At just under five hours, the mission of Gemini 3 on 23 March 1965—50 years ago, this week—was exceptionally short, and there were suggestions of flying a Rendezvous Evaluation Pod and evaluating the sporty little spacecraft’s radar. As noted in yesterday’s history article, this was ultimately deferred to a later flight, but Gemini 3 crewmen Gus Grissom and John Young soon got in on the act. Word leaked out in the summer of 1964 that they were pushing for an “open-ended” flight, in effect giving them the option to decide how many orbits to fly. “Gus and John and the rest of us thought a 30-orbit flight, almost two days, was the next logical step,” recalled Deke Slayton in his autobiography, Deke, but on this occasion the astronauts’ judgments were overruled. The limitations of the existing tracking network and worries about erring on the side of caution on Gemini’s first manned mission won the day and it remained at five hours.
Even Grissom acquiesced that he felt sufficient data could be extracted from a three-orbit flight. That “data” would come primarily in the form of demonstrations of the spacecraft’s maneuverability, using its thrusters, and a decision was made to stage three firings to insert Gemini 3 into a “fail-safe” orbit, from which it could still re-enter in the event of a retrorocket failure. In reality, Grissom and Young would fly in too low an orbit to be permanent, but the fail-safe option at least ensured that the spacecraft could return promptly and, insofar as possible, that the crew would survive.
To achieve it, the aft thrusters would be fired to separate Gemini 3 from the second stage of the Titan II booster. This would insert the spacecraft into an elliptical path, whilst a second burst about 90 minutes into the mission would slightly cut the velocity and near-circularize the orbit. Then, whilst over the Indian Ocean around two hours and 20 minutes after launch, a series of “out-of-plane” burns would be conducted to thoroughly gauge the performance of the thrusters. Finally, above Hawaii on the third pass, a pre-retrofire burst would insert the spacecraft into an elliptical re-entry orbit.
Scientific and technical experiments would consume a small portion of the astronauts’ time. A Panel on In-Flight Scientific Experiments (POISE) had already been established within NASA and proposed a series of investigations which would largely run themselves. Two promising candidates for Gemini 3 explored the combined effects of radiation and microgravity on cells, together with cell growth in space. The former sought to expose human blood samples to a known quantity and quality of radiation, both within the capsule and on Earth, allowing the frequency of chromosomal aberrations in the space-flown and ground-control specimens to be compared. On Gemini 3, it was mounted on the right-hand hatch, inside a hermetically-sealed aluminum box. To activate it, Young had to twist a handle to commence irradiation of the blood samples.
The second experiment was Grissom’s responsibility and was situated inside his left-side hatch. Since it was considered easier to detect the effects of microgravity in simple cell systems than more complex organisms, it consisted of the eggs of a sea urchin. These were fertilised at the beginning of the experiment and the possible changes observed at several stages of their development. Grissom was required to turn a handle 30 minutes before launch to fertilise the eggs, then four times in flight to fix the dividing cells at specific stages of growth. Each handle turn effected by Grissom would be mirrored in a control experiment on the ground.
Additionally, a third investigation was a re-entry communications demonstration. It had been theoretically shown that by adding fluid to ionized plasma during the period of re-entry blackout, communications could be restored by lowering the plasma’s frequency sufficiently to allow UHF transmissions to get through. The lengthy blackout during John Glenn’s fiery plunge to Earth and Scott Carpenter’s heart-stopping overshoot may have benefited from such an experiment, despite its $500,000 price tag. It involved the fitment of a water-expulsion system, whose starter switch would be thrown by Young during descent. Water would be automatically injected into the plasma sheath around the spacecraft in timed pulses for two and a half minutes, while ground stations monitored and recorded UHF radio reception.
Early in March 1965, a flight readiness review confirmed that, with the exception of several minor problems, Gemini 3 was ready to fly. The Titan II passed its final test on the 18th, and launch was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. on the 23rd. The countdown commenced at 2:00 a.m. on launch morning, which dawned dull and overcast, but the decision was taken to proceed. Three hours later, Grissom and Young were awakened, sat down to the traditional low-residue breakfast of tomato juice, half a cantaloupe melon, porterhouse steaks, and scrambled eggs. Young received a long good-luck telegram signed by 2,400 Orlando residents, from whose high school he had graduated years before. The two men then donned their space suits. Unlike Project Mercury, the Gemini ensembles were white, not silver, and comprised a nylon material overlaying a rubberized inner lining. The gloves were removable and were attached to rotating wrist joints, permitting full movement, and, learning from the experiences of the Mercury pilots, included “fingertip lights” to help read cockpit instruments.
