THE ANGRY ALLIGATOR
Following insertion into a 158 x 267 km orbit, Gemini IX-A’s computers set to work determining the rendezvous flight path. Forty-nine minutes into the mission, an inaugural manoeuvre raised their perigee to 232 km, prompting Cernan to remark that he “felt that one, Tom!” A second firing corrected phase, height and out-ofplane errors and established them in an orbit of 274 x 276 km, after which they checked their spacecraft’s systems and stowage lists, removed their helmets and gloves and readied cameras for the rendezvous ahead.
The astronauts acquired their first spotty radar readings at a distance of 240 km from The Blob and had a solid ‘lock’ at 222 km. This led to visible relief on the part of the radar’s Westinghouse builders, who had worried that the unstabilised ATDA and its changing radar reflectivity would cause its acquisition to wobble. Three hours and 20 minutes after launch, the astronauts were rewarded with their first glimpse of the target – now just 93 km away – and as they drew closer saw its flashing acquisition lights. Thinking that the shroud must have jettisoned successfully (the lights could not be seen otherwise), Stafford began slowing Gemini IX-A’s approach profile… and the reality became clear: the shroud was actually gaping half-open, like an enormous pair of jaws. ‘‘It looks,’’ he told Mission Control, ‘‘like an angry alligator.’’
Initial hopes that he might be able to nudge it with his spacecraft’s nose to fully open the jaws were rejected as too risky by Flight Director Gene Kranz and Stafford was forced instead to station-keep less than 12 m away. It was clear, he reported, that the ATDA’s explosive bolts had fired, but two neatly-taped lanyards stubbornly held the shroud in place. The high tensile strength of these lanyards made it unadvisable to nudge the jaws. Moreover, Gemini IX-A’s parachutes were housed in its nose and damaging them was unthinkable.
On the ground, at a strategy meeting that night with Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, backup pilot Buzz Aldrin suggested sending Cernan outside to manually clip the lanyards with a pair of surgical scissors. Astronauts Jim McDivitt and Dave Scott, in Los Angeles at the time, were despatched to the Douglas plant to examine a duplicate ATDA and determine if this could be done. Their consensus: it was possible, but would leave many sharp edges which could tear Cernan’s suit. Also, the tumbling of the ATDA, the almost-complete lack of spacewalking experience and the dangers of the explosive bolts holding the lanyards together posed their own risks. ‘‘Gilruth and Kraft were aghast,’’ wrote Deke Slayton and the suggestion, though not entirely outrageous, would lead to the first of many discussions about Aldrin’s suitability to fly Gemini XII.
In the meantime, efforts by controllers to tighten and relax The Blob’s docking cone, in the hope that the action might free the shroud, were unsuccessful. ‘‘That only pushed out the bottom part of the shroud,’’ wrote Cernan, ‘‘and forced the other end, which was open, to partially close. Contracting the collar had the reverse effect, and to us, it seemed that those moving jaws were opening and closing.’’ The alligator, quite literally, was laughing at their misfortune.
After the mission, it would become clear that the problem centred on the fact that the Agena, the ATDA and the shroud were built by three different organisations, namely Lockheed, McDonnell and Douglas. Before McDonnell technicians had made a final inspection on the ATDA at Cape Kennedy, a Douglas engineer had supervised a practice run, with the exception of the lanyards which controlled the electrical disconnect to the explosive bolts. In the interests of safety, the lanyards were not hooked up for the test.
Crucially, the Douglas engineer was then forced to leave to return home and tend his pregnant wife, telling his McDonnell counterpart to “secure the lanyards”. Consequently, on launch day, the McDonnell crew followed procedures published by Lockheed, which had themselves been copied from Douglas documentation. The instructions referred to a blueprint which was not present and the absence of the engineer meant that those technicians responsible for fixing the ATDA’s shroud simply wondered what to do with the dangling lanyards and decided that their best and safest bet was to tape them down. It was those taped-down lanyards which had now ruined Stafford and Cernan’s target in orbit.
Over the years, some historians have commented that having several companies managing different parts of the same vehicle was simply a classic extension of the metaphor ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ and, indeed, an investigation into the ATDA fiasco would later conclude that future simulations should be practiced completely, experienced people should remain ‘on the job’ and written instructions should be followed exactly.
