X attached, Young added, was “just practically zilch’’. After undocking, the view returned and, as Gemini X drew closer to Agena-VIII, Collins connected his 15 m umbilical and prepared to go outside for his second EVA.

Forty-five hours and 38 minutes into the mission, Young reported what he thought was his first visual sighting of Armstrong and Scott’s Agena, which actually turned out to be their own Agena-X! The other Agena, in fact, was still 176 km away, prompting Mission Control to tell the astronauts that it was “a pretty long range’’. Young, a little embarrassed, perhaps, at the mix-up, replied: “You have to have real good eyesight for that.’’ In fact, he and Collins did not get their first glimpse of Agena-VIII until they were 37 km away; the target resembled “a dim, star-like dot until the Sun rose above the spacecraft nose’’.

Two hours later, at 4:26 pm, Young initiated his final closure on the Agena, with Collins – whom the command pilot had nicknamed ‘Magellan’ during training for his navigational prowess – busily computing figures for two midcourse correction burns. The target, which had by now been aloft for four months, appeared very stable and Young was able to station-keep at a distance of just a few metres ‘above’ it, before moving in to inspect a micrometeoroid package that Collins was to retrieve. The rendezvous was accomplished entirely manually; the long-dead Agena was giving off no radar signals and its lights had long since stopped working. ‘‘They really just had to eyeball their way in,’’ recounted Deke Slayton.

Shortly thereafter, approaching orbital dawn at 6:01 pm, Collins cranked open his hatch and floated outside. In doing so, he became the first person to complete two EVAs. His first real movements ‘outside’ the Gemini were, he found, equally as difficult as those of Cernan: all tasks took considerably longer than anticipated. However, on this occasion, he was equipped with a zip-gun which aided his move over to the Agena-VIII and he crisply removed its micrometeoroid detector. He then

moved to Gemini X’s adaptor section and attached his zip-gun to the nitrogen fuel supply, before returning to the cabin as Young closed to within a couple of metres of Agena-VIII. Collins pushed himself away from the spacecraft, floated over to the Agena and grasped its docking collar with his gloved hands.

Discussions with Gene Cernan had already taught him that moving around and holding himself steady would be difficult and, indeed, Collins quickly lost his grip and drifted away from the Agena. Perhaps recalling Cernan’s problems, he decided not to rely on the tether and instead used squirts from the zip-gun – successfully – to propel himself 5 m or so back towards Gemini X, then back to the Agena. He was then able, with relative ease, to grab the micrometeoroid detector, known as experiment ‘S-10’, although he decided against installing a replacement device for fear that he might lose the one he had just retrieved.

His efforts accidentally sent Agena-VIII into a slight gyrating motion, which caused some consternation for Young, who was tasked with keeping the two spacecraft close together. Not only did Young have to keep a close eye on three independent ‘bodies’ – the Gemini, the Agena and Collins – but he was also trying to keep sunlight from falling onto the right-hand ejection seat in the cabin. If it heated up too much, its pyrotechnics might have fired, taking both of Gemini X’s hatches and Young’s own seat with it. Meanwhile, Collins moved himself, hand-over-hand, along the umbilical back to the Gemini and handed S-10 to Young.

Not so successful was Young’s effort to photograph Collins’ work. In fact, not a single image or frame of footage exists from what was a quite remarkable spacewalk. ‘‘I had four cameras,’’ he told an interviewer two decades later, ‘‘and none of ‘em were working!’’ Nor was Collins able to photograph a human being’s first contact in orbit with another spacecraft; his hand-held Hasselblad camera inadvertently drifted off as he was struggling to control his tether.

Next came a demonstration of the tether itself, extended to its full 9 m length, but this ended almost as soon as it had begun, when Mission Control told Young that he could not afford to use any more fuel for station-keeping. Young instructed Collins to return inside, which proved difficult because the spacewalker had gotten tangled in the umbilical and the rigidity of his suit prevented him from ‘seeing’ or even ‘feeling’ where it had wrapped itself. Finally returning to his seat after 39 minutes outside, Collins had to be helped out of the snake-like tangle by Young. Closing the hatch, thankfully, posed no difficulties. The EVA was, however, disappointingly short in duration; a consequence of Gemini X’s dwindling fuel supply.

Also disappointing was the loss of the micrometeoroid collector, which apparently drifted outside and away into space during Collins’ ingress back into Gemini X. It had contained 24 sample slides of materials including nitrocellulose film on copper mesh, together with copper foil, stainless steel, silver-coated plastic, lucite and titanium-covered glass, with the intention of exposing them to the harsh environment of low-Earth orbit.

Fuel woes were by now causing concern on the ground and the capcom asked them to confirm that they were not using any of their thrusters. An hour after Collins’ return inside, at 7:53 pm, the two men briefly reopened his hatch for three minutes to throw the tether – whose presence in the cramped cabin had made ‘‘the snake house at the zoo look like a Sunday school picnic”, according to Young – and the chest pack into space. Time was still tight and at 8:58 pm, they performed their next task: pulsing their OAMS thrusters to reshape their orbit, reducing their perigee to 106 km and rendering the point of re-entry more precise. After a few end-of – workday tasks, including more synoptic terrain and weather photographs, Young and Collins retired for their final night’s sleep in space.

Seven hours after awakening, at 3:10 pm on 21 July, Gemini X began its fiery plunge back through the atmosphere, high above the Canton Island tracking station on its 43rd orbit. During re-entry, Young was able to ‘steer’ his spacecraft’s banking angles by computer solutions and they splashed down in the western Atlantic at 4:07 pm, barely an hour shy of three full days since launch and just 5.4 km from the prime recovery vessel, the amphibious assault ship Guadalcanal. So close, in fact, were they to the intended splashdown point that the ship’s crew were able to watch Gemini X descending through the clouds beneath its parachutes.

After the installation of a flotation collar by pararescue swimmers, Young and Collins were helicoptered away to the ship for a red-carpet welcome, a band playing ‘It’s a Small, Small World’ and the inevitable medical checks. Their mission, together with that of Gemini IX-A, had addressed many questions which demanded answers before Apollo could go to the Moon: the demonstration of rendezvous methods, orbit-shaping manoeuvres to avoid trapped-radiation hazards in deep space and, of course, docking. Using Agena-X as a switch engine – in effect, a kind of‘space tug’ – also had untold ramifications for future spacecraft and the establishment of orbiting laboratories. In the next few days, the Agena participated in a number of remotely – commanded manoeuvres, boosting its apogee at one stage up to 1,390 km and eventually returning to a near-circular 352 km orbit.

Still posing an obstacle, though, was EVA, to which Collins now added his opinion: more and better restraints and handholds were definitely needed for spacewalkers to work effectively outside and operating in a rigidised suit was far more difficult than previously thought. ‘‘A large percentage of the astronaut’s time,’’ Collins related after the flight, ‘‘is. . . devoted to torquing his body around until it is in the proper position to do some useful work.’’ With only two more Gemini missions remaining, time was tight to get such problems resolved.


