Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


Cernan’s grandparents emigrated to America shortly before the outbreak of the First World War; on his mother’s side, they were Czechs from a Bohemian town south of Prague, while on his father’s side were Slovak peasantry from a place close to the Polish border. Their children, Rose Cihlar and Andrew Cernan, would produce the child who would someday gaze down on Earth through the faceplate of a space suit, would see the sheer grandeur of the lunar landscape and would become one of only a handful of men to go prospecting in the mountains of the Moon.

Eugene Andrew Cernan, a self-described ‘‘second-generation American of Czech and Slovak descent’’, was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 14 March 1934. As a young boy, he learned from his father how machinery worked, how to plant tomatoes, how to hammer a nail straight into a board and how to repair a toilet; all of which instilled in him an ethos ‘‘to always do my best at whatever I put my hand to’’. In high school, that ethos led him to play basketball, baseball and football, for which he was even offered scholarships, but eventually he headed to Purdue University in 1952 to read electrical engineering.

Four years later, Cernan graduated and was commissioned a naval reservist, reporting for duty aboard the aircraft carrier Saipan. After initial flight training, he received his wings of gold as a naval aviator in November 1957 and gained his first experience of flying jets aboard the F-9F Panther. He was subsequently assigned to Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego and attached to Attack Squadron VA-126, during which time he performed his first carrier landing aboard the aircraft carrier Ranger, flying the A-4 Skyhawk. Then, in November 1958, Cernan participated in his first cruise of the western Pacific, flying Skyhawks from the Shangri-La aircraft carrier, when, ‘‘armed to the teeth and ready for a fight’’, he frequently encountered Chinese MiG fighters in the Straits of Formosa.

Shortly thereafter, the Mercury Seven were introduced to the world and Cernan heard about, and for the first time wondered about, the role of these new ‘astronauts’. In his autobiography, he noted that he met just two of NASA’s requirements – age and degree relevance – and had little of their experience and no test-piloting credentials. ‘‘By the time I earned those kind of credentials,” he wrote, ‘‘the pioneering in space would be over.’’ Still, the germ of a new interest, to become a test pilot and fly rockets, implanted itself in the young aviator’s brain.

In the early summer of 1961, now married to Barbara Atchley, Cernan was approaching the end of his five-year commitment to the Navy when he was offered the opportunity to attend the service’s postgraduate school for a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. It offered him a route into test pilot school. When NASA selected its second group of astronauts in September 1962 Cernan knew that, although he held the right educational credentials, becoming a test pilot was still years away. Ultimately, however, the decision was made for him when one of his superiors recommended him to NASA for its third astronaut class.

As 1963 drew to a close, and by now the father of a baby daughter, Tracy, whose initials he would one day etch into the lunar dust at the valley of Taurus-Littrow, Cernan was repeatedly summoned to an unending cycle of physical and psychological evaluations and interviews by the space agency. Like so many others before him, he checked into Houston’s Rice Hotel under the assumed name of‘Max Peck’ and sat, ‘‘like a prisoner before the parole board’’, at an interview with such famous men as Al Shepard, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton. The questions were awkward. ‘‘Someone asked how many times I had flown over 50,000 feet,’’ Cernan wrote. ‘‘Hell, for an attack pilot like me, who had spent his life below 500 feet, that was halfway to space!’’ How to turn the question to his advantage? He flipped it around, telling them that he had flown very low and ‘‘if you’re going to land on the Moon, you gotta get close sometime’’.

He was also getting close to actual selection, as friends began calling to enquire as to why FBI agents had visited them with questions about Cernan’s character, his background, his military record, his educational record, his parking tickets and his disciplinary records. At the same time, he was close to completing his master’s thesis, focusing on the use of hydrogen as a propulsion system for high-energy rockets. Then, just a few weeks before John Kennedy’s assassination, he received the telephone call from Deke Slayton that would truly change his life. Little did he know that one of his Navy buddies, Ron Evans, rejected by NASA on this occasion, would himself be hired in 1966 and the two of them would someday travel to the Moon together.

Cernan’s first two years as an astronaut were spent mired in technical assignments… and, despite being just one of a much larger gaggle of prospective spacegoing pilots, he and his colleagues still benefitted from the Life magazine deal, which nicely supplemented their military salaries. During the early Gemini flights, he occupied the ‘Tanks’ console in Mission Control, overseeing pressurisation and other data for the Titan II’s fuel tanks. Then, one day towards the end of 1965, a technician tapped on his office door and told Cernan that Slayton wanted him to get fitted out for a space suit. The reason was inescapable: a flight assignment, surely, was just around the corner.

On 8 November, it was official: Cernan and Stafford would support Elliot See and

Charlie Bassett, with an expectation that they could then rotate into the prime crew slot for the Gemini XII mission. Four months later, just promoted to lieutenant- commander by the Navy, Cernan had a new assignment. He and Stafford were now the Gemini IX prime crew and it would be Cernan, not Bassett, who would evaluate the AMU rocket armchair during one of the trickiest and most hazardous spacewalks ever attempted.


On 27 April 1967, an unusual communique was issued by the Soviet news agency, Tass. Days earlier, Vladimir Komarov – veteran of Voskhod 1 and the first cosmonaut to make two spaceflights – had been launched into orbit aboard the new Soyuz spacecraft. Within hours, however, euphoria had vanished into tragedy. In a handful of sentences, carefully crafted by the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Dmitri Ustinov, it was revealed that Komarov’s ship had ‘‘descended with speed’’ from orbit, ‘‘the result of a shroud line twisting’’. The result: ‘‘the premature death of the outstanding cosmonaut’’. Little more would be known in the western world for nearly three decades and only recently would details begin to trickle out. They would uncover a harrowing tragedy still shrouded in myth, mystery and rumour.

Soyuz was the brainchild of Sergei Korolev, the famous ‘Chief Designer’ of early Soviet spacecraft and rockets, with the original intention that it would support a series of lunar missions to rival the United States’ Apollo effort. When it became increasingly clear that neither the Soyuz, nor an enormous booster rocket needed to reach the Moon, called the ‘N-1’, would be able to beat the Americans, the Soviet paradigm shifted to near-Earth missions: in 1971, they would establish the world’s first space station in orbit. Soyuz would provide a ferry for missions which, by the end of the Seventies, would be routinely spending many months aloft. Four decades later, its basic design remains operational and, heavily modified, continues to transport cosmonauts and astronauts from a variety of nations to and from the International Space Station.

In his 1988 book about the early Soviet space programme, Phillip Clark traced the history of its development back to a three-part ‘Soyuz complex’ – a manned craft, a dry rocket block and a propellant-carrying tanker – which Korolev envisaged in the

Yuri Gagarin, Yevgeni Khrunov, Vladimir Komarov, Alexei Yeliseyev and Valeri Bykovsky during training for the Soyuz 1/2 joint mission. Note the EVA suits worn by Khrunov and Yeliseyev, providing clear evidence that an extravehicular transfer between the two spacecraft was probably planned.

early Sixties could be assembled in orbit for circumlunar missions. The first part, known as ‘Soyuz-A’, was closest in appearance to the spacecraft which actually flew. Measuring 7.7 m long, it comprised three sections: a cylindrical orbital module, a bell-shaped descent module to house the crew positions and a cylindrical instrument module for manoeuvring equipment, propellant and electrical systems. According to Korolev’s early blueprints, Soyuz-A weighed around 6,450 kg, but unlike the eventual version it was not fitted with solar panels.

Supporting Soyuz-A were the ‘dry’ Soyuz-B rocket block and the propellant­carrying Soyuz-V tanker. Clark has hinted that a typical flight profile would have begun with the launch of a Soyuz-B, followed, at 24-hour intervals, by up to four Soyuz-Vs, which would dock, deliver their propellant loads, then separate. When the Soyuz-B had been fully fuelled, a manned Soyuz-A would be launched to dock onto the rocket block. ‘‘Mastering rendezvous and docking operations in Earth orbit may have been one of the primary objectives of the Soyuz complex,’’ wrote Asif Siddiqi, ‘‘but the incorporation of five consecutive dockings in Earth orbit to carry out a circumlunar mission was purely because of a lack of rocket-lifting power in the Soviet space programme.’’ Nonetheless, the sheer ‘complexity’ of the Soyuz complex seems to have foreshadowed its restructuring sometime in 1964 and effected a postponement of its maiden voyage until at least 1966. It was as a result of this setback, Clark explained, that the stopgap Voskhod effort was ultimately born.

When Voskhod began with such apparent promise – the world’s first three-man cosmonaut crew, then the first-ever spacewalk – it surprised many in the western world, among them NASA’s astronauts, when nothing more was heard from the Soviets until April 1967. “They hadn’t flown in over two years,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, “which nobody could understand… Some people were beginning to say there wasn’t really a race to the Moon, and on the evidence you had to admit that possibility.” It was Korolev’s successor, Vasili Mishin, who spearheaded the abandonment of Voskhod, which many within the Soviet space programme felt was a diversion of resources from the more versatile Soyuz. “Given what we know about Voskhod,’’ added Slayton, “it was the right decision.’’

By October 1969, seven manned Soyuz spacecraft would have rocketed into orbit. However, a key physical difference between these missions and the original Soyuz-A concept was that they employed a pair of rectangular solar panels, mounted on the instrument module, to generate electrical power. The total surface area of these wing-like appendages was 14 m2, each measuring 3.6 m long and 1.9 m wide. The remainder of the craft’s design was strikingly similar to Soyuz-A: a spheroid orbital module, 2.65 m long and 2.25 m wide, atop the beehive-shaped descent module, itself 2.2 m long and 2.3 m wide at its base. Beneath the descent module was the cylindrical instrument module, 2.3 m long and 2.3 m wide. In total, Soyuz was somewhat larger than Apollo’s command module, yet smaller than the combined command and service module.

Its propulsion system, designated ‘KTDU-35’, consisted of a pair of engines operating from the same fuel and oxidiser supply. The primary engine had a specific impulse of some 2,750 m/sec, equivalent to around 280 seconds’ burn time, and a thrust of 417 kg, with early reports speculating that the propulsion system was capable of lifting Soyuz to an altitude of 1,300 km. This led Clark to suggest that a propellant load of 755 kg would have been required. Propellants took the form of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and an oxidiser of nitric acid, loaded in tanks on the instrument module. Clark speculated that, for the first few Soyuz missions at least, a lower-than-full propellant supply of around 500 kg was probably carried.

Like Vostok and Voskhod before it, the spacecraft and its three-stage rocket – an uprated version of Korolev’s Little Seven, including four tapering boosters strapped to its central core – were typically delivered to the launch pad horizontally aboard a railcar. The Soyuz’ own propellants were fully loaded before attachment to the rocket’s third stage, after which a payload shroud was installed and, following rollout, the entire combination was tilted into an upright position. Four cradling arms, nicknamed ‘the tulip’, supported the rocket at its base and a pair of towering gantries provided pre-launch servicing access. Cosmonauts entered the spacecraft through its orbital module and dropped down into their seats in the descent module.

Yet the development of this complex spacecraft had been mired in technical and managerial problems since the death of Sergei Korolev in January 1966. Indeed, only days before Soyuz 1 was launched, engineers are said to have reported no fewer than 200 design problems to party leaders, all of which were overruled by the political pressure of getting a cosmonaut back into space. Even Vladimir Komarov, the man who would fly Soyuz 1, is reputed to have said one night in March 1967 that he would not – could not – turn down the assignment, even though he knew the spacecraft was imperfect and his chances of returning alive were slim. His reason: Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and the Soviet Union’s most treasured hero, was Komarov’s backup. When asked by Gagarin’s KGB friend Venyamin Russayev why he could not simply resign from Soyuz 1, Komarov’s response was simple. “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead,’’ he said slowly. “That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.’’

