On the ground, the television networks – which had cancelled their showings of ‘Batman’ and, ironically, ‘Lost in Space’ – were deluged with complaints from viewers as attention turned to a dramatic recovery effort. Original plans called for Gemini VIII to land in the Atlantic and be picked up by the aircraft carrier Boxer; however, the earlier-than-expected return called instead for a splashdown in the western Pacific during their seventh orbit.
The timing was strict. Gemini VIII’s flight path had precessed so far westwards that it would be another full day before Armstrong and Scott could reach a location from which they could be easily recovered. Consequently, a naval destroyer named the Leonard F. Mason, based off the coast of Vietnam, was directed to intercept the new splashdown point, 800 km east of Okinawa. It would be the only Gemini splashdown in the Pacific, in a landing zone designated ‘Dash 3’. ‘‘I looked it up in our manuals,’’ wrote Scott. ‘‘Dash 3 was a secondary landing zone in the South China Sea. It was over 6,000 miles away from our primary landing site.’’
It was far from ideal. By this time, John Hodge’s ‘blue’ flight control team had been at their consoles for 11 hours and a second (‘white’) team, headed by Gene Kranz, reported for duty to supervise the end of the mission. Kranz’s team had more experience in recovery procedures than that of Hodge and, had Gemini VIII run to its intended three-day length, he would have overseen re-entry and splashdown anyway. It made sense, therefore, for Kranz to take the helm.
The news of an impending return was met with grim resignation by Armstrong and Scott, who ran through their pre-retrofire checklists with the capcoms at the Coastal Sentry Quebec, Rose Knot Victor and Hawaiian tracking stations. Unlike Gemini V, which had been nursed through a lengthy mission, despite problems, the situation in which Armstrong and Scott found themselves was compounded by a dangerously-low propellant load. By this time, having tested each of the OAMS thrusters in a now-stable Gemini VIII, Armstrong had identified the glitch with the No. 8 unit, which Scott later described as not exhibiting ‘‘a consistent, linear problem… it was really screwed up’’. In fact, the thruster had been off when it should have been on, and vice-versa, on several occasions. The cause, however, would have to wait for the post-flight investigation.
Loading the re-entry flight program into Gemini VIII’s 4,000-word-memory computer was difficult, particularly as it was already overloaded from the rendezvous with the Agena. This required Scott to erase the rendezvous and docking programs, then feed the re-entry data into the computer by means of a keypad and an on-board device known as an auxiliary tape memory unit. As he worked to punch in a series of nine lines of seven-digit numbers, Scott was relieved that the unflappable Jim Fucci, aboard the Coastal Sentry Quebec, was there to watch his every move. ‘‘He read off those numbers as if he was talking about taking a stroll in the park,’’ Scott wrote. ‘‘I entered them quickly so that I could transmit them back to verify with him before we lost contact again.’’
Gemini VIII’s retrorockets duly ignited at 9:45 pm, whilst out of radio contact, high above a remote part of south-central Africa. Worse, retrofire was conducted during orbital darkness, giving Armstrong and Scott no horizon by which to judge alignment. Minutes later, over the Himalayas, the spacecraft entered the tenuous upper atmosphere and as it continued to descend through the steadily thickening air, Scott reported that he could see nothing but a pinkish-orange glow through his window… then haze and, finally, minutes before splashdown, the glint of water! Ten hours and 41 minutes after leaving Cape Kennedy, at 10:22 pm, the spacecraft hit the Pacific with a harsh thump and Scott yelled “Landing Safe!”
Throughout all this – during the launch, rendezvous, docking, crisis with and without the Agena, re-entry and splashdown – Jimmy Mattern’s watch, tightly strapped around Armstrong’s wrist, continued to tick faithfully…
Despite having suffered severe space sickness and, now, seasickness as the spacecraft’s windows rhythmically rolled and pitched with each wave, the astronauts swiftly proceeded through their post-splashdown checklist, shutting down electrical systems, placing switches and valves into their correct positions and activating their high-frequency communications antenna. Only now did Armstrong and Scott regret not taking Mission Control’s advice to swallow meclizine motion sickness tablets before re-entry. “When Mission Control told us about three-foot waves,’’ Scott wrote, “they had forgotten to mention the 20-foot swells!’’
Scott called the search-and-rescue team from Naha Air Base in Okinawa by their callsign ‘Naha Rescue One’, but was met with silence on the radio. Both men were hot in their suits, particularly Scott, whose ensemble had extra layers to provide radiation protection on his spacewalk. Fumes from the ablated heat shield, too, left them nauseous. Within half an hour, a C-54 aircraft, flown by Air Force pilot Les Schneider, which had spotted Gemini VIH’s descent and splashdown, arrived on the scene. Its crew visually checked the spacecraft, marked its landing co-ordinates and dropped three pararescue swimmers and an emergency liferaft. For the Naha Rescue One team, which was more accustomed to missions in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in those war-charged times, 16 March 1966 was a distinctly different and highly memorable day.