It was not just the head colds that overshadowed Apollo 7. Schirra’s morale had been decidedly more sombre in the weeks before launch and many of his colleagues wondered what had happened to the normally good-humoured, ‘chummy’ astronaut. Schirra, in truth, was simply burned-out from nine years in the astronaut business. He had lost his best friend and neighbour, Gus Grissom, and was tired by the constant grind and long hours demanded of him. ‘‘I had changed over the span of time that encompassed my three flights,’’ Schirra wrote. ‘‘As the space programme had matured, so had 1.1 was no longer the boy in scarf and goggles, the jolly Wally of space age lore.’’ He steadfastly refused to allow Apollo 7 to be jeopardised by what he perceived to be the influence of ‘special interests’ – scientific or political – and declared that he ‘‘would not be an affable fellow when it came to decisions that affected the safety of myself and my two mates’’.

Despite his intense focus on Apollo 7, the monotony of the last few days – SPS burns, navigational sightings, water dumps, photography, experiments – proved somewhat less than fun or challenging. The astronauts became less enamoured with seeing 16 sunrises and sunsets each day. Years later, despite Sam Phillips’ assertion that the flight had been ‘‘101 per cent successful’’, Cunningham would state that both he and Eisele felt Apollo 7 could have achieved more. ‘‘The initial plan was no more than 60-75 per cent of what we should’ve had on it, because so many things got thrown off the flight, principally through Wally’s efforts. We felt like we could’ve accomplished a whole lot more. It turns out that the last several days were fairly boring.’’

Yet there were spots of fun and games in the cabin, with Cunningham making a ring with his thumb and forefinger and Schirra shooting a weightless pen through it. They learned to catch cinnamon cubes in their mouths, even blasting them off-course with an air hose for added fun. However, in spite of those ‘ho-hum’ closing days, the mission opened up exciting possibilities for the next flight, which had, since August, been under consideration to go to the Moon and back. By the end of the first week of Apollo 7, NASA confidently predicted that Apollo 8, with its crew of Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, could liftoff atop the giant Saturn V rocket as early as 5 December. That date, ultimately, was untenable, but indicated the growing confidence in Apollo and the success that Schirra’s mission brought.

That success also established Apollo 7 as the second-longest manned mission to date. Its conclusion was brought about by the eighth and final SPS burn, lasting almost 12 seconds, executed at 6:41 am on 22 October as the spacecraft hurtled around the globe for the 163rd time. Four minutes later, the service module was jettisoned and at 6:55 am the command module hit the upper fringes of Earth’s atmosphere to begin its re-entry. Shortly thereafter, descending beneath three beautiful red-and-white parachutes, it dropped into the Atlantic, just south-east of Bermuda, after a mission of ten days, 20 hours, nine minutes and three seconds. Apollo 7 splashed down at 7:11:48 am, just 3.5 km from its target point and barely 13 km from the recovery vessel, the aircraft carrier Essex, which incidentally had been involved in the quarantine of Cuban waters prior to the Bay of Pigs fiasco seven years before.

It was fortunate that Jim Lovell, Stu Roosa and Charlie Duke had practiced ‘Stable 2’ splashdown positions, because gusty winds and choppy waves caused Apollo 7 to quickly assume an upside-down orientation, but its flotation bags righted it within minutes. An hour after splashdown, following a tense loss of communications, Schirra and his team were aboard the Essex. Shortly thereafter, the command module – part of the vehicle which Cunningham called a “magnificent flying machine” – was also safely on the carrier’s deck; it was too heavy to be hauled to safety with the men aboard. The astronauts, heavily bearded, weary and unsteady on their feet, had all lost weight, but their humour returned quickly. Deke Slayton, aboard the Essex, admitted to having “a few words in private’’ with Schirra, not so much about his own behaviour, but about his effect on Eisele and Cunningham. Others were less complimentary. Although he would later deny it to Cunningham’s face, Chris Kraft is said to have announced that nobody from Apollo 7 would ever fly into space again. “f made the selections,” admitted Slayton, “but f wasn’t going to put anybody on a crew that Kraft’s people wouldn’t work with. Not when f had other guys.’’

fn a year which had seen the steady rise of the hippie movement in America and protests ranging from civil rights to the war in Vietnam and outrage over the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, NASA’s public affairs officer Paul Haney knew precisely why the bearded Schirra and his crew had been so irritable. “Something happens to a man when he grows a beard,’’ Haney joked. “Right away, he wants to protest!’’


Gemini VI-A’s launch on 15 December was precisely timed so that its Titan would insert it into an orbital plane which closely coincided with that of Borman and Lovell. Trajectory planners had calculated that a liftoff 6.471 seconds past 8:37 am provided ideal conditions for a rendezvous during their fourth orbit. The Gemini VII crew saw only cloud when they tried to spot the launch, but once the Titan climbed out of the weather Borman and Lovell had an oblique view of its contrail from their vantage point out over the Atlantic.

From within the capsule, however, Schirra and Stafford’s rise from Earth was dramatic. In his autobiography, Stafford would recount feeling little discomfort as G forces climbed beyond five, then seven, peaking at nearly eight, and his first view of the planet’s horizon as the Titan’s second stage inserted them into a preliminary orbit. The G loads caused him to feel some pain in his gut and pressure on his lungs, forcing him to take short, sharp breaths – then, all at once, five minutes and 35 seconds after launch, the forces went from eight down to zero. The two men raised their visors, took off their gloves and finally removed their helmets, stowing them below their knees.

Six hours of work awaited them. At orbital insertion, they were trailing Gemini VII by almost 2,000 km. An hour and a half after launch, Schirra pulsed the OAMS thrusters to increase the apogee to 272 km and close the distance to some 1,175 km; this was followed at 10:55 am by a ‘phase-adjustment’ burn, whose purpose was twofold. Firstly, it reduced the distance between them and the target and secondly, it raised Gemini VI-A’s perigee to 224 km. Most importantly, it established the timing for the subsequent chase. Half an hour later, Schirra turned the spacecraft 90 degrees to the ‘right’ – in a southward direction – and again fired the OAMS to push Gemini VI-A into the same plane as Borman and Lovell. By this point, three hours after launch and entering their third orbit, they had narrowed their distance still further to 483 km. At 11:52 am, Capcom Elliot See told them that they should soon be able to establish radar contact with Gemini VII. Indeed, a flickering signal was replaced by a solid lock at a range of 434 km.

A little under four hours into the flight, in the so-called Normal Slow Rate (NSR) manoeuvre of the rendezvous sequence, Schirra pulsed the aft-mounted thrusters for 54 seconds to slightly increase Gemini VI-A’s speed and enter an orbital path of 270 x 274 km, co-elliptic with and fixed 27 km below the target, which was now 319 km ahead. Stafford, meanwhile, busied himself with a circular slide rule and heavily-crosshatched plotting chart on his lap, checking the computer’s analysis of the radar data and relaying information to Mission Control. Shortly thereafter, they placed their spacecraft in the ‘computer’ – or automatic – rendezvous mode and Schirra dimmed the interior lights to aid his visibility. At 1:41 pm, he announced his first visual sighting of what he thought was a star: ‘‘My gosh, there is a real bright star out there. That must be Sirius.’’ It wasn’t. It was Gemini VII, glinting in the sunlight, just 100 km away. They lost sight of it briefly when it entered Earth’s shadow, but when their eyes adjusted they identified its blue tracking lights. Twelve minutes later, when the target was 60 km ahead and the geometry was correct, Schirra initiated the terminal phase manoeuvre designed to close the range to 3 km. He then executed a pair of mid-course correction burns and, at 2:27 pm, just 900 m from their target, started pulsing Gemini VI-A’s forward thrusters to steadily reduce the closure rate.

