Meanwhile, preparation of the Gemini VIII flight hardware got underway in mid­August 1965, when the Agena-D target, tailnumbered ‘5003’, arrived at Cape Kennedy and, after final assembly, commenced pre-launch testing in October. Then, in early January of the following year, the two stages of the Titan II were delivered to Florida, mated and installed on Pad 19. Leak checks of the second stage engine on 7 February turned up small cracks in the thrust chamber manifold, a problem solved by rewelding, but by the 10th the rocket and Gemini VIII were fully mated and had undergone electrical compatibility tests.

Final preparation of the Agena-D occurred in tandem, the Atlas having been erected on Pad 14 at the Cape in early January. By this time, procedural and design changes – a result of Project Surefire – had been fully implemented. Two weeks later, the pencil-like Agena-D was mated to its docking adaptor and on 1 March was mounted atop the Atlas. The only problem in the last few days was an overfilling of its propellant tanks, which required the replacement of its regulator and relief valve and pushed the launch date from 15 March to the 16th.

In spite of the renewed vigour injected into the lunar effort by the spectacular Gemini VII/VI-A rendezvous late the previous year, morale in the astronaut corps suffered a devastating blow with the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in the crash of their T-38 jet on 28 February 1966. Two days later, although their minds were almost wholly focused on their upcoming mission, Armstrong and Scott and their wives joined a huge crowd of mourners at Seabrook Methodist Church for See’s memorial service and at Webster Presbyterian Church for that of Bassett. A sense of foreboding pervaded the Gemini project. ‘‘People started… fearing we were in a run of bad luck,’’ wrote Dave Scott. ‘‘The memorial services in Houston… were sad, depressing affairs.’’ The following year, 1967, would be worse still.

Armstrong and Scott and their backups, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon, had little time to waste on contemplation; a few days after the See and Bassett memorials, they were in quarantine at Cape Kennedy as launch drew closer. At 7:00 am on the morning of 16 March, Armstrong and Scott awoke and proceeded through the time – honoured ritual of a pre-flight physical and breakfast of filet mignon, eggs and toast with butter and jelly. Clear blue, cloud-speckled skies over the marshy Florida landscape promised a perfect opportunity for a launch. As they suited up, a watch belonging to aviation pioneer Jimmy Mattern – who had unsuccessfully attempted a round-the-world solo feat in 1933 – was strapped around the wrist of Armstrong’s suit. Not to be outdone, Scott, in his own nod towards aviation heritage, carried pieces of wood and cloth from an old Douglas World Cruiser, the New Orleans, which first flew around the world in 1924. Both artefacts had been borrowed from the museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Shortly after insertion into his seat, a glitch with Scott’s parachute harness threatened a delay. One of the technicians discovered some epoxy in the catcher mechanism of the harness, but the efforts of Pete Conrad and pad fuerher Guenter Wendt finally got it unglued. “Pete… rushed around until he found a dentist’s toothpick with which to try and clear the connection out,’’ recalled Scott. “I remember looking back and seeing Pete sweating like mad digging this stuff out.’’ Conrad’s toothpick did the trick. The hatch was finally closed and Gemini VIII’s countdown proceeded.

One hundred minutes before launch, at 10:00 am, as their cabin atmosphere was steadily being purged with pure oxygen, the first stage of the mission got underway as the Atlas-Agena lifted-off successfully from Pad 14. Unlike Schirra and Stafford’s experience the previous October, the rocket performed near-flawlessly. Despite following a trajectory that was slightly low and to the south of its intended flight path, the Atlas’ sustainer engine compensated by pushing itself back on track, ultimately carrying the 6 m-long, pencil-like Agena-D into a circular orbit, 298 km high. Advised of the successful insertion, Armstrong told launch controllers that he and Scott were ready to go.

“Cradled in my contoured seat it felt almost as if I was being held in someone’s arms,’’ wrote Scott, comparing the sensation to taking a brand-new Ferrari out on the open road for the first time. The pure oxygen atmosphere introduced a cool cleanness and freshness to the cabin.

Liftoff occurred precisely on time at 11:41 am, conducted under the auspices, for the first time, of a flight director other than Chris Kraft. The distinctly English-accented, tweed-suited and pipe-smoking John Hodge, who had led one of three teams during the Gemini IV mission, was in charge. “The Titan was smooth,’’ continued Scott, describing a few shudders and evidence of pogo oscillations, but overall “a solid feeling, a sharp kick in the tail’’. His heart rate in the moments preceding liftoff peaked at 128 beats per minute; Armstrong’s touched 146. Post-flight aeromedical studies would see the difference simply as a ‘keying-up’ of Armstrong’s physical awareness, rather than an indicator of undue stress.

Launch and ascent aboard the Titan, Armstrong told James Hansen, was ‘‘very definite; you knew you were on your way when the rocket lit off. You could hear the thrust from the engines, at least at low altitudes, but the noise did not interfere with communications. . . The G levels got to be pretty high in the first stage of the Titan – something like 7 G’’. As the rocket headed higher into the rarefied atmosphere and


Launch of an Atlas-Agena target vehicle.

its second stage took over, the two men saw bright red and yellow debris from a severed joining strap through their windows.

