THREE HUNDRED HOURS IN SPACE
Since their assignment as Gemini Vll’s prime crew on 1 July 1965, Borman and Lovell had been intensely focused on their primary objective: to spend 14 days – a total of 330 hours – in space, thereby demonstrating that astronauts could physically and psychologically withstand a maximum-length trip to the Moon. The results from the two previous long-duration flights, Gemini IV and V, had been mixed. Jim McDivitt and Ed White had returned fatigued after four days, while Cooper and Conrad had hardly enjoyed their eight days sitting in an area the size of the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. Sleeping in shifts of four or five hours apiece had proven impractical, Borman and Lovell learned, so they resolved to sleep and work together. Moreover, they felt that their ‘work’ time would not benefit from a rigid plan, opting instead for a broader outline which they could adapt in orbit.
Their ‘days’ would consist of two work sessions, roughly coinciding with Houston’s ‘morning’ and ‘afternoon’ time zone and fitting in well with the three flight control shifts which would monitor Gemini VII. Storage space, not just for experiments and equipment, but also for foodstuffs, was at a premium. To make the best use of this space, Kenny Kleinknecht accompanied the astronauts to McDonnell’s St Louis plant and decided that waste paper from meals could be kept behind Borman’s seat for the first week and behind Lovell’s for the second.
Suits proved another concern. Several months before, McDonnell had begun an effort to determine if ordinary Air Force flight garments – wired with medical monitoring equipment, communications headsets and oxygen bottles – could be worn as a lighter, more comfortable alternative to the bulky pressure ensembles. In fact, astronauts Gordo Cooper and Elliot See had tested such suits in June 1965 at a simulated 36,000 m in the altitude chamber, with positive results. Then, in July, McDonnell engineer James Correale suggested a lightweight suit akin to Gemini 3’s G3C garment. It would not allow astronauts to continue a mission if the cabin lost pressure, but would provide them with enough margin of safety to get to a recovery area. Of course, from an environmental-control point of view, Gemini operated more efficiently with suits off, but neither NASA nor McDonnell was keen to leave them so vulnerable.
Work on Correale’s suit was begun by the David Clark Company in August, with engineers removing as much ‘corsetry’ as possible from the 10.7 kg ensemble. Replacing its fibreglass helmet was a soft cloth hood, which utilised zips rather than a neck ring to attach it to the torso, and the entire suit could be removed easily and laid on the sides of the Gemini seats, without having to be stowed away. When complete, it weighed some 7.3 kg. It would be removed no sooner than the second day of the mission, to allow time for Gemini VII’s life-support systems to be monitored and verified as satisfactory. However, it would be worn during critical phases such as rendezvous, re-entry and splashdown. The suits were delivered in
November, only a few days before Borman and Lovell were due to launch.
Also ready was one of the largest complements of experiments – primarily medical ones – ever carried aloft. Of the 20 investigations, eight would focus on the physical and physiological responses of the two men. They ranged from calcium-balance studies to in-flight sleep analysis with a portable electroencephalogram to examining the effects of spaceflight on the chemistry of body fluids. (For the EEG, Borman would have two spots shaved on his head and dipilatory rubbed on to accommodate its sensors. Lovell was not involved in this experiment.) They had to closely monitor and keep records of their food and liquid intakes, and ‘outputs’, not only throughout their time in orbit, but also for nine days before launch and four days after splashdown. Their meals were prepared and weighed, gram by gram, by a nutritionist from the National Institutes of Health. Nine experiments were reflights from McDivitt’s and Cooper’s missions, plus three new ones: an in-flight transmitter to be aimed at a laser beacon at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico to evaluate optical communications, together with landmark-contrast measurements of shorelines and a study of the usefulness of stellar occultations for navigation.
Although Gemini VII would primarily serve as a passive rendezvous target, the spacecraft itself needed some last-minute modifications to support its ‘extra’ mission. In early November, acquisition and orientation lights, a radar transponder, a spiral antenna and a voltage booster were installed. Further, the decision to fly a joint mission with Gemini VI-A reduced the amount of fuel that Borman and Lovell could use for experiments and station-keeping.