Closer and closer they drifted, until Schirra and Stafford were just 40 m from Borman and Lovell, with no relative motion between them. Back on Earth, in the MOCR, flight controllers erupted in applause and waved small American flags, while Chris Kraft, Bob Gilruth and other senior managers fired up celebratory cigars. Unlike Vostoks 3 and 4, which had merely drifted past each other at a distance of several kilometres as a result of being in slightly different orbits in August 1962, Wally Schirra had achieved a ‘real’ rendezvous. He defined it thus: ‘‘I don’t think rendezvous is over until you are stopped – completely stopped – with no relative motion between the two vehicles, at a range of approximately 120 feet [40 m]. That’s rendezvous!’’

At one point during the rendezvous Stafford had been confused, however. After being rivetted to his plotting board, he suddenly looked up, glanced out his window, and saw randomly moving stars. Thinking Schirra had lost control, he barked out that they had blown it. Quickly, however, Schirra reassured him that the ‘stars’ were not stars, but merely John Glenn’s fireflies: frozen particles reflecting sunlight. The two men laughed. (Later in the mission, using fast ASA 4000 film in a Hasselblad,


Gemini VII in space, as seen by Schirra and Stafford.

they engaged in astronomical photography for one of the principal investigators, Jocelyn Gill. However, not all of the images were astronomical; some were urine dumps and when they returned to Earth, Gill looked at one beautiful constellation of ‘stars’ and asked them what it was. Without missing a beat, Schirra looked at the shimmering cloud of just-dumped urine droplets and deadpanned: ‘‘Jocelyn, that’s the constellation Urion!’’)

From their vantage point in the ‘passive’ spacecraft, Borman and Lovell had expressed fascination at the thruster bursts and spurts emerging from Gemini VI-A. At one stage, they were startled to see a tongue-like jet some 12 m in length! Both crews would report cords and stringers 3-5 m long streaming and flapping behind their respective spacecraft; these turned out to be the remains of covers from the shaped explosives which severed the Geminis from the final stage of their respective Titan Ils. The rendezvous had cost Schirra barely 51 kg of fuel and only 38 per cent had been expended in total from Gemini VI-A’s tanks, leaving him plenty in reserve to fly a tour of inspection of, and station-keep with, Gemini VII for the next five hours and three orbits. At one stage, Schirra manoeuvred as close as 30 cm, allowing he and Stafford to hold up a ‘Beat Army’ card in their window to torment Borman, a West Point graduate. In response, Borman held up a ‘Beat Navy’ card. Gemini VI-A moved to the rear of its sister craft to examine the stringers, then came nose-to-nose, and so stable were both Geminis that, for a time, neither command pilot had to even touch his controls.

During manoeuvres, Schirra found the spacecraft responded crisply, allowing him to make velocity inputs as low as 3 cm per second, which he and Stafford concluded were fine enough to execute a docking with an Agena-D or any other target. ‘‘I took my turns flying,’’ recounted Stafford, ‘‘having convinced the Gemini programme managers to add a second manoeuvre controller to the pilot’s side.’’ As the crews’ workday drew to a close, Schirra flipped Gemini VI-A into a blunt-end-forward orientation and pulsed the OAMS thrusters to separate. After a meal and sleep, Schirra awoke to a stuffy head and runny nose, which made him glad that the mission was flexible and, assuming all of the tasks were completed, had the option to return to Earth after 24 hours. Moreover, Gemini VII’s fuel cells needed the attention of mission controllers and would benefit from having the additional tracking burden of Gemini VI-A out of the way.

But not before a final ‘gotcha’ from Schirra and Stafford. It was nine days before Christmas, after all…

As the two spacecraft went their separate ways, the MOCR controllers and Borman and Lovell were initially alarmed to hear Stafford report that he saw ‘‘an object, looks like a satellite, going from north to south, probably in polar orbit… Looks like he might be going to re-enter soon. Stand by one. You just might let me try to pick up that thing.’’ Then, over the communications circuit, came the sound of the Gemini VI-A astronauts playing ‘Jingle Bells’. The ‘object’, it seemed, was the familiar, jolly, red-suited, white-bearded old man himself, making his annual ‘re­entry’ to deliver his payload of presents to terrestrial children. ‘‘You’re too much!’’ radioed Capcom Elliot See.

In fact, Mickey Kapp, producer of Bill Dana’s ‘Jose Jimenez in Orbit’ album, had

provided Schirra with a small, four-hole Hohner harmonica just days before launch. Schirra had secured it in one of the pockets of his space suit with dental floss. “I could play eight notes,” he wrote, “enough for ‘Jingle Bells’. It may not have been a virtuoso performance, but it earned me a card in the musicians’ union of Orlando.’’ (Schirra would also receive a tiny gold harmonica from the Italian National Union of Mouth Organists and Harmonica Musicians.) Not to be outdone, Francis Slaughter of the Cape’s Flight Crew Operations Office, had fitted small bells to the boots of Stafford’s suit… supposedly as a joke, but little realising they would provide backing rhythm for Schirra’s Christmas soiree. Today, the tiny harmonica and Stafford’s bells are enshrined in the Smithsonian.

A little more than a day after launch, Schirra placed his spacecraft into an inverted, ‘heads-down’, attitude, to provide better observation of Earth’s horizon. At an altitude of ЇОО km, to ensure that Gemini VI-A did not overshoot its splashdown point, he set its banking angle at 55 degrees left and held it steady until the computer took control at 85 km above the ground. ‘‘We were going backwards, heads-down,” wrote Stafford, ‘‘so I had a great view of the horizon and the cloud-covered Gulf of Mexico, and a clear sense that we were really moving fast.’’ The astronauts duly switched off the computer at 24 km, deployed the drogue parachute at 14 km and the main canopy blossomed out at З.2 km. Impact with the Atlantic, in the first successful demonstration of a controlled re-entry, took place at 10:28:50 am on 16 December, at 2З degrees З5 minutes North latitude and 67 degrees 50 minutes West longitude, merely 1З km from its pre-planned splashdown point. It was fortunate that it was so successful, for Gemini VI-A’s descent was in full view of live television beamed from the recovery ship Wasp, transmitted via the Early Bird communications satellite. An hour later, displaying a thumbs-up of a job well done, Schirra, then Stafford, strode down the Wasp’s red carpet to the strains of a band playing ‘Anchors Aweigh’.

