When astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell returned to Earth in December 1965, having spent a record-breaking 14 days in orbit, the path seemed clear to meeting President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade. Borman and Lovell had shown that astronauts could survive an extended duration flight and, earlier in their mission, the tricky art of rendezvous with another manned craft – Gemini VI-A, piloted by Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford – had also been triumphantly accomplished. The following year, 1966, would build on their achievements, with four complex Gemini missions devoted to mastering the techniques of rendezvous, docking and spacewalking. These would lay the final groundwork for the first Apollo missions in 1967. Little could anyone have foreseen that a calamity of unimaginable proportions would unfold with horrifying suddenness one dreary morning in St Louis, Missouri, which threatened to halt all of these plans in their tracks. In fact, had this calamity occurred a matter of feet in another direction, it might have ended Project Gemini outright.
It began shortly after seven in the morning on 28 February 1966, when four pilots – the Gemini IX prime crew of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett and their backups, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan – boarded a pair of sleek T-38 jets for a routine flight to McDonnell’s plant in St Louis. The were to spend ten days there, inspecting their Gemini spacecraft and participating in rendezvous and docking exercises in the simulator. In May, Gemini IX was scheduled to fly for three days, including a rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle and a two-hour spacewalk by Bassett. The ambitious mission would clear another hurdle in the United States’ plan to have bootprints on the lunar surface before 1970.
The two jets roared away from the Ellington strip and soon entered their cruising altitude, with an expectation that they would land in St Louis in an hour and a half. In the lead jet, tailnumbered ‘NASA 901’, were See and Bassett, whilst Stafford and Cernan, in ‘NASA 907’, flew in tandem. According to fellow astronaut Mike Collins, flight rules forbade a member of a prime crew to fly with his counterpart on the backup crew, “lest a crash wipe out the entire capability in one specialty”. For now, the weather was glorious, but as the four astronauts approached St Louis, they entered murky conditions, with thick cloud, poor visibility and rain and snow flurries. At 8:48 am, Lambert Field airport, situated within a couple of hundred metres of McDonnell’s plant, anticipated that the astronauts would follow standard procedures and perform instrument-guided landings.
Descending through the cloud deck, the two jets appeared directly over the centreline of the southwest runway at 8:55 am. Both were much too low and travelling much too fast to achieve a landing. Stafford had remained in position on See’s right wing, but decided to ascend and perform a flyaround for another approach. He assumed that See would do the same. Inexplicably, thought, Elliot See executed a tight turn to reach the runway. Years later, the only explanation for why he did this was that he wanted to beat the backup crew to the ground; an unusual act for a pilot who had earned a reputation for being both careful and judicious. As See and Bassett’s jet vanished from sight, Stafford barked to Cernan in his backseat: “Goddammit, where’s he going?”
It was the last they saw of their comrades.
Minutes later, Stafford’s anger was mounting, for the Lambert Field air traffic controllers had virtually ignored him and were vague in their communications. At length, he was close to declaring an emergency, so low was his fuel gauge, but eventually set NASA 907 safely onto the runway. He was puzzled by an odd question from the tower.
“Who was in NASA 901?”
“See and Bassett,” he replied.
He was told that McDonnell Aircraft had “a message” for him. A few minutes later, as Stafford opened his canopy, there was James McDonnell himself, waiting for them. In solemn tones, ‘Mr Mac’ explained that See and Bassett were dead.
In the days that followed, a picture of what had happened became clear, from eyewitnesses and accident investigators. After leaving Stafford and Cernan’s sight, it appeared that Elliot See realised that he was heading directly for McDonnell Building 101 – the very building in which Gemini IX and X were undergoing assembly – and realised that he could not land safely. He lit his jet’s afterburners, broke hard right and pulled back on the stick…but it was too late: at 8:58 am, the T-38 grazed the roof of Building 101, losing a wing as it did so, and cartwheeled into a nearby parking lot. The jet promptly burst into flames.
Inside Building 101, foreman Damien Meert watched, aghast, from his desk as a sheet of flame rippled across the corrugated iron roof. His workers dived for cover under benches as fragments from the T-38’s shattered wing flooded into the building, hitting the Gemini X spacecraft. Elliot See was thrown clear of the fuselage and his corpse would be found in the parking lot, parachute only half-opened. The gruesome discovery of Charlie Bassett’s severed head, jammed high in the rafters of Building 101, came later that day. Even the identification of the remains was difficult and not helped by the fact that all four men’s identification papers were in the baggage pod of See and Bassett’s jet. Only by checking with the men who were still alive was it possible to work out who had died.
Miracles seemed far from St Louis during that gloomy, overcast day on which See and Bassett breathed their last…but it is quite remarkable that no one on the ground was injured and their spacecraft, Gemini IX, had survived. If their T-38 had been a little lower when it hit Building 101, they would have ploughed straight into the assembly line, destroying Gemini IX and X and probably killing hundreds of McDonnell’s skilled spacecraft construction workers. The Gemini programme, which provided an indispensable stepping stone to the Moon, would have been over and the United States’ chance of reaching the lunar surface would – at the very least – have been significantly reduced.
Two days after the tragedy, with Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan now reassigned as Gemini IX’s prime crew, the spacecraft was loaded aboard a C-124 transport aircraft for delivery to Cape Kennedy in Florida. An investigative board, chaired by Chief Astronaut Alan Shepard, found no defects in the T-38 and no problems with the physical or psychological state of See or Bassett. On paper, both men’s flying credentials were outstanding and both had renewed their instrument flying certificates within the last six months. The appalling weather was a contributory factor, but the board’s eventual consensus of ‘Pilot Error’ came as no surprise to many in the astronaut office.
Elliot See in particular had been the only astronaut whose flying skills worried Deke Slayton, the head of Flight Crew Operations. The high-performance T-38 was unforgiving of errors and could easily stall at speeds of less than 270 knots; Slayton felt that See was overly cautious and did not have the aggressive flying streak that the jet demanded of its pilots. Years later, Slayton admitted that he had gotten “sentimental” about See and had given him command of Gemini IX in the hope that Bassett would be strong enough to carry both of them. Ultimately, he wrote in his autobiography, “it was a bad call”. Others, including Neil Armstrong, have been more sympathetic. “There might have been other considerations that we’re not even aware of,” he told his biographer, James Hansen. “I would not begin to say that his death proves the first thing about his qualification as an astronaut.”
Of all the tragedies and disasters which affected America’s space programme in the 1960s, the accident which took See and Bassett had greater consequences than could be anticipated. Three weeks after their deaths, Deke Slayton named Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin as Gemini IX’s new backup pilot and he eventually flew Gemini XII in November 1966. Had it not been for the accident, Aldrin almost certainly would not have been the lunar module pilot of Apollo 11 or the second man to walk on the Moon. This irony was not overlooked by Aldrin; for Charlie Bassett was both a close friend and a neighbour. Moreover, the two men who ultimately flew the mission, redesignated ‘Gemini IX-A’, in June 1966, would later carve their own niches in history: Tom Stafford would command the final dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing, whilst Gene Cernan still wears the crown of ‘Last Man on the Moon’.