Original plans, dating back to before the deaths of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, called for the Gemini IX spacewalker to spend at least two hours outside, remove the AMU from its housing at the back of the spacecraft’s adaptor and test it. He was also supposed to retrieve a micrometeorite package from the Agena, although this was scratched from the flight plan when the target ended up at the bottom of in the Atlantic on 17 May. A subsequent plan to remove a micrometeorite detector from the ATDA was also called off when it proved impossible to dock.
Still, preparations for the excursion were intense. Early on 5 June, Stafford lowered Gemini IX-A’s orbit while Cernan pulled his chest pack down from a shelf above his left shoulder, strapped it on and plugged in a 7.5 m umbilical tether which would provide him with oxygen, communications and electrical power. Years later, he would describe removing the umbilical from its container and attaching it to his suit as akin to unleashing a garden hose in a space no larger than the front seat of a car. Obviously, since the whole cabin would be reduced to vacuum, Stafford also had to be protected and both men laboriously clicked their helmet visors shut, pulled on heavy gloves and pressurised their suits until they went, in Cernan’s words, “from soft to rock-hard around our bodies’’.
Yet Cernan’s suit had much more insulation and protection than that of Stafford. “Out where I was going,’’ he wrote, “the temperature in unfiltered sunlight would be many times hotter than any desert at high noon on Earth, while the nighttime cold could freeze steel until it was as brittle as glass.’’ Approaching dawn on their 31st orbit, the men received permission to go ahead and at 10:02 am Cernan twisted the handle above his head and the huge hatch swung outwards.
Words clearly defied even the normally-chatterbox Cernan at this point as he pushed himself ‘upwards’, stood on his seat and rode “like a sightseeing bum on a boxcar’’ towards the California coastline. Hollering “hallelujah” at the top of his voice, he would later describe the glorious, ever-changing sight as like ‘‘sitting on God’s front porch’’, as orbital darkness gave way, almost instantaneously, to the first stirring of a shimmering dawn.
As was typical in space, there was little time to sightsee. With Stafford holding onto his foot to steady him, Cernan set to work positioning a 16 mm Maurer movie camera on its mounting and retrieving a nuclear emulsion package which recorded radiation levels and measured the impact of space dust. Next, he affixed a small mirror onto the docking bar on Gemini IX-A’s nose, such that Stafford could watch as he made his way towards the AMU at the rear of the spacecraft. Unlike Ed White, Cernan was not equipped with a hand-held zip-gun and he quickly set to work on his next task: to evaluate his ability to manoeuvre himself around by tugging at his snake-like tether.
It would, he wrote in his autobiography, teach him new lessons about Newton’s laws of motion. ‘‘My slightest move would affect my entire body, ripple through the umbilical and jostle the spacecraft,’’ Cernan explained. ‘‘Since I had nothing to stabilise my movements, I went out of control, tumbling every which way, and when I reached the end of the umbilical, I rebounded like a bungee jumper, and the snake reeled me in as it tried to resume its original shape.’’ As he looped around Gemini IX-A, the experience was comparable to wrestling an octopus and Cernan’s only chance at controlling his motions came when he managed to grab the tether tightly at the point at which it emerged from the hatch.
After half an hour of helplessness – and by now having broken the spacewalk
Two of the few photographs acquired during Gene Cernan’s EVA, showing the nose of Gemini IX-A, the open pilot’s hatch and the snake-like tether at left and the astronaut himself at right.
endurance times of both Alexei Leonov and Ed White – he somehow seized a handrail and pulled himself towards Gemini IX-A to rest. Clearly, he told Stafford and Mission Control, future spacewalkers would need propulsion and more handholds; otherwise they would be unable to prevent themselves from flopping around like rag dolls on the end of their tethers. Cernan’s rest break was brief: he had to reach the back of the spacecraft before the arrival of orbital dusk to checkout and strap on the AMU, exchange his oxygen umbilicals for those attached to the rocket armchair and commence the next phase of his spacewalk.