For Borman and Lovell, almost three days awaited them before their own splashdown. They started by removing their suits. The novelty of being in space had now worn very thin and, years later, Borman would describe the time after Gemini VI-A’s departure as ‘‘a tough three days’’ in which the two bearded, exhausted and uncomfortable men ‘‘simply existed… in a very, very cramped space’’. At the suggestion of Cooper and Conrad, they had taken novels. Borman spent some time reading Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’, which proved apt, and Lovell dived into part of ‘Drums Along The Mohawk’ by Walter D. Edmonds, a text about the American pioneers.

Even Mike Collins, who served as Lovell’s backup on Gemini VII, wondered how they managed to endure it. In his autobiography, Collins admitted the Gemini was so small that, on the ground, he could not sit in the simulator for more than three hours at a time and even with the relative freedom of weightlessness – which allowed Borman and Lovell to float, restore circulation and avoid bedsores – it was an uncomfortable existence. ‘‘The cockpit was tiny, the two windows were tiny, the pressure suits were big and bulky and there were a million items of loose equipment which constantly had to be stowed and restowed,’’ he wrote, adding that ‘‘no one who has never seen a Gemini can fully appreciate what it’s like being locked inside one for two weeks.’’

As the mission wore on, the Post Office passed up a request for them to mail their Christmas cards and parcels early. Lovell complained that he had “a stack of stuff up here”, to which the capcom replied that he should have sent his presents home with Gemini VI-A. With their homecoming looming, they were reminded by Chuck Berry to elevate their feet and pump their legs, to which Borman announced that they were eager to get out of Gemini VII as soon as possible.

Retrofire, described graphically by Lovell, commenced as they flew over the Canton Islands on their 206th orbit. “Retrofire has a unique apprehension in the fact that both of us are aviators and we understand the apprehension in flying,” he said. “If you have an accident in an airplane, something’s going to happen: you hit something or it blows up. Now, in liftoff and re-entry, a space vehicle is like an airplane. Something’s happening. But if the rockets fail to retro, if they fail to go off, nothing’s going to happen. You just sit up there and that’s it. Nothing happens at all. That’s the unique type of apprehension, because you know that you’ve gotten rid of the adaptor, you know that you’re going to have 24 hours of oxygen, ten hours of batteries and very little water. So you play all sorts of tricks to get those retros to fire.’’

Fortunately, the four retrorockets fired in tandem and to perfection. As their descent commenced, Capcom Elliot See told them to fly a 35-degree left bank until Gemini VII’s computer guidance assumed control. “You have no control over how close you’re going to get to the target,’’ Lovell recalled later. “Your only control is how good that computer is doing or how good your [centre of gravity] was when you set up the computer and the retrofire time.’’ Borman rolled Gemini VII into a heads – down orientation, allowing him to use the horizon as an attitude guide, but could see nothing and was forced to rely upon his instruments and Lovell’s called-out adjustments. After the flight, Borman would endorse the need for two pilots to fly a Gemini, since there was no practical way to follow the instruments and monitor the horizon at the same time.

The dynamic loads after 330 hours in weightlessness came, they recounted, “like a ton’’, even though G forces reached a peak of 3.9, barely half as much as a typical Mercury re-entry. Drogue parachute deployment jolted the two men, rocking the spacecraft by 20 degrees to either side, after which the main canopy opened. When Gemini VII hit the ocean at 9:05 am, Borman, unable to see any recovery helicopters, felt that he had lost a bet with Wally Schirra – that he could land the closest to his planned impact point. In reality, he had landed just 11.8 km off-target. In view of their lengthy stay in space, the two men were surprisingly fit, although Borman felt a little dizzy and both walked with a slight stoop on the deck of the recovery ship, Wasp. “The most miraculous thing,’’ reported a jubilant Chuck Berry, “was when they could get out of the spacecraft and not flop on their faces; and they could go up into the helicopter and get out on the carrier deck and walk pretty well.’’ They were, added Berry, in better physical condition than Cooper and Conrad had been. Lovell’s cardiovascular cuff revealed that less blood pooled in his legs than Borman and both maintained their total blood volumes.

As Chris Kraft and his flight control team fired up more cigars on the afternoon of 18 December 1965, the prospects for a lunar landing before the end of the decade had grown steadily brighter. Alexei Leonov’s triumphant spacewalk in March had been followed by the United States’ decisive response: no fewer than five Gemini missions – ten men blasted aloft, in total – whose endurance records had shown that astronauts could survive two-week flights to the Moon and back with few physical or psychological problems. They could rendezvous and survive the rigours of working outside their spacecraft in pressurised suits… or so it seemed. The next year, 1966, would see five more flights, closing out the programme in advance of the first Apollo mission, and all were destined to push the envelope still further by physically docking Geminis onto Agena-D targets and having astronauts spacewalk from craft to craft to install and remove experiments.

It would be an ultimately successful, though risky, year. Indeed, Deke Slayton would describe it as “NASA’s best’’. However, it would begin inauspiciously. In its third month, aboard Gemini VIII, the man who would someday be first to set foot on the Moon almost became one of the first to die in space. In its sixth month, the man who would one day be the last Apollo astronaut to set foot on the Moon would come close to losing his own life as the dangers of EVA became terrifyingly clear. Before that, on the gloomy, overcast morning of 28 February 1966, fire and death would rain down over St Louis, Missouri.


Upon the safe return of Young and Collins, barely six months remained to fly the final two Geminis. In order to focus resources entirely upon the Apollo effort, 31 January 1967 had been mandated as the deadline for the end of Project Gemini. Judging from the rate of launches thus far, NASA management felt confident that flying Gemini XI on 7 September and Gemini XII on 31 October was achievable. Those two missions, both lasting three to four days, would perfect each of the techniques demonstrated thus far: rendezvous, docking, EVA and using the Agena – D target to adjust their orbits.

First up would be Gemini XI’s Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, who had been named to the mission on 21 March 1966, only days after finishing their previous stint as Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott’s backups on Gemini VIII. The two men were an almost-perfect match, sharing a friendship that long pre-dated their NASA days, back to a time in the late Fifties when they were roommates aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger. A decade later, as astronauts, they earned a reputation for being cocky and fun-loving – Gordon, indeed, was such a ladies’ man that Conrad nicknamed him ‘Animal’ – yet both were intensely focused.

The respect in which Gordon was held as a test pilot and naval aviator preceded his time at NASA; in fact, when he applied unsuccessfully to join the 1962 astronaut class, he was already on first-name terms with Al Shepard, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton. In 1971, Slayton would consider it one of his most difficult tasks trying to choose between Gordon and Gene Cernan to command the final Apollo lunar mission; Gordon would lose, but by barely a whisker.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr was born in Seattle, Washington, on 5 October 1929, attending high school in Washington State with dreams of the priesthood, rather than any aspiration to fly. Upon receiving his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Washington in 1951, his focus had shifted somewhat to professional baseball or a career in dentistry. Gordon had settled firmly on the latter when the Korean War broke out and, in 1953, he joined the Navy and discovered his life’s true calling: aviation.