Russayev was so concerned by Komarov’s admission that he spoke to one of his own superiors, Konstantin Makharov, whose department dealt with spaceflight matters relating to personnel. Makharov told him that he intended “to do something’’ and asked Russayev to pass on a letter to Ivan Fadyekin, the head of Department Three, who directed him instead to a close personal friend of Leonid Brezhnev himself, a KGB man named Georgi Tsinev. The letter consisted of a covering note from a team of the cosmonauts, led by Gagarin, together with a ten – page document detailing all 200 problems with Soyuz. “While reading the letter,’’ Russayev was quoted by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony as saying, “Tsinev looked at me, gauging my reactions to see if I’d read it or not.’’ It seemed to Russayev that Tsinev knew of Soyuz’ inadequacies, but was not interested in the details. “He was glaring at me very intently,’’ Russayev continued, “watching me like a hawk, and suddenly he asked, ‘How would you like a promotion up to my department?’ He even offered me a better office.’’’ Russayev carefully declined the offer and Tsinev kept the document. . . which was never seen again. Makharov was fired, without a pension; Fadyekin was demoted simply for reading the document; and the hapless Russayev was stripped of all space-related responsibilities. ‘‘I kept my head down like a hermit for the next ten years,’’ he said later.

Against this backdrop, Soyuz’ problems had become almost chronic, with difficulties involving its Igla docking system, its simulators, its space suits, its hatches, its parachutes and its environmental controls. At one stage, early in its development, over 2,000 defects awaited resolution. Further, a series of unmanned Soyuz test flights under the ‘Cosmos’ cover name suffered troubles of their own. Phillip Clark noted that, as the break in Soviet manned launches stretched through 1965 and 1966, it became ‘‘almost a sport’’ among analysts to find evidence that a future crewed spacecraft was undergoing trials. Certainly, the flight of Cosmos 133 on 28 November 1966 and that of Cosmos 140 in early February of the following year were strongly suggestive of bearing some link with Soyuz. The first suffered a malfunctioning attitude-control system, which caused rapid fuel consumption and unanticipated spinning. An inaccurate retrofire and the likelihood that it would land in China eventually forced flight controllers to issue a self-destruct command to Cosmos 133. It exploded early on 30 November.

Two months later, Cosmos 140 suffered similar attitude and fuel problems, but at least remained controllable. . . for a while. Its control system malfunctioned during retrofire, producing a steeper-than-intended re-entry which burned a 300 mm hole into the heat shield. The only reason its parachutes successfully deployed was because of this burn-through; otherwise, they would have failed… an ominous harbinger of what would befall Komarov in April. Clearly, a Cosmos 140-type event would have doomed a human occupant, but the descent module separated successfully, parachuted to Earth and crashed through the ice of the frozen Aral Sea. It was retrieved by divers in 10 m of water and, astonishingly, the results of its mission were deemed “good enough” for Komarov to take the helm of a future flight.

In his autobiography, Alexei Leonov remarked that the Cosmos 140 burn – through had been caused by a flawed design feature which was slightly different to that on a manned Soyuz and admitted that “there was no chance of the fault recurring”. Still, today, it seems ludicrous to have even contemplated a manned mission with such unpromising test results and unforgiving hardware. Political pressure seems to have been the overriding impetus driving Soyuz’ schedule. One Soviet heat shield engineer, Viktor Yevsikov, hinted in 1982 that “some launches were made almost exclusively for propaganda purposes. . . the management knew that the vehicle had not been completely debugged: more time was needed to make it operational, but the Communist Party ordered the launch despite the fact that preliminary launches had revealed faults in the co-ordination, thermal control and parachute systems’’. The situation was so bad, admitted Yevsikov, that Vasili Mishin himself refused to sign the endorsement papers permitting Soyuz 1 to fly. He felt it was unready.

Mishin, despite being an excellent mathematician and fast-thinking engineer, was no Korolev. He had none of his predecessor’s stature or clout and was not renowned for his diplomatic skills. “Lacking the political instincts of, say, a Wernher von Braun or a Sergei Korolev,’’ wrote Asif Siddiqi, “he suffered dearly. Some would argue that so did the Soviet space programme in the coming years.’’ Nonetheless, with little opposition, Mishin was named Chief Designer in May 1966 and, although he quickly asserted himself, his insistence on filling the cosmonaut corps with non­pilot engineers from the OKB-1 design bureau to fly the early Soyuz missions infuriated Nikolai Kamanin. In his diary, the latter fumed that Mishin placed no value in six years’ worth of experience of his command’s training of cosmonauts to fly space missions. Kamanin considered it absurd that Mishin wanted to prepare civilian engineers for Soyuz command positions, with no pilot training, no parachute experience, no medical screening and no centrifuge practice. Eventually, under pressure from Dmitri Ustinov, Mishin was forced in July 1966 to accept pilot- cosmonauts for Soyuz command positions, with OKB-1 engineers filling support roles. It was only the first of many stand-offs between he and Kamanin which would place their relationship at a very low ebb.

Mishin’s desire to fly civilians into space had been shared by Sergei Korolev and, intermittently in the early Sixties, a few OKB-1 engineers had passed preliminary screening, but were never seriously considered by the Soviet Air Force. When eight military cosmonauts began training for the first Soyuz missions in September 1965, Korolev entrusted one of his engineers to explore the possibility of forming a parallel group of civilians. Eleven candidates passed initial tests at the Institute of Biomedical Problems and several months later, on 23 May 1966, Mishin signed an official order to establish the first non-military cosmonaut group. Candidates Sergei Anokhin, Vladimir Bugrov, Gennadi Dolgopolov, Georgi Grechko, Valeri Kubasov, Oleg Makarov, Vladislav Volkov and Alexei Yeliseyev seemed to have little hope of actually flying into space and the nomenclature used to describe them – ‘cosmonaut – testers’ – seemed to support the assumption that they would be of limited use.

Despite his doubts, Kamanin was finally appeased when Grechko, Kubasov and Volkov passed tests at the Air Force’s Central Scientific-Research Aviation Hospital and arrived at the cosmonauts’ training centre, Zvezdny Gorodok, on 5 September. Within two months, another pair, Yeliseyev and Makarov, had also arrived. All five, wrote Siddiqi, ‘‘were accomplished engineers’’, Grechko having worked on fuelling Korolev’s R-7s and Makarov having been involved in Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz development. Unfortunately, Anokhin, Bugrov and Dolgopolov did not pass the Air Force’s screening and were never considered for positions on the early Soyuz missions.

For the others, however, a seat on a spaceflight seemed only months away. Military pilot Vladimir Komarov had long been pointed at Soyuz 1, owing to his expertise, but Mishin, naturally, wanted two civilian engineers on the three-man Soyuz 2 crew. Nikolai Kamanin opposed this move, feeling that the complexity of the early missions made it inadvisable. A compromise was reached, thanks to the chief of the Communist Party’s Defence Industries Department, Ivan Serbin, who suggested flying an Air Force pilot (Yevgeni Khrunov) and an OKB-1 engineer (Alexei Yeliseyev) alongside Vostok 5 veteran Valeri Bykovsky on Soyuz 2. A few days later, on 21 November 1966, Komarov told a State Commission meeting at Tyuratam that he had been picked to fly Soyuz 1 and that Bykovsky, Khrunov and Yeliseyev would follow aboard Soyuz 2. It was a triumph for the civilians. Yet had Yeliseyev flown as planned on Soyuz 2, he would not only have become the first of Mishin’s civilians to enter space, but would have also been the first of them to die during his descent to Earth…

Over the years, western observers suspected that the Soyuz 1 mission had been pushed to fly prematurely and improperly as a political stunt in advance of the May Day celebrations, since 1967 coincided with the half-century anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Additionally, Leonid Brezhnev was in Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia at the time, at a meeting of the Soviet bloc leadership; the propaganda value of a major space success, for him, would be incalculable. In a dispatch to the Washington Star newspaper, Moscow correspondent Edmund Stevens wrote that the space effort under Mishin was less able to resist political pressure than Korolev had been. (It was even suggested that Leonid Smirnov, chairman of the Military-Industrial Commission, had personally told Komarov, still sceptical about Soyuz’ readiness, that the cosmonaut might as well remove all of his military decorations if he refused to fly the mission… )

In the days preceding the manned shot, rumours hinted of a space spectacular to rival Gemini and Apollo: a joint mission involving not one Soyuz, but two, and perhaps featuring rendezvous, docking and even the spacewalking transfer of crew members from one vehicle to the other. Reuters, for example, revealed on 19 April 1967 that such stories were circulating with some excitement in Moscow. Three days later, western journalists in the Soviet capital were told that two spacecraft with five or six cosmonauts would be launched, beginning on 23 April. If all went well with the first mission, it seemed likely that Soyuz 2 would fly at 3:10 Moscow Time the next morning. Komarov would attempt a docking on Soyuz 2’s first or second orbit and the two spacecraft would remain docked for perhaps three days. “There was speculation,” Time magazine told its readers on 5 May, “that the second ship had a restartable engine that would push the joined ships as far out as 50,000 miles.” This was obviously a false assumption, but it does highlight the uncertainty of exactly what the Soviets were up to.

Actually, the joint mission, and specifically the spacewalking transfer of cosmonauts between two spacecraft, had caused concern for months. The hatch in the Soyuz orbital module, for example, was barely 66 cm in diameter, scarcely wide enough for a fully-suited man to get outside and virtually impossible for him to get back inside. (The problems of space suits ‘ballooning’ had already been experienced by Alexei Leonov.) A redesign of the hatch, Mishin realised, would add months to the schedule and the decision was instead taken to modify the suits by moving their oxygen supplies from the cosmonaut’s back to his waist. Enlarged hatches would then be implemented on later missions. Nikolai Kamanin was unimpressed. ‘‘I am personally not fully confident that the whole programme of flight will be completed successfully,’’ he wrote, ‘‘although there are no sufficiently weighty grounds to object to the launch. In all previous flights we believed in success. Today, there is not such confidence in victory. . . This can perhaps be explained by the fact that we are flying without Korolev’s strength and assurances.” It did not bode well for the four men assigned to fly the Soyuz 1/2 joint mission.

Photographs released over the years have shown Komarov training with Bykovsky, Khrunov and Yeliseyev, the latter pair clad in EVA-type suits, confirming that they would have attempted the risky Soyuz-to-Soyuz transfer. Others show Yuri Gagarin, Komarov’s backup, assisting Khrunov with his helmet. In their biography of Gagarin, Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony pointed out that it was Korolev’s death in January 1966 which refocused the First Cosmonaut on somehow getting himself back into space. His renewed self-discipline and vigour in completing an engineering diploma at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy impressed Nikolai Kamanin sufficiently to assign Gagarin in October 1966 as Komarov’s backup. However, despite his confidence, Kamanin noted in his diary that Gagarin’s importance to the Soviet state made it unlikely he would ever fly again.

Years later, Soviet journalist Yaroslav Golovanov would recall Gagarin’s behaviour in the hours before the Soyuz 1 launch as quite unusual. ‘‘He demanded to be put into the protective space suit,’’ Golovanov was quoted by Doran and Bizony. ‘‘It was already clear that Komarov was perfectly fit to fly, and there were only three or four hours remaining until liftoff time, but he suddenly burst out and started demanding this and that. It was sudden caprice.’’ Venyamin Russayev expressed his belief over the years that Gagarin was trying to elbow his way onto the mission to save Komarov from almost certain death in a botched spacecraft. Others have countered that, since Komarov was not meant to wear a space suit on Soyuz 1, Gagarin’s antics were actually designed to encourage his comrade to take one as an additional safety margin. Alternatively, maybe Gagarin was simply trying to disrupt matters somehow. Whatever the reality, archived pre-launch footage of the cosmonauts from that fateful third week of April 1967 – an unhappy Komarov, a downcast Gagarin and a team of very dejected technicians – show that that the atmosphere at Tyuratam was one of tense pessimism.

Other official images of Komarov arriving at the launch site showed him quite differently: bedecked with flowers… as, indeed, were Bykovsky, Yeliseyev and Khrunov, also in attendance for their own mission a day later. Plans for the flights were still very much in flux. Disagreement flared over whether to dock automatically or manually, with Mishin favouring the former and Komarov expressing confidence that he could guide Soyuz 1 by hand to a linkup from a distance of 200 m. At length, the chair of the State Commission, Kerim Kerimov, supported an automatic approach to 50-70 m, followed by a manual docking, although his judgement was still hotly contested.

