Fifty years ago, this week, astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad experienced “the longest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.” Gemini V was the third manned flight of NASA’s two-man spacecraft, destined to clear many of the hurdles on the road to the first piloted lunar landing. Those hurdles included rendezvous, docking, spacewalking, a precision re-entry … and long durations of between eight and 14 days, the minimum and maximum anticipated lengths of a return trip to the Moon. On 21 August 1965, Conrad and his Gemini V command pilot, Gordo Cooper, blasted off on a mission which they had lightheartedly dubbed “Eight Days or Bust.” Privately, they would come to refer to it, somewhat disparagingly, as “Eight Days in a Garbage Can.”
Conrad’s wait for a flight into space had been a long one. In early 1959, he had been summoned to Washington, D.C., for a series of interviews and physical and psychological tests in support of Project Mercury. He had not made the cut, because, it is said, he showed a little too much cockiness, irreverence, and independence during testing. (Conrad had famously looked at a blank Rorschach card and described it to the unimpressed psychologist as being “upside down.”) His principal reason for rejection was that he was “unsuitable for long-duration flight,” but he made the cut and was selected by NASA in 1962. Ironically, two of Conrad’s four space missions would set new records … for long-duration flight!
Gemini V was the first flight of its kind to carry and utilize fuel cells to generate electrical power and enable longer durations. Since their assignment in February 1965, Cooper and Conrad and their backup crew of Neil Armstrong and Elliot See had put in punishing 16-hour working days, plus weekends, to meet a tight launch target of 1 August. This ludicrous schedule had to be relaxed. “We realized they needed more time,” wrote Deke Slayton, the head of Flight Crew Operations, in his autobiography, Deke, and after consulting with senior management he succeeded in securing a three-week delay to 19 August.
Despite the pressure, Cooper and Conrad found time to give some thought to names for their spacecraft, even though NASA had officially barred them from doing so. Due to its pioneering nature, the two men wanted to call Gemini V “The Conestoga,” after one of the broad-wheeled covered wagons used during the United States’ push westwards in the 19th century. Their crew patch, in turn, would depict one such wagon, emblazoned with the legend “Eight Days or Bust.” This was quickly vetoed by NASA managers, who felt it suggested a flight of less than eight days would constitute a failure, and Conrad’s alternative idea—“Lady Bird”—was similarly nixed because it happened to be the nickname of the then-First Lady, wife of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Its possible misinterpretation as an insult could provoke unwelcome controversy. The astronauts, however, would not be put off and Cooper pleaded successfully with NASA Administrator Jim Webb to approve the Conestoga patch. However, the administrator greatly disliked the idea.
Preparations for Gemini V had already seen Conrad gain, then lose, the chance to make a spacewalk. According to a January 1964 plan, the Gemini IV pilot would depressurize the cabin, open the hatch, and stand on his seat, after which an actual “egress” would be performed on Gemini V, a transfer to the back of the spacecraft and retrieval of data packages on Gemini VI and work with an Agena-D docking target vehicle on subsequent flights. Following Soviet success on Voskhod 2, however, plans for a full egress were accelerated and granted to Ed White. The result: instead of “Eight Days or Bust,” Gemini V would come to be described by Cooper and Conrad as “Eight Days in a Garbage Can”; they would simply “exist” for much of their time aloft, to demonstrate that human beings could survive for at least the minimum amount of time needed to get to the Moon and back.
Yet the Conestoga mission did have its share of interesting gadgets: it would be the first Gemini to run on fuel cells, would carry the first production rendezvous radar, and was scheduled to include exercises with a long-awaited Rendezvous Evaluation Pod (REP). Originally, it was also intended to fly the newer, longer-life thrusters, although these were ready ahead of schedule and incorporated into Gemini IV.
Only weeks after Cooper, Conrad, Armstrong, and See began training, in April 1965 fabrication of the Gemini V capsule was completed by McDonnell, tested throughout May in the altitude chamber, and finally delivered to Cape Kennedy, Fla., on 19 June. Elsewhere, the Titan II booster assigned to launch the mission was finished in Baltimore, Md., and accepted by the U.S. Air Force, and its two stages were in Florida before the end of May. Installation on Pad 19 followed on 7 June, and Gemini V was mounted atop the Titan on 7 July. Five days later, the last chance for an EVA on the mission was rejected by NASA Headquarters. There seemed little point in repeating what Ed White had already done, and, further, Cooper and Conrad, not wishing to be encumbered by their space suits for eight days, had campaigned vigorously for greater comfort in orbit by asking to wear helmets, goggles, and oxygen masks. The launch of Gemini V was scheduled for 19 August.
It would