Sunday, July 1, 2018

My Favorite Spaceship

"We Have Ignition"
I entered the world in July of 1962, just over fourteen months after Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union had become the first human being in space, hotly pursued by American Alan Shepard a few weeks later and then John Glenn's orbital flight five months before my birth. As I developed from infant to toddler the progression of space achievements taking place high above my young head accelerated; by the time I was two years old twelve astronauts and cosmonauts had flown, the latest--Valentina Tereshkova--becoming the first woman to ride a rocket beyond the atmosphere.

Admittedly I was unconscious of all of this astronautic activity; I was far more interested in crawling and taking my first steps than in interplanetary adventure. The first extra-vehicular activity, or space-walk, took place three months before my third birthday. Affairs beyond the clouds simply weren't on my radar at this point in my life, though they soon would be.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. We find ourselves idolizing those who came and went before, seeing an automobile from our father's time as superior to our own and the songs from our childhoods as a sort of epitome against which modern compositions simply fail to measure up. It isn't rational to adore "Gone With The Wind" or "Star Trek" but we do it nonetheless; I'm sure there are volumes of psychological speculation on this topic but I think we can sum nostalgia up as a belief that somehow, someway, things were better in the past.
The Gemini Two-Man Spacecraft
My own nostalgic obsession, the space vehicle of my fancy, flew its missions and retired from the field long before my developing mind became deeply interested (some members of my family might venture to say "obsessed") in space exploration; I was using a red crayon to deface the "D" volume of my family's World Book Encyclopedia during the ten manned Gemini missions of 1965-66.

And yet, Gemini was and remains my favorite manned spacecraft. I read everything I can get my hands on--including dry-as-dust technical pieces on Titan II booster modifications and Rogallo Wings--and build model after model of the capsule and adapter module. I would speculate that, during the build-up to Apollo,  I was often exposed to the image of Edward White's historic EVA (March, 1965) and video of Gemini-Titan launches on TV. Perhaps I fell in love with this vehicle simply because of its sleek, powerful appearance--the "sports car" of manned spacecraft!
Astronauts James Lovell and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, Gemini XII Crew
So, what WAS Gemini? It was the vehicle we used in the mid-sixties to test all of those concepts and techniques that would be required to reach the Moon. Originally named "Mercury Mk II", it was the logical follow-on to the pioneering Mercury capsule; a two-man craft, able to maneuver in vacuum and to conduct rendezvous and docking trials using Agena target vehicles. And Gemini had much greater endurance than Mercury as well, conducting long missions on orbit (up to fourteen days in the case of Gemini VII, which also performed a rendezvous in space with Gemini VI in December 1965).
Gemini VI and VII Rendezvous On Orbit
In two years of manned missions, the astronauts of Gemini (many of whom would go on to the Moon in Apollo) proved the technology and methodology of long-duration flights in space, but it wasn't easy OR safe; they had their share of close shaves and glitches, equipment faults and near-disasters. But these were all experienced pilots who had trained hard for their missions, and in every crisis on every mission they persevered and came home that much wiser for their adventures.

Project Gemini ended with the completion of NASA's planned missions in November 1966--but it might have gone on. The USAF ran a parallel program known as "Blue Gemini", intended to support the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) which would have been America's first space station in the late sixties, but the programs were cancelled due to the cost of the Vietnam War and the perception that NASA and the Air Force were duplicating their efforts.
Journey's End
Planned missions completed and goals met, Gemini was all-but-forgotten in the rush to the Moon. Left behind by history, today few seem to remember that outer-space corvette, with its striking shape and impressive operational record. The Gemini spacecraft, the men who flew it, and the thousands of men and women who built, tested, serviced and otherwise supported the program, served as a crucial stepping-stone to the Moon; a vital link between Mercury and Apollo.
So...dreams of a spacecraft that flew before I was old enough to understand it or its missions; I watch the old NASA videos ("GEMINI: The next Step"), read the reports and imagine the experience of Edward White during that first American EVA. I share his emotions as well as anyone can over fifty years after the fact: when Mission Control ordered him (not for the first time) to return to the cramped cockpit of Gemini IV he grumbled "and it's the saddest moment of my life" as he reluctantly complied.
Yes, the Gemini missions lie five decades in the past, and even some NASA personnel I have talked to don't know about these space flights that bridged the gaps in our knowledge of the space environment and how to live and work in it. Gemini was more than just the intermediate step between Mercury and Apollo--it was the vital link in that chain of events that took us from Alan Shepard's 15-minute suborbital flight in 'Freedom 7' to 'Eagle's triumphant landing in the Sea of Tranquility and beyond. The Gemini spacecraft and the brave men who flew it should be remembered, not just by a few space "geeks" like myself but by anyone interested in knowing how we got from there to here.

I suppose spaceships need love too.