Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


Gemini VIII was not aided by a distinct lack of available tracking stations across its flight path, which resulted in some very spotty communications with Mission Control. “We could communicate with Houston,” wrote Scott, “for only three five – minute periods every 90 minutes as we passed over secondary tracking stations.” Two ship-based stations were aboard the Rose Knot Victor and the Coastal Sentry Quebec, plus a land-based site in Hawaii. Shortly before one such loss of contact, at 6:35 pm, Armstrong and Scott were advised by Jim Lovell that, if problems arose whilst docked, they should deactivate the Agena and take control with the Gemini. “Just send in the command 400 to turn it off,” Lovell told them, “and take control with the spacecraft.” For now, however, the only problems seemed to be difficulties verifying that the Agena was receiving uplinked commands and a glitch with its velocity meter, used to specify the magnitude of a burn by its main engine.

Twenty-seven minutes after docking, Scott commanded the Agena to turn them 90 degrees to the right and Armstrong reported that the manoeuvre had “gone quite well”. His call came seconds before Gemini VIII passed out of radio range of the land-based Tananarive station in the Malagasy Republic. Working alone, the astronauts transmitted an electronic signal to start the Agena’s tape recorder. Shortly thereafter, their attitude indicators showed them to be in an unexpected, almost imperceptible, 30-degree roll. “Neil,” called Scott, “we’re in a bank’’.

Perhaps, they wondered, the Agena’s attitude controls were playing up or its software load was wrong. Since Gemini VIII’s OAMS was now switched off and both men could see the Agena’s thrusters firing, they reasoned that the target’s controls must be at fault. They could not have known at the time that one of their own OAMS thrusters – the No. 8 unit – had short-circuited and stuck in its ‘on’ position. Unaware, Scott promptly cut off the Agena’s thrusters, whilst Armstrong pulsed the OAMS in a bid to stop the roll and bring the combined spacecraft under control. For a while, his efforts succeeded.

After four tense minutes, the docked spacecraft slowed and steadied itself. Then, as Armstrong worked to reorient them into their correct horizontal position, the unwanted motions began again. . . much faster than before and, wrote Scott, ‘‘on all three axes’’. Perplexed, the men jiggled the control switches of the Agena, then of the Gemini, off and on, in a fruitless effort to isolate the problem. At around this time, Scott noticed that Gemini VIII’s own attitude propellant had dropped to just 30 per cent, clearly indicative of a problem with their own spacecraft. ‘‘It was clear,’’ Scott related, ‘‘we had to disengage from the Agena, and quickly.’’

Undocking presented its own problems, not least of which was the very real risk that the two rapidly rotating vehicles could impact one another. However, Scott, demonstrating an intuitive test pilot’s awareness of the importance of recording all pertinant data, pre-set the Agena’s recording devices such that ground controllers would still be able to remotely command it. ‘‘I knew that, once we undocked, the rocket would be dead,’’ he wrote. ‘‘No one would ever know what the problem had been or how to fix it.’’ Scott’s prompt action saved the Agena and preserved it for subsequent investigations and tasks.

Still out of radio contact with the ground, Armstrong moved onto the next step of the flight rules and undocked from the Agena. He then fired a long burst of Gemini VIII’s translational thrusters to pull away, only to discover that the spacecraft, now free, began to spin more wildly, in roll, pitch and yaw axes. It was now much worse than before, because the stuck-on No. 8 thruster was no longer turning the entire combination, only the Gemini. High above south-east Asia, they came within range of the Coastal Sentry Quebec, which received Scott’s urgent radio transmission at 6:58 pm: “We have serious problems here… we’re tumbling end-over-end. We’re disengaged from the Agena.’’

Aboard the ship, Capcom Jim Fucci acknowledged the call and enquired as to the nature of the problem. Both men were relieved to hear Fucci’s voice. “He was an old NASA hand,’’ wrote Scott, “very experienced.” Quickly, yet with characteristic calmness, Armstrong reported that he and Scott were “in a roll and we can’t seem to turn anything off. . . continuously increasing in a left roll’’. Fucci duly passed the


Gemini VIII during rendezvous activities with the Agena.

report over to Houston: Gemini VIII was suffering “pretty violent oscillations”. The three-way conversation with Mission Control meant that it was some seconds before Flight Director John Hodge picked up all of the details; Fucci having to repeat that “he’s in a roll and he can’t stop it”.

Armstrong quickly threw circuit breakers to cut electrical power and hence the flow of propellant to the attitude thrusters, including the No. 8 unit. However, with no friction or counterfiring thruster to stop it, the spinning continued. At its worst, it reached 60 revolutions per minute. Everything in the cabin – checklists, flight plans, procedures charts – were hurled around by the centrifugal force. The unfiltered Sun flashed in the astronauts’ windows with alarming regularity, said Scott, “like a strobe light hitting us in the face’’.

Such a rotation rate placed the men at serious risk of physically blacking out and, indeed, both had difficulties reading their instruments properly. “It was rather like the feeling you get as a kid when you twist a jungle rope round and round and then hang on it as it spins and unfurls,’’ wrote Scott. “In space, it was not a good feeling.’’ Physician Chuck Berry would later note that the astronauts experienced two conditions brought on by the rapid rotation: a complete loss of orientation caused by the effects on their inner ears (the ‘coriolis effect’), coupled with ‘nystagmus’, an involuntary rhythmic motion of the eyes.

The incessant rotation and the depletion of Gemini VIII’s attitude propellant had already alerted Armstrong and Scott to a problem with their own spacecraft, but at the time they did not know that the short circuit in the OAMS had caused the No. 8 thruster to become stuck ‘on’ and caused the rapid drop in fuel. Even had they known, there would have been no time to ponder it. Armstrong’s responsibility as the command pilot was to ensure the safety and success of the mission. Scott’s spacewalk, docked activities with the Agena and most of the experiments were now off the agenda; the safe return of the crew was paramount.

Armstrong decided that his only available course of action was to use Gemini VIII’s 16 re-entry controls. It was easier said than done. The re-entry control switch was in the most awkward position imaginable, directly above Armstrong’s head, and, worse, was on a panel with around a dozen toggles. ‘‘With our vision beginning to blur,’’ wrote Scott, ‘‘locating the right switch was not simple.’’ Fortunately, both men had carried their years of test-piloting experience into the astronaut business and intuitively knew every switch, literally, with their eyes closed. ‘‘Neil knew exactly where that switch was without having to see it,’’ Scott continued, but admitted ‘‘reaching above his head. . . while at the same time grappling with the hand controller… was an extraordinary feat.’’

The effort to reduce the spacecraft’s rates to zero with the re-entry controls, though ultimately successful, consumed 75 per cent of the fuel. ‘‘We are regaining control of the spacecraft slowly,’’ Armstrong reported, as the spinning stopped within 30 seconds. The flight, however, was over. Mission rules decreed that the re­entry controls, once activated, would require an immediate return to Earth at the next available opportunity. Just ten hours into its three-day mission, Gemini VIII was on its way home.


Amidst such euphoria, Conrad’s actual docking with Agena-XI at 11:16 am seemed anticlimatic, although both astronauts were able to practice the docking-and – undocking exercise which had eluded John Young two months earlier. Pulling loose from the target, then redocking, said Conrad, was much easier in space than on the ground and the astronauts managed it in daylight and darkness. It also gave Dick Gordon the distinction of becoming the first astronaut not in a command position to perform a docking manoeuvre.

This was followed by an ignition of the Agena’s main engine to boost their orbital altitude to the highest yet achieved by humans. Facing 90 degrees away from the flight path, Conrad fired the engine to add 33 m/sec to their velocity, as a test-run, and confirmed to Young that this was ‘‘the biggest thrill we’ve had all day’’. It was but the prelude for one of their main tasks on 14 September: increasing the high point of their orbit to no less than 1,370 km. For now, however, the astronauts rested, powering down Gemini XI, tucking into their first meal and bedding down for their first night’s sleep in space.

Despite its audacious nature, their only problem was a pair of dirty windows. This had, in fact, plagued each Gemini to date and even covers which could be jettisoned after launch had been little help. Capcom Al Bean told Gordon to rub half of Conrad’s window with a dry cloth during his spacewalk on 13 September. Four hours before they were scheduled to open Gemini XI’s hatch, they began preparing their suits and equipment; only to realise that, so thorough was their training, they actually needed barely 50 minutes to have all of their gear up and running.

By this point, Gordon could conceivably have gone outside, so Conrad called a halt, which left them sitting idly, fully kitted-out in their equipment. An hour later, they hooked up Gordon’s environmental support system and conducted several oxygen-flow checks, which proved a mistake because it dumped oxygen into the cabin and its excess was then vented into space. They could ill-afford this rate of oxygen loss and Conrad told Gordon to switch back to Gemini XI’s systems. Gordon, by this point uncomfortably warm, was relieved to get back onto the interior environmental control system. After all, the extravehicular system’s heat exchanger had been designed to operate in a vacuum, rather than inside a pressurised cabin.

The main problem, wrote astronaut Buzz Aldrin, actually lay in Conrad and Gordon’s impatience in skipping through the formal, six-page, hundred-plus-step sequence of donning and preparing their equipment. “As a result,’’ Aldrin related in 1989, “they upset cabin pressurisation when they checked out Gordon’s oxygen umbilical and he became overheated long before his EVA began.’’

The men considered asking Flight Director Cliff Charlesworth to let Gordon begin his EVA one orbit early, but due to issues with tracking and lighting, decided to stick with the pre-planned schedule, a decision that they would come to regret. As they prepared to fit Gordon’s sun visor onto his helmet, it proved a stubborn chore; Conrad eventually fastened one side, but could not reach over to snap the other side in place, leaving Gordon hot, bothered and in need of rest. After struggling for a few more minutes, Gordon eventually snapped the right side in place – cracking the sun visor in the process – and was thoroughly winded by the time he cranked open the hatch and stood on his seat at 9:44 am on 13 September, just two minutes past one full day into the mission. . . and precisely on time.

Instantly, Gordon’s exit into space was accompanied by everything else inside the cabin that was not tied down. Standing on his seat, his first activity was to deploy a handrail – a fairly easy task – after which he removed the S-9 nuclear emulsion package from outside the spacecraft and passed it in to Conrad, who stuffed it into his footwell. Next, Gordon tried to install a camera in a bracket to photograph his own movements, but this proved difficult. To resolve it, Conrad let enough of the umbilical slide through his gloved hand to let Gordon float above the camera, thump it with his fist and secure it in place.

The spacewalker’s next task was to attach the 30 m Dacron tether, housed in Agena-XI’s docking collar, onto Gemini XI’s nose. As Gordon pushed himself forward, he missed his goal and drifted in an arcing path above the adaptor and around in a semi-circle, until he reached the back of the spacecraft. However, Conrad had released only a couple of metres of the 9 m umbilical, so he pulled Gordon back to the hatch to start his trek again.

At length, Gordon reached the target and grabbed some handrails to pull himself astride Gemini’s nose – prompting Conrad to yell “Ride ‘em, cowboy!” – but the exercise proved more difficult in space than it had in ground tests. Aboard the zero – G aircraft, Gordon had been able to push himself forward, straddle the Gemini’s re­entry and recovery section and wedge his feet and legs between the docking adaptor and the spacecraft to hold himself in place, thus leaving his hands free to attach the tether and clamp it to the docking bar. However, in the vacuum of space, he found himself constantly fighting against his suit to keep himself from floating away; a situation rendered all the more difficult by the lack of any kind of ‘saddle’ or ‘stirrup’ to help him. All Gordon could do was hold on with one hand and try to operate the tether clamp with the other.

He struggled vigorously for six minutes, finally securing the line and setting the stage, at last, for the tethered flight experiment which would come later in the mission. Yet it was clear to Conrad that Gordon was encountering severe difficulties and the differences between EVA practice in terrestrial conditions and the real thing were profound: the spacewalker, soaked with sweat and eyes stinging, was reduced to groping his way blindly around. He tried to remove a mirror on Gemini XI’s docking adaptor, to help Conrad see him at the back of the spacecraft, but it would not move, and had no chance to wipe the windows either.