His move to the rear of Gemini IX-A was much harder than he could have anticipated. The stiff, bulky suit fought his every move and lacked the two crucial ingredients – flexibility and mobility – that he now desperately needed. Nonetheless, Cernan laboured, hand-over-hand, along a small rail, halting at times to loop his tether through tiny eyelets and thus keep it from damage. Finally, he reached the adaptor at the back of the spacecraft and, swinging himself around it, disappeared from view in Stafford’s mirror. The Sun, too, vanished as Gemini IX-A entered orbital darkness over South Africa.
Working in near-pitch blackness, Cernan flicked on a pair of lights – only one of which worked, yielding a glow little more effective than a candle – and prepared to activate the AMU. Thirty-five meticulous steps lay between him and achieving the goal of becoming the first human satellite; steps ranging from pushing buttons to opening valves and disconnecting, then reconnecting, his oxygen supply. His heart rate, which had reached 155 beats per minute when he arrived at the adaptor section, showed no signs of slowing as Cernan puzzled over why he had been able to accomplish the task with ease in a parabolic aircraft and yet the real thing was leaving him exhausted, drenched with sweat and almost blind. At last, he flipped the last switch and prepared to take the AMU on its maiden outing.
All was far from being well. A hundred minutes into the spacewalk, Cernan was scarcely able to see through his fogged-up visor – the suit’s environmental control system was struggling and failing to absorb the humidity and exhaled carbon dioxide – and his heart rate soared to 195 beats per minute. Unable to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes, he had no choice but to rub his nose on the inside of his visor just to make a ‘hole’ through which he could see. He also tried increasing the oxygen flow to his suit in a bid to clear the visor, without success.
Cernan’s lack of visibility could hardly have come at a more inappropriate time, precisely as he was completing the intricate procedure of readying the AMU to fly. At one stage, he even had to rely on the reflection in a polished metal mirror on his wrist and on his sense of touch through his thickened gloves for guidance. Merely turning knobs, without adequate leverage, was virtually impossible. So too was telescoping and folding out the AMU’s armrests – getting them extended into place was, he wrote years later, ‘‘akin to straightening wet spaghetti’’.
It was at this point that one of Gemini IX-A’s experiments – known as ‘D-14’, a UHF/VHF polarisation study – met its untimely end at Cernan’s hands. The instrument comprised an extendable antenna in the adaptor section, which had been used successfully during the first portion of the mission to measure inconsistencies of the electron field along Gemini IX-A’s flight path. The astronauts had operated it five times whilst above Hawaii and once over Antigua, but Cernan’s struggles with his suit and the AMU caused him to accidentally break it.
Eventually, after much tugging and twisting, he found success, slid onto the saddle and strapped himself into place. His next step was to disconnect himself from the tether and reconnect himself to the backpack’s life-support and communications supplies. From his position, inside the concave steel adaptor at the rear of Gemini IX-A, he temporarily lost communications with Stafford, who could barely hear Cernan’s crackled garble that he was unable to see in front of his own eyeballs. From the command pilot’s seat, Stafford was now worried for his colleague’s safety, advising Mission Control that communications had degraded and Cernan’s visibility through his visor was so poor that the AMU test was risky.
On the ground, the physicians were coming to similar conclusions: data from Cernan’s biomedical sensors clearly indicated that he was exhausted, expending energy at a rate equivalent to running up a hundred stairs per minute and his heart was pumping three times faster than normal. Cernan knew that their judgement could spell the end of his spacewalk. . . an eventuality that, as a pilot who had been training for more than six months, he had no wish to contemplate. At length, the decision was snatched out of his hands.