Riding the second stage, Scott wrote, was “smooth as glass”. Later, his first experience of weightlessness came when a small metal washer hovered in front of his eyes. As he released his checklist, he was amused to see it drift across the cabin. Nothing, however, could have prepared him for his first glimpse of Earth. Armstrong rolled Gemini VIII and the men beheld the deep blue of the Mediterranean, together with Italy and, in the distance, the outline of the Middle East and the Red Sea, laid out, map-like, before them. Although he had reached 63 km in his final X-15 flight and had seen the curvature of Earth, Armstrong, too, was quite unprepared for the view. In his autobiography, Scott remembered the difficulty other astronauts had when describing the sheer beauty and grandeur of the home planet; now he knew how they felt. Perhaps, someday, he thought, a poet or an artist would be blasted into the heavens. Maybe he or she could describe it better than a test pilot. “But I wanted to capture what I could,” he wrote. “I pulled out my camera and took my first photographs from space.”

Incredible as the view was, there was little time to dwell upon it. Within minutes, they established themselves in a 160 x 172 km orbit, trailing the Agena by 1,963 km. Scott’s spacewalk was looming in barely 24 hours’ time and, before that, they had the Agena-D rendezvous and docking to perform. A minor radiator problem did not prevent the astronauts from undertaking some sightseeing over the Pacific, a cloud – covered Hawaii, Baja California, the naval base in San Diego and the area around Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, where Armstrong and Scott had both worked and studied years earlier.

Their first thruster firing came at 1:15 pm, a little more than 90 minutes after launch, which slightly lowered their apogee. A break for lunch took longer than anticipated, requiring them to Velcro-patch the food packages to Gemini VIII’s ‘ceiling’ whilst they executed a second burn on their second orbit to raise their perigee. When they came to eat lunch, it was hardly home cooking: Armstrong’s chicken and gravy casserole, despite having been rehydrated, was dry in places and the astronauts’ brownie cookies were stuck together and crumbly. ‘‘We had been running on adrenalin,’’ wrote Scott. ‘‘There had been no time for food – no thought of it either.’’ Nor was there time to spend worrying. A third manoeuvre, executed high above the Pacific Ocean at 2:27 pm, placed Gemini VIII into the same orbital plane as the Agena, albeit imprecisely.

‘‘A fundamental requirement of rendezvous,” Armstrong told James Hansen, ‘‘is to get your orbit into the same plane as the target’s orbit, because if you’re misaligned by even a few degrees, your spacecraft won’t have enough fuel to get to its rendezvous target. So the plan is to start off within just a few tenths of a degree of your target’s orbit. That is established by making your launch precisely on time, to put you in the same plane under the revolving Earth as is your target vehicle.’’

Armstrong then fired the aft OAMS thrusters, producing a horizontal velocity change of 8 m/sec, after which Capcom Jim Lovell requested that he add an extra 0.6 m/sec to his velocity. The adjustment, Armstrong said later, ‘‘was a pretty loose burn… without much preparation”, but the two astronauts quickly moved onto their next task: activating and testing the spacecraft’s rendezvous radar. Westinghouse, the company responsible for developing the device, had promised that it would be able to acquire its target at a distance of around 343 km.

They detected the Agena with their radar long before achieving a visual sighting, whilst still some 332 km away. A little under four hours into the mission, high above Madagascar, another burn adjusted their orbit. This prepared them with near­perfection to begin the ‘terminal’ phase of the rendezvous. An hour later, at 4:21 pm, during their third orbit, Scott reported his first visual sighting of the Agena as a speck in the distance, 140 km away, its rendezvous beacon flickering against the black sky. ‘‘Gradually, she became a sleek, silver tube,’’ he wrote, ‘‘a spectacular sight.’’

As both spacecraft drifted into orbital darkness, the Agena disappeared from view, although Armstrong and Scott were still able to discern its blinking acquisition lights. When the target was at the proper angle, ten degrees ‘above’ them, Armstrong recalibrated the platform of Gemini VUI’s inertial reference system for a translational manoeuvre. Next, he pitched the nose upwards 31.3 degrees and canted the spacecraft 16.8 degrees to the left, finally braking Gemini VIII by eyesight alone as Scott called out radar range and range rates. Several smaller thruster spurts brought them to a position just 46 m from the Agena, with no relative velocity and, after 30 minutes of inspections to ensure that the target had not been damaged during launch, they were given the go-ahead to execute the world’s first-ever docking manoeuvre.

Moving his spacecraft at barely 8 cm/sec, Armstrong gingerly pulsed towards the Agena, announcing the onset of the ‘station-keeping’ phase of the rendezvous at 5:40 pm. Years later, he told James Hansen that station-keeping at such close proximity to the target posed no major problems; conversations with Wally Schirra and Frank Borman had assured him that flying two vehicles close together was very easy to do once the correct position had been achieved.

For the next 25 minutes, he and Scott electronically checked the target’s systems, antennas and lights using radio command, before nudging their spacecraft closer; so close, in fact, that they could read a small, illuminated instrument panel above its docking cone. After receiving a go-ahead to dock from Keith Kundel, the capcom on the Rose Knot Victor communications ship, Armstrong pulsed Gemini VIII’s thrusters and achieved physical contact at 6:15 pm. An electric motor aboard the Agena retracted the docking cone, pulling the spacecraft’s nose about 60 cm into the target and connecting their electrical systems. By now close enough to read, the Agena’s display confirmed a green ‘rigid’ sign, indicating that both vehicles were mechanically and electronically mated.

‘‘Flight, we are docked,’’ Armstrong exulted, ‘‘and it’s really a smoothie. No noticeable oscillations at all.’’ Seconds later, as the realisation of what had been done finally set in, sheer pandemonium broke out in Houston. Armstrong and Scott’s ‘smoothie’ had cleared another hurdle on the road to the Moon.

That smoothie would rapidly give way to a far rockier road. . . one that would come close to claiming the two astronauts’ lives.