As Gordon neared the hatch, Conrad helped as much as he could, discussing procedures for getting to the spacecraft adaptor to store his zip-gun. It was obvious, though, that Gordon was exhausted: when they passed next over the Tananarive tracking station, Conrad told John Young that he had ‘‘brought Dick back in… he got so hot and sweaty, he couldn’t see’’. Unlike Gene Cernan, however, Gordon had no trouble whatsoever getting back inside Gemini XI or closing the hatch. Disappointingly, the spacewalk had lasted just 33 of its intended 107 minutes and one of its key tasks – experiment D-16, a power tool evaluation which had also evaded Dave Scott on Gemini VIII – was lost. Clearly, many of the complexities of EVA still remained to be resolved.

Having said that, Gordon’s exhaustion did not disrupt the remainder of the mission. Flight planners had learned to schedule periods of less-vigorous activity immediately after heavy workloads and Conrad and Gordon’s next task involved leisurely repacking equipment and restoring some semblance of order to the cabin. Additionally, communications with Mission Control dwindled to little more than short transmissions about spacecraft systems and medical checks, which gave them much-needed respite. Conrad test-fired a sluggish thruster, the men ate a meal and photographed the atmospheric airglow.

These moments of relatively quiet time would not last. Ahead of them lay the so – called ‘high ride’ – their Agena-assisted climb to a record-breaking altitude of 1,370 km. To prepare themselves, they donned their suits, closed their visors and secured as much cabin equipment as possible, as if in readiness for re-entry, and focused their attention on the Agena-XI. A problem quickly appeared. As they made a pre-firing

check of the target, it became clear that it was not properly accepting commands; instructions, in fact, had to be transmitted twice before they were acknowledged. Conrad expressed his concerns to Capcom Al Bean, who told them that, in fact, the Agena was responding correctly, but Gemini XI’s displays were at fault. “Heck of a time to have a… glitch like that show up,’’ Conrad grumbled, but was assured that everything remained ‘go’ for the burn.

Forty hours and 30 minutes after Gemini XI’s launch, at 2:12 am on 14 September, Conrad fired the Agena’s engine for 26 seconds, adding a blistering 279.6 m/sec to their speed. Both men were electrified by the burn. ‘‘Whoop-de-doo!’’ Conrad yelled. ‘‘[That’s] the biggest thrill of my life!’’ Like the experience of John Young and Mike Collins two months earlier, Conrad and Gordon were pushed ‘forward’ against their seat harnesses and, gradually, saw the Earth change from a vast expanse of blue and white beneath them. . . into something more planet-like, with a very distinct curvature. ‘‘I’ll tell you,’’ Conrad told the capcom in Carnarvon, Australia, ‘‘it’s go up here and the world’s round. . . you can’t believe it. . . I can see all the way from the end, around the top… about 150 degrees.’’

Beneath them, Conrad told Al Bean, the men beheld the intense and striking blues of the oceans, the sprinkling of clouds and the astonishing clarity of Africa, India and Australia. ‘‘Looking straight down,’’ he radioed, ‘‘you can see just as clearly. There’s no loss of colour and details are extremely good.’’ To cope with the adverse radiation effects of the Van Allen belts, Gemini XI’s high-apogee orbits were timed to take place over Australia, where levels were calculated to be relatively low. Over Carnarvon, indeed, Conrad reported that on-board dosimeters read barely 0.2 rads per hour. ‘‘Sounds like it’s safer up there than a chest X-ray,’’ replied Bean. In fact, Conrad added, Gemini XI experienced less radiation at 1,370 km than Young and Collins had endured in a longer period of time at 830 km.

It was at this altitude – 1,370 km high, the highest yet attained by humanity – that the flight’s imaging experiments, notably the synoptic terrain and weather photography objectives, produced some of their most stunning results. In total, Conrad and Gordon clicked more than 300 exposures and their descriptions of the sheer clarity of the eastern hemisphere filled principal investigators with excitement and anticipation.

Not until Apollo 8’s journey to the Moon in December 1968 would humans travel to higher altitudes and four decades later, Conrad and Gordon retain the record for the highest-ever Earth orbit attained by humans. ‘‘As the coupled craft soar toward their record apogee,’’ Time magazine told its readers a week after Gemini XI’s splashdown, following NASA’s release of the pictures, ‘‘the curvature of the Earth’s horizon becomes more pronounced and the Earth assumes an unmistakably globelike shape. Though the pictures are sharp and show geological features plainly, the Earth seems devoid of life; it offers no visible evidence of its teeming population, its great cities, its bridges or its dams.’’

Two orbits later, on their 26th revolution, as Gemini XI passed over the United States, Conrad again fired the Agena’s engine for 23 seconds to lower their apogee to 304 km and reduce their speed by 280 m/sec. After a bite to eat, at 8:49 am, Gordon opened his hatch, high above Madagascar, for his second EVA. This time, he stood


Dick Gordon, photographed by Pete Conrad shortly before opening Gemini XI’s hatch to throw out unwanted equipment.


Подпись: 374 Onward and Upward

on the ‘floor’ of Gemini Xf, poked his helmeted head outside and watched the sunset. Secured by a short tether, he could at least use both hands to mount cameras easily in their brackets and remained ‘outside’ for no less than two full hours. ‘‘Most enjoyable’’ was his summary of the stand-up EVA and, indeed, flight surgeons commented that from the biosensor data, it was uneventful.

Whilst outside, Gordon experienced two nighttime passes, photographing several star fields with the S-13 ultraviolet camera and his view was so unimpaired that he was able to coach Conrad about which way to direct Gemini Xf. Although the Agena’s stabilisation proved somewhat erratic, the linked vehicles remained sufficiently stable to yield excellent results in about a third of Gordon’s photographs. fndeed, as the spacecraft passed over the United States, the skies were so clear that both men were able to marvel at the view of Houston. Drifting across Florida, then out over the Atlantic, Gordon suddenly broke the silence to tell Conrad that he had just fallen asleep outside. He was not the only one: Conrad, too, had dozed off inside the spacecraft.

‘‘That’s a first,’’ radioed John Young. ‘‘First time sleeping in a vacuum.’’

Returning inside after two hours and eight minutes, Gordon’s exhaustion was not, like that of Cernan, caused by over-exertion and battling against his rigid suit, but instead by sheer concentration on his tasks.

Their next step was the tethered vehicle exercise, which could be attempted by two different means. One of these assumed the position of a ‘pole’, always pointing towards Earth’s centre – a so-called ‘gravity gradient’ attitude – in which Conrad and Gordon would have backed their spacecraft out of the Agena’s docking cone slowly until the 30 m tether became taut. ff properly positioned, a slight thrust of just 3 cm/sec would have kept the tether taut and the joined ‘pole’ would have drifted serenely around the globe, each spacecraft maintaining the same relative position and attitude.

Should this have been unsuccessful, the men were tasked with trying a ‘spin-up’, or ‘rotating’, mode, a technique studied by McDonnell engineers. fn this case, after physical undocking, Conrad would fire Gemini Xf’s thrusters to induce a rotation of one degree per second and as the tethered pair circled Earth, their mutual centre-of – gravity would lie at a specific point on the tether, around which they would do a slow, continuous cartwheel. Centrifugal force would, it was theorised, keep the tether taut and the two spacecraft apart, with the tether itself providing centripetal force to keep them both in equilibrium.

Over Hawaii, Conrad and Gordon separated from the Agena and began the cautious attempt to start the gravity gradient demonstration. There was enough initial tension in the tether to upset the target and cause the Gemini to move to the ‘right’ – towards the Agena’s docking adaptor – and Conrad quickly adjusted his motion. Then, as he backed away, the tether stuck, probably in the stowage container, when just 15m had been released. Conrad pulsed the OAMS thrusters to free the tether, but it quickly became hung up on a patch of Velcro and he was forced to shift Gemini Xf out of vertical alignment to peel the tether off the Velcro pad. This disturbed the Agena again and there still remained about 3 m of tether to be pulled out.

On the ground, engineers began to worry. The Agena should have taken around seven minutes to stabilise itself; when it took longer, they began to suspect that something was wrong with its attitude-control system and opted to abandon the gravity gradient attempt and adopt the ‘spin-up’ mode instead. However, when Conrad tried to initiate the rotation, another problem arose when he could not get the tether taut; it seemed to rotate counter-clockwise. ‘‘This tether’s doing something I never thought it would do,’’ he told John Young. ‘‘It’s like the Agena and I have a skip rope between us and it’s rotating and making a big loop… Man, have we got a weird phenomenon going on here!’’

Although the spinning line was curved, it also had tension, and for several minutes Conrad and Gordon jockeyed Gemini XI’s thrusters to straighten the arc. Eventually, the tether straightened and became taut and Conrad rolled the spacecraft and fired the thrusters to begin the slow cartwheeling motion. At first, it seemed that he had ‘stretched’ the tether, which had a big loop in it, but steadily, as both astronauts gritted their teeth, centrifugal force took over and it smoothed out. A 38- degree-per-minute rotation rate was obtained and remained steady throughout a nightside orbital pass.

Moving into dawn, they were asked by the Hawaii capcom to accelerate their spin-up rate and, with some reluctance, Conrad agreed. Suddenly, Gordon shouted ‘‘Oh, look at the slack! It’s going to jerk this thing to heck!’’ When the added acceleration started, the tether tightened, then relaxed, causing a ‘slingshot’ effect which seesawed both astronauts up to 60 degrees in pitch. In response, Conrad steadied the spacecraft and, to his surprise, the Agena stabilised itself. Their rotation rate checked out at 55 degrees per minute and they were able to test for a tiny amount of artificial gravity: when they placed a camera against Gemini XI’s instrument panel and let go, it moved in a straight line to the rear of the cockpit and parallel to the direction of the tether. Neither of the astronauts, however, felt any physiological effect of gravity. After three hours of docked operations, they jettisoned Gemini XI’s docking bar and pulled away.

Despite understandable disappointment that the gravity gradient technique could not be fully demonstrated, the spin-up mode at least proved that station-keeping could be done economically. After undocking, Conrad originally intended to decrease his spacecraft’s speed, allowing him to pull ahead of the Agena, but was advised instead to prepare for a ‘coincident-orbit’ rendezvous, whereby he would follow the target by 28 km in its exact orbital path. This would demonstrate their ability to station-keep at very long range with little fuel usage.

As a result of the plan change, Gemini XI’s separation manoeuvre was adjusted; instead of a retrograde firing, Conrad and Gordon ‘added’ speed and height to their orbit, such that Agena-XI passed ‘beneath’ and in front of them. Next, they fired their OAMS to place themselves in the same (coincident) orbit as the Agena, trailing it. Three-quarters of a revolution around Earth, Conrad decreased his ‘forward’ speed and, as expected, Gemini XI dropped into the Agena’s orbital lane, 30 km behind it, with no relative velocity between the pair.

At the same time, the men set to work on another of their scientific tasks: the night-image intensification experiment (D-15), which sought to evaluate the usefulness of equipment which scanned ground-based objects onto the instrument panel. Conrad aimed Gemini XI at specific targets, including towns and cities, cloud formations, lightning flashes, horizons and stars, airglow, coastlines and peninsulas, while Gordon described his view on the monitor into a tape recorder. Unfortunately, Conrad’s dirty window prevented him from seeing much and, indeed, the glow from the monitor meant that he never became adequately dark-adapted. Nonetheless, the men returned with astonishing recollections, including the lights of Calcutta, whose shape almost exactly paralleled official maps of the city.