The prime and backup crews had all spent the past several days in the new quarters at the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building, whose accommodations, wrote Ray Boomhower in Gus Grissom: The Lost Astronaut, “were a far cry from the ones the astronauts were used to at Hangar S in their Mercury days.” They were comfortably furnished, quiet, and even boasted a gym with exercise bicycles and punch bags. Shortly after 7 a.m., the astronauts headed for Pad 19 at Cape Kennedy, where technicians inserted them into their couches in the capsule which Grissom had light-heartedly dubbed “Molly Brown.” The name came from the unsinkable Titanic survivor popularized in the 1960 Broadway musical and 1964 movie.
Grissom hoped, it seemed, that borrowing Brown’s name for Gemini 3 would ward off the demons of watery bad luck which had hit him at the end of his Liberty Bell 7 mission. “I’ve been accused of being more than a little sensitive about the loss of my Liberty Bell 7,” he explained before launch, “and it struck me that the best way to squelch this idea would be to kid it.” Kidding or not, NASA officials doubted that the name conveyed the right message, but when offered either Molly Brown or Grissom’s other choice—Titanic—they quietly backed off, but never named it as such in official documents. In fact, at an earlier stage, Grissom had suggested the name “Wapasha,” after a Native American tribe from his home state of Indiana, although the risk of the media renaming it “The Wabash Cannonball” meant that was also removed from the list.
Inside the spacefaring Molly Brown, a near-flawless countdown proceeded smoothly, leaving them 20 minutes ahead of schedule and giving Young reason to complain about the extra time spent lying flat on his back in his uncomfortable space suit. The overcast weather refused to lift and the clock was halted at T-30 minutes when a first-stage oxidiser line in the Titan sprang a leak. Although this problem was quickly resolved, the countdown had to be held for 24 minutes to ensure that the leak had stopped. Thankfully, by this point the grey clouds had cleared, and at 9:24 a.m. EDT the Titan II took flight. “You’re on your way, Molly Brown!” yelled Capcom Gordo Cooper. Liftoff, the two astronauts recalled later, was so smooth that they felt nothing; their only real cues were the startup of the mission clock on Gemini 3’s instrument panel and hearing Cooper’s words.
For the first 50 seconds, Grissom kept both hands firmly on the ring which would trigger Molly Brown’s ejection seats in the event of a booster malfunction. Young, wrote Ray Boomhower, also had such a ring on his side of the cabin, but, looking over, Grissom noted that the unflappable rookie had his hands calmly folded in his lap. “During this time,” Young recalled later, “we didn’t say a word to each other because there was so much to do so fast.”
The Titan’s first stage was exhausted two and a half minutes into the climb, and second-stage ignition bathed the entire cabin with a flood of eerie orange-yellow light, which surprised Young. The rocket, Cooper told them, had slightly exceeded its predicted thrust and the astronauts could expect a larger-than-expected pitch-down during second-stage ignition as it began to steer a course for orbit. Five and a half minutes after launch, the second phase of the ascent was over and, with a bark like a howitzer, pyrotechnics severed Gemini 3 from the Titan. Grissom fired Molly Brown’s aft thrusters to pull away from the booster. The Titan over-performed slightly, but Gemini 3 still ended up in a close-to-expected orbit.
Shortly after their arrival in orbit, with a packed five hours ahead of them, things did not appear to be going well for the Gemini 3 crew. Twenty minutes into the mission, as Molly Brown passed out of range of the mid-Atlantic tracking station in the Canary Islands, Young noticed the oxygen pressure gauge suddenly drop. At first, he suspected a malfunction, but his attention was soon drawn to a number of peculiar readings from other instruments, suggesting that he and Grissom may have a power supply problem on their hands. Quickly, Young switched from the primary to the backup electrical converter, which powered the dials, and the glitch vanished as abruptly as it had appeared. From the moment Young first spotted the problem to its resolution took barely 45 seconds.
The cell-growth study, to be run by Grissom, proved a dismal failure; perhaps, he said, the adrenaline was pumping a little too much and he twisted the handle too hard, broke it, and ruined the whole experiment. (Ironically, the scientist on the ground operating the control sample also broke his handle!) Young experienced his own difficulties with the radiation investigation on his side of the cabin and, although he completed it correctly, the results were inconclusive. Exposed to nearly identical doses of radiation, the in-flight blood samples showed higher levels of damage than their control counterparts on the ground. After the mission, both men would blame differences between the experiment packages they flew with and trained with as the cause of the problem, but admitted that observing sea urchins did not carry the same “oh, wow” factor as maneuvering their spacecraft and experiencing the wonders of microgravity.