He would win top honours for his precise aerial manoeuvres, which guided him through All-Weather Flight School to jet transitional training to the all-weather fighter squadron at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida. It was shortly after being selected to join the Navy’s test pilot school at Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1957 that he and Conrad met and became lifelong friends. The pair would frequently while away raucous nights in bars and nightspots, knocking back beer and shots, then show up at the flight line six hours later, models of sobriety. ‘‘They were not only good pilots,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, ‘‘but a good time.’’

After graduation, Gordon test-flew F-8U Crusaders, F-11F Tigers, FJ-4 Furies and A-4 Skyhawks and also served as the first project pilot for the F-4H Phantom II. Later, he moved on to become a Phantom flight instructor and helped introduce the aircraft to both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. His expertise and reputation as one of the hottest F-4H fighter jocks in the world reached its zenith when Gordon used it to win the Bendix transcontinental race from Los Angeles to New York in May 1961. By doing so, he established a new speed record of almost 1,400 km/h and completed the epic coast-to-coast journey in barely two hours and 47 minutes.

In light of such astounding professional accomplishments, it came as a surprise to many – not least Pete Conrad – when Gordon did not make the final cut for NASA’s 1962 astronaut intake. The intensely competitive Gordon would describe his reaction as ‘‘pretty pissed off”, but he plunged directly into applying for aviation jobs, intending to retire from naval service. One night in the bar he was met by the just-selected Conrad, whose widow Nancy later described the encounter that would change Gordon’s career.

‘‘Still crying in your beer, Dickie-Dickie?’’

‘‘Just crying for you, Pete, ya poor dumb sumbitch. Stuck in a garbage can in space with some Air Force puke while I’m out smoking the field in my Phantom.’’

“So, Dick. They’re gonna fill out this Gemini program now that Apollo’s approved. At least ten more slots. I think you oughtta apply again.’’

“And why would I do that?’’

“Because you miss me.’’

A few months later, in October 1963, Gordon was picked as an astronaut. Three years after that, to his surprise and great joy, he would fly right-seat alongside his long-time Navy buddy. And three years after that, they would also fly to the Moon together. It would bring back memories of a picture of a flight-suited Conrad that he had sent to Gordon in 1962, just after his own selection. On the back, he had written: ‘To Dick: Until we serve together again’.


For Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, still in his early thirties, yet seemingly thwarted from ever flying again, the death of Vladimir Komarov cast a long shadow over his career. Shortly after the disaster, Nikolai Kamanin gathered the cosmonauts together and told him in no uncertain terms that his chances of another mission were virtually nil and that the next manned Soyuz would be flown instead by Georgi Timofeyevich Beregovoi, the oldest active pilot in the corps and a harsh critic of Gagarin, a man he considered to be an upstart. Meanwhile, retaining their slots on the ‘passive’ Soyuz, which would involve the ship-to-ship EVA, were Valeri Bykovsky, Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev. All four men began intensive training in November 1967.

Correcting Soyuz’ chronic problems was entrusted to engineers at TsKBEM, the Scientific-Research fnstitute for Automated Devices, and the Gromov Flight – Research fnstitute. The TsKBEM was the ‘new name’ for the OKB-1. Their work led to a number of improvements, including changes to the operating schedule of the reserve parachute, and by September 1967 the Utkin commission declared it was satisfied that Soyuz could commence automated missions. fn mid-October, Vasili Mishin announced that test flights would be launched with an ‘active’ vehicle sent aloft for three days, followed, if its health proved acceptable, by a ‘passive’ craft. The two would then automatically rendezvous, using their fgla radars, with docking not mentioned, but considered an option. The active craft, under the cover name of Cosmos 186, was successfully launched from Tyuratam at 12:30 pm Moscow Time on 27 October, entering an orbit of 209 x 235 km. Unlike Komarov’s Soyuz, its solar panels deployed successfully and its fgla worked perfectly, but a malfunction in its solar-stellar attitude-control sensor prevented it from adjusting its orbit. Nevertheless, the second launch was given the go-ahead.

Enthused by Cosmos 186’s success, Mishin was keen to attempt not only a rendezvous, but also a docking, and the vehicle named Cosmos 188 was duly launched to conduct this new mission at 12:12 pm on 30 October. Its launch vehicle’s trajectory was precise: inserting it into a 200 x 276 km orbit and within 24 km of Cosmos 186. The latter then fired its engine 28 times under automatic command from its Igla and at 1:14 pm, barely an hour after the passive vehicle’s launch, the pair had docked. Clear images appeared on Soviet television that evening, giving the outside world its first brief glance at the configuration of the Soyuz spacecraft.

Despite a small, 8.5 cm gap between the two craft, the Cosmos vehicles undocked after three and a half hours to commence their respective re-entries. Here the problems arose. Cosmos 186 suffered a failure of its solar-stellar sensor, which altered its descent trajectory into a purely ballistic fall from orbit; still, it was recovered safely. On the following day, 1 November, Cosmos 188 proved unable to perform a guided re-entry because of an incorrect attitude. It re-entered at an excessively steep angle, to such an extent that its self-contained package of explosives remotely destroyed the descent module, lest it land on foreign soil. (Had the explosives not fired, it was later concluded, Cosmos 188 would have landed about 400 km east of Ulan-Ude, just to the north of the Mongolian border, but still in the Soviet Union…)

Early the following year, Yuri Gagarin and a handful of other cosmonauts defended their ‘candidate of technical sciences’ theses at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy and the prospects of another flight into space seemed to brighten a little. On 27 March, he and test pilot Vladimir Seregin took off from the Chkalovskaya airfield, near Moscow, in an antiquated MiG-15UTI trainer. Shortly afterwards, Gagarin requested permission to alter his course… and then, at 10:31 am, communications were lost.

‘‘The weather was very bad that day,’’ remembered fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, who was overseeing parachute jumps from a helicopter near Kirzach airfield. ‘‘The cloud cover was low and it was raining hard. My team had performed just one jump when the weather deteriorated even further. The rain turned to sleet and conditions were so bad that I cancelled the session and requested permission to return to base.’’ As he waited to learn if his request had been granted, Leonov heard two loud bangs from the distance, one of them clearly an explosion, the other a sonic boom, with barely a second or so between them. During the return to base, he was puzzled when the control tower kept radioing Gagarin’s callsign. Leonov wondered if they were mistakenly calling him instead, but upon landing he was told that contact had been lost with Gagarin and Seregin. When Leonov described the explosions he had heard, a helicopter was hastily despatched to the last known location of Gagarin.

At length, as late afternoon gave way to a wintry twilight, the helicopter commander reported finding the wreckage of the MiG some 64 km from the airfield. Debris, he said, was scattered in a wooded area and the aircraft’s engine was buried several metres underground. Search and rescue forces, who arrived shortly thereafter, would determine that the MiG-15 had hit the ground at over 700 km/h.

