Category Escaping the Bonds of Earth


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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