Turning their attention back to the Agena, they asked ground controllers on the Rose Knot Victor tracking ship how far they were from the target and were advised that their distance remained 30 km, closing very slowly. A second rendezvous, beginning at 3:09 am on 15 September, was near-perfect: Conrad tilted Gemini XI’s nose 53 degrees above level flight and fired the forward thrusters. This placed them in a lower orbit than the Agena, ready to catch up with it, and they took some time to tend to their experiments. An hour later, Conrad fired the aft thrusters to raise his spacecraft’s orbit, then began to brake Gemini XI until he finally reported that he was on-station and steady with the target once more. Twelve minutes later, they executed a separation burn from the Agena for the final time. By this stage, the success had been so great that they could afford to be jocular; Conrad even asking Flight Director Glynn Lunney to send up a tanker to refuel them for more rendezvous.

The ambitious mission came to a close with a fully-automatic re-entry; unlike previous returns, in which the command pilots had flown their spacecraft down from 120 km using the Gemini’s offset centre-of-gravity to generate lift for changes in direction, Conrad would not use his hand controller in conjunction with computer directions. Gemini XI would follow computer commands automatically, a technique derisively nicknamed ‘chimp mode’ by the astronauts. Seventy hours and 41 minutes after launch, at 8:24 am on 15 September, partway through their 44th orbit, the retrorockets fired. Conrad disengaged his hand controller and put the system onto autopilot. This performed admirably and Gemini XI splashed down safely, within 4.6 km of the helicopter carrier Guam, at 8:59 am.

Half an hour after hitting the Atlantic, Conrad and Gordon were aboard the Guam, almost exactly three days since leaving Cape Kennedy. Rendezvous, docking and their record-breaking altitude boost had been, all three, successfully achieved; yet EVA issues remained. Buzz Aldrin, in training to conduct his own excursion on Gemini XII in November, became one of the first astronauts to work underwater in ‘neutral buoyancy’ to prepare himself for working in space. His was supposed to be one of the most complex to date, completing what Gene Cernan had been unable to do in June: flying the Air Force’s AMU backpack. Ironically, had the AMU flown on Gemini XII, Aldrin would not, and almost certainly he would not have gone on to become the second man on the Moon.


At 2:30 pm on 4 December, precisely on time, Gemini VII roared into orbit. ‘‘We’re on our way, Frank!’’ yelled Lovell as the Titan rolled and pitched in its ascent trajectory, achieving orbit five and a half minutes later and establishing itself in a 160 km path around the globe. Unfortunately, in spite of its historic nature, it proved to be the least-watched launch to date; many American viewers being outdoors on the bright Saturday afternoon, out Christmas shopping or watching football games.

A minor pressure loss in a fuel cell was soon rectified by applying pressure from the cabin oxygen tank to the fuel cell oxygen tank and Borman and Lovell succeeded, in their first few minutes of orbital flight, to manoeuvre their capsule and fly in formation with the Titan’s discarded second stage. Borman yawed Gemini VII some 180 degrees, at a rate of three or four degrees per second, to face the stage, which he reported was venting its last vestiges of propellant in the form of snowflake-like particles. He manoeuvred to a point 60 m ahead of the Titan, then performed a series of OAMS pulses to approach it, before taking up position around 15-18 m directly ahead of it in terms of their orbital motion. After the flight, Borman, who described the spent stage as ‘‘bigger than the devil’’, would recall that his quick ‘out-and-back’ station-keeping procedure seemed to solve the problem experienced by McDivitt in June, since it took ‘‘a lot of the orbital mechanics out of the situation’’.

By now heading eastwards over the North Atlantic, observation of the Titan became more difficult as it passed right in line with the Sun. Borman fired the OAMS thrusters again to move north-of-track, to get the glare out of his line of sight, but actually created a pattern of criss-crossing paths with the stage and its debris cloud of frozen propellant particles. Using their eyes, a set of four tracking lights on the Titan and a docking light on Gemini VII itself, the astronauts managed to station – keep for around 15 minutes as the rocket tumbled violently and vented frequently. As Borman flew, Lovell performed one of the military-sponsored experiments, taking infrared readings of the Titan with a small photometric instrument on his side of the cabin. The resultant movie images showed white plumes pouring from the stage, whose erratic movements, they recalled later, were both translational and rotational.

“A couple of times,” Borman said, “we got in a little too close and I backed out, because you just do not dare get as close as you do the way this thing is spewing.” In the aftermath of the Gemini VI-A rendezvous a few days later, he would consider the Titan station-keeping a much more difficult and unpredictable exercise. For his part, Lovell, who would command his own Gemini rendezvous with an Agena-D less than a year later, felt that the Titan’s tracking lights were of limited use in judging range and range rates. “We had four lights on,’’ explained Borman, “and I’ll be darned if I will try to judge distance by four lights – or by 50 lights! You have got to have illumination or you have got to have a stable vehicle.’’ Gemini VII had neither. By the time Borman finally executed a ‘breakout’ manoeuvre at 2:51 pm to permanently pull away from the Titan he found that he had expended seven per cent more fuel than anticipated. A little over 20 minutes later, the astronaut saw the stage pass within a couple of degrees of the Moon, then saw it again on their second orbit and again about two and a half hours after launch. By this time, they reported that it was “surrounded by a billion particles’’ of frozen propellant from its engine bell.

With the station-keeping behind them, Borman and Lovell settled down to eight days of experiments before the Gemini VI-A launch on 12 December. Three hours and 48 minutes into the mission, Lovell fired the OAMS in a major perigee-lifting burn lasting 76 seconds, which boosted the low point of Gemini VII’s orbit from 140 to 193 km and also brought them back into close proximity with the Titan. ‘‘We had come back into the vicinity of the booster,’’ said Borman. ‘‘Just about midway through the burn, the booster venting that was still occurring suddenly lit up – became lit up. It looked like we were flying through a lot of foreign objects or debris. I was afraid we were going to hit something.’’ In response, Lovell halted the perigee burn a few seconds early and a trailing strap attached to the rear of Gemini VII whipped forward and slapped against his window; at first, Borman thought that they had hit some debris. They pulsed the OAMS for a few more seconds, getting quite close to the planned ‘delta-V’ for the burn, and settled down to the first of their medical experiments. First were the cardiovascular conditioning cuffs, snapped onto Lovell’s legs. From then on, virtually every bodily action – from thinking to breathing to urinating to defecating – would be monitored.

By 7:00 pm, less than five hours into the mission, they turned to routine housekeeping and at 9:30 pm ate their first meal in orbit. The only real concern,


Spectacular view of the Andes from Gemini VII.

judging from the space-to-ground chatter, was a problematic fuel-cell warning light, which intermittently blinked on and off. When the two men came to sleep, Borman found his G5C suit to be much warmer than anticipated, forcing him to turn the control knob to its coolest setting. Next morning, Capcom Elliot See ran through systems checks, their experiment load for the day, football scores, the news that two airliners had collided over New York… and the theme song of Gemini VII’s prime recovery ship, the Wasp: ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’. To Borman, it seemed that he and Lovell were safer in space than people on Earth.

As the flight wore on, conditions became somewhat less comfortable, with both men complaining of stuffy noses and burning eyes. The cabin, Borman reported, was too warm. Removing their suits helped, yet even that had been a matter of some debate on the ground. Days earlier, on 29 November, Bob Gilruth had requested approval from NASA Headquarters for the astronauts to remove their suits after the second sleep period and only don them at critical junctures, such as rendezvous and re-entry. By the time Gemini VII launched on 4 December, the plan had been amended slightly: one of them had to be suited at all times, insisted George Mueller and Bob Seamans, but the other could remove his garment for up to 24 hours. Both men, however, had to be fully-suited for rendezvous and re-entry operations. Still, the intense discomfort was there and, as the mission wore on with no major environmental-control issues, the rationale behind the one-suit-on/one-suit-off decision became unsupportable.

Even with his suit unzipped and gloves off, Borman sweated heavily, while the unsuited Lovell remained dry. After 24 hours, Lovell asked to sleep unsuited, to which Borman agreed, despite his own discomfort. Lovell, the larger of the two, had more difficulty getting out of his suit in the confined cabin and, although he donned some lightweight flight coveralls for a few minutes, he removed them just as quickly, due to the intense warmth. After four days of this torment, Borman asked the flight controller on the Coastal Sentry Quebec tracking ship to ask Chris Kraft about the chances of both men taking off their suits. Capcom Gene Cernan discussed the request, firstly, with Deke Slayton, before approaching Kraft, but there was little option but to ask Lovell to put his suit back on so that Borman could remove his. Concern was mounting, however, about how alert the astronauts would be for the Gemini VI-A rendezvous if they were so hot and uncomfortable. Bob Gilruth certainly favoured both men having their suits off at the same time and Chuck Berry, looking at the biomedical data, saw clear signs that blood pressures and pulse rates were closer to normal when Borman and Lovell were unsuited. Eventually, on 12 December – the very day that Schirra and Stafford were due to fly – NASA Headquarters finally agreed to allow the Gemini VII crew to remove their uncomfortable suits.

In spite of their discomfort, the two men got along well, even singing Top 40 hits to each other to pass the time. More musical accompaniment came from Houston controllers, who sent up tunes on a radio band which would not interfere with voice communications, and by the end of the mission Gemini VII’s cabin echoed to Bach, Handel, Glinka and Dvorak. The astronauts’ patience was, however, tried on a number of occasions, most notably when a urine bag broke in Borman’s hands. “Before or after?’’ asked Chuck Berry. When Borman affirmed it was the latter, Berry replied “Sorry about that, chief”. After the flight, Lovell would describe their living and working conditions in a similar manner to Cooper and Conrad: like sitting in a men’s toilet for a fortnight without access to a shower. This did not bode well for the physicians: after splashdown, one of their tasks was to examine calcium loss in space and they would be obliged to not only sift through Borman and Lovell’s liquid and solid waste, but also microscopically analyse the contents of their underwear. . .

The cramped nature of the cabin was further exacerbated by the equipment for their 20 scientific and medical experiments. One of these was a hand-held sextant, which enabled them to sight stars setting on Earth’s horizon and determine that they could navigate their position in space without relying on a computer. (This would prove particularly important when Borman and Lovell next flew together in December 1968, on the first manned lunar mission.) As part of one of their military investigations, they tracked a Minuteman missile launch and acquired infrared imagery of the plasma sheath of ionised air that was created when its warhead plunged back into the denser atmosphere. Other tasks were somewhat less successful. A blue-green laser beam, fired from a transmitting station in Hawaii, could not be kept in sight for long enough to effect experimental voice communications. As useful as these tasks were for future technologies, the monotony of the mission was even affecting flight controllers. “What a helluva bore,” one of them yawned as Borman and Lovell drifted into their second week aloft.

That second week, though, would be one of the most dramatic yet seen. It would begin by scraping its knuckles on a near-disaster and end triumphantly. . . to the sound of ‘Jingle Bells’.


Despite the Saturn V’s woes, the situation was somewhat brighter for Spacecraft 101, the command and service module assigned to Apollo 7, the first manned flight. Heavily refurbished and quite different from the machine which had claimed Grissom, White and Chaffee’s lives, it finally arrived at Cape Kennedy on 30 May 1968. By this time, its crew had already been training for more than a year. Commander Wally Schirra, senior pilot Donn Eisele and pilot Walt Cunningham were personally announced before Congress by NASA Administrator Jim Webb on 9 May 1967, with Tom Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan as their backups. Schirra wanted to call his spacecraft ‘The Phoenix’ – the mythical firebird of classical lore, said to end its 500- year lifespan on a pyre of flames, then return from the ashes – but NASA, fearing unpleasant reminders of Apollo 1, vetoed the idea. Schirra’s crew was also granted a three-man ‘support’ team, drawn from a new pool of astronauts announced in 1966: Jack Swigert, Ron Evans and Bill Pogue. In effect, each Apollo crew would now comprise nine dedicated members, emphasising its complexity over previous Mercury and Gemini missions. In Schirra’s words, the support crew’s role was to ‘‘maintain a flight data file, develop emergency procedures in the simulators and prepare the cockpit for countdown tests’’. Interestingly, Schirra asked Swigert to devise techniques to handle a fuel tank explosion in space. Less than two years after Apollo 7, Swigert would find this task very helpful. . .