In the meantime, five hours into the Gemini IX-A mission, Stafford nosed his spacecraft ‘down’ by 90 degrees and fired his forward thrusters for 35 seconds to enter an elliptical equi-period orbit with the ATDA. Simulating a failed radar, they then plotted their position with an on-board sextant, notepad and pencil, checked their results against a pre-planned chart solution and commenced a series of four manoevures to bring themselves back into a station-keeping stance with the target. It was far from easy and, wrote Cernan, represented ‘‘a bitch of an exercise that demanded unimagined mental and physical effort’’. Nonetheless, six and a half hours after launch, they were finally in the vicinity of The Blob, only to depart again shortly thereafter for a third exercise. To prepare for this, at 3:55 pm, a little over seven hours into the mission, Stafford again pulsed the OAMS thrusters to reduce speed and widen the gap between Gemini IX-A and the ATDA.
By now exhausted, the two astronauts checked their systems, took an opportunity to gobble some toothpaste-like mush of chicken and dumplings – ‘‘No crumbs that way,’’ wrote Cernan, but ‘‘not much taste, either’’ – and tried with little success to sleep. Awakened in the small hours of 4 June to begin their second day in orbit, they were almost immediately immersed in the third rendezvous: reducing the size of their orbit to again intercept the still-laughing Blob. By rendezvousing with an object ‘beneath’ them, Stafford and Cernan would mimic the procedures to be followed by an Apollo command module pilot tasked with rescuing a lunar module stuck in a low orbit around the Moon.
Phase and height adjustments, followed by an OAMS burst, placed Gemini IX-A in an orbit of 307 x 309 km and within three hours the astronauts had reduced the gap between themselves and the target to just 28 km. At this stage, by now still ‘above’ and ‘ahead’ of the ATDA, Stafford nosed 19 degrees down and yawed 180 degrees to the left. ‘‘The mental perception was that we were falling straight down to Earth,’’ Cernan recalled years later, ‘‘and we did not even see the gator until we were within three miles of it.’’ Stafford, too, later admitted to sensations of mild vertigo.
At this point, Stafford spotted what appeared to be “a pencil dot on a sheet of paper” and would point out that, had it not been for the radar, the rendezvous would have failed. The rendezvous was completed at 6:21 am and Stafford and Cernan withdrew from the ATDA at 7:38 am, this time for good.
The two men felt justifiably proud: they had conducted no fewer than three rendezvous in less than a day. However, their work had taken its toll. Both were exhausted, as, indeed, was their spacecraft, whose fuel supply had dwindled from 311 kg at launch to less than 25 kg after the marathon rendezvous effort. Ahead, later on 4 June, lay Cernan’s spacewalk, but Stafford donned his command pilot’s cap and told Mission Control that the excursion should be postponed. “We’ve been busier’n left-handed paper-hangers up here,’’ he drawled. “I’m afraid it would be against my better judgement to go ahead and do the EVA at this time… Perhaps we should wait until tomorrow morning.’’ For the first time, Cernan wrote, a pair of astronauts had seemingly ‘questioned’ their duties and, although not a military organisation, some within NASA felt that they were quitting. Yet there was little doubt that Stafford and Cernan were best placed to know the situation inside their spacecraft and Capcom Neil Armstrong duly responded that their recommendation had been accepted. Armstrong would later describe Stafford’s actions as reflecting ‘‘exceptionally good judgement’’.
As a result, the EVA was moved to 5 June and the remainder of the day was spent focusing upon Gemini IX-A’s experiments and ensuring that both men were fully rested. Stafford and Cernan’s experiment load consisted of seven tasks, one of which was a medical study to measure their reactions to stress by recording their intake and ‘output’ of bodily fluids before, during and after the mission. Codenamed ‘M-5’, it required their wastes to be collected and labelled; a complicated, tricky and messy process whose physical requirements, Stafford growled, amounted to those required for doing a rendezvous and a half.
Elsewhere, Edward Ney’s zodiacal light photography experiment was originally planned to be used during the EVA, but problems forced it to be used instead from inside Gemini IX-A. It consisted of a hand-held camera, equipped with automatic triggering, to obtain images of atmospheric airglow, the zodiacal light, the Milky Way and the celestial field. Overall, Stafford and Cernan would return home with 44 useful images, together with 160 Hasselblad terrain photographs which would prove useful in applications from geology to oceanography. The remaining experiments – including retrieving a micrometeorite collector and controlling the AMU rocket armchair – were assigned to Cernan’s spacewalk. That spacewalk, which began early on 5 June, would force managers and astronauts to rethink everything they thought they knew about extravehicular activity.