An upper jaw, identified as that of Seregin, was found and Soviet Air Force officials informed Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin of the accident. As yet, however, they had no confirmatory evidence that Gagarin had also died. Early the following morning, a piece of cloth hanging from a birch tree offered the first proof: it was from Gagarin’s flight jacket. Clearly, neither he nor Seregin had ejected. The men’s remains – which Doran and Bizony described as “fingers, toes, pieces of ribcage and skull’’ – were both interred in the Kremlin Wall. The cause of the accident was hard to find. Theories included a bird strike, a collision with a hot-air balloon (the remains of which, in fact, were found close to the crash site) and even more outlandish notions that Gagarin was drunk or Seregin was taking pot-shots at wild deer from the MiG. Still others postulated that after angrily throwing a cognac in Leonid Brezhnev’s face in the wake of Komarov’s death, Gagarin had been imprisoned or confined to a mental asylum. . .

In December 1968, the official accident report pointed towards pilot error, but when the classified files were reopened two decades later it became more likely that Gagarin and Seregin did not have accurate altitude data and had flown into an area where a supersonic Sukhoi SU-15 jet was operating. Bizony and Doran noted that Seregin was told the cloud base was 1,000 m, when in fact it was nearer to 450 m. Witnesses would later confirm seeing both Gagarin’s aircraft and the Sukhoi. “According to the flight schedule of that day,’’ wrote Leonov, “the Sukhoi was prohibited from flying lower than 10,000 m. f believe now, and believed at the time, that the accident happened when the jet pilot violated the rules and dipped below the cloud cover for orientation … that he passed within 10 or 20 m of Yuri and Seregin’s plane while breaking the sound barrier. The air turbulence overturned their jet and sent it into a fatal flat spin.’’ fn such a situation, and thinking they were higher than they actually were, neither Seregin nor Gagarin would have had much time to respond or eject.

ft was Leonov who finally identified Gagarin’s physical remains. . . from fragments of flesh removed from the crash site and placed into a metallic bowl. “A few days before,’’ he wrote in his autobiography, “f had accompanied Yuri to the barber to have his hair cut. f had stood behind Yuri talking while the barber worked. When he came to trim the hairs at the base of Yuri’s neck, he noticed a large, dark brown mole.’’ Leonov had joked that the barber should be careful not to cut the mole, little realising that it would prove pivotal shortly thereafter in identifying the last mortal remains of Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin. “Looking down at the fragments of flesh lying in that metal bowl,’’ Leonov wrote, “f saw that one bore the mole.’’ The first man to conquer space was dead at the age of just 34.

The day before Gagarin and Seregin died, the Soyuz State Commission, headed by Kerim Kerimov, met to discuss future plans. The parachute design for the spacecraft had been extensively overhauled and cleared to fly. At 1:00 pm on 14 April, with several cosmonauts, including Georgi Beregovoi, in attendance, Cosmos 212 was successfully launched into a 210 x 239 km orbit. Next day, at 12:34 pm, it was followed by Cosmos 213, which entered orbit just four kilometres from its target. Within an hour, and with Cosmos 212 leading the rendezvous, the two craft docked automatically, separated later that evening and each completed five-day independent missions. Cosmos 212 performed the first-ever guided Soyuz re-entry on 19 April, touching down in high winds near Karaganda in Kazakhstan. fts twin, after performing automated tasks in radiation sensing, micrometeoroid detection and photometry, landed near Tselinograd on 20 April.

By this time, many were looking to Beregovoi to fly the next manned Soyuz mission, planned as a four-day flight, with Boris Volynov, Yevgeni Khrunov and Alexei Yeliseyev aboard the second, ‘passive’ mission. They would fulfil the denied missions of Soyuz 1 and 2. But not yet. Trials of the spacecraft’s backup parachute were not considered good enough to assign a human pilot and it was deemed likely that, with a crew of three cosmonauts aboard, it might rip during deployment. Vasili Mishin and the parachute’s designer proposed reducing the three-man crew to two. Further, it seemed prudent, to avoid unnecessary risk, to dock the two Soyuz vehicles, but not yet to attempt a risky EVA transfer.

Mstislav Keldysh, head of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, was even more cautious, refusing to endorse a manned flight until further automated tests had been conducted. On 29 May 1968, Mishin suggested a compromise: a docking of two Soyuz vehicles in orbit, one of them unmanned, the other carrying a single cosmonaut. After the success of that flight, the next crews would be committed to the EVA transfer, perhaps as early as September. Dmitri Ustinov stepped in the way of this plan, demanding an additional automated flight, which caused the intended August date for the first mission to slip until October. On 10 June, the Soyuz State Commission convened and Kerim Kerimov approved a plan to launch the automated mission in July, followed by the joint manned mission in September and a full-scale docking and EVA in November or December. Ustinov added to this the proviso that the EVA should transfer not one, but two, cosmonauts between ships. One Soyuz, obviously, would land with a crew of three, necessitating the repair of the backup parachute… and quickly.

Cosmos 238 was duly launched on 28 August, a month late because of problems with its parachutes, and apparently conducted at least one major orbital manoeuvre, before touching down four days later. All hurdles appeared to have been cleared and the joint mission, with an unmanned Soyuz 2 and Beregovoi aboard Soyuz 3, was scheduled for mid-October. This was slightly postponed due to pre-flight malfunctions and problems during testing of the spacecraft, but the State Commission met on 23 October and confirmed Beregovoi as the Soyuz 3 pilot. The new backups would be Vladimir Shatalov and Boris Volynov. Born on 15 April 1921 in Fedorovka in the Ukraine, Beregovoi was a fully-fledged colonel in the Soviet Air Force and, thanks to his exploits as a squadron commander in the Second World War, had long since been decorated with the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union medal.

He had joined the Air Force in 1941 and was rapidly assigned to a ground-attack unit, flying the Ilyushin Il-2 and completing 185 combat missions against Nazi Germany. Following the end of hostilities, he became a test pilot and flew more than 60 different types of aircraft, becoming deputy chief of the Air Force’s flight testing department. He was accepted for cosmonaut training in 1962 and, as a fellow war veteran, had been looked upon favourably by Nikolai Kamanin. In their biography of Gagarin, however, Doran and Bizony suggested that after serving in a backup capacity for an unflown Voskhod mission, Beregovoi locked horns with the First

Cosmonaut over flight assignments… and personally insulted the younger man over his limited flying experience and qualifications. According to onlookers, Gagarin threatened to do everything in his power to keep Beregovoi from flying in space. Even in the last days before Soyuz 3, serious concerns were raised over 47-year-old Beregovoi’s suitability to carry out the mission. He had failed his pre-launch examination, receiving a ‘bad’ mark rather than the expected ‘excellent’, but instead of substituting him for Shatalov, he was given a second chance, which he passed with a respectable ‘good’. After the flight, when asked if his advanced age was a factor in the indecision over whether he should fly, Beregovoi responded that his height – 1.8 m – was actually a deciding factor…

At noon on 25 October 1968, the unmanned Soyuz 2 (it only received this name after Beregovoi’s launch aboard Soyuz 3) lifted-off from Tyuratam, entering a perfect orbit of 183 x 224 km. Although the systems aboard the spacecraft appeared to be functioning normally, conservatism and scepticism over the reliability of the fgla system prompted suggestions that the attempt to dock with Beregovoi be dropped in favour of a simplified, two-part rendezvous, firstly to a distance of 30 km and then to 100-200 m. Next morning, at 11:34, Soyuz 3 set off and within minutes Beregovoi was in an orbit of 205 x 225 km, ready to exorcise the ghost of Vladimir Komarov and put Soyuz through its paces.