From the time that their spacecraft arrived in Florida to the day of their launch on 11 October 1968, Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham would spend nearly 600 hours in the command module simulator, operating the 725 manual controls and responding to countless simulated emergencies and malfunctions. Moreover, they had occupied Spacecraft 101 during an altitude chamber test, had checked out the Chrysler-built slidewire to practice escaping from Pad 34 in the event of a pre-launch emergency, had crawled out of a mockup command module in the Gulf of Mexico and had pored over hundreds of pages of documentation and flight plans.

As Apollo’s first manned flight draws closer, backup senior pilot John Young is inserted into the spacecraft prior to a test at North American’s Downey plant.

North American’s attitude towards the astronauts had changed dramatically, with the company now heartily opening its doors to their inspections, and Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham had not been shy in prowling the Downey plant to check on progress. This irritated Frank Borman, who had been attached to Downey as the astronaut office’s representative. He considered the Apollo 7 crew to be obnoxious and felt that they were just causing disruptions and doing more harm than good. Borman even went so far as to complain to Deke Slayton, who spoke in turn to Schirra. However, it was understandable that the crew behaved as it did: they had seen poor workmanship from North American in the past and three of their comrades had died as a result of it. They wanted to make sure that they would be flying into space in the best possible ship. When Schirra saw an increasingly positive response and commitment from North American, from engineers to managers to the president, Lee Atwood, himself, he was appeased.

On one occasion, Schirra got into trouble himself … albeit to his pleasure. One day in early 1968, he was visiting Downey and, dressed in the required clean-room garb, carefully tried to clamber aboard Spacecraft 101 without damaging any mechanical or electrical parts. “But it was a tight fit,’’ he wrote, “and my knee landed on a bunch of wires. When it did, I felt a sharp slap on my face and I heard a woman’s voice: ‘Don’t you dare touch those wires. Don’t you know we lost three men?’’’ When she found out who Schirra was, the woman was embarrassed and apologetic, but for the commander of Apollo 7, she was just the person NASA needed on its contractor workforce. Schirra’s new-found confidence was shared by John Young, who tracked Spacecraft 101’s progress and concluded that it was ‘‘a pretty clean machine’’.

Elsewhere, fellow astronauts Jim Lovell, Stu Roosa and Charlie Duke simulated how quickly the command module could right itself if it flipped upside down – nose down – in the water (the so-called ‘Stable 2’ position) and for how long it might support them after splashdown. They experienced no difficulties in getting to the manual control switches which inflated three airbags and turned the ship into its upright ‘Stable 1’ orientation. Occasionally, water would splash into the cabin through a post-landing air vent, but the urine collection device proved more than adequate to vacuum this away and dump it overboard. Their consensus: not only was the command module seaworthy, but it could support the astronauts for a prolonged wait of up to two days until recovery. Other astronauts, including Joe Kerwin, Vance Brand and Joe Engle, spent weeks working in test vehicles and concluded that the ship’s systems were virtually trouble-free.

In late July 1968, Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham spent nine hours inside Spacecraft 101 itself under conditions which simulated an altitude of 68.9 km. This gave them the opportunity to perform some of their actual mission tasks and evaluate their ability to work inside pressurised space suits. Technicians purged the cabin, using a mixture of 65 per cent oxygen and 35 per cent nitrogen, then ‘dumped’ the atmosphere so the men were obliged to rely upon their suits as the pressure dropped to almost zero. After an hour in a near-vacuum, the cabin was repressurised with pure oxygen, the normal atmosphere to be used in orbit. A few days later, the backup crew of Stafford, Young and Cernan repeated the exercise with similar success.

For Schirra, it was the altitude chamber testing which ‘sold’ Spacecraft 101 to him. ‘‘I said many times that we would not accept [it] until it had completed its run in the altitude chamber,’’ he wrote, ‘‘similar to the launch pad test where fire killed Grissom, White and Chaffee.’’ The success of these tests prompted him to chortle that Apollo 7 was now on a high-speed track and ‘‘the train is moving out’’.

Spacecraft 101 had begun its manufacturing cycle at North American in early 1966 and, by July of that year, had been assembled, wired, fitted with subsystems and was ready for testing. In the wake of the Apollo 1 fire, it went through a recertification and modification process, during which time its wiring was upgraded and its two-part hatch replaced with the newer unified version. In December 1967, it was finally ready for testing to resume and it passed its three-part acceptance review at Downey in May of the following year. No items were found which might prove ‘‘constraints to launch’’ and on the penultimate day of that month, North American shipped the spacecraft to Cape Kennedy. A flight readiness review in September confirmed that Spacecraft 101 was ‘‘a very good spacecraft”. By that time, wrote Schirra, the crew was ready to go.

For Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham, the events surrounding the Apollo 1 fire and its aftermath were laced with irony. Initially assigned as the prime crew for the original Apollo 2, it had been Schirra’s reluctance to duplicate Gus Grissom’s flight that led him to request its cancellation. In doing so, he had been assigned Apollo 1 backup chores, with no ‘prime’ mission to aspire to. The events of 27 January 1967, in a roundabout way, landed Schirra with the kind of flight he really wanted: something new and challenging. During Apollo 7, he and his crew would spend 11 days in space – the second-longest manned mission to date – and were tasked with the comprehensive and systematic evaluation of the command and service module in Earth orbit.

In theory, Schirra’s mission objectives could be ‘achieved’ in as little as three days, but according to Sam Phillips in a letter to Jim Webb it would be open-ended to 11 days in order ‘‘to acquire additional data and evaluate the aspects of long-duration space flight’’. The countdown, punctuated by three built-in holds to correct any last – minute problems, began on the evening of 6 October and proceeded without incident until ten minutes before launch on the 11th. At that point, thrust-chamber jacket chilldown was initiated for the Saturn’s S-IVB second stage, but took longer than anticipated, forcing a hold of two minutes and 45 seconds. (After launch, analysis confirmed that the chilldown would have occurred without the hold, but waiting, in real time, was prudent in order to meet revised temperature requirements.) The countdown resumed at 10:56 am and the Saturn 1B lifted-off at 11:02:45 am, watched by more than 600 accredited journalists.

If the early stages of the ascent seemed laborious, Time magazine told its readers, they should not have been surprised: the booster weighed 590,000 kg, only slightly less than the 725,750 kg thrust of its first stage. Acceleration from the astronauts’ point of view, therefore, was much calmer and less oppressive than the G loads experienced by previous Mercury and Gemini crews.

Inside the command module, the crew experienced a clear sense of movement, but only Eisele had a good view of the commotion that was going on outside. ‘‘We had a

boost protective cover over the command module,” Cunningham recalled later. “There’s an escape rocket that you can use anytime until you get rid of it, and that’s a little after a minute into the flight. Because that rocket puts out a plume, you had to have a cover over the command module so that you wouldn’t coat the windows and you wouldn’t be able to see anything out of the windows in the event you were coming down on a parachute during an abort. So, the only place you can see out is over Donn’s head in the centre seat. There’s a little round window, about six inches across, and he was the only one that could see out. We had no windows until the boost protective cover [was jettisoned].’’

Two and a half minutes into the thunderous ascent, the eight H-l engines of the Chrysler-built S-IB first stage burned out and it was released, allowing the S-IVB and its single J-2 engine to pick up the thrust and deliver Apollo 7 into orbit. A little under six minutes after launch, as he, Eisele and Cunningham became the first men ever to fly atop a load of liquid hydrogen rocket fuel, Schirra reported that the Saturn was “riding like a dream’’. On the ground, the situation was not quite so dreamy: for a minute or so, the Manned Spacecraft Center had suffered a power failure which temporarily knocked out its lights, control consoles, screens and instruments. Fortunately, generator power took over and no telemetred data was lost.

Despite the successful launch, Schirra would later admit to some anger. Months earlier, during a meeting in Downey, he had learned that Apollo 7 would fly with old Block l-style couches, rather than the improved Block 2 type. The latter, it was realised, would offer better protection for the crew if they happened to inadvertently touch down on land. Schirra felt that if Block l couches had to be used on his flight, the mission rules dealing with wind speeds at launch needed to be revised, since an abort over Florida could push their command module back over land. He agreed to accept Block l couches, on condition that Apollo 7 would not launch if wind conditions were unfavourable. On ll October 1968, winds at the Cape were around 40 km/h, considerably higher than the maximum-allowable 32 km/h needed to avoid a touchdown on land. It was felt that the Saturn lB’s record of reliability made it unlikely that an abort would occur in the early stage of ascent, but to Schirra, commanding the crew that would be flying the thing, it was black and white. “A mission rule had been broken,’’ he wrote. “Needless to say, I was not the happiest guy in town.’’

Ten and a half minutes after launch, following little bumpiness and loads which never exceeded l G, Apollo 7 was inserted perfectly into an orbit of 227-285 km and the S-IVB duly shut down. Both stages of the Saturn performed to near-perfection. Two hours and 55 minutes into the flight, the spacecraft undocked from the S-IVB and pulsed its reaction controls twice to turn back in a simulated rendezvous approach which Moon-bound crews would use to pick up their lunar module. Although there was no lunar module housed inside the stage, it provided useful practice and Schirra brought his ship within l.2 m of the spent S-IVB. Unfortunately, said Cunningham, one of the four adaptor panels had not fully deployed, due to a stuck retention cable, although they would be jettisoned explosively on subsequent flights to ensure lunar module extraction. It “had sort of

Apollo 7’s S-IVB third stage during station-keeping operations.

bounced back,” wrote Deke Slayton. “It posed no danger to the crew, but had this flight carried a lunar module, it might have been tough to get it out of there.”

Elsewhere, the performance of the big SPS engine was highly successful. It was fortunate, indeed, that this was the case, for this was a component which simply ‘had to work’ or lunar crews would not be able to return home. During their mission, Schirra, Eisele and Cunningham oversaw no fewer than eight SPS firings, the first of which posed something of a surprise. In contrast to the exceptionally smooth Saturn IB liftoff, the SPS noticeably jolted the astronauts, prompting Schirra to whoop ‘‘Yabadabadoo!’’ in imitation of Fred Flintstone. Eisele, too, said that the entire crew ‘‘got more than we expected’’ and that the additional boost literally plastered them back into their seats. Eater SPS burns lasted anywhere from half a second to more than a minute in duration and simulated virtually everything from a return from the Moon to a rendezvous with a phantom lunar module.

Other systems aboard Apollo 7 performed equally well. Occasionally, one of the three electricity generating fuel cells would develop unwanted high temperatures, but load-sharing hookups prevented any power shortages. The astronauts complained about noisy fans in the environmental circuits and turned one of them off, but, when this did not help, switched off the other. Visibility through the windows was mixed, with sooty deposits noted shortly after the jettisoning of the Saturn IB’s escape tower and spots of water condensation seen at other times. Two days into the flight, however, Cunningham reported that most of the windows were in fairly good condition, although moisture was gathering between the inner panes in one case. A similar situation was seen by Schirra a few days later. Nonetheless, the windows proved adequate, particularly during the rendezvous and station-keeping with the S – IVB, when they were almost clear. Navigational sightings with a telescope and sextant on any of 37 pre-selected stars proved difficult if done too soon after a waste­water dump and, indeed, the astronauts typically had to wait several minutes for the frozen droplets to disperse. Eisele reported that unless he could see at least 40 or 50 stars at a time, it was tough to decide which part of the sky he was looking at.