Nevertheless, at 3:35 am Moscow Time on 23 April, Soyuz 1 was launched and inserted into a satisfactory orbit of 201-224 km. Within moments of reaching space, the Soviets referred to his mission, by name, as ‘Soyuz 1’, clearly indicating that a ‘Soyuz 2’ would follow soon. Fellow cosmonaut Pavel Popovich told Komarov’s wife, Valentina, that he was in orbit, to which she responded that ‘‘he never tells me when he goes on a business trip!’’ Four and a half hours into the mission, a bulletin announced that the flight was proceeding normally; as, indeed, did another report at 10:00 am. More than 12 hours then elapsed before any more news emerged from the Soviets, and when it did finally come, it was devastating. Not only had there been no Soyuz 2 launch, but, stunningly, Komarov had lost his life during re-entry.

Little information other than the basics were forthcoming in the terse final report. It alluded to Soyuz 1’s ‘‘very difficult and responsible braking stage in the dense layers of the atmosphere’’ and concluded that the ‘‘tangling of the parachute’s cords’’ had caused the spacecraft to fall ‘‘at a high velocity, this being the cause of the death of Colonel Vladimir Komarov’’. Twenty years later, Phillip Clark wrote of ‘‘persistent reports’’ that problems had been experienced during Soyuz 1’s first few hours in orbit. Its left-hand solar array failed to deploy properly, depriving Komarov of more than half (some sources say as much as 75 per cent) of his electricity supply. Soyuz 1 would be forced to run on batteries for a shortened mission of around a day in orbit. The subsequent, unusual, lack of televised images from the cabin and no other reports of in-flight activities lent credence to notions that the flight was in deep trouble.

A backup telemetry antenna also failed, probably triggering intermittent reception, and problems with solar and ionic sensors prevented Komarov from achieving even basic control of his craft’s orientation. (It later became clear that the Sun sensor had actually been contaminated by Soyuz’ thruster exhausts.) Although the antenna failure was a minor annoyance, the solar sensor was more serious, because without it Soyuz 1 could not be properly oriented for rendezvous and docking. During his fifth orbit, the cosmonaut tried to use his periscope and Earth’s horizon to reorient the craft, but found it virtually impossible to do so. The failure of the left-hand solar panel to open had also left Soyuz 1 in an asymmetric configuration, which made attitude control far more difficult. At one point, Komarov even knocked with his boots on the side of the spacecraft, to free a stubborn deployment mechanism for the panel, but without success. By this time, the Soyuz 2 launch – already hampered by heavy rain at Tyuratam, but now exacerbated by the ongoing problems in orbit – had been called off and the focus had shifted instead to ensuring Komarov’s safe return to Earth.

Attempts to bring him home, Clark continued, were planned on the 16th, 17th and 18th orbits, with the first retrofire attempt called off, presumably because the spacecraft could not be properly stabilised. Indeed, Doran and Bizony have reported that, at one stage, Komarov complained with fury: “This devil ship! Nothing I lay my hands on works properly.’’ Unlike the spherical Vostok, the underside of Soyuz’ bell-shaped descent module was distinctly flattened and it had an offset centre of gravity to provide it with some aerodynamic ‘lift’ during re-entry. However, it also required far more precision as it began to enter the atmosphere and, with Soyuz 1’s guidance system out of action, the cosmonaut could not keep it under control. When it began to spin, he attempted to fire his attitude-control thrusters to stabilise the situation, but their close proximity to the navigation sensors meant that he could not accurately align the spacecraft. In desperation, Komarov resorted to using the Moon to work out his alignment.

The first retrofire attempt apparently began at 2:56 am on 24 April, but the problems forced the automatic control system to inhibit it. A decision was made shortly thereafter not to make another attempt on the 17th circuit, but to use that pass over Russia to prepare him for re-entry on the next orbit. Sometime between 3:30-4:00 am, a Japanese station received signals from Soyuz 1 and Tass announced that a routine communications event was being held between mission controllers and Komarov. That ‘event’, according to some, was far from routine. In August 1972, a former National Security Agency analyst, under the pseudonym Winslow Peck (real name Perry Fellwock), reported being on duty at a monitoring station near Istanbul in Turkey on the morning of Komarov’s death. According to Fellwock’s report, the cosmonaut and ground controllers knew that the situation would produce fatal consequences and Komarov even spoke personally to his wife, Valentina, and to a tearful Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin. ‘‘He told [his wife] how to handle their affairs and what to do with the kids,’’ wrote Fellwock. ‘‘It was pretty awful. Towards the last few minutes, he was falling apart. . . ’’

These and other harrowing, though unverified, reports imply that Komarov knew that the problems with Soyuz 1 were insurmountable. Unconfirmed stories over the years hinted that, when he finally began re-entry, he grumbled that ‘‘the parachute is wrong’’ and ‘‘heat is rising in the capsule’’. Evidently, the actual retrofire on his 18th orbit was far from perfect, in light of the asymmetrical shape of the spacecraft and the inability of the attitude-control thrusters to maintain proper orientation. Still, retrofire began at 5:59 am and ran for long enough to ensure entrance into the atmosphere. The Yevpatoriya control station in the Crimea picked up voice communications at 6:12 am, in which Komarov apparently advised them of the results of the retrofire and his loss of attitude, before entering a period of blackout as heated plasma surrounded the spacecraft.

During re-entry, the descent module should have separated from the remainder of the Soyuz – the orbital and instrument sections – about 12 minutes after retrofire. Parachute deployment should have begun 14 minutes later and touchdown some 39 minutes and 27 seconds after retrofire. Komarov’s voice reappeared during re-entry, sometime between 6:18 and 6:20 am, and was described as calm and unhurried, in spite of the 8 G load imposed by what was effectively a steep, ‘ballistic’ descent. Notwithstanding these problems, Soyuz 1 might still have landed safely. Then its parachutes failed.

In his autobiography, fellow cosmonaut Alexei Leonov related being based in the control centre, participating in the recovery effort. He wrote that ‘‘the brake chute deployed as planned and so did the drag chute, but the latter failed to pull the main canopy out of its container. While the reserve chute was then triggered, it became entangled with the cords of the drag chute and also failed to open’’. Indeed, Soyuz 1’s landing point – at 51.13 degrees North latitude and 57.24 degrees East longitude, some 65 km east of the industrial city of Orsk, in the southern Urals – was considerably farther west than normal and has been seen by many analysts as ‘‘consistent with a purely ballistic re-entry. . . and no parachute deployment’’. Locals in the Orsk area, who witnessed the final stages of the descent, confirmed that Soyuz 1’s parachutes were simply turning, not filling properly with air…

Meanwhile, Soviet anti-aircraft radar installations detected the incoming descent module at 6:22 am and predicted its ‘landing’ two minutes later. Elsewhere, listening posts in Turkey are said to have intercepted Komarov’s cries of rage and frustration as he plunged to his death, cursing the engineers and technicians who had launched him in a fault-ridden spacecraft. Whether this really happened will probably never be known with certainty. Travelling at more than 640 km/h, Soyuz 1 hit the ground like a meteorite, killing the cosmonaut instantly and completely flattening the descent module. Solid-fuelled rockets in its base – meant to cushion the touchdown – detonated on impact, causing the remains to burst into flames. The whole landing site was soon engulfed in smoke and the first helicopter pilot on the scene quickly judged that it was a fatal situation. ‘‘But he also knew he was on an open loop with Yevpatoriya and the Ministry of Defence satellite control centre in Moscow,’’ wrote Deke Slayton. ‘‘All he said was ‘the cosmonaut is going to need emergency medical treatment outside the spacecraft’, at which point the lines were cut by somebody in the rescue units.’’

The misleading call for ‘urgent medical attention’ is an intriguing story in itself. Flight surgeons Oleg Bychkov and Viktor Artamoshin, members of the search and rescue group which found Soyuz 1, recounted later that their helicopter touched down 70-100 m from the point of impact. ‘‘Everybody rushed to the capsule,’’ they wrote, ‘‘but only upon reaching it, realised that the pilot would no longer need help. Fire inside the spacecraft was spreading and its bottom completely burned through with streams of molten metal dripping down.’’ The rescue team was equipped with coloured flares to signal the overflying aircraft about the situation on the ground. No code existed to denote the death of the cosmonaut, so they were forced to fire the flare which equated to Komarov needing medical aid. It was this misunderstood message which, tragically, kindled some hope that Vladimir Komarov had survived.

On the ground, the flames were so fierce that portable foam extinguishers proved insufficient and the would-be rescuers began shovelling heaps of dirt onto the capsule. The force of impact had already reduced it from its normal 2 m height to a tangled mess no more than 70 cm tall and it was during the frantic firefighting effort that Soyuz 1 literally collapsed, leaving a pile of charred wreckage and a couple of congealed pools of molten aluminium, topped by the circular entrance hatch. Nearby lay the three parachutes. Komarov’s remains were “excavated” from what was left of his ship at 9:30 am and his death was pronounced as having been caused by multiple injuries to the skull, spinal cord and bones. Later eyewitness reports revealed that his ‘body’ took the form of a ‘lump’, 30 cm wide and 80 cm long, while Venyamin Russayev recounted that a heel bone was the only recognisable fragment left…

By this time, Nikolai Kamanin himself was on the scene and it was he who telephoned Dmitri Ustinov, who in turn contacted Leonid Brezhnev. Five hours later, it was Ustinov who carefully edited Tass’ communique on the subject of Komarov’s death.

A government investigation, headed by V. V. Utkin of the Flight Research Institute of the Aviation Industry, revealed that Soyuz 1’s parachute container had opened at an altitude of 11 km and had become ‘deformed’, squeezing the main canopy and preventing it from opening correctly. Although a small drogue had come out, the main parachute simply could not exit the container, and not just because of the deformation. The drogue was supposed to impart a force of 1,500 kg to pull out the main parachute, whereas it actually required upwards of 2,800 kg, perhaps a result of air pressure in the descent module pushing against the container. Such problems had never arisen in tests, Utkin’s panel found, but attributed them to the abnormal and ‘random’ conditions surrounding the Soyuz 1 descent. Future missions, the panel decreed, would benefit from enlarged and strengthened parachute containers. The failure of the drogue to pull out the main parachute was compounded by its backup canopy. This quickly became entangled with the fluttering drogue, leaving nothing to arrest Komarov’s meteoric fall to Earth.

Unofficially, gross negligence on the part of manufacturing technicians has also been blamed for Komarov’s death. During pre-flight preparations, explained Asif Siddiqi, the Soyuz 1 and 2 spacecraft were coated with thermal protection materials and placed in a high-temperature test chamber. Both were evaluated with their parachute containers in place, but lacking covers. This resulted in the interiors of both containers becoming covered with a polymerised coating, which formed a very rough surface and directly prevented Soyuz 1’s parachute from deploying. ‘‘Clearly,’’ wrote Siddiqi, ‘‘the most chilling implication of this manufacturing oversight was that both Soyuz spacecraft were doomed to failure – that is, if Komarov had not faced any troubles in orbit and the Soyuz 2 launch had gone on as scheduled, all four cosmonauts would have died on return.’’ None of this was mentioned in the official Soyuz 1 accident report.

As the Soviets, like the Americans, dug in for a lengthy period of self-criticism and introspection to make their craft spaceworthy, not another cosmonaut would venture aloft until October 1968. That cosmonaut, Georgi Beregovoi, would establish a new record as the oldest man yet to be launched into orbit, aged 47. He was also one of Yuri Gagarin’s harshest critics – a senior Soviet Air Force officer, Second World War combat veteran and decorated test pilot, albeit unflown in space – who considered the First Cosmonaut to be “an upstart’’ and a bit-of-a-lad who was “too young to be a proper Hero of the Soviet Union’’. Their relationship in the months before Komarov’s death grew so stormy that Gagarin even shouted that Beregovoi would never fly in space.

Seven months after Gagarin’s untimely death in an aircraft crash, Beregovoi finally got his chance. It was he who would lay the ghost of Vladimir Komarov to rest and nurse Soyuz through its first successful manned mission.