The onset of orbital dawn over the Pacific brought the garbled news from Stafford: “It’s a no-go… because you can’t see it now. Switch back to the spacecraft electrical umbilical.’’ The Hawaii capcom concurred with his judgement. Obviously disappointed that he had not only lost his chance to fly the AMU, but that the Air Force’s $10 million rocket armchair was destined to burn up in the atmosphere, Cernan unstrapped and clawed his way back to his hatch. To protect the interior of Gemini IX-A from solar radiation, he had left it partially closed and was now blinded by the Sun as he struggled to find it.
Finally gripping and pulling open the hatch, Cernan twisted himself and pushed his feet through the opening. Stafford manually reeled in the umbilical, then grabbed one of his suited ankles to anchor him back inside the cabin. As he tried to get back inside, Cernan inadvertently kicked the Hasselblad camera that Stafford had been using to photograph the EVA and it drifted off into space. “There went my still pictures,’’ he wrote later, “but I did retrieve the movie camera.’’
Scrunching himself painfully into his seat, still fighting against the stiffness of the suit, he quickly found that he could not close the hatch. Eventually, with Stafford’s help, the pair managed to yank it down and Cernan pumped the handle until the hatch was secure. In his autobiography, he would admit that the pain was so intense that he cried aloud – “but only Tom really knows’’ – and was close to losing consciousness. Then, as Stafford began repressurising Gemini IX-A’s cabin, Cernan felt the rigidity of the suit begin to soften and he was finally able to breathe properly and remove his helmet. The United States’ second spacewalk was over in two hours and eight agonising minutes.
Exhausted, the now-beetroot-faced Cernan was doused with weightless droplets fired by Stafford from a water pistol and strips of skin of his swollen hands tore away as he removed his gloves. He looked, wrote Stafford, “like he’d been baked in a sauna too long’’. However, with the exception of the reaction he might get from the other astronauts – had he screwed up? and would he ever fly again? – Cernan really did not care. He had endured the most traumatic spacewalk to date… and, astonishingly, had lived!
Less than a day later, at 9:00 am on 6 June, Gemini IX-A was bobbing in the Atlantic. Cernan described his first fiery re-entry through the atmosphere as “like a meteoric bat out of hell” and compared the spacecraft to having the aerodynamic characteristics of a bathtub as it plummeted Earthward. They splashed down safely just 700 m from the intended point. So close were they to their prime recovery vessel, the aircraft carrier Wasp, that they were able to offer and acknowledge thumbs-up signals. An hour after hitting the Atlantic, they and their spacecraft were safely aboard.
In his autobiography, however, Cernan would relate that their first moments after splashdown were not entirely idyllic, when rough waves and strong winds gave the impression that Gemini IX-A’s hull had been ruptured. In fact, a harder-than – anticipated landing had ruptured a drinking water line, spilling its contents into the cabin. Still, the discomfort and disappointment was sweetened by the splashdown. It was, wrote Stafford with justifiable pride, “the closest-to-target landing of any manned spacecraft in history’’ prior to the Shuttle.
Gene Cernan’s harrowing EVA would teach a harsh, yet valuable lesson to those engineers, managers and even astronauts who perceived extravehicular activity as a proverbial walk in the park. Why, some journalists asked him in the weeks that followed, was his spacewalk so difficult in comparison to Ed White’s graceful stroll? The key differences, of course, were that White had been equipped with a hand-held propulsion device and that, other than floating around, he was not actually given any specific tasks.
Yet Cernan’s problems – the shortcomings of his suit’s environmental controls, the fogging of his visor, the difficulties encountered when getting back into the spacecraft, the need for handholds, the impossibility of moving without a propulsion device – highlighted an urgent need for such issues to be rectified before the closure of the Gemini chapter in November 1966. Apollo managers, then hard at work preparing for the first flight of their spacecraft in the fourth quarter of 1966, also took heed: future Moonwalkers could not operate on the lunar surface for many hours under such life-threatening conditions. It is quite remarkable, therefore, that by the time Cernan’s backup, Buzz Aldrin, completed his own EVAs on Gemini XII, the problems would have been virtually resolved.