On a more mundane level, the ‘waste-management system’ – a somewhat euphemistic term for Apollo’s rudimentary toilet – proved adequate, if annoying. Its defecation bags, which contained a blue germicidal tablet to prevent bacterial and gas formation, could be sealed easily and stored in empty food containers in the command module’s lower equipment bay. However, they were far from ideal, still produced unpleasant odours and took each astronaut 45-60 minutes to complete. Bill Anders, who flew Apollo 8, would later tell Andrew Chaikin that, since nothing in microgravity ‘falls’, it was necessary to ‘‘flypaper this thing to your rear end and then reach in there with your finger [the bags had ‘fingers’ for this] – and suddenly you were wishing you’d never left home!’’ To add insult to injury, the germicidal tablets then had to be kneaded into the contents of the defecation bag to ensure that they were fully mixed. Not surprisingly, many astronauts found themselves postponing their ‘need to go’ for as long as possible and particularly to wait until there was no work to do.

The urine-collection device took the form of a hose with a condom-like fitting on the end, which led, by way of a valve, to a vent on the outside of the command module, out of which would periodically spill a cloud of frozen droplets. (One Apollo astronaut, when asked what he thought was the most beautiful sight in space, responded “Urine dump at sunset!”) During one toilet session, as Cunningham fitted the urine hose to his suit, he instinctively turned his back to the window for privacy. “Walt,” Schirra asked with some humour in his voice, “who is out there?”

As for moving around in the new spacecraft, the astronauts turned, in Schirra’s words, into spacegoing gymnasts. “You can move any place you want to fairly freely,’’ said Cunningham, “and you certainly don’t need strong handholds to take care of it.’’ Exercise was important, though. At first, when they slept in their couches, their bodies curled up into foetal positions, giving them lower back and abdominal pains; these were relieved by working on a stretching device called an Exer-Genie, which relaxed their cramped and aching muscles.

Sleep brought mixed blessings, with Schirra complaining about the around-the – clock operations which disrupted their normal routine. Sometimes they might go to bed as early as 4:00 pm or as late as 4:00 am, he said, and a consensus was finally reached whereby Eisele kept watch on Apollo 7’s systems whilst Schirra and Cunningham slept and vice versa. Two sleeping bags were mounted beneath the couches and the astronauts typically zipped themselves inside, although the incorrect positioning of restraint straps made them less than ideal. Cunningham, certainly, preferred to sleep in his couch with a shoulder harness and lap belt to keep still. However, if two crew members did this, they invariably disturbed their colleague who was awake. By the third day of the flight, thankfully, they had worked out a routine to get enough sleep.

All three men expressed unhappiness over their food, which tended to crumble and whose particles floated around the cabin. Following his Gemini VI-A mission three years earlier, Schirra requested taking coffee with him aboard Apollo, which he did. Not so fulfilling were the head colds which, first Schirra, and then Eisele and Cunningham, developed during the mission. To be fair, this caused severe discomfort, because it proved extremely difficult to clear the ears, nose and sinuses in microgravity. Mucus rapidly accumulated, filling their nasal passages and stubbornly refusing to drain from their heads; indeed, their only relief was to blow their noses hard, which proved painful on their ear drums. A little under a day into the mission, an irritable Schirra, already annoyed that Mission Control had added two thruster firings and a urine dump to their workload, cancelled the first planned television transmission from Apollo 7, “without further discussion’’. It was the first of many conflicts with ground staff.

Indeed, according to Schirra in his autobiography, Donn Eisele, watching over the spacecraft systems at the time, began the dispute with Mission Control over rescheduling the first television transmission early on 12 October. “When I awoke,’’ Schirra wrote, “I could hear Eisele in an argument. I put on a headset and heard a ground controller say, rather insistently, that our first television transmission was on the agenda for that day.’’ Schirra butted in and backed Eisele that they had enough to do on their second day in orbit, with engineering objectives, rendezvous practice and SPS preparations, without having to worry about the transmission. However, there was more to it than that. “We were scheduled to test the TV circuit later that day,” explained Schirra, “and we’d test it before using it. It was an electrical circuit and I had not forgotten than an electrical short had resulted in the loss of the Apollo 1 crew.’’

In fact, Schirra had complained about the scheduling of the transmissions on the ground, before launch, “but hadn’t been able to win the battle,’’ wrote Deke Slayton. “He probably figured there wasn’t much we could do to him while he was in orbit, and he was right, but it made my life kind of difficult.’’ The commander’s antics also upset the flight directors, including Chris Kraft and Glynn Lunney, when he began sarcastically criticising “the genius’’ who designed a particularly balky piece of equipment. “He might have been right,’’ continued Slayton, “but it sure didn’t endear him to the guys on the ground to have the astronaut implying they were idiots over the open line for everyone to hear.’’ Eisele and Cunningham, despite their admonitions to the contrary, followed Schirra’s lead. After one test which he perceived as pointless, Eisele, clearly annoyed, quipped that he “wanted to talk to the man, or whoever it was, that thought up that little gem’’. ‘The man’ turned out to be Flight Director Lunney himself. Going over the mission tapes and transcripts after the flight, Cunningham would conclude that he ‘‘never had any problem with the ground’’, although Deke Slayton felt that all three men ‘‘were pretty testy’’. One flight controller even muttered, only half-jokingly, about letting the Apollo 7 crew land in the middle of a typhoon . . .

Still, on the third day of the mission, the first of seven eagerly awaited transmissions began, marking the first live televised event from an American manned spacecraft. Each one took place as Apollo 7 passed between Corpus Christi in Texas and Cape Kennedy, the only two ground stations equipped to receive the transmissions. The crew opened the first telecast with a sign which read ‘From the lovely Apollo room, high atop everything’, then aimed their camera through the window as they passed above New Orleans and over Florida. Later transmissions included tours of the command module, demonstrations of the Exer-Genie and explanations of how food was prepared in space and how dried fruit juice was reconstituted with water. All in all, the telecasts were well-received and the astronauts enjoyed them, displaying cards with ‘Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming In, Folks’ . . . and offering Schirra a chance to gain revenge on Deke Slayton by asking him, live, if he was a turtle. Sitting in Mission Control, the gruff Slayton acknowledged that he had recorded his answer, switching off his microphone to utter the necessary answer: ‘‘You bet your sweet ass I am!’’ After the flight, these ‘Wally, Walt and Donn Shows’ proved so popular that the astronauts even won a special Emmy award.

By 12 October, the day that Schirra cancelled the first transmission, Apollo 7 had drifted about 130 km from the S-IVB. The crew’s task was to re-rendezvous with it. This was not as straightforward as it had been on Gemini, since the command module lacked a rendezvous radar and the astronauts were unable to read their range and closing velocity to the target. However, wrote Schirra, ‘‘we made it through the rendezvous, with each of us ageing about a year’’, and Apollo 7 edged to within 20 m of the discarded stage. The manoeuvre proved quite traumatic, with no clear awareness of their closing motions, and the S-IVB itself was spinning throughout like an angry whale. Twenty metres was close enough, before moving away. The stage eventually re-entered the atmosphere on 18 October, its debris splashing into the Pacific Ocean.

Experimental work included synoptic terrain photography, employing a hand­held 70 mm Hasselblad 500C camera to monitor the Carolina bays in the United States and examine wind erosion in desert regions, tropical morphology and the origin of the African rift valley. Imagery was also acquired of Baja California, parts of Mexico and the Middle East in support of geological inquiries and geographical urban studies were aided by photographs of New Orleans and Houston. Islands in the Pacific, extensive coverage of northern Chile and Australia and other areas added to Apollo 7’s photographic haul. Overall, that haul amounted to some 500 images, of which more than a third proved usable, although the need to change film magazines, filters, settings and keep cameras steady accounted for the improper exposure of many frames. Weather photography was also important, with numerous images of various cloud and meteorological structures, including the best-ever photographs of a tropical storm, in this case Hurricane Gladys and Typhoon Gloria. Pre-flight and post-flight X-rays of bones also contributed towards a demineralisa­tion study, whilst sampling before launch and after splashdown helped to determine cellular changes in the astronauts’ blood.

The final days of what both Wernher von Braun and Sam Phillips were lauding as “the perfect mission’’ were marred by the worsening head colds. Schirra’s, indeed, had materialised barely 15 hours after launch, forcing him to admit that he had “gone through eight or nine Kleenexes’’, so he had to endure it for most of the 11- day mission. (He also took Actifed, to which he became so attracted that he helped sell it on television commercials after leaving the astronaut corps.) Years later, Walt Cunningham would blame Schirra’s cold on a dove-hunting trip that the Apollo 7 crew took in a rainy Florida shortly before launch. “Wally was kind of a General Bull Moose complex,’’ Cunningham said. “What’s good enough for Bull Moose is good enough for the world. So, when Wally had a cold, everybody had to be miserable.’’

A head cold anywhere is miserable, but in the pressurised confines of a spacecraft, it proved much more so, and Eisele and Cunningham quickly succumbed. Physician Chuck Berry advised them to take aspirin and decongestant tablets and, as re-entry neared, they began to worry that the build-up of pressure whilst wearing their helmets might burst their eardrums. ft was not an idle fear. During his days at test pilot school, Schirra had made a short flight in a propellor aircraft, with a head cold, and “almost busted an ear drum’’. The choice he now faced on Apollo 7 – not wearing a helmet or running the risk of lifelong hearing loss – was an easy one to make.

Deke Slayton explicitly ordered the crew to wear their helmets, but Schirra refused, agreeing only to keep them stowed in case of emergencies. There were, admittedly, contingency options in place for returning home suitless, perhaps in the event of contamination, but after almost 11 days it seemed unlikely that cabin pressure would fail during re-entry. Each man took a decongestant pill an hour before hitting the atmosphere and endured no major problems. As the command module’s pressure was raised to conditions approximating normal sea-level, Schirra,

Eisele and Cunningham performed the Valsalva manoeuvre – holding their noses, closing their mouths and vigorously exhaling through their nostrils – to keep their middle ears equal to the increasing cabin pressure. In doing so, they avoided ruptured ear drums… but aroused the wrath of flight controllers. All three men would be “tarred and feathered” for their insubordination during the mission. Schirra had already announced his retirement from NASA and probably could not have cared less, but Eisele and Cunningham, who had followed their commander’s lead, would never fly again.


On the ground, the television networks – which had cancelled their showings of ‘Batman’ and, ironically, ‘Lost in Space’ – were deluged with complaints from viewers as attention turned to a dramatic recovery effort. Original plans called for Gemini VIII to land in the Atlantic and be picked up by the aircraft carrier Boxer; however, the earlier-than-expected return called instead for a splashdown in the western Pacific during their seventh orbit.

The timing was strict. Gemini VIII’s flight path had precessed so far westwards that it would be another full day before Armstrong and Scott could reach a location from which they could be easily recovered. Consequently, a naval destroyer named the Leonard F. Mason, based off the coast of Vietnam, was directed to intercept the new splashdown point, 800 km east of Okinawa. It would be the only Gemini splashdown in the Pacific, in a landing zone designated ‘Dash 3’. ‘‘I looked it up in our manuals,’’ wrote Scott. ‘‘Dash 3 was a secondary landing zone in the South China Sea. It was over 6,000 miles away from our primary landing site.’’

It was far from ideal. By this time, John Hodge’s ‘blue’ flight control team had been at their consoles for 11 hours and a second (‘white’) team, headed by Gene Kranz, reported for duty to supervise the end of the mission. Kranz’s team had more experience in recovery procedures than that of Hodge and, had Gemini VIII run to its intended three-day length, he would have overseen re-entry and splashdown anyway. It made sense, therefore, for Kranz to take the helm.

The news of an impending return was met with grim resignation by Armstrong and Scott, who ran through their pre-retrofire checklists with the capcoms at the Coastal Sentry Quebec, Rose Knot Victor and Hawaiian tracking stations. Unlike Gemini V, which had been nursed through a lengthy mission, despite problems, the situation in which Armstrong and Scott found themselves was compounded by a dangerously-low propellant load. By this time, having tested each of the OAMS thrusters in a now-stable Gemini VIII, Armstrong had identified the glitch with the No. 8 unit, which Scott later described as not exhibiting ‘‘a consistent, linear problem… it was really screwed up’’. In fact, the thruster had been off when it should have been on, and vice-versa, on several occasions. The cause, however, would have to wait for the post-flight investigation.