During his first orbit, ground controllers activated the fgla system, which guided Soyuz 3 towards its passive target and brought it to within 200 m. At this point, as an external television camera relayed pictures to Earth, Beregovoi took manual control to attempt a docking. As he closed in to around 50 m, Soyuz 3 inexplicably banked 180 degrees from the target, despite the cosmonaut’s best efforts to counter it. Suspicion that the fgla had contributed to this failure was denied by the system’s designer, Armen Mnatsakanyan, who claimed that ‘‘the cosmonaut had been confused by the light beacons [on Soyuz 2] and thereby [had manoeuvred in such a way] that a certain angle had been formed between the antennas of the [two] craft’’. This, it was concluded, had caused Soyuz 3 to turn away to one side. Mnatsakanyan’s judgement: pilot error.

Years later, Asif Siddiqi would write that, indeed, upon realising that the two spacecraft were imperfectly aligned, Beregovoi should have gingerly stabilised his craft along a direct axis to the target. However, he used a stronger thruster firing to place Soyuz 3 into a completely incorrect orientation relative to the target. Soyuz 2’s radar sensed this improper deviation and automatically turned its nose away to prevent docking, but Beregovoi tried to complete a fly around and a second approach. When the same thing happened again, it became clear that Soyuz 3’s propellant load was running low, leaving barely enough for re-entry. Further docking attempts were immediately abandoned and the two craft drifted apart.

fn spite of these problems, during his four days in space, Beregovoi demonstrated the basic habitability of Soyuz, even giving his terrestrial audience a televised tour of the descent and orbital modules during no fewer than three transmissions. ft did not have quite the same impact as the Wally, Walt and Donn Show, but proved a close Soviet second. Clad in a woollen training top and a white helmet with microphones, he spoke of the sheer ‘comfort’ of Soyuz and that, although he did not ‘need’ a space

suit for protection, one was carried aboard Soyuz 3 regardless. Beregovoi also participated in Earth observation studies, noting forest fires and thunderstorms close to the equator and conducting astronomical and Earth-resources photography.

Soyuz 2, meanwhile, suffered a failure of its astro-orientation sensor, but successfully re-entered and landed in Kazakhstan at 10:56 am on 28 October. This was soon followed by Beregovoi’s own return, which aroused much anxiety, since it was the first Soviet manned re-entry since Komarov’s death. An initial abortive retrofire was followed by a successful 145-second burn over the Atlantic Ocean early on 30 October. The descent module, thankfully, perfectly executed a guided return, hurtling over Africa and the Caspian Sea and hitting the snow-covered steppe near Karaganda with a firm thud at 10:25 am. The ebullient Beregovoi’s first contact with a living being came when he was met by a bewildered local boy on a donkey.

Notwithstanding the problems with the Soyuz 2 docking attempt, the mission had been an extraordinary success, with all of the spacecraft’s systems – including its Igla rendezvous device – performing as advertised. So too, apparently, did Beregovoi himself: in an oblique jab at the insubordination of Wally Schirra’s Apollo 7 crew, Tass reported that the Soyuz 3 pilot had followed his instructions correctly and without complaint. Still, in his post-flight report to the State Commission the following day, Beregovoi actually had a number of complaints: the jettisoning of the launch vehicle’s payload fairing was “unpleasant”, he told them, and one of his viewports was fogged up, whilst others had dust between the panes. Moreover, the manual control system was “too sensitive’’ during his approach towards Soyuz 2. The completion of the Soyuz shakedown cruise, though, set the stage for a far more ambitious docking and spacewalking extravaganza planned for the Soyuz 4 and 5 missions in January 1969. Before that, however, a lunar launch window was scheduled to open for the Soviets at the beginning of December. Had they given up on their lunar dream, the Americans wondered, or was another space spectacular on the cards?

Onward and Upward


The failure of the first Agena-D target vehicle on 25 October 1965 left the Gemini effort in a quandary. Its role in the following year’s rendezvous and docking missions was crucial, yet its reliability had been brought into serious doubt. Efforts to resolve its woes spanned four months and the first few weeks after the failure were spent identifying the cause. Investigators quickly focused on the Agena’s engine. By November, a ‘hard-start’ hypothesis – in which fuel was injected into the combustion chamber ahead of the oxidiser, effectively causing it to ‘backfire’ – had been generally accepted by the engineers. However, this problem was itself deeply rooted in NASA’s original specification for the Agena-D to be able to restart itself up to five times during a single mission.

In order to achieve multiple restarts, oxidiser began flowing first, then a pressure switch restricted fuel flow until a given amount of oxidiser had reached the combustion chamber. This had the advantage of enhancing the engine’s startup characteristics, but was also extremely wasteful, with numerous instances of oxidiser leaks. As a result, oxidiser was often expended before fuel. In an effort to rectify this wastage problem, engine subcontractor Bell Aerosystems removed the pressure switch, allowing fuel to enter the combustion chamber ahead of the oxidiser. However, the investigative panel for the Agena-D speculated that fuel in the chamber – perhaps in considerable quantities – might have caused the engine to backfire when the oxidiser arrived, resulting in an explosion.

Meanwhile, in mid-November, a two-day symposium on hypergolic rocket ignition at altitude convened to discuss the failure and identify corrective actions. The data from the accident implied that oscillations and mechanical damage had been induced after engine ignition and temperature drops pointed towards a fuel spillage of some sort. When the Agena’s electrical circuitry failed, the engine stopped, but a valve responsible for managing fuel tank pressures remained open. As the fuel stopped flowing, pressures built up inside the tanks, which ruptured and destroyed the vehicle. Although the symposium was unsatisfied that this represented

the definitive cause of the accident, it had little other data upon which to base its judgements. One of its recommendations was that future Agena-D engines should be modified and tested at simulated altitudes closer to those at which it would operate: 76 km. (Previously, it had only been tested at simulated altitudes of 34 km.)

In response, Lockheed formed a Project Surefire Engine Development Task Force to carry out the modification programme, which continued to arouse debate until the week before Gemini Vlff’s scheduled March 1966 launch. By that time, the crew assigned to a subsequent mission, Gemini IX, had lost their lives in a blaze which nearly claimed their spacecraft, too. Civilian Elliot See, a deeply religious former General Electric pilot who had performed engine testing before coming to NASA, was paired with Air Force Major Charlie Bassett – “a terrific stick-and-rudder man,” according to Gene Cernan – to fly a three-day mission and practice rendezvous, docking and spacewalking.