‘‘I had pointed Frank Borman at one of the Gemini long-duration missions from the very begininng,’’ Deke Slayton wrote in his autobiography, ‘‘because of his tenacity.” That tenacity, some argued, had also led to his removal from the right – hand pilot’s seat, alongside Gus Grissom, on the original Gemini V. It has been speculated that the two men’s strong personalities might have made them incompatible as a commander-pilot duo and the no-nonsense, decisive Borman was instead directed to lead Gemini VII. Some astronauts regarded him as obnoxious and Gene Cernan labelled him a “tight-assed son-of-a-bitch’’, but none questioned his abilities or impeccable leadership skills. Indeed, he remains one of only five American astronauts to have commanded a crew on his very first mission. One day, in the not too distant future after Gemini VII, his talent and credentials would also lead him to command the first human expedition to the Moon.

Frank Frederick Borman II was born in Gary, Indiana, on 14 March 1928. As a child, he suffered from numerous sinus problems, caused by the cold and damp weather, so his father moved the family to the better climate of Tucson, Arizona, which became Borman’s hometown. Like many future astronauts, he could trace his fascination with aviation from an early age and began flying at the age of 15. From Tucson High School, Borman studied for a bachelor’s degree at the Military Academy in West Point, followed by a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the California Institute of Technology.

After graduation from West Point in 1950, ranking eighth in his class, he entered the Air Force, serving as a fighter pilot in the Philippines and later as an instructor attached to various squadrons across the United States. During one practice dive­bombing run, he ruptured an eardrum, leading him to fear that he may never fly again. However, Borman recovered. Before coming to NASA in September 1962, he also graduated from the Air Force’s Aerospace Pilot School as an experimental test flier and served for a time as an assistant professor of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics at West Point. At the time of his selection, he had more experience in jet aircraft – some 3,600 hours – than any of the others in the New Nine.

Clearly, even among the Nine, Borman stood out. During the selection process, his absolute devotion to the West Point military code of Duty-Honour-Country and his unwavering commitment to whatever mission he was assigned led some psychologists to shake their heads in disbelief. Surely nobody could be that uncomplicated, they thought. Yet that was Borman. Like Gus Grissom, he did not dabble in small talk and, in true military fashion, made whatever decisions needed to be made, stuck by them and told his crew afterwards.

In many ways, James Arthur Lovell Jr – whom Pete Conrad had nicknamed ‘Shaky’ for his bubbling stores of nervous energy – was virtually Borman’s twin. Both were born within two weeks of each other, both held equivalent ranks within different services, both were fair-haired and blue-eyed and both were selected as astronaut candidates together. Lovell was born on 25 March 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio and his fascination with rockets, like Borman’s with aviation, manifested itself at a young age. In his book on the Apollo 13 mission, co-authored with Jeffrey Kluger, Lovell recounted sheepishly visiting a chemical supplier in Chicago one day in the spring of 1945 to buy chemicals with which he and two school friends could build a rocket for their science project. Despite the boys’ admonitions over wanting to create a liquid-fuelled device, like those of Robert Goddard and Hermann Oberth,


Frank Borman performs a visual acuity test during Gemini VII.

their teacher guided them instead towards a solid-propelled one, loaded with potassium nitrate, sulphur and charcoal. Days later, after packing the gunpowder ingredients into a shell of cardboard tubes, a wooden nosecone and a set of fins, the boys took their rocket into a field, lit the fuse and ran like hell.

“Crouching with his friends,” Lovell wrote in third-person narrative about his exploits, “he watched agape as the rocket he had just ignited smouldered for an instant, hissed promisingly and, to the astonishment of the three boys, leapt from the ground. Trailing smoke, it zigzagged into the air, climbing about 80 feet before it wobbled ominously, took a sharp and surprising turn, and with a loud crack exploded in a splendid suicide.”

Lovell’s interest in the workings and possibilities of such projectiles eclipsed that of his two friends, who regarded this as little more than a lark, but his family situation made it unrealistic to hope that a career in rocketry was within his grasp. The Lovells had moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when he was a young boy and his father’s death in a 1940 car accident placed enormous pressure on his mother to make ends meet. The military and, in particular, the Navy, seemed an attractive alternative. (Lovell’s uncle, in fact, had been one of world’s earliest naval aviators during the First World War.) He was accepted, eventually, into the Navy, which offered to pay for two years of an undergraduate degree, provide initial flight

training and six months of active sea duty. Lovell jumped at the chance and, within months, was registered as an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He would complete his studies in 1952, receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Whilst at the academy, he met Marilyn Gerlach, whom he married barely three hours after his graduation ceremony… and who had typed up his carefully – prepared thesis on liquid-fuelled rocketry. Flight training consumed much of the next two years, after which Lovell was attached to Composite Squadron Three, based in San Francisco, whose speciality included nighttime takeoffs and landings on aircraft carriers at the height of the Korean conflict. Several months later, he was flying F-2H Banshee jets from the Shangri-La aircraft carrier over the Sea of Japan, routinely swooping in to land on its deck. On one occasion, however, a routine flight went seriously wrong. Moreover, the flight was his first mission in darkness.

The only means of determining where the carrier was at night, Lovell wrote, was a beamed, 518-kilocycle signal from the Shangri-La, which allowed the Banshee’s automatic direction finders to guide him home. However, poor weather forced the ship to cancel the mission of Lovell, his teammates Bill Knutson and Daren Hillery and their group leader Dan Klinger; in fact, Klinger had not even left the deck of the Shangri-La when the flight was terminated. Unfortunately for Lovell, his direction finder had picked up the signal of a tracking station on the Japanese coast – which also happened to be transmitting at 518 kilocycles – and, far from guiding him back to the Shangri-La, was actually taking him further away. Around him, he saw nothing but a “bowl of blackness’’.

Perhaps the homing frequencies had changed, Lovell thought. At once, he turned to the list of frequencies on his kneeboard, but upon switching on his small, jury – rigged reading light, “there was a brilliant flicker – the unmistakable sign of an overloaded circuit shorting itself out – and instantly, every bulb on the instrument panel and in the cockpit went dead’’. His options seemed dire: ask the Shangri-La to switch its lights on, which was hardly advisable and would prove hugely embarrassing, or ditch in the icy sea. Then, in a story repeated by Tom Hanks, who played Lovell in the 1995 movie ‘Apollo 13’, he saw a faint greenish glow, like a vast ‘carpet’, stretching out below and ahead of him. It was the phosphorescent algae churned up in the Shangri-La’s wake and it guided him back to the company of his two wingmen, Knutson and Hillery, and a safe, though hard, landing which he later described as ‘‘a spine-compressing thud’’.

For his efforts, the sweat-drenched Lovell was given a small bottle of brandy, downed in a single gulp, and the opportunity to fly his next nocturnal mission. . . the very next night. This time, thankfully, his automatic direction finder behaved flawlessly. Eventually, he accumulated no fewer than 107 carrier landings and became an instructor in the FJ-4 Fury, F-8U Crusader and F-3H Demon jets, before moving to the Navy’s Test Pilot School at Patuxent River. He graduated first in his class, ahead of Wally Schirra and Pete Conrad. Less than two years later, in early 1959, he was one of 110 military test pilots ordered to attend a classified briefing in Washington, DC. Like Conrad, he would be turned down for Project Mercury, but secured admission into the exalted ranks of NASA’s astronaut corps, together with Frank Borman, in September 1962.


Five days before See and Bassett were killed in St Louis, the AMU was delivered to Cape Kennedy for testing. Initial inspections were worrisome: with nitrogen pressurant leaks from its propulsion system and oxygen leaks from its integral life – support unit. However, by mid-March, engineers had rectified these glitches and the rocket armchair was once more on track for Gemini IX’s launch, planned for 17 May 1966. Right from the start, in terms of complexity, its three days aloft would mark a quantum leap even over the ambitious Gemini VIII.

Newly bumped from backup to prime crew, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan would tackle a flight that even an internal NASA memo had dubbed “really exciting” and which, if successful, would generate “experience one would not ordinarily expect to get in less than three missions”. Key tasks, aside from the lengthy EVA, would be a simulation, using the Agena, of how an Apollo command and service module would rendezvous and dock with the lunar module. Stafford and Cernan would then fire the Agena’s main engine to boost themselves into a higher orbit. After the completion of the Agena rendezvous activities, Cernan would perform his spacewalk.

On 2 March, the Gemini IX spacecraft – which had so narrowly avoided destruction on the factory floor of McDonnell’s Building 101 – was shipped to Cape Kennedy and its Titan II rocket was erected at Pad 19 three weeks later. By the end of the month, the spacecraft had been attached to the tip of the Titan and electrical and mechanical compatibility tests got underway in anticipation of the mid-May launch. Elsewhere at the Cape, the Atlas booster which would be used to loft Stafford and Cernan’s Agena into orbit was installed on Pad 14. By early May, the Agena itself, tailnumbered ‘5004’, had arrived at the launch complex and was mated to the Atlas.

In the small hours of 17 May, Flight Director Gene Kranz arrived at his console to oversee the launches of the Atlas-Agena and, 99 minutes later, of Gemini IX. Meanwhile, in the crew quarters at Cape Kennedy, Stafford and Cernan were awakened, underwent standard medical checks and sat down to breakfast with Deke Slayton and Al Shepard. In his autobiography, Cernan would recount keeping ‘‘a stone face, all business, but butterflies stirred in my stomach’’. He strung a religious medal around his neck, bearing a silver disk with the image of Our Lady of Loreto and the legend ‘Patroness of Aviation, Pray for Me’, then settled into a couch to have his biosensors and space suit fitted.

The heightened sense of anxiety was not helped when Slayton took Stafford aside for a private ‘word’; Cernan would not learn until later what their conversation had been about. It was a conversation that Slayton would have with many a Gemini command pilot whose mission featured an EVA. Cernan’s spacewalk would be an exceptionally dangerous one, Slayton told Stafford, and if something went wrong and he was unable to get back inside Gemini IX, NASA could ill-afford to have a dead astronaut floating in orbit. In such a dire situation, somehow, Stafford would have to bring Cernan’s corpse back to Earth.

In his autobiography, Stafford recalled staring at Slayton in astonishment. ‘‘To bring him back,’’ he wrote, ‘‘the hatch is going to be left partially open because the attachment point for the umbilical is inside the spacecraft near the attitude hand controller.” Such an awkward re-entry would not be survivable. In reality, he told Slayton, when the explosive bolts blew at the base of the Titan, signalling liftoff, it was Stafford, as Gemini IX’s command pilot, who would call the shots and make the difficult decisions if something should go wrong.

Cernan also knew that the only realistic option for Stafford would be to cut him loose, close the hatch and return to Earth alone. He understood the risks equally as well as Stafford and Slayton. ‘‘I knew Tom would be unable to pull me back inside if I couldn’t get myself out of trouble,’’ he wrote. ‘‘He would work like the devil to rescue me, but eventually would have to abandon me. We both knew it.’’

Slayton would have a similar conversation a few weeks later with Gemini X’s command pilot, John Young, and would receive a similar reception. ‘‘There was no way,’’ Young recounted in a 1996 interview, ‘‘if anything happened to somebody going outside a Gemini that you could get them back in.’’ The seat was too narrow and it was impossible for the command pilot to reach over and pull an inflated, rigidised space suit with an immobile person inside back into the right-hand seat with enough overhead clearance to close the hatch. It is more than fortunate, therefore, that such an eventuality never came to pass.

By the time Stafford and Cernan arrived at Pad 19 and were strapped inside their spacecraft, all eyes were on the impending Atlas-Agena launch and a fervent hope pervaded the Cape that there would be no repeat of the Gemini VI debacle. All seemed to be going well and, at precisely 10:12 am, the rocket thundered aloft. Aboard Gemini IX, Stafford and Cernan were exuberant as the final hurdle before their own launch at 11:51 am was cleared… or so it seemed.

One hundred and twenty seconds after liftoff, wrote Cernan, ‘‘one of the two main engines on the Atlas went weird’’. The No. 2 engine wobbled, then inexplicably gimballed into a full-pitchdown position, spinning the entire rocket into an uncontrollable tumble. All attempts by the rocket’s stabilisation system to correct the problem were useless. Ten seconds later, as intended, the engines shut down and the needle-like Agena separated on time, but, Cernan continued, ‘‘it was too late, too low, too fast and all wrong’’. So wrong, in fact, that the 216-degree pitchdown had effectively pointed the Agena back towards Cape Kennedy, with a climbing angle just 13 degrees above horizontal. Worse yet, guidance was lost and the Agena plopped into the Atlantic, 198 km off the Cape, at 10:19 am.