Loading the re-entry flight program into Gemini VIII’s 4,000-word-memory computer was difficult, particularly as it was already overloaded from the rendezvous with the Agena. This required Scott to erase the rendezvous and docking programs, then feed the re-entry data into the computer by means of a keypad and an on-board device known as an auxiliary tape memory unit. As he worked to punch in a series of nine lines of seven-digit numbers, Scott was relieved that the unflappable Jim Fucci, aboard the Coastal Sentry Quebec, was there to watch his every move. ‘‘He read off those numbers as if he was talking about taking a stroll in the park,’’ Scott wrote. ‘‘I entered them quickly so that I could transmit them back to verify with him before we lost contact again.’’

Gemini VIII’s retrorockets duly ignited at 9:45 pm, whilst out of radio contact, high above a remote part of south-central Africa. Worse, retrofire was conducted during orbital darkness, giving Armstrong and Scott no horizon by which to judge alignment. Minutes later, over the Himalayas, the spacecraft entered the tenuous upper atmosphere and as it continued to descend through the steadily thickening air, Scott reported that he could see nothing but a pinkish-orange glow through his window… then haze and, finally, minutes before splashdown, the glint of water! Ten hours and 41 minutes after leaving Cape Kennedy, at 10:22 pm, the spacecraft hit the Pacific with a harsh thump and Scott yelled “Landing Safe!”

Throughout all this – during the launch, rendezvous, docking, crisis with and without the Agena, re-entry and splashdown – Jimmy Mattern’s watch, tightly strapped around Armstrong’s wrist, continued to tick faithfully…

Despite having suffered severe space sickness and, now, seasickness as the spacecraft’s windows rhythmically rolled and pitched with each wave, the astronauts swiftly proceeded through their post-splashdown checklist, shutting down electrical systems, placing switches and valves into their correct positions and activating their high-frequency communications antenna. Only now did Armstrong and Scott regret not taking Mission Control’s advice to swallow meclizine motion sickness tablets before re-entry. “When Mission Control told us about three-foot waves,’’ Scott wrote, “they had forgotten to mention the 20-foot swells!’’

Scott called the search-and-rescue team from Naha Air Base in Okinawa by their callsign ‘Naha Rescue One’, but was met with silence on the radio. Both men were hot in their suits, particularly Scott, whose ensemble had extra layers to provide radiation protection on his spacewalk. Fumes from the ablated heat shield, too, left them nauseous. Within half an hour, a C-54 aircraft, flown by Air Force pilot Les Schneider, which had spotted Gemini VIH’s descent and splashdown, arrived on the scene. Its crew visually checked the spacecraft, marked its landing co-ordinates and dropped three pararescue swimmers and an emergency liferaft. For the Naha Rescue One team, which was more accustomed to missions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in those war-charged times, 16 March 1966 was a distinctly different and highly memorable day.

Notwithstanding the rough swells, the pararescue swimmers, themselves queasy, affixed a flotation collar to the spacecraft, then signalled the C-54 with a ‘thumbs-up’ that Armstrong and Scott were alive and well. This was duly radioed to other aircraft in the area, to the Leonard F. Mason, then to Hawaii, to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and finally to Mission Control in Houston, from where public affairs officer Paul Haney announced the news to an anxious world. Meanwhile, the encounter between the antiquated C-54 and the state-of-the-art Gemini was, said Neil Armstrong, ‘‘the most unusual rendezvous in aviation history’’.

Three hours after splashdown, in the small hours of 17 March, the two astronauts and their spacecraft were safely aboard the Mason. The rough seas, though, had made the hoisting of Gemini VIII difficult, to such an extent that it kept crashing against the side of the destroyer, denting its nose at one point. The Mason’s crew, wrote Scott, had initially been less than happy about being given the task of recovering Gemini VIII. They had just completed a seven-week tour in Vietnam and been given a brief spell of liberty in Okinawa. However, their spirits rose as the realisation set in that the astronauts were safe. In spite of their tiredness and the


Scott and Armstrong, surrounded by recovery swimmers after performing the Gemini project’s first – and only – splashdown in the Pacific.


effects of nausea, Armstrong and Scott managed smiles and greetings for the crew and were found to be healthy, suffering from minimal dehydration.

They were, however, shaken by what had actually come close to disaster… as, indeed, had many within NASA. Deputy Administrator Bob Seamans had been advised of the crisis over the telephone whilst at the reception to the prestigious Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner and swore that he would never again be caught in such a position during the critical phase of a future mission.

At the same time, publicly, NASA was reluctant to over-emphasise the near­disaster, particularly if it wanted continued funding for a Moon landing by 1970. When Life magazine proposed titling its Gemini VIII article as ‘Our Wild Ride in Space by Neil and Dave’, its editor-in-chief received a firm request from Armstrong to change it to something less melodramatic. Ultimately, bound by an ongoing contract, the magazine agreed and would publish watered-down headlines for Gemini VIII and subsequent missions.

In spite of the troubles, President Lyndon Johnson reassured the American public that his administration remained firmly committed to John Kennedy’s goal of bootprints on the Moon before the end of the decade. Some have argued over the years that Armstrong’s coolness was pivotal in his selection to command Apollo 11, although some isolated individuals within the astronaut office speculated that his status as a civilian test pilot had contributed to the failure.

Indeed, Walt Cunningham, later to fly Apollo 7, would criticise what he saw as flaws in both astronauts’ performance, while Tom Stafford felt that the decision to undock from the Agena was a flawed one. Gene Kranz, on the other hand, perceived the crisis as the result of a broader training failure – malfunction procedures did not cover the problems encountered whilst the Gemini and Agena were docked – and both Frank Borman and Wally Schirra praised Armstrong and Scott’s actions as having prevented disaster. Indeed, without their safe return and the knowledge of what had happened, an erroneous assumption that the Agena was to blame could have diseased the final days of Gemini and made it very difficult for Apollo, with its emphasis on rendezvous and docking, to proceed. ‘‘It could have been a showstopper,’’ admitted Dave Scott.

Gene Cernan, though, rationalised the critics’ thinking. ‘‘Screwing up was not acceptable in our hypercompetitive fraternity,’’ he told James Hansen. ‘‘Nobody got a free ride when criticism was remotely possible. Nobody.’’ Still, Gemini VIII did little damage to either man’s career. Definitive testament came two weeks after the flight, when the Gemini VIII Mission Evaluation Team “positively ruled out’’ any errors on the astronauts’ part and, indeed, Bob Gilruth himself praised them for their ‘‘remarkable piloting skill’’. Scott was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and assigned a seat on an Apollo crew within days, while Armstrong received the backup command slot for Gemini XI. Still, the quiet civilian was demoralised by what he saw as only a partial success.

Had he been ‘‘smarter’’, Armstrong said later, he might have figured out the problems earlier, perhaps saving Scott’s EVA and some of the mission’s other objectives. Many of Gemini VIII’s experiments – the zodiacal light photography task, the growth of frogs’ eggs, the synoptic terrain studies, the nuclear emulsions


Armstrong (left) and Scott with crewmen aboard the recovery ship Mason.

and the cloud spectrophotography – were left incomplete and some have speculated over the years that, had Scott’s EVA been underway when the spinning started, he may have seen the burst from the stuck-on No. 8 thruster and warned Armstrong to shut off its propellant.

However, others considered it fortuitous that Scott’s EVA had never come to pass. It “had seemed terribly complex and dangerous,’’ wrote Mike Collins. The need for Scott to get outside, manoeuvre himself to Gemini VIII’s adaptor section and worry about swapping connectors and keeping track of tethers was, in Collins’ mind, too risky at such an early stage. “My own EVA scheme on Gemini X was far from ideal,’’ he wrote, “in that I had to stuff everything into an already crowded cockpit, but at least I could make nearly all my preparations inside the pressurised cocoon… Not so with Dave’s complicated gear.’’

Other naysayers have added that, during the uncontrollable spinning, Scott may have been whirled around so violently on his tether as to have hit the side of Gemini VIII, almost certainly producing fatal injuries…


Bob Crippen, Dick Truly, Gordo Fullerton, Hank Hartsfield, Bob Overmyer, Karol ‘Bo’ Bobko and Don Peterson: to most space aficionados, their names will forever be connected to the early test flights of the Shuttle. However, prior to their NASA days – and more than a decade before each would make an orbital voyage – all seven almost found fame as the first men to inhabit a long-term space station. Yet they were not, insisted their sponsor, the Air Force, ‘astronauts’, but rather ‘aerospace research pilots’, with an agenda that remains largely classified to this day. ‘‘When the manned space programme started,’’ remembered Peterson in a 2002 oral history for NASA, ‘‘the Cold War was in full swing. We were scared to death and there was this feeling that space was the high ground; that is, if you conquered space, you had command of Earth. The idea that the Russians might be ahead of us was pretty frightening, so there was strong public and government support for the manned space programme and an unlimited budget.’’

The most visible example of the seemingly bottomless moneypit available for space exploration during this period was, of course, Project Apollo, but in May 1966, more than $1.5 billion was pledged by President Lyndon Johnson for a space-based outpost known as the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Had this actually reached fruition, it would have provided Peterson, his six colleagues and a handful of others with their first space missions and made them the first men ever to launch into the heavens from the United States’ west coast.

Ideas for a military space station can be traced back to June 1959, when preliminary plans were laid for a two-man laboratory to support a range of biomedical, scientific and engineering tasks in the microgravity environment of low – Earth orbit. Within three years, these sketches had crystallised into a formal proposal for three separate cylindrical modules, launched separately atop Titan II boosters and joined together in space to form a triangular structure. Crews would then be ferried to and from MOL using an Air Force variant of NASA’s Gemini spacecraft, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

At one stage, it was envisaged that the laboratory may operate in tandem with Dyna-Soar – the reusable winged craft which, in a different life, Neil Armstrong might have flown – but by December 1963 it seemed inevitable that the latter would be cancelled in favour of MOL. Eitherway, the perceived ‘militarisation’ of space caused concern for many observers, including James Haggerty of the Army-Navy – Air Force Journal and Register, who described MOL as ‘‘an ominous harbinger of a reversal in trend, an indication that the services may play a more prominent role in future space exploration at NASA’s expense. ‘‘Whether you label it a development platform, satellite or laboratory, it is clearly intended as a beginning for space station technology,’’ continued Haggerty. ‘‘It is also clearly the intent of this [Johnson] administration that, at least in the initial stages, space station development shall be under military rather than civil cognisance.’’

Moreover, despite its official emphasis on biomedical research and evaluating humanity’s effectiveness in space, President Johnson rather tellingly announced in August 1965 that the ultimate aim of MOL was to ‘‘relate that ability to the defence of America”. The dedication of the outpost to exclusively military activities was further underlined by the head of the Air Force’s aerospace medicine group, Stan White, at a meeting with NASA representatives in May 1966, when he called for greater exploitation by the military of the agency’s biomedical data. This, White argued, would relieve MOL’s pilots of having to conduct such experiments, which the Air Force regarded as a burden to their own research. One of the most important military investigations was reconnaissance and surveillance, employing large optics, powerful cameras and side-looking radar.

It had already been realised from early spy satellites that having trained military observers available in orbit with specialised equipment would permit the real-time selection of ground-based targets and the acquisition of images through gaps in cloud cover. Furthermore, the return and interpretation of Corona reconnaissance satellite images typically took weeks or months, a lapse that the Air Force could not afford. With this in mind, the central element of MOL’s surveillance payload was a telescope dubbed ‘Dorian’, fitted with a 1.8 m-wide mirror and supposedly capable of resolving ground-based objects the size of a softball.