At 7:35 am on 28 February 1966, the men and their backups, Cernan and Tom Stafford, took off from Ellington Field near Houston in a pair of T-38s and flew in tandem to McDonnell’s St Louis plant. “Prime and backup were not allowed to fly in the same airplane,’’ wrote Mike Collins, “lest a crash wipe out the entire capability in one specialty.’’ In other words, in Gemini IX’s case, See could fly with anyone but Stafford and Bassett with anyone but Cernan. Their schedule called for them to spend ten days in St Louis, practicing rendezvous procedures in the simulator, as well as viewing their just-completed Gemini IX spacecraft. Weather conditions in St Louis that morning were bad, with low cloud, poor visibility, rain and snow flurries, and at 8:48 am Lambert Field airport – located 150 m from the McDonnell plant – prepared to support two instrument-guided landings. lt was standard practice to rely upon instruments under such appalling weather conditions.

The two sleek T-38s – tailnumbered ‘NASA 901’ (See and Bassett) and ‘NASA 907’ (Stafford and Cernan) – descended through the murky clouds at 8:55 am, directly above the centreline of the south-west runway, far too low and flying too fast to land. Stafford, who had been concentrating on remaining in position on See’s right wing, decided to ascend and attempt a flyaround. However, See inexplicably announced his intention to enter a tight turn and make another approach. Normally careful, considered and judicious, it has been speculated over the years that he wanted to beat the backup crew to the runway. If this was indeed the case, it surely demonstrated that See had the competitive nature typical of an astronaut. Sadly, good luck was not on his side that day.

Stafford was surprised as See’s T-38 disappeared from view, exclaiming to Cernan: ‘‘Goddamn! Where the hell’s he going?’’ Breaking through the clouds, heading directly for the corrugated-iron Building 101, which contained Gemini lX, See realised he could not land successfully. He lit his afterburners, broke hard right and pulled back on the stick, but at 8:58 am the T-38 grazed the top of the building, gashed open the roof – losing a wing as it did so – and cartwheeled into a nearby parking lot, whereupon it exploded.

lnside Building 101, McDonnell foreman Domien Meert watched aghast from his desk in the subassembly room as a sheet of flame flared across the now-exposed ceiling. Workers dived for cover under benches as honeycomb shards from the T-38’s

Onward and Upward

Подпись: Tragedy 307The original Gemini IX crew, Elliot See (left) and Charlie Bassett. Scheduled for a three-day mission in May 1966, they were both killed in St Louis just 11 weeks before launch.

shattered wing hit the Gemini X spacecraft, still under construction. Elliot See, who had been thrown from the fuselage, was found dead in the parking lot, his parachute half-opened, while Charlie Bassett – one of the most promising of the third group of astronauts, selected in October 1963 – had been decapitated. His severed head was later retrieved from the rafters of the very building in which his spacecraft was being readied for flight.

Stafford and Cernan were oblivious to the tragedy. They were simply ignored by air traffic controllers, left to their own devices and, wrote Cernan, “annoyed that the tower was being so vague in its communications”. Eventually, with a near-empty fuel gauge pushing him close to declaring an emergency, Stafford set NASA 907 down on the runway without incident and turned onto the taxiway. He was puzzled by an odd question from the tower: “Who was in NASA 901?” When Stafford told them that the Gemini IX prime crew was aboard the other T-38, he was advised that McDonnell Aircraft had “a message” for him. Minutes later, after opening his canopy, Stafford was told by James McDonnell himself that See and Bassett had both been killed.

The men’s remains, wrote Cernan, were unrecognisable and their identification was not helped by the fact that all four astronauts had placed their NASA badges and personal papers in a baggage pod aboard See and Bassett’s T-38 before leaving Houston. Only by checking with the men who were still alive was it possible to determine which ones had died.

It seemed impossible to imagine 28 February 1966 as a day for miracles, but it was to say the very least fortuitous that no deaths were sustained on the ground. If See had been a little lower at the moment of impact, he would have hit Building 101 in a head-on collision, destroying Gemini IX and potentially killing hundreds of McDonnell staff who were skilled in the art of manufacturing spacecraft The United States’ plan to reach the lunar surface before the end of the decade would have evaporated.

Later that afternoon, James McDonnell climbed onto the roof to survey the damage. Next day, his company’s 37,000 employees returned to work and, as planned, on 2 March, Gemini IX was loaded aboard a C-124 transport aircraft and flown to Cape Kennedy. At around the same time, the entire astronaut corps gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to watch as the remains of 38-year-old Elliot McKay See Jr and 34-year-old Charles Arthur Bassett II were laid to rest.

NASA immediately created a seven-man investigative board, chaired by Al Shepard, which examined every parameter and detail relating to See and Bassett’s tragic final flight. The T-38, it was found, was in perfect operational order and the men’s physical and psychological state was fine. Their flying abilities, on paper at least, were exemplary and both had renewed their instrument flying certificates within the last six months. The appalling weather was certainly a contributory factor in the disaster, but the board’s final conclusion that pilot error was to blame did not surprise Deke Slayton.

“Of all the guys in the second group of astronauts,” he wrote, “Elliot was the only one I had any doubts about. I had flown with him and the conclusion was just that he wasn’t aggressive enough. Too old-womanish. . . he flew too slow – a fatal

problem in a plane like the T-38, which will stall easily if you get below about 270 knots.” Slayton had named See as Neil Armstrong’s pilot on the Gemini V backup crew, but had not felt confident to keep the pairing together for Gemini VIII, particularly since the latter would feature a lengthy EVA. “He wasn’t in the best physical shape,’’ Slayton wrote, adding that “I didn’t think he was up to handling an EVA. I made him commander of Gemini IX and teamed him up with Charlie Bassett – who was strong enough to carry the two of them.’’

Neil Armstrong, who worked with See on Gemini V, has said little about his qualifications as an astronaut, but certainly found it difficult to blame his comrade for his own death. “It’s easy to say… what he should have done was gone back up through the clouds and made another approach,’’ Armstrong told biographer James Hansen. “There might have been other considerations that we’re not even aware of. I would not begin to say that his death proves the first thing about his qualification as an astronaut.’’

Regardless, years later, Slayton would admit that he had allowed himself to “get sentimental’’ about giving See a mission and that, ultimately, it was a bad call. Within hours of the tragedy, he had telephoned Tom Stafford to tell him that he and Cernan were now the Gemini IX prime crew. Three weeks later, Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin were named as their backups. It is interesting that the deaths of See and Bassett proved pivotal in deciding the identities and shaping the futures of the men who would someday be the first to set foot upon the Moon. By backing up Gemini IX, for example, Aldrin eventually wound up as pilot on the very last Gemini mission. Slayton admitted in his autobiography that without this twist of fate, it would have been “very unlikely’’ that Aldrin would have gone on to join the first Apollo lunar landing crew. Indeed, Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott, set to fly Gemini VIII on 16 March 1966, would become the only Gemini crew who would both someday walk on the lunar surface.

For Armstrong, his astronaut career would be the culmination of a lifetime of aviation which had carried him to the edge of the atmosphere in rocket-propelled aircraft, into the world’s first spaceflying corps and almost into suborbital space aboard a revolutionary machine called ‘Dyna-Soar’.