Thirteen million dollars’ worth of hardware was gone, all the result, it later became clear, of a short in a servo control circuit. Atop the Titan on Pad 19,

Stafford’s first reaction, understandably, was “aw, shit”, as the second Atlas-Agena of his astronaut career vanished. He and Cernan quickly inserted the safety pins back into their ejection seats’ safe-and-arm devices and Guenter Wendt’s team began the laborious process of extracting them from the spacecraft. Despite the disappointment, good fortune glimmered on the horizon. Gemini IX would still fly its mission, thanks to a decision made late the previous year.

A rendezvous with Gemini VIII’s Agena was out of the question, since its orbit had not decayed sufficiently to be reachable by Stafford and Cernan. However, late in 1965, following the loss of Gemini VI’s Agena, NASA had ordered General Dynamics to furnish a backup Atlas. In response, McDonnell prepared an alternate rendezvous vehicle, known as the Augmented Target Docking Adaptor, or ATDA. It had to be ready, the agency stipulated, within two weeks of an accident and ongoing Agena engine problems brought it close to being used on Gemini VIII. Early in February 1966, the ATDA arrived at Cape Kennedy and was placed into storage for the very eventuality that NASA now faced with Gemini IX. Within hours of the failure, NASA formally approved the use of the ATDA and its Atlas, tailnumbered ‘5304’, for launch on the first day of June.

The tube-shaped ATDA, nicknamed ‘The Blob’ by the astronauts, looked very much like the Agena from the front and possessed a docking collar covered by a fibreglass cone; the latter was to be jettisoned shortly after arrival in orbit. Unfortunately, the ATDA did not have the Agena’s rear fuel tanks and powerful rocket engine, just two rings of thrusters to help with rendezvous and proximity operations. To ensure that the ATDA’s Atlas did not succumb to a similar failure, the cause of the 17 May mishap had to be pinpointed. Within a week, it was clear that a pinched wire in the autopilot had been responsible for the short circuit, necessitating additional work on the rocket’s electrical connectors.

Following a brief return to Houston for additional simulator training, Stafford and Cernan were back in Florida in good time for the 1 June launch attempt. Nothing would stop them this time: even if the ATDA and its Atlas were lost, they intended to use the final stage of their Titan as a rendezvous target. Shortly after five that morning, they were awakened to black clouds and the knowledge that Hurricane Alma brewed somewhere in the distance. The weather had little impact on the proceedings. At 10:00 am, the Atlas lumbered off Pad 14 and within six minutes had inserted The Blob almost perfectly into a 298 km orbit. ‘Almost’ perfectly, that is, because telemetry data quickly indicated that the cone covering The Blob’s docking collar had only partially opened and had failed to separate.

A brief conference confirmed that this problem was not insurmountable and the newly-renamed Gemini IX-A remained on schedule. Stafford and Cernan had a six – minute ‘window’, between 11:38 and 11:44 am, to launch, after which they would rendezvous with The Blob on their third orbit and dock high above the United States. (Conducting rendezvous progressively ‘earlier’ in a mission was deemed to offer the closest analogue for lunar orbital rendezvous operations.) A glitch in the Gemini’s inertial guidance system halted the proceedings, setting them three minutes behind schedule in an already-tight countdown. Finally, when it could not be rectified in time, the launch was scrubbed.

Another attempt could not be made until at least 3 June, giving technicians sufficient time to refuel the Titan, check the computers and identify and resolve the glitch. Launch on the 3rd would be scheduled for 8:39:50 am, precisely timed as The Blob hurtled directly above the Cape. That morning, the two astronauts again headed for their spacecraft, Stafford in no mood for humour, having already been nicknamed ‘The Mayor’ of Pad 19 because he had spent so much time there over the past eight months. Cernan wondered, indeed, if Stafford was jinxed. ‘‘I straightened him out,’’ Stafford recounted in his autobiography. ‘‘Schirra and Cernan were the jinxes. I was fine!’’

Some of the pad personnel still could not resist, however, hanging a large sign on the door to the gantry elevator which read ‘Tom and Gene: Notice the ‘down’ capability for this elevator has been removed. Let’s have a good flight.’ Stafford and Cernan’s backups, Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin, had even composed and hung their own poetic verse over the Gemini’s hatches. It read: ‘We were kidding before / But not anymore / Get your… uh … selves into space / Or we’ll take your place’. Humour aside, Cernan later wrote, ‘‘it would be a cold day in hell before Buzz Aldrin flew as the pilot of Gemini IX instead of me’’.

The potential for another glitch reared its head in the closing minutes when mission controllers transmitted a final update to the inertial guidance system and it again refused to respond. This time, however, it was decided to override it with another successfully-received trajectory update from 15 minutes earlier. Cernan described the liftoff as ‘‘just… different’’ and nothing at all like he expected it to be. ‘‘I sensed movement,’’ he wrote in his autobiography, ‘‘a feeling of slow pulsation and then heard a low, grinding rumble as that big rocket started to lift away from Earth in agonisingly slow motion.’’

That slow-motion start quickly gave way to the increasing sensation of tremendous speed as the Titan headed away from the Cape and thrust Stafford and Cernan, both gritting their teeth, towards orbit. As he saw and felt things never experienced before, Cernan wished he were a poet and could adequately describe what was happening. Eight minutes after launch, hurtling through the high atmosphere under the push of the rocket’s second stage, the astronauts found talking was restricted to grunting as 7.5 G imposed huge pressures on their lungs.

That sensation was soon replaced, when the second stage shut down, by one that Cernan had never known before: the onset of zero gravity. ‘‘A few nuts and bolts left behind by workers oozed out of their hiding places,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Dust particles and a piece of string did a slow dance before my nose. My hands drifted up in the weightlessness and my legs, wrapped in those metal pants, became featherlight.’’ Glancing through his tiny window, Cernan beheld the unmistakable shape of Africa, speckled with white clouds, and a distant glint of ocean. There was little time to gawp. He and Stafford had a date with an alligator.


Within days of the publication of Floyd Thompson’s damning report into the Apollo 1 fire, the first efforts were implemented to fulfil its recommendations. Of paramount importance was the redesign of the hatch, which would change from a complex two – piece device into a ‘unified’ single section. Although it was heavier than the hatch which had prevented Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee from escaping the inferno of Spacecraft 012, it could be opened in as little as five seconds and had a manual release for either internal or external operation. At the same time, fire and safety precautions were upgraded at Cape Kennedy and a slidewire was added to Pad 34’s service structure to allow crews to rapidly descend to ground level.

By the beginning of May 1967, a sense pervaded NASA and North American that the first steps to recover from the fire were underway; so much so that George Mueller proposed an unmanned test flight of the gigantic Saturn V lunar rocket as soon as possible. A crewless demonstration of the improved Apollo system was definitely needed and, utilising a command and service module combo known as ‘Spacecraft 017’, was pencilled-in for the early autumn of that year. By that time, four manned missions had also been timetabled, one featuring the command and service module on its own, the other three inclusive of the lunar module, after which an attempt to actually touch down on the Moon might go ahead. Certainly, Time magazine told its readers on 19 May that unmanned Apollos were scheduled for September, October and December, followed by an inaugural manned mission in March 1968. NASA Headquarters were even more optimistic. Some managers suggested that a lunar landing could occur on the fourth manned Apollo flight, but their counterparts in Houston expressed more caution. Chris Kraft, for one, had warned George Low, who replaced Joe Shea to head the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, that a lunar landing should not be attempted ‘‘on the first flight which leaves the Earth’s gravitational field’’.

Others, including Mueller, wanted to skip the flight of a manned command and service module in Earth orbit entirely and press on with a complete ‘all-up’ test of the entire Apollo combination, including the lunar module. ‘‘Bob Gilruth got in the way of this one,’’ wrote Deke Slayton. ‘‘For one thing, the Apollo CSM was a sufficiently complex piece of machinery that it needed a shakedown flight of its own. Why try to test two manned vehicles for the first time at the same time? We thought a CSM-only flight was the way to go before the fire and nothing we were going to learn was likely to change that.” Moreover, the lunar module itself was running months behind schedule and a manned flight was not anticipated until at least the end of 1968. Mueller was finally persuaded to accept a command and service module flight in Earth orbit for the first manned Apollo mission.

Despite the increased optimism, concerns remained. The schedule for the first unmanned Apollo test atop the Saturn V – designated ‘Apollo 4’ or ‘Apollo-Saturn 501’ (AS-501) – was extremely tight. In particular, the Saturn’s S-II second stage had undergone a difficult year of testing in 1966. Nonetheless, at the stroke of 7:00 am on

9 November 1967, the entire Cape Kennedy area received a jolt when the five F-1 engines of the Saturn V ignited with what Brooks, Grimwood and Swenson later described as ‘‘a man-made earthquake and shockwave… the question was not whether the Saturn V had risen, but whether Florida had sunk!’’ Deke Slayton, who had come to the Cape to watch the behemoth fly, later recounted that he had ‘‘seen a lot of launches… but nothing was ever as impressive as that first Saturn V. It just rose with naked power, lots of noise and light’’. Fellow astronaut Tom Stafford, also there, commented that Walter Cronkite’s CBS News trailer almost shook itself to pieces. ‘‘Suddenly,’’ added Mike Collins, ‘‘you realise the meaning of 7.5 million pounds of thrust – it can make the Cape Kennedy sand vibrate under your feet at a distance of four miles… ’’

The merest mention of the name ‘Saturn V’ implies power. From a height, weight and payload-to-orbit standpoint, it remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status, although the Soviet Union’s short-lived Energia had slightly more thrust at liftoff. It evolved from a series of rockets, originally dubbed the Saturn ‘C-1’ through ‘C-5’, of which NASA announced its intent to build the latter in January 1962. It would be, the agency revealed, a three-stage launcher with five F-1 engines on its first stage, five Rocketdyne-built J-2 engines on its second stage and a single J-2 on its third stage. These engines, when tested, had shattered the windows of nearby houses. It would be capable of delivering up to 118,000 kg into low-Earth orbit or up to 41,000 kg into lunar orbit. Early in 1963, the C-5 received a new name: Saturn V.

When a mockup of the rocket was rolled out to Pad 39A at Cape Kennedy on 25 May 1966, it amply demonstrated its colossal proportions. It stood 110.6 m tall and

10 m wide, only a few centimetres shorter than St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It comprised an S-IC first stage, an S-II second stage and was topped by the S-IVB which would be restarted in space to boost the Apollo spacecraft towards the Moon on a so-called ‘translunar injection’ (TLI) burn. All three stages used liquid oxygen as an oxidiser. Fuel for the first stage was the RP-1 form of refined kerosene, while the S-II and S-IVB utilised liquid hydrogen. Eighty-nine truckloads of liquid oxygen and 28 of liquid hydrogen, together with 27 railcars filled with RP-1, were needed to fuel the Saturn V.

The S-IC first stage, built by Boeing, was 42 m tall and its five F-1 engines, arranged in a cross pattern, produced over 3.4 million kg of thrust to lift the Saturn to an altitude of 61 km. The four ‘outboard’ engines could be gimballed for steering during flight, whilst the centre one was fixed. The S-II, built by North American, was

Spectacular panoramic view of the Cape Kennedy landscape as ‘Moon-fever’ gripped NASA in mid-1966. Clearly visible are a Saturn Y test vehicle, the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the Launch Control Center (LCC).

25 m tall and would make history as the largest cryogenic-fuelled rocket stage ever built. Finally, the Douglas Aircraft Company’s 17.85 m-tall S-IVB would be used to place the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit, then restart a couple of hours later for a six-and-a-half-minute-long TLI burn. It also provided a ‘garage’ to house the lunar module.