Other surveillance instruments included high-resolution optical and infrared cameras, the side-looking synthetic-aperture radar, built by the Navy, with a resolution of 7.5 m – later cancelled because it was too large and heavy to be easily placed into orbit – and an electronic intelligence antenna. Much of the Dorian hardware, analysts have speculated, was probably later employed on KH-9 Big Bird and KH-11 Kennan reconnaissance satellites and may offer hints that both the CIA and Air Force doubted that MOL would ever fly.

For the ‘aerospace research pilots’ selected to travel to the outpost, there were also doubts, but in Hank Hartsfield’s mind they centred on budgetary matters, as more money was siphoned away from MOL to finance the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Every year, with depressing predictability, Hartsfield recalled, the project would have its funding cut and be forced to lay off contractors, placing MOL further and further behind schedule. . . and doubling its cost. In fact, by the time Stanley White’s team met with NASA at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas to discuss the sharing of biomedical data, MOL had already guzzled $2.2 billion of taxpayers’ money. The station, in its final configuration, was quite different from the three – module triangular structure planned in 1962: it took the form of a 12 m-long cylinder, powered by solar arrays or fuel cells, and comprised a transfer tunnel from the Gemini spacecraft, a laboratory divided into ‘working’ and ‘living’ quarters and an equipment section filled with oxygen and other tanks. One early plan actually called for a tunnel in the base of the laboratory, extending to an aft docking collar, which would enable two MOLs to be linked together in orbit. Such plans were never realised and had vanished from the Air Force’s radar long before the project was cancelled in June 1969.

An interesting aspect of MOL was that the Gemini would have been attached ‘backwards’ to the outpost: rather than docking ‘nose-first’, as Apollo did with Skylab, it was through a hatch in the base that crews would have passed to reach their 30-day home in orbit. Gemini was very cramped and enabling pilots to unstrap, turn around and get through a 60 cm-wide hatch behind them would have been tricky. As a result, the Air Force tilted the seats slightly apart, as well as completely redesigning the spacecraft’s instrument displays. However, it was not the size of the Gemini that caused concern; rather, it was the hatch in its heat shield – the very component upon which the crew’s lives would depend during their fiery re-entry through the atmosphere.

The spacecraft and its pilots would have ridden into orbit already attached to MOL, neatly sidestepping the complications of rendezvous or docking, but at the end of their two-to-four-week mission, after closing the hatch, they would have had to hope that the tiniest – yet potentially deadliest – gap around the edge of the heat shield would not admit hot gases and tear the Gemini apart. As a result, it was decided to attach a MOL mockup, built from the propellant tank of a Titan II rocket, to NASA’s Gemini 2 spacecraft and launch them on an unmanned test of the new hatch. On 3 November 1966, the unusual combo lifted-off from Pad 40 at Cape Canaveral and instantly made history as Gemini 2 became the first ‘used’ spacecraft to be refurbished and reflown. Originally launched in January 1965, it had been modified by the Air Force with a MOL-specification hatch in its base. Following a 33-minute suborbital flight, it separated from the MOL mockup and began its fiery plunge to Earth. ‘‘It came through with flying colours,’’ exulted Hartsfield. ‘‘There was no heating problem or any burn-through. It proved the concept.’’

However, one of the key objectives of MOL was that it would operate in polar orbit, which would have resulted in higher-energy re-entries; consequently, the heat shield’s diameter was increased to stick out from the base of the Gemini. Other changes from the standard NASA version of the spacecraft were that its OAMS thrusters were removed and its orientation managed instead by several forward – mounted reaction-control thrusters. Unlike the ‘civilian’ Gemini, designed to operate for periods of up to a fortnight with two men aboard, the systems of the Air Force variant were intended for longer-term, untended ‘storage’.

After reaching orbit, the men’s first task would be to shutdown the spacecraft and begin their long mission aboard MOL. They would reawaken the slumbering Gemini’s systems just before re-entry, undock from the outpost and commence their descent. To this end, the spacecraft had only a 14-hour ‘loiter’ capability in its thrusters and life-support systems after separating from MOL. Naturally, the two groups of astronauts – NASA and Air Force – prepared in similar ways to fly different versions of the same machine and Hartsfield later provided some insight into his first experience as a trainee spacefarer. ‘‘We got some of the routine survival training,’’ he said. ‘‘We’d had water survival [and] we’d gone down to Panama for jungle survival. We were getting that kind of training to get ready to go, because we were going to fly out of Vandenberg into a high-inclination orbit, which meant you covered a pretty good piece of the world. If you had to abort, you could almost go anywhere – jungle or polar regions.’’

Even three decades later, both he and Don Peterson were reluctant to talk much about their specific tasks and restricted their descriptions to ‘generic’ issues. ‘‘Of course,’’ recalled Peterson, ‘‘we were flying a capsule in those days, so we were going to land in the water. The Earth is two-thirds water and you might come down someplace that you hadn’t planned, [so] you had to be able to stay afloat and alive maybe for several days until [the Air Force] could get to you. Finding people in those days wasn’t nearly as good as it is now.’’

To this day, it is unclear which MOL missions Hartsfield or Peterson would have flown, although the first – targeted for February 1972 at the time of the project’s cancellation – would have been conducted, appropriately, by two Air Force pilots: Jim Taylor and Al Crews. Further two-man teams would then have been despatched at nine-month intervals for roughly 30-day orbital stays until the fifth and final manned mission in February 1975. At least one MOL flight, it was expected, would carry two naval officers, probably Bob Crippen and Dick Truly. The pilots, like the project itself, were supposed to be highly classified. However, there was a problem. One of them, Bob Lawrence, would have become the first African-American spacefarer when MOL finally flew and, naturally, the media grew to recognise him. “The rest of us were unknowns,’’ said Don Peterson, “and f could travel on false IDs and nobody had any idea who f was. But [the Air Force] worried because [the press] knew him on sight and it becomes much harder to run a secret programme when one of your guys is a high interest to the media.’’

Tragically, Lawrence died in an aircraft crash in 1967, two years before MOL was cancelled. Both Peterson and Hartsfield are convinced that, had he lived, he would have gone on to join NASA and probably would have flown the Shuttle…

After unstrapping and curling and twisting themselves around and through the hatch in the base of their Gemini, the MOL crews would first have drifted along a tunnel surrounded by cryogenic storage tanks for helium, hydrogen and oxygen to supply the station’s atmosphere and fuel cells. fndeed, following the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, it was intended that MOL would have an atmosphere of 31 per cent helium and 69 per cent oxygen, pressurised at 0.34 bars, to reduce the risk of fire or detrimental medical effects on the pilots. The only adverse effect, it seemed, would have been some unusual chatter from the crew as they climbed to orbit: after breathing pure oxygen into their space suits, helium would also have been steadily pumped into the Gemini to better acclimatise them to the MOL environment. One can imagine that there would have been a few light-hearted smirks and chuckles among flight controllers as they listened in to the squeaky voices of two high-on – helium space explorers. . .

After entering the outpost, and floating between the cryogenic storage tanks, the crew would have found themselves in its pressurised section. This was organised into two ‘stories’, each furnished with eight bays nicknamed ‘the birdcage’. Providing further hints as to the kind of work the men would have done, these bays would have contained biochemical test consoles, an experiment airlock, a glovebox for liquids handling, a motion chair on rails, a physiology console to monitor their health and an Earth-facing viewport.

By the end of the Sixties, however, with a launch seemingly getting closer, the reality was that MOL was drifting further into oblivion. Members of the workforce complained that, no matter how hard they worked, the project always appeared to be at least a year away from launch. ‘‘General Bleymaier was the commander,’’ recalled Don Peterson, ‘‘and he finally went to [President Richard] Nixon and said ‘Either fund this programme or kill it, because we’re burning time and money and we’re not making progress because we don’t have enough funds’.’’ After cuts to the number of technical personnel, followed by woefully inadequate budgetary allocations, Nixon finally cancelled MOL on 10 June 1969 to save an unspent $1.5 billion of its estimated total price tag. The Outer Space Treaty, signed two years earlier, had already imposed enough restrictions on the Air Force to effectively demilitarise many of their proposed activities in Earth orbit and the Vietnam conflict continued to soak up more funds.

By now, MOL had swallowed close to three billion dollars, without even a single, full-scale unmanned flight. For the pilots, its cancellation was devastating. ‘‘We all thought it was going to come to fruition,’’ said Bo Bobko in a 2002 oral history. ‘‘It was a surprise that it was just cancelled one day. I can remember I had a classmate from the Air Force Academy [who] had come to the MOL programme and it was his first day and they called everybody down to the auditorium and [told us that it had] been cancelled.’’

Hank Hartsfield, who was travelling to Huntington Beach in California, was also astonished, particularly in light of the work accomplished thus far. ‘‘The crew quarters were built, the training building was built, the pad was 90 per cent complete,’’ he remembered. ‘‘It broke our hearts when it got cancelled. I won’t forget the day. I was on my way to a meeting, listening to the news and they announced the cancellation. When I got to [prime contractor] Douglas and walked in, it was like walking into a morgue. It caught them completely by surprise. They heard it on the radio, like I did, or they came to work and found they didn’t have a job. It was massive layoffs. People were getting pink slips almost immediately on the contractor force. . . a very unhappy day.’’

For the Air Force pilots, the next step seemed to be to volunteer for Vietnam, although they were excluded from flying in combat. ‘‘We had a two-year duty and travel restriction,’’ said Hartsfield, ‘‘because of the classified things we’d been exposed to. We couldn’t be put in an environment where we could get captured.’’ Several of the MOL pilots did return to active duty, but seven – Hartsfield, Peterson, Bobko, Crippen, Truly, Overmyer and Fullerton – were hired in September 1969 as NASA’s seventh group of astronauts. After a wait of more than a decade, each flew at least one Shuttle mission and, in Crippen’s case, as many as four. In fact, the final irony of MOL seems to be that, had Challenger not exploded in January 1986, Crippen would have commanded Shuttle mission STS-62A – the first-ever manned space launch from the United States’ west coast, just as he had been trained to do almost two decades earlier. . .


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.


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’’.


One saving grace of the crisis was that Scott had the presence of mind, before undocking, to switch over command of the Agena to Mission Control. The result: the Gemini VIII-Agena Target Vehicle (GATV-VIII) could – and would – be reused during a subsequent mission. Four months later, Gemini X’s John Young and Mike Collins would fly part of their own rendezvous, docking and spacewalking extravaganza with the Agena. In the days after Armstrong and Scott splashed down, the rocket’s main engine was fired ten times, its various systems were vigorously tested and it successfully received and executed more than 5,400 commands. By 26 March, its electrical power had been exhausted and it could no longer be effectively controlled, but by this stage it had been raised into a higher orbit to permit inspection by the Gemini X crew.

Before Young and Collins could complete their mission, however, came Gemini IX; stricken, it seemed, by bad luck since the dull, chill February day when its prime crew lost their lives in St Louis. Days after the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, their backups, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, were appointed to replace them. With a launch scheduled for mid-May, Stafford would record the shortest turnaround between flights of any space traveller thus far, blasting off just five months after his Gemini VI-A splashdown. Newly-promoted to become the ‘new’ Gemini IX backups were Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin, who, by following Deke Slayton’s three-flight crew rotation system, were now in prime position to fly the Gemini XII mission in November 1966.

Gemini XII, the last flight in the series, was originally to be the preserve of Stafford and Cernan in their capacity as See and Bassett’s backups. In fact, in his autobiography, Cernan recalled trips to McDonnell’s plant in St Louis to inspect and train on the Gemini IX capsule. . . yet finding himself, in rare moments of spare time, drifting down the line of almost-complete spacecraft to take a wistful look at the skeletal form of Gemini XII, his and Stafford’s ship. Years later, Cernan would still recall his desire to know every switch, every circuit breaker, every instrument, every bolt and rivet, inside the Gemini before he and Stafford took this engineering marvel into the heavens.

