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’.