The Apollo 4 spacecraft was an old Block 1 with many features of the upgraded Block 2 design, including an improved heat shield and the new unified hatch. The aim of its mission was to evaluate its structural integrity, its compatibility with the Saturn V and its ability to enter an elliptical orbit and re-enter the atmosphere to land in the Pacific. The mission ran perfectly: the Saturn V boosted the spacecraft into a 185 km parking orbit and, after two circuits of the globe, for the first time, its S-IVB third stage restarted to propel Apollo 4 to an apogee of more than 17,000 km. Next, the service module’s SPS engine ignited, sending the spacecraft out to 18,000 km for a four-and-a-half-hour-long ‘soak’ in the little-known radiation and temperature environment of deep space. In doing so, Apollo 4 dipped its toe into the conditions that astronauts would one day experience as they traversed the 370,000 km translunar gulf.

Finally, with the command module’s nose pointed Earthward, the SPS fired a second time to bring it home. The service module separated and the command module hit the upper atmosphere, just as it would on a lunar return, at 40,000 km/h. Nine hours after its launch, Apollo 4 hit the waves of the Pacific, near Hawaii, just 16 km from the primary recovery ship Bennington. As successful as the mission had been, a long road remained before an actual lunar landing could be accomplished. Certainly, an additional uncrewed flight was highly desirable to many within NASA, providing further confirmatory data that the enormous rocket was capable of delivering men safely to the Moon. One crucial vehicle which still needed an ‘all-up’ performance test was Grumman’s lunar module, the first flight-ready version of which – designated ‘LM-1’ – was delivered to Cape Kennedy, three months late, at the end of June 1967.

By a strange twist, Apollo 5, which would consist solely of the lunar module, with no command and service module aboard, was assigned the Saturn 1B originally meant to carry Gus Grissom’s crew into orbit. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, it had been destacked from Pad 34, checked for corrosion or damage and finally restacked on Pad 37 on 12 April 1967. With the lunar module installed in its nose, the 55 m rocket looked unusual, ‘stubby’ even, since it lacked the command and service modules and an escape tower. The LM-1, encased in the final stage of the Saturn, had an incomplete environmental control system and was not fitted with landing gear, since it was destined to burn up during re-entry into the atmosphere.

Loading propellants aboard the rocket proved troublesome, mainly due to procedural difficulties and minor irritations such as clogged filters and ground support equipment glitches, but a simulated launch demonstration ended success­fully on 19 January 1968. Three days later, at 5:48 pm, Apollo 5 set off and was inserted perfectly into orbit. Forty-five minutes into the flight, LM-1’s attitude control thrusters pushed it away from the S-IVB and a lengthy checkout of its systems began. Two orbits later, its TRW-built descent engine – the world’s first-ever

The legless Apollo 5 lunar module is prepared for flight.

throttleable rocket, capable of slowing it down for landing on the Moon – was fired for 38 seconds, but was ended abruptly by the lunar module’s guidance system when it sensed the vehicle had not accelerated fast enough. In response to the cutoff, flight controllers moved to an alternate plan: firing the descent engine on two further occasions, then igniting the ascent engine. With all primary tests done, LM-1 re­entered the atmosphere to destruction and its remains plunged into the Pacific, several hundred kilometres south-west of Guam, on 12 February. So successful, in fact, was Apollo 5 that a further unmanned test of the lunar module was considered unnecessary. Its next flight, atop the Saturn V, would be carried out with a crew aboard.

However, the lander still had many problems of its own. The instability of its Bell – built ascent engine, in particular, caused concern throughout 1967 and for much of 1968. Although both George Mueller and Sam Phillips felt that Bell had a good chance of solving the engine’s fuel-injector problems, the agency nevertheless hired Rocketdyne to develop an alternate device. Despite difficulties in both cases,

Rocketdyne was ultimately chosen to outfit the lunar module’s fuel injector. Other problems with the bug-like lander included windows blown out and fractured during high-temperature tests, broken wiring and stress corrosion cracks in its aluminium structural members; the latter led to the formation of a team to identify the cause and implement corrective actions. Grumman analysed more than 1,400 components and heavier alloys were employed for newer sections of the lunar module. Weight, too, posed an issue. In 1965, more than 1,100 kg had been shaved from the lunar module and NASA even offered incentives to Grumman to remove yet more unwanted bulk. The LM-1 flight had been good enough for NASA to cancel an unmanned LM-2 test, but LM-3 – the first mission to fly manned – would not be ready until at least the end of 1968.

Meanwhile, the performance of the Saturn V on the Apollo 4 mission fired up hopes that it could soon be entrusted with a human crew. Nonetheless, another test flight, that of Apollo 6, was still required … and rightly so, for the rocket’s second mission, AS-502, almost ended in a disaster. On 13 March 1967, the S-fC first stage arrived at Cape Kennedy and, inside the cavernous interior of the Vehicle Assembly Building, was mated to its S-ff second stage in May. By February of the following year, topped by the S-fVB third stage and the Apollo 6 command and service module, it was rolled into wind-driven rain towards its destination: Pad 39A, today revered as one of the most famous and historic launch platforms in the world. Despite communications difficulties, which forced a two-hour halt, the stack arrived at the pad at 6:00 pm.

Aside from being a second unmanned test of the Saturn V, the Apollo 6 mission would put Spacecraft 020 through its paces on the final flight of the command and service modules before a human crew headed aloft on Apollo 7. Originally scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 1968, the flight was postponed several times. First, the tank ‘skirt’ on another service module split during structural tests, prompting an inspection and restrengthening of Apollo 6 to prevent a similar problem. Next, after rollout to the pad, water seepage was detected in the Saturn V’s S-ff second stage and some parts had to be replaced. Eventually, at 7:00 am on 4 April, the rocket thundered into the heavens, seemingly with perfection. . . and then, things began to go wrong.

Throughout the first two minutes of its climb, the five F-1 engines burned steadily and normally, then experienced thrust fluctuations which caused the entire rocket to oscillate longitudinally like a pogo stick for around 30 seconds. Low-frequency modulations were recorded in the Apollo 6 command module, exceeding design criteria, but otherwise the first stage completed its work. However, the time soon came for the S-ff second stage to exhibit problems: two of its five J-2 engines suddenly stopped, four minutes into a six-minute firing, requiring the others to burn for 59 seconds longer than planned to compensate for the abrupt power loss. The rocket did not tumble and explode, however, because the failed J-2s were adjacent to one another and the Saturn survived by gimballing its remaining ‘good’ engines. Still, the second stage did not achieve its desired velocity and ended up at a higher altitude than it should before its fuel was exhausted.

This meant that the S-fVB had to burn for correspondingly longer. ft ‘‘was

confusing to the computer guiding the S-IVB,” wrote Deke Slayton, “which realised it was higher than it should be… and slower. So while it added 29 seconds to the burn, it actually pointed itself down toward the centre of the Earth.” At length, after a difficult ascent in which the S-IVB pitched itself back upwards and entered orbit firing backwards, Apollo 6 was inserted into a wild 178-367 km elliptical orbit, instead of a 160 km circular path. The Saturn’s troubles, though, were still not over. An attempt to restart the S-IVB – just as it would be required to do in order to boost Apollo crews toward the Moon – failed when the third stage refused to ignite. “If this had been a manned flight,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, “the escape tower on the Apollo would have been commanded to fire, pulling the spacecraft away from the Saturn for a parachute landing in the Atlantic.’’

An ‘alternate’ mission was now inevitable and the command and service module were duly separated from the S-IVB and the SPS engine burned for seven minutes, simulating a TLI manoeuvre and pushing the apogee of Apollo 6’s looping elliptical orbit to 22,200 km. This gave it enough altitude to mimic a lunar-type return, but not enough velocity, and it splashed down in the Pacific, missing its impact point by 80 km. Ten hours after launch, the command module was hauled aboard the amphibious assault ship Okinawa. Despite a NASA press release which declared that preliminary data indicated the spacecraft had done its job well, many felt that, overall, the mission had not been a success. The Saturn V might need a third unmanned test before it could be flown with astronauts aboard.

In fact, pogo effects had been observed, to a lesser extent, during the Apollo 4 launch and its apparent cause was traced to a partial vacuum created in the fuel and oxidiser suction lines by the rocket engines. The condition, wrote Brooks, Grimwood and Swenson, produced a hydraulic resonance; in effect, the engine ‘skipped’ when bubbles caused by the partial vacuum reached the firing chamber. Engineers later determined that two of the Saturn V’s engines had been inadvertently tuned to the same frequency, which probably made the problem worse. In future, all clustered engines were tuned to different frequencies to prevent any two or more of them from pulling the rocket off-balance and changing its trajectory.

As part of efforts to rectify the issue, Rocketdyne began retesting the F-1 engine in late May, injecting helium into the liquid oxygen feed lines to interrupt the resonating frequencies which had caused the unacceptable vibration levels. In four of the six tests, the ‘cure’ proved worse than the ‘disease’, by making the oscillations more pronounced. Attempts at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, used the same technique, but produced quite different results; no oscillations were observed. Elsewhere, the cause of the J-2 failures proved more of a mystery. During tests, engineers discovered that frost forming on propellant lines when the engines fired at ground temperatures served as an extra protection against the fuel lines rupturing. However, frosting did not take place in the vacuum of space, pointing at a possible cause of the failure. The chances of American bootprints on the Moon before the end of 1969, it seemed, was still very much touch-and-go.


Since their assignment as Gemini Vll’s prime crew on 1 July 1965, Borman and Lovell had been intensely focused on their primary objective: to spend 14 days – a total of 330 hours – in space, thereby demonstrating that astronauts could physically and psychologically withstand a maximum-length trip to the Moon. The results from the two previous long-duration flights, Gemini IV and V, had been mixed. Jim McDivitt and Ed White had returned fatigued after four days, while Cooper and Conrad had hardly enjoyed their eight days sitting in an area the size of the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. Sleeping in shifts of four or five hours apiece had proven impractical, Borman and Lovell learned, so they resolved to sleep and work together. Moreover, they felt that their ‘work’ time would not benefit from a rigid plan, opting instead for a broader outline which they could adapt in orbit.

Their ‘days’ would consist of two work sessions, roughly coinciding with Houston’s ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’ time zone and fitting in well with the three flight control shifts which would monitor Gemini VII. Storage space, not just for experiments and equipment, but also for foodstuffs, was at a premium. To make the best use of this space, Kenny Kleinknecht accompanied the astronauts to McDonnell’s St Louis plant and decided that waste paper from meals could be kept behind Borman’s seat for the first week and behind Lovell’s for the second.

Suits proved another concern. Several months before, McDonnell had begun an effort to determine if ordinary Air Force flight garments – wired with medical monitoring equipment, communications headsets and oxygen bottles – could be worn as a lighter, more comfortable alternative to the bulky pressure ensembles. In fact, astronauts Gordo Cooper and Elliot See had tested such suits in June 1965 at a simulated 36,000 m in the altitude chamber, with positive results. Then, in July, McDonnell engineer James Correale suggested a lightweight suit akin to Gemini 3’s G3C garment. It would not allow astronauts to continue a mission if the cabin lost pressure, but would provide them with enough margin of safety to get to a recovery area. Of course, from an environmental-control point of view, Gemini operated more efficiently with suits off, but neither NASA nor McDonnell was keen to leave them so vulnerable.

Work on Correale’s suit was begun by the David Clark Company in August, with engineers removing as much ‘corsetry’ as possible from the 10.7 kg ensemble. Replacing its fibreglass helmet was a soft cloth hood, which utilised zips rather than a neck ring to attach it to the torso, and the entire suit could be removed easily and laid on the sides of the Gemini seats, without having to be stowed away. When complete, it weighed some 7.3 kg. It would be removed no sooner than the second day of the mission, to allow time for Gemini VII’s life-support systems to be monitored and verified as satisfactory. However, it would be worn during critical phases such as rendezvous, re-entry and splashdown. The suits were delivered in

November, only a few days before Borman and Lovell were due to launch.

Also ready was one of the largest complements of experiments – primarily medical ones – ever carried aloft. Of the 20 investigations, eight would focus on the physical and physiological responses of the two men. They ranged from calcium-balance studies to in-flight sleep analysis with a portable electroencephalogram to examining the effects of spaceflight on the chemistry of body fluids. (For the EEG, Borman would have two spots shaved on his head and dipilatory rubbed on to accommodate its sensors. Lovell was not involved in this experiment.) They had to closely monitor and keep records of their food and liquid intakes, and ‘outputs’, not only throughout their time in orbit, but also for nine days before launch and four days after splashdown. Their meals were prepared and weighed, gram by gram, by a nutritionist from the National Institutes of Health. Nine experiments were reflights from McDivitt’s and Cooper’s missions, plus three new ones: an in-flight transmitter to be aimed at a laser beacon at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to evaluate optical communications, together with landmark-contrast measurements of shorelines and a study of the usefulness of stellar occultations for navigation.