At the end of the first orbit, with Molly Brown flying nose-first, Grissom fired the forward-facing thrusters for a carefully timed 74 seconds to slow them down and almost circularize the orbit. Then, passing over the Indian Ocean in darkness on the second orbit, he yawed 90 degrees to one side and fired first the forward-facing thrusters and then the aft-facing thrusters in an effort to cancel out the effect of the previous burn, which he was almost able to do, with the residual marginally increasing the inclination of their orbit with respect to the equator. These two maneuvers had been made “out of plane” so as not to disturb their circular orbit.
On the third and final orbit, with Molly Brown flying base-first, a 109-second “fail-safe” burn lowered the perigee to ensure a successful re-entry in the event of a retrorocket malfunction. No such malfunction materialized and, after running through their checklists, Young fired the pyrotechnics to separate Gemini 3’s equipment module from the adaptor and armed the automatic retrofire switch. One by one, the four braking engines ignited, another set of pyrotechnics released the spent retrorocket compartment, and Molly Brown plunged, its ablative base forward, into the atmosphere. “We could see the whole retro pack burning up as it came in right behind us,” Grissom remembered of the dramatic re-entry.
By monitoring the trajectory during re-entry, the on-board computer could predict the splashdown point and display this to Grissom, who could adjust the “lift vector” by using the thrusters in the nose to roll left or right of the “neutral” position in order to steer toward the target. When this indicated that they were coming in short, his efforts to “extend” made little difference. It was later concluded that theoretical and wind tunnel predictions of Gemini’s lift capability did not match its actual lift. In fact, Molly Brown would splashdown “short” of the intended point and about 65 miles (105 km) from the recovery ship, U.S.S. Intrepid. Nevertheless, the role of an engineering test flight was to determine the vehicle’s performance, and this empirical data would be taken into account on future missions.
As the drogue parachute deployed, Molly Brown was oriented with its heat shield down. However, after the main canopy had inflated, Grissom threw a switch to adjust the parachute line to a two-point configuration that would angle the capsule’s nose at a 45-degree angle to the horizontal. Even though both men were strapped in, this transition was so violent that it pitched them into their windows, cracking Young’s helmet faceplate and punching a hole in Grissom’s. Fortunately, splashdown at 2:16:31 p.m. was relatively smooth, although Grissom could see little through his window, as the still-attached parachute caught the wind and dragged Molly Brown’s nose underwater. Fearing that the ship would sink, Grissom jettisoned the parachute and Gemini 3 bobbed upright. He did not lose his craft … but, with the swelling waves, quickly lost his breakfast.
That breakfast had, of course, been augmented by Young’s crafty corned beef sandwich, one of the few events of the mission still remembered decades later. “I was concentrating on our spacecraft’s performance,” Grissom recalled after the flight, “when suddenly John asked me: ‘You care for a corned beef sandwich, skipper?’ If I could have fallen out of my couch, I would have! Sure enough, he was holding an honest-to-john corned beef sandwich!” As Grissom sampled the treat, bits of rye bread began to float around the pristine cabin, forcing him to put it away. His only complaint, Young recounted, was that there was no mustard on it. Still, it proved somewhat tastier than Gemini 3’s staple fare of reconstituted apple sauce, grapefruit juice, and chicken bits.
In his autobiography, Deke Slayton admitted that he had given permission for Young to carry the sandwich, but in view of the complaints NASA later received over its “frivolous” astronauts’ antics, he was obliged to render a formal, though mild, reprimand. For Grissom, it would be a highlight of the mission. It did not affect Young’s career, and on 6 April 1965, barely two weeks later, he and Grissom were assigned to the backup crew for Gemini VI, the rendezvous mission, scheduled to take place in the fall of 1965.
With Intrepid still some distance from them, it is hardly surprising that Grissom refused to open Molly Brown’s hatches until Navy swimmers from a hastily-dispatched rescue helicopter had affixed a flotation collar to the spacecraft. The splashdown point was in the vicinity of Grand Turk Island in the Atlantic. Although the spacecraft proved lousy as a boat, its performance in orbit had been nothing short of outstanding. “I do know that if NASA had asked John and me to take Molly Brown back into space the day after splashdown, we would have done it with pleasure,” said Grissom. “She flew like a queen, did our unsinkable Molly, and we were absolutely sure that her sister craft would perform as well.” Still, the seasick Grissom was first to leave the capsule, and Young kidded him about his failure to adhere to the old saying about captains being last to leave.
Without missing a beat, Grissom replied: “I just made you captain as I got out!”