Notwithstanding the rough swells, the pararescue swimmers, themselves queasy, affixed a flotation collar to the spacecraft, then signalled the C-54 with a ‘thumbs-up’ that Armstrong and Scott were alive and well. This was duly radioed to other aircraft in the area, to the Leonard F. Mason, then to Hawaii, to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and finally to Mission Control in Houston, from where public affairs officer Paul Haney announced the news to an anxious world. Meanwhile, the encounter between the antiquated C-54 and the state-of-the-art Gemini was, said Neil Armstrong, ‘‘the most unusual rendezvous in aviation history’’.
Three hours after splashdown, in the small hours of 17 March, the two astronauts and their spacecraft were safely aboard the Mason. The rough seas, though, had made the hoisting of Gemini VIII difficult, to such an extent that it kept crashing against the side of the destroyer, denting its nose at one point. The Mason’s crew, wrote Scott, had initially been less than happy about being given the task of recovering Gemini VIII. They had just completed a seven-week tour in Vietnam and been given a brief spell of liberty in Okinawa. However, their spirits rose as the realisation set in that the astronauts were safe. In spite of their tiredness and the
effects of nausea, Armstrong and Scott managed smiles and greetings for the crew and were found to be healthy, suffering from minimal dehydration.
They were, however, shaken by what had actually come close to disaster… as, indeed, had many within NASA. Deputy Administrator Bob Seamans had been advised of the crisis over the telephone whilst at the reception to the prestigious Robert H. Goddard Memorial Dinner and swore that he would never again be caught in such a position during the critical phase of a future mission.
At the same time, publicly, NASA was reluctant to over-emphasise the neardisaster, particularly if it wanted continued funding for a Moon landing by 1970. When Life magazine proposed titling its Gemini VIII article as ‘Our Wild Ride in Space by Neil and Dave’, its editor-in-chief received a firm request from Armstrong to change it to something less melodramatic. Ultimately, bound by an ongoing contract, the magazine agreed and would publish watered-down headlines for Gemini VIII and subsequent missions.
In spite of the troubles, President Lyndon Johnson reassured the American public that his administration remained firmly committed to John Kennedy’s goal of bootprints on the Moon before the end of the decade. Some have argued over the years that Armstrong’s coolness was pivotal in his selection to command Apollo 11, although some isolated individuals within the astronaut office speculated that his status as a civilian test pilot had contributed to the failure.
Indeed, Walt Cunningham, later to fly Apollo 7, would criticise what he saw as flaws in both astronauts’ performance, while Tom Stafford felt that the decision to undock from the Agena was a flawed one. Gene Kranz, on the other hand, perceived the crisis as the result of a broader training failure – malfunction procedures did not cover the problems encountered whilst the Gemini and Agena were docked – and both Frank Borman and Wally Schirra praised Armstrong and Scott’s actions as having prevented disaster. Indeed, without their safe return and the knowledge of what had happened, an erroneous assumption that the Agena was to blame could have diseased the final days of Gemini and made it very difficult for Apollo, with its emphasis on rendezvous and docking, to proceed. ‘‘It could have been a showstopper,’’ admitted Dave Scott.
Gene Cernan, though, rationalised the critics’ thinking. ‘‘Screwing up was not acceptable in our hypercompetitive fraternity,’’ he told James Hansen. ‘‘Nobody got a free ride when criticism was remotely possible. Nobody.’’ Still, Gemini VIII did little damage to either man’s career. Definitive testament came two weeks after the flight, when the Gemini VIII Mission Evaluation Team “positively ruled out’’ any errors on the astronauts’ part and, indeed, Bob Gilruth himself praised them for their ‘‘remarkable piloting skill’’. Scott was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and assigned a seat on an Apollo crew within days, while Armstrong received the backup command slot for Gemini XI. Still, the quiet civilian was demoralised by what he saw as only a partial success.
Had he been ‘‘smarter’’, Armstrong said later, he might have figured out the problems earlier, perhaps saving Scott’s EVA and some of the mission’s other objectives. Many of Gemini VIII’s experiments – the zodiacal light photography task, the growth of frogs’ eggs, the synoptic terrain studies, the nuclear emulsions
Armstrong (left) and Scott with crewmen aboard the recovery ship Mason.
and the cloud spectrophotography – were left incomplete and some have speculated over the years that, had Scott’s EVA been underway when the spinning started, he may have seen the burst from the stuck-on No. 8 thruster and warned Armstrong to shut off its propellant.
However, others considered it fortuitous that Scott’s EVA had never come to pass. It “had seemed terribly complex and dangerous,’’ wrote Mike Collins. The need for Scott to get outside, manoeuvre himself to Gemini VIII’s adaptor section and worry about swapping connectors and keeping track of tethers was, in Collins’ mind, too risky at such an early stage. “My own EVA scheme on Gemini X was far from ideal,’’ he wrote, “in that I had to stuff everything into an already crowded cockpit, but at least I could make nearly all my preparations inside the pressurised cocoon… Not so with Dave’s complicated gear.’’
Other naysayers have added that, during the uncontrollable spinning, Scott may have been whirled around so violently on his tether as to have hit the side of Gemini VIII, almost certainly producing fatal injuries…