Although Gemini VII would primarily serve as a passive rendezvous target, the spacecraft itself needed some last-minute modifications to support its ‘extra’ mission. In early November, acquisition and orientation lights, a radar transponder, a spiral antenna and a voltage booster were installed. Further, the decision to fly a joint mission with Gemini VI-A reduced the amount of fuel that Borman and Lovell could use for experiments and station-keeping.


Following insertion into a 158 x 267 km orbit, Gemini IX-A’s computers set to work determining the rendezvous flight path. Forty-nine minutes into the mission, an inaugural manoeuvre raised their perigee to 232 km, prompting Cernan to remark that he “felt that one, Tom!” A second firing corrected phase, height and out-of­plane errors and established them in an orbit of 274 x 276 km, after which they checked their spacecraft’s systems and stowage lists, removed their helmets and gloves and readied cameras for the rendezvous ahead.

The astronauts acquired their first spotty radar readings at a distance of 240 km from The Blob and had a solid ‘lock’ at 222 km. This led to visible relief on the part of the radar’s Westinghouse builders, who had worried that the unstabilised ATDA and its changing radar reflectivity would cause its acquisition to wobble. Three hours and 20 minutes after launch, the astronauts were rewarded with their first glimpse of the target – now just 93 km away – and as they drew closer saw its flashing acquisition lights. Thinking that the shroud must have jettisoned successfully (the lights could not be seen otherwise), Stafford began slowing Gemini IX-A’s approach profile… and the reality became clear: the shroud was actually gaping half-open, like an enormous pair of jaws. ‘‘It looks,’’ he told Mission Control, ‘‘like an angry alligator.’’

Initial hopes that he might be able to nudge it with his spacecraft’s nose to fully open the jaws were rejected as too risky by Flight Director Gene Kranz and Stafford was forced instead to station-keep less than 12 m away. It was clear, he reported, that the ATDA’s explosive bolts had fired, but two neatly-taped lanyards stubbornly held the shroud in place. The high tensile strength of these lanyards made it unadvisable to nudge the jaws. Moreover, Gemini IX-A’s parachutes were housed in its nose and damaging them was unthinkable.

On the ground, at a strategy meeting that night with Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, backup pilot Buzz Aldrin suggested sending Cernan outside to manually clip the lanyards with a pair of surgical scissors. Astronauts Jim McDivitt and Dave Scott, in Los Angeles at the time, were despatched to the Douglas plant to examine a duplicate ATDA and determine if this could be done. Their consensus: it was possible, but would leave many sharp edges which could tear Cernan’s suit. Also, the tumbling of the ATDA, the almost-complete lack of spacewalking experience and the dangers of the explosive bolts holding the lanyards together posed their own risks. ‘‘Gilruth and Kraft were aghast,’’ wrote Deke Slayton and the suggestion, though not entirely outrageous, would lead to the first of many discussions about Aldrin’s suitability to fly Gemini XII.

In the meantime, efforts by controllers to tighten and relax The Blob’s docking cone, in the hope that the action might free the shroud, were unsuccessful. ‘‘That only pushed out the bottom part of the shroud,’’ wrote Cernan, ‘‘and forced the other end, which was open, to partially close. Contracting the collar had the reverse effect, and to us, it seemed that those moving jaws were opening and closing.’’ The alligator, quite literally, was laughing at their misfortune.

After the mission, it would become clear that the problem centred on the fact that the Agena, the ATDA and the shroud were built by three different organisations, namely Lockheed, McDonnell and Douglas. Before McDonnell technicians had made a final inspection on the ATDA at Cape Kennedy, a Douglas engineer had supervised a practice run, with the exception of the lanyards which controlled the electrical disconnect to the explosive bolts. In the interests of safety, the lanyards were not hooked up for the test.

Crucially, the Douglas engineer was then forced to leave to return home and tend his pregnant wife, telling his McDonnell counterpart to “secure the lanyards”. Consequently, on launch day, the McDonnell crew followed procedures published by Lockheed, which had themselves been copied from Douglas documentation. The instructions referred to a blueprint which was not present and the absence of the engineer meant that those technicians responsible for fixing the ATDA’s shroud simply wondered what to do with the dangling lanyards and decided that their best and safest bet was to tape them down. It was those taped-down lanyards which had now ruined Stafford and Cernan’s target in orbit.

Over the years, some historians have commented that having several companies managing different parts of the same vehicle was simply a classic extension of the metaphor ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ and, indeed, an investigation into the ATDA fiasco would later conclude that future simulations should be practiced completely, experienced people should remain ‘on the job’ and written instructions should be followed exactly.

In the meantime, five hours into the Gemini IX-A mission, Stafford nosed his spacecraft ‘down’ by 90 degrees and fired his forward thrusters for 35 seconds to enter an elliptical equi-period orbit with the ATDA. Simulating a failed radar, they then plotted their position with an on-board sextant, notepad and pencil, checked their results against a pre-planned chart solution and commenced a series of four manoevures to bring themselves back into a station-keeping stance with the target. It was far from easy and, wrote Cernan, represented ‘‘a bitch of an exercise that demanded unimagined mental and physical effort’’. Nonetheless, six and a half hours after launch, they were finally in the vicinity of The Blob, only to depart again shortly thereafter for a third exercise. To prepare for this, at 3:55 pm, a little over seven hours into the mission, Stafford again pulsed the OAMS thrusters to reduce speed and widen the gap between Gemini IX-A and the ATDA.

By now exhausted, the two astronauts checked their systems, took an opportunity to gobble some toothpaste-like mush of chicken and dumplings – ‘‘No crumbs that way,’’ wrote Cernan, but ‘‘not much taste, either’’ – and tried with little success to sleep. Awakened in the small hours of 4 June to begin their second day in orbit, they were almost immediately immersed in the third rendezvous: reducing the size of their orbit to again intercept the still-laughing Blob. By rendezvousing with an object ‘beneath’ them, Stafford and Cernan would mimic the procedures to be followed by an Apollo command module pilot tasked with rescuing a lunar module stuck in a low orbit around the Moon.

Phase and height adjustments, followed by an OAMS burst, placed Gemini IX-A in an orbit of 307 x 309 km and within three hours the astronauts had reduced the gap between themselves and the target to just 28 km. At this stage, by now still ‘above’ and ‘ahead’ of the ATDA, Stafford nosed 19 degrees down and yawed 180 degrees to the left. ‘‘The mental perception was that we were falling straight down to Earth,’’ Cernan recalled years later, ‘‘and we did not even see the gator until we were within three miles of it.’’ Stafford, too, later admitted to sensations of mild vertigo.


Stafford and Cernan’s first close-up glimpse of The Blob, which Tom Stafford rather appropriately nicknamed “an angry alligator’’.


Подпись: The angry alligator 345

At this point, Stafford spotted what appeared to be “a pencil dot on a sheet of paper” and would point out that, had it not been for the radar, the rendezvous would have failed. The rendezvous was completed at 6:21 am and Stafford and Cernan withdrew from the ATDA at 7:38 am, this time for good.

The two men felt justifiably proud: they had conducted no fewer than three rendezvous in less than a day. However, their work had taken its toll. Both were exhausted, as, indeed, was their spacecraft, whose fuel supply had dwindled from 311 kg at launch to less than 25 kg after the marathon rendezvous effort. Ahead, later on 4 June, lay Cernan’s spacewalk, but Stafford donned his command pilot’s cap and told Mission Control that the excursion should be postponed. “We’ve been busier’n left-handed paper-hangers up here,’’ he drawled. “I’m afraid it would be against my better judgement to go ahead and do the EVA at this time… Perhaps we should wait until tomorrow morning.’’ For the first time, Cernan wrote, a pair of astronauts had seemingly ‘questioned’ their duties and, although not a military organisation, some within NASA felt that they were quitting. Yet there was little doubt that Stafford and Cernan were best placed to know the situation inside their spacecraft and Capcom Neil Armstrong duly responded that their recommendation had been accepted. Armstrong would later describe Stafford’s actions as reflecting ‘‘excep­tionally good judgement’’.

As a result, the EVA was moved to 5 June and the remainder of the day was spent focusing upon Gemini IX-A’s experiments and ensuring that both men were fully rested. Stafford and Cernan’s experiment load consisted of seven tasks, one of which was a medical study to measure their reactions to stress by recording their intake and ‘output’ of bodily fluids before, during and after the mission. Codenamed ‘M-5’, it required their wastes to be collected and labelled; a complicated, tricky and messy process whose physical requirements, Stafford growled, amounted to those required for doing a rendezvous and a half.

Elsewhere, Edward Ney’s zodiacal light photography experiment was originally planned to be used during the EVA, but problems forced it to be used instead from inside Gemini IX-A. It consisted of a hand-held camera, equipped with automatic triggering, to obtain images of atmospheric airglow, the zodiacal light, the Milky Way and the celestial field. Overall, Stafford and Cernan would return home with 44 useful images, together with 160 Hasselblad terrain photographs which would prove useful in applications from geology to oceanography. The remaining experiments – including retrieving a micrometeorite collector and controlling the AMU rocket armchair – were assigned to Cernan’s spacewalk. That spacewalk, which began early on 5 June, would force managers and astronauts to rethink everything they thought they knew about extravehicular activity.


In the spring of 1968, as NASA wrung its hands over the Saturn V, the United States’ strategy of attrition in Vietnam seemed to be failing as the ongoing conflict consumed ever more hundreds of lives and President Lyndon Johnson was being pressured by his generals to commit an additional 206,000 troops to the half-million – strong military force already in south-east Asia. At the end of January, a hammer blow struck the misguided sense of complacency that the Vietcong were little more than snipers and unable to mount major co-ordinated attacks. The so-called ‘Tet Offensive’, which ran in three devastating waves until September, was intended to strike military and civilian command centres throughout South Vietnam and spark uprisings among the population. Although it ultimately proved disastrous, militarily, for the Vietcong, the offensive was so vast (countrywide) and so well-organised (involving more than 80,000 troops) that it shocked both Johnson’s failing administration and the American public. In March, citing conflict both abroad and at home, Johnson announced that he had no intention to ‘‘seek and. . . will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president’’.

Against this backdrop of self-doubt and introspection came one event which has become infamous as perhaps the most notorious act of mass murder in American military history, involved the tiny South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. There, on 16 March, at least 300 – some reports say as many as 500 – unarmed civilians, including women and children, were raped, tortured, mutilated and massacred by American troops. Excuses have been banded around over the years, that such-and-such was reaching for a grenade, for instance, or even that the South Vietnamese peasantry were seen as ‘inhuman’, but the precise reasons for My Lai have never been divulged. When it reached the ears of the world a year later, the incident sparked outrage and condemnation and strengthened already simmering public discontent over an unpopular war.

The so-called ‘Charlie Company’ who gained notoriety for the massacre had arrived in South Vietnam three months earlier, just before the January outbreak of the Tet Offensive. My Lai and several neighbouring hamlets were suspected of harbouring Vietcong fighters and the wheels of a major American offensive were quickly set in motion. It would, the commanders urged, be an aggressive assault, involving the total destruction of the hamlets, the slaughter of livestock and even the pollution of wells. On the evening before the attack, Captain Ernest Medina of Charlie Company advised his men that nearly all civilians at My Lai would have left for market by early morning and only Vietcong sympathisers or fighters would remain. Differing opinions would materialise over the years over whether Medina specifically instructed his men to slaughter women and children. . .