The prime and backup crews for Gemini IX were announced in early November 1965 and, indeed, with Stafford still busy preparing for his mission with Wally Schirra, Cernan was forced to train alone with See and Bassett until early the following year. His role not only shadowed Bassett, but prepared himself for the possibility, however remote, of actually flying the mission and conducting a lengthy EVA wearing an Air Force contraption known as the Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU). It looked, Cernan wrote, “like a massive suitcase” that was “so big that it would be carried aloft folded up like a lawn chair and attached within the rear of the Gemini”. (In fact, the Air Force’s project officer for the AMU, Major Ed Givens, was selected by NASA as an astronaut candidate in April 1966.)

Having manoeuvred himself over to the device, Bassett would “slip onto a small bicycle-type seat, strap on the silver-white box and glide off into space, manoeuvring with controls mounted on the armrests’’. Sounding very much like something from a Buck Rogers episode, the AMU had evolved through seven years of developmental work, with its focus on military tasks associated with a Pentagon-sponsored space station called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory. “The possibility of using it to send someone scooting off to disable an enemy satellite,’’ wrote Cernan, “wasn’t mentioned in public because we weren’t supposed to be thinking about the militarisation of space.’’

For NASA’s purposes, however, the 75 kg AMU provided an essential tool in understanding how effectively astronauts could work and manoeuvre outside the confines of their spacecraft. When he was named to Gemini IX, Bassett was tasked with an EVA that would span at least one 90-minute circuit of the globe and would be able to control his movements and direction by means of 12 hydrogen peroxide thrusters. The AMU was also equipped with fuel tanks, lights, oxygen supplies, storage batteries and radio and telemetry systems. The device would be controlled by knobs on the end of the AMU’s twin arms – a left-hand one providing direction of motion, a right-hand one for attitude – although, for safety, Bassett would remain attached to Gemini IX by a 45 m tether throughout the spacewalk.

Undoubtedly raising Cernan’s hopes for his own mission was the possibility that, if Bassett’s excursion went without a hitch, plans were afoot for a more autonomous AMU spacewalk on Gemini XII, perhaps untethered. In the days before enormous water tanks became the norm for EVA training, Bassett and Cernan spent much of their time physically conditioning themselves. Both men recognised that vast reserves of strength and stamina would be required to handle the demands of a spacewalk encased inside a bulky pressurised suit and resorted to lengthy spells in the gym, games of handball and hundreds of press-ups. “Before long,’’ Cernan wrote, “we grew Popeye-sized forearms.’’

Their suits needed to be somewhat different from that worn by Ed White on Gemini IV, partly in recognition of the demands of the AMU, as well as to provide additional comfort and protection. The new ensembles included a white cotton long – john-type undergarment for biosensors, a nylon ‘comfort’ layer, a Dacron-Teflon link net to maintain the suit’s shape and several layers of aluminised Mylar and nylon for thermal and micrometeoroid protection. Guarding them from the searing hydrogen peroxide plumes from the AMU (one of which would jet directly between

Bassett’s legs!) were the heat-resistant ‘trousers’ of the suit. These were composed of 11 layers of aluminised H-film and fibreglass, topped by a metallic fabric woven from fibres of the alloy Chromel R. One day during training, Bassett and Cernan watched as a technician charred the material with a blowtorch for five minutes, telling them that despite the intense temperature of the AMU’s exhausts, they would remain comfortable within their suits.

As Cernan continued his training as Bassett’s understudy, the pair – indeed, the foursome, if one also counted See and Stafford – spent so much time working together than a relationship akin to family developed. Despite their intense focus on Gemini IX, Stafford and Cernan undoubtedly looked forward to their own rendezvous, docking and spacewalking adventure with their own Gemini, their own Agena and their own AMU, towards the end of 1966. All that changed on the morning of 28 February, when it became clear that Cernan’s first journey into space would come much sooner, more unexpectedly and more horrifyingly, than he could have ever imagined or wished.


Not long after his return from Gemini IX-A, astronaut Gene Cernan was summoned to Deke Slayton’s office and posed an unusual question.

‘‘Geno, how soon can you be ready to fly again?’’

‘‘Just say the word, Deke. When?’’

“Right now. Would you be willing to jump from backup to prime? Fly [Gemini] XII with Lovell?”

The year 1966 had certainly been a dramatic one for Cernan. When it began, he and Tom Stafford confidently looked forward to flying Gemini XII – the last manned mission in the series – themselves. Then, with awful suddenness, the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in February pushed them from backup to prime crew on Gemini IX. Following his return from his first spaceflight, Cernan had been given a ‘dead-end’ slot, with Gordo Cooper, to back up Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin on Gemini XII. Now, with barely two-thirds of the year gone, Slayton was offering to break his own crew-rotation system, bumping Aldrin from the mission. Cernan’s first question to Slayton was a simple one. Why?

The reason was the Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU) – the Air Force-built rocket armchair which Cernan was originally detailed to test in June 1966 – whose military sponsors were pushing strongly to fly again on Gemini’s last mission. Without giving much away, Slayton told Cernan simply that he was the best man to fly the AMU, which was probably true, but a number of contributory factors centred on Buzz Aldrin himself: a man of mathematical and engineering genius, the first astronaut to possess a doctorate, an unquestioned expert in the field of space rendezvous. . . and a constant worry to Slayton. Aldrin had already raised eyebrows during Gemini IX-A, specifically those of Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, when he advocated having Cernan cut the lanyards of The Blob. Although not an outrageous suggestion, Slayton acquiesced, Aldrin’s advice was a little too adventurous in light of NASA’s limited EVA expertise.

Gilruth, Kraft and Slayton were not the only ones with worries about Aldrin. In his autobiography, Cernan hinted strongly that Aldrin’s intelligence was tempered by a seeming inability to stick to one topic: he had a tendency to fly off at tangents and drastically re-engineer everything, at a time when NASA had little time to do so. Astronauts and their wives would roll their eyes when Aldrin collared them, even over coffee, and engaged them in hours-long discussions of the intricacies of celestial navigation and mechanics. Coupled with reports of his performance in the Gemini simulators, it was Slayton’s judgement that the AMU test flight should be entrusted to Cernan, rather than Aldrin.

In his own defence, Aldrin would blame the decision on problems experienced by both Cernan and Dick Gordon on their EVAs: exhaustion, fogged-up visors and a difficulty in performing even simple tasks. ‘‘An urgent meeting of senior officials concerned with the Gemini XII EVA,’’ Aldrin wrote, ‘‘was held at the end of September and… they decided arbitrarily that I stood a poor chance of putting the innovative AMU backpack to good use. They felt the risks outweighed the benefits.’’

Despite the risks to his colleague’s career, Cernan accepted Slayton’s invitation on the spot – ‘‘when Deke asked if you would take a mission, there was only one answer’’ – and would have flown Gemini XII had not the decision been made that an AMU test was too risky. Gemini XII’s EVAs would focus instead on less dramatic evaluations of a spacewalker’s performance outside the pressurised confines of his spacecraft. Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr, nicknamed ‘Dr Rendezvous’ behind his back, retained his place on the mission. Born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey on 20 January 1930, the son of an Army Air Corps pilot and a mother whose maiden name, propitiously, happened to be ‘Moon’, Aldrin’s development, even into adulthood, was very much guided by his father.

Naturally, in light of his father’s career, the man who would someday fly Gemini XII and become the second person to walk on the Moon was brought up with aviation in his blood. He first flew aboard an aircraft with his father in 1932, when he was barely two years old. (As a child, he earned the nickname ‘Buzz’ from his young sister, who, unable to pronounce ‘brother’, called him her ‘buzzer’.) Graduation was followed by enrolment in a military ‘poop school’ – aimed at preparing him for the Naval Academy at Annapolis – although Aldrin sought the Military Academy at West Point. Despite his father’s outspoken preference for the Navy, which he considered ‘‘took care of its people better’’, his son persisted and eventually won his reluctant approval.

When Aldrin graduated third in his class from West Point in 1951, his father’s immediate reaction was a question: who had finished first and second? He was not accepted for a coveted Rhodes postgraduate scholarship and instead entered the Air Force, earning his pilot’s wings later that same year after initial training in Bryan, Texas. During the conflict in Korea, Aldrin was attached to the 51st Fighter Wing, flying F-86 Sabres, and by the time hostilities ended in the summer of 1953 he had no fewer than 66 combat missions in his military logbook. Just a month before the end of the war, one of Aldrin’s gun-camera photographs – a Russian pilot ejecting from his stricken MiG – ended up in Life magazine.

In total, Aldrin returned from Korea having shot down three MiGs. Back in the United States, he became a gunnery instructor at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and in 1955 was accepted into Squadron Officer School in Montgomery, Alabama. At around the same time, he met and married Joan Archer and shortly thereafter became the father of a son, James. Professionally, his military career prospered: he was assigned as an aide to General Don Zimmerman, the dean of the new Air Force Academy, then moved to Germany in 1956, flying the F-100 Super Sabre as part of the 36th Fighter-Day Wing, stationed in Bitburg. During this time, he became a father twice more: to Janice and Andrew.

Before pursuing his next ambition of test pilot school, Aldrin, like his Bitburg flying comrade Ed White, sought to gain further education and was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on military detachment for a doctorate of science degree in astronautics. His 259-page ScD thesis, completed in 1963, just months before his selection as an astronaut, was entitled ‘Line of Sight Guidance Techniques for Manned Orbital Rendezvous’. He chose the topic, he later wrote, because he felt it would have practical applications for the Air Force and aeronautics, although it also drew the attention of NASA, which was by now looking at lunar-orbital rendezvous for its Apollo effort.

Aldrin dedicated his thesis to future efforts in human exploration, wistfully remarking ‘‘if only I could join them in their exciting endeavours’’. By this time, of course, his application for the 1963 astronaut class was already being processed; he had tried to gain admission the previous year, seeking a waiver for his lack of test – piloting experience, but this time achieved success. A concern about his liver function, thanks to a bout of infectious hepatitis, did not prevent Aldrin from becoming one of the 14 astronauts named to the world that October.

Assigned to work on mission planning, his early days saw him focusing his attention on rendezvous and re-entry techniques… and, gradually, as each Gemini crew was named, he became increasingly frustrated that he was receiving no flight assignment. At one stage, he even approached Deke Slayton to stress his confidence in his own abilities – that his qualifications and understanding of orbital rendezvous far exceeded those of anyone else in the office – and was politely told that his comments would be noted.

Shortly thereafter, in early 1966, Aldrin and Jim Lovell were assigned as the backup team for Gemini X. His heart sank. Taking into account Slayton’s three – flight rotation system for backup-to-prime crews, there would be no Gemini XIII to which Aldrin and Lovell could aspire. It was, in effect, a ‘dead-end’ assignment. “Apparently, petitioning Deke – an arrogant gesture by ‘Dr Rendezvous’ – had not been well-received by the stick-and-rudder guys in the Astronaut Office,’’ Aldrin wrote. ‘‘By being direct and honest rather than political, I’d shafted myself.’’ All that changed on the last day of February, when See and Bassett were killed and their Gemini IX backups were pushed into prime position. In mid-March, Lovell and Aldrin were named as the new Gemini IX backups, with a formally-unannounced (but anticipated) future assignment as the prime Gemini XII crew.

For Aldrin, whose Nassau Bay backyard bordered that of the Bassetts, it was a devastating way to receive his long-desired flight assignment. Three weeks after the accident, he and Joan visited Jeannie Bassett to tell her the news. ‘‘I felt terrible,’’ he wrote, ‘‘as if I had somehow robbed Charlie Bassett of an honour he deserved.’’ Jeannie responded with quiet dignity and characteristic grace: her husband, she explained, felt that Aldrin ‘‘should have been on that flight all along. . . I know he’d be pleased’’.