Certainly, upon reaching My Lai soon after dawn, no enemy fighters were found, but their presence was suspected and Lieutenant William Calley – the only military officer to be convicted of murder that day – began shooting at what he later described as a ‘‘suspected enemy position’’. Calley’s actions lit the touchpaper for the murderous rampage that followed: the soldiers began attacking anything that moved, using rifle butts, bayonets and hand grenades to summarily execute young and old alike. At one point, it was said, Calley took a weapon from a soldier who refused to kill… and used it to continue the massacre. When the bloodbath ended, My Lai was torched.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, witnessed much of this from the air and identified many of the soldiers committing the atrocities; his and others’ testimony would prove crucial when the perpetrators were brought to trial. However, the real carnage might have gone unknown had Ron Ridenhour, a former member of Charlie Company, not sent a damning letter in March 1969 to newly-inaugurated President Richard Nixon, numerous congressmen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon and the State Department, detailing the chain of events at My Lai. Eventually, in September 1969, William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder and 25 other officers were later charged with related crimes. At around the same time, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines broke the story… and public support for the Vietnam War, already on shaky ground, vanished.


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’.


Original plans, dating back to before the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, called for the Gemini IX spacewalker to spend at least two hours outside, remove the AMU from its housing at the back of the spacecraft’s adaptor and test it. He was also supposed to retrieve a micrometeorite package from the Agena, although this was scratched from the flight plan when the target ended up at the bottom of in the Atlantic on 17 May. A subsequent plan to remove a micrometeorite detector from the ATDA was also called off when it proved impossible to dock.

Still, preparations for the excursion were intense. Early on 5 June, Stafford lowered Gemini IX-A’s orbit while Cernan pulled his chest pack down from a shelf above his left shoulder, strapped it on and plugged in a 7.5 m umbilical tether which would provide him with oxygen, communications and electrical power. Years later, he would describe removing the umbilical from its container and attaching it to his suit as akin to unleashing a garden hose in a space no larger than the front seat of a car. Obviously, since the whole cabin would be reduced to vacuum, Stafford also had to be protected and both men laboriously clicked their helmet visors shut, pulled on heavy gloves and pressurised their suits until they went, in Cernan’s words, “from soft to rock-hard around our bodies’’.

Yet Cernan’s suit had much more insulation and protection than that of Stafford. “Out where I was going,’’ he wrote, “the temperature in unfiltered sunlight would be many times hotter than any desert at high noon on Earth, while the nighttime cold could freeze steel until it was as brittle as glass.’’ Approaching dawn on their 31st orbit, the men received permission to go ahead and at 10:02 am Cernan twisted the handle above his head and the huge hatch swung outwards.

Words clearly defied even the normally-chatterbox Cernan at this point as he pushed himself ‘upwards’, stood on his seat and rode “like a sightseeing bum on a boxcar’’ towards the California coastline. Hollering “hallelujah” at the top of his voice, he would later describe the glorious, ever-changing sight as like ‘‘sitting on God’s front porch’’, as orbital darkness gave way, almost instantaneously, to the first stirring of a shimmering dawn.

As was typical in space, there was little time to sightsee. With Stafford holding onto his foot to steady him, Cernan set to work positioning a 16 mm Maurer movie camera on its mounting and retrieving a nuclear emulsion package which recorded radiation levels and measured the impact of space dust. Next, he affixed a small mirror onto the docking bar on Gemini IX-A’s nose, such that Stafford could watch as he made his way towards the AMU at the rear of the spacecraft. Unlike Ed White, Cernan was not equipped with a hand-held zip-gun and he quickly set to work on his next task: to evaluate his ability to manoeuvre himself around by tugging at his snake-like tether.

It would, he wrote in his autobiography, teach him new lessons about Newton’s laws of motion. ‘‘My slightest move would affect my entire body, ripple through the umbilical and jostle the spacecraft,’’ Cernan explained. ‘‘Since I had nothing to stabilise my movements, I went out of control, tumbling every which way, and when I reached the end of the umbilical, I rebounded like a bungee jumper, and the snake reeled me in as it tried to resume its original shape.’’ As he looped around Gemini IX-A, the experience was comparable to wrestling an octopus and Cernan’s only chance at controlling his motions came when he managed to grab the tether tightly at the point at which it emerged from the hatch.

After half an hour of helplessness – and by now having broken the spacewalk


Two of the few photographs acquired during Gene Cernan’s EVA, showing the nose of Gemini IX-A, the open pilot’s hatch and the snake-like tether at left and the astronaut himself at right.


endurance times of both Alexei Leonov and Ed White – he somehow seized a handrail and pulled himself towards Gemini IX-A to rest. Clearly, he told Stafford and Mission Control, future spacewalkers would need propulsion and more handholds; otherwise they would be unable to prevent themselves from flopping around like rag dolls on the end of their tethers. Cernan’s rest break was brief: he had to reach the back of the spacecraft before the arrival of orbital dusk to checkout and strap on the AMU, exchange his oxygen umbilicals for those attached to the rocket armchair and commence the next phase of his spacewalk.

His move to the rear of Gemini IX-A was much harder than he could have anticipated. The stiff, bulky suit fought his every move and lacked the two crucial ingredients – flexibility and mobility – that he now desperately needed. Nonetheless, Cernan laboured, hand-over-hand, along a small rail, halting at times to loop his tether through tiny eyelets and thus keep it from damage. Finally, he reached the adaptor at the back of the spacecraft and, swinging himself around it, disappeared from view in Stafford’s mirror. The Sun, too, vanished as Gemini IX-A entered orbital darkness over South Africa.

Working in near-pitch blackness, Cernan flicked on a pair of lights – only one of which worked, yielding a glow little more effective than a candle – and prepared to activate the AMU. Thirty-five meticulous steps lay between him and achieving the goal of becoming the first human satellite; steps ranging from pushing buttons to opening valves and disconnecting, then reconnecting, his oxygen supply. His heart rate, which had reached 155 beats per minute when he arrived at the adaptor section, showed no signs of slowing as Cernan puzzled over why he had been able to accomplish the task with ease in a parabolic aircraft and yet the real thing was leaving him exhausted, drenched with sweat and almost blind. At last, he flipped the last switch and prepared to take the AMU on its maiden outing.

All was far from being well. A hundred minutes into the spacewalk, Cernan was scarcely able to see through his fogged-up visor – the suit’s environmental control system was struggling and failing to absorb the humidity and exhaled carbon dioxide – and his heart rate soared to 195 beats per minute. Unable to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes, he had no choice but to rub his nose on the inside of his visor just to make a ‘hole’ through which he could see. He also tried increasing the oxygen flow to his suit in a bid to clear the visor, without success.

Cernan’s lack of visibility could hardly have come at a more inappropriate time, precisely as he was completing the intricate procedure of readying the AMU to fly. At one stage, he even had to rely on the reflection in a polished metal mirror on his wrist and on his sense of touch through his thickened gloves for guidance. Merely turning knobs, without adequate leverage, was virtually impossible. So too was telescoping and folding out the AMU’s armrests – getting them extended into place was, he wrote years later, ‘‘akin to straightening wet spaghetti’’.

It was at this point that one of Gemini IX-A’s experiments – known as ‘D-14’, a UHF/VHF polarisation study – met its untimely end at Cernan’s hands. The instrument comprised an extendable antenna in the adaptor section, which had been used successfully during the first portion of the mission to measure inconsistencies of the electron field along Gemini IX-A’s flight path. The astronauts had operated it five times whilst above Hawaii and once over Antigua, but Cernan’s struggles with his suit and the AMU caused him to accidentally break it.

Eventually, after much tugging and twisting, he found success, slid onto the saddle and strapped himself into place. His next step was to disconnect himself from the tether and reconnect himself to the backpack’s life-support and communications supplies. From his position, inside the concave steel adaptor at the rear of Gemini IX-A, he temporarily lost communications with Stafford, who could barely hear Cernan’s crackled garble that he was unable to see in front of his own eyeballs. From the command pilot’s seat, Stafford was now worried for his colleague’s safety, advising Mission Control that communications had degraded and Cernan’s visibility through his visor was so poor that the AMU test was risky.

On the ground, the physicians were coming to similar conclusions: data from Cernan’s biomedical sensors clearly indicated that he was exhausted, expending energy at a rate equivalent to running up a hundred stairs per minute and his heart was pumping three times faster than normal. Cernan knew that their judgement could spell the end of his spacewalk. . . an eventuality that, as a pilot who had been training for more than six months, he had no wish to contemplate. At length, the decision was snatched out of his hands.

The onset of orbital dawn over the Pacific brought the garbled news from Stafford: “It’s a no-go… because you can’t see it now. Switch back to the spacecraft electrical umbilical.’’ The Hawaii capcom concurred with his judgement. Obviously disappointed that he had not only lost his chance to fly the AMU, but that the Air Force’s $10 million rocket armchair was destined to burn up in the atmosphere, Cernan unstrapped and clawed his way back to his hatch. To protect the interior of Gemini IX-A from solar radiation, he had left it partially closed and was now blinded by the Sun as he struggled to find it.

Finally gripping and pulling open the hatch, Cernan twisted himself and pushed his feet through the opening. Stafford manually reeled in the umbilical, then grabbed one of his suited ankles to anchor him back inside the cabin. As he tried to get back inside, Cernan inadvertently kicked the Hasselblad camera that Stafford had been using to photograph the EVA and it drifted off into space. “There went my still pictures,’’ he wrote later, “but I did retrieve the movie camera.’’

Scrunching himself painfully into his seat, still fighting against the stiffness of the suit, he quickly found that he could not close the hatch. Eventually, with Stafford’s help, the pair managed to yank it down and Cernan pumped the handle until the hatch was secure. In his autobiography, he would admit that the pain was so intense that he cried aloud – “but only Tom really knows’’ – and was close to losing consciousness. Then, as Stafford began repressurising Gemini IX-A’s cabin, Cernan felt the rigidity of the suit begin to soften and he was finally able to breathe properly and remove his helmet. The United States’ second spacewalk was over in two hours and eight agonising minutes.

Exhausted, the now-beetroot-faced Cernan was doused with weightless droplets fired by Stafford from a water pistol and strips of skin of his swollen hands tore away as he removed his gloves. He looked, wrote Stafford, “like he’d been baked in a sauna too long’’. However, with the exception of the reaction he might get from the other astronauts – had he screwed up? and would he ever fly again? – Cernan really did not care. He had endured the most traumatic spacewalk to date… and, astonishingly, had lived!

Less than a day later, at 9:00 am on 6 June, Gemini IX-A was bobbing in the Atlantic. Cernan described his first fiery re-entry through the atmosphere as “like a meteoric bat out of hell” and compared the spacecraft to having the aerodynamic characteristics of a bathtub as it plummeted Earthward. They splashed down safely just 700 m from the intended point. So close were they to their prime recovery vessel, the aircraft carrier Wasp, that they were able to offer and acknowledge thumbs-up signals. An hour after hitting the Atlantic, they and their spacecraft were safely aboard.

In his autobiography, however, Cernan would relate that their first moments after splashdown were not entirely idyllic, when rough waves and strong winds gave the impression that Gemini IX-A’s hull had been ruptured. In fact, a harder-than – anticipated landing had ruptured a drinking water line, spilling its contents into the cabin. Still, the discomfort and disappointment was sweetened by the splashdown. It was, wrote Stafford with justifiable pride, “the closest-to-target landing of any manned spacecraft in history’’ prior to the Shuttle.

Gene Cernan’s harrowing EVA would teach a harsh, yet valuable lesson to those engineers, managers and even astronauts who perceived extravehicular activity as a proverbial walk in the park. Why, some journalists asked him in the weeks that followed, was his spacewalk so difficult in comparison to Ed White’s graceful stroll? The key differences, of course, were that White had been equipped with a hand-held propulsion device and that, other than floating around, he was not actually given any specific tasks.

Yet Cernan’s problems – the shortcomings of his suit’s environmental controls, the fogging of his visor, the difficulties encountered when getting back into the spacecraft, the need for handholds, the impossibility of moving without a propulsion device – highlighted an urgent need for such issues to be rectified before the closure of the Gemini chapter in November 1966. Apollo managers, then hard at work preparing for the first flight of their spacecraft in the fourth quarter of 1966, also took heed: future Moonwalkers could not operate on the lunar surface for many hours under such life-threatening conditions. It is quite remarkable, therefore, that by the time Cernan’s backup, Buzz Aldrin, completed his own EVAs on Gemini XII, the problems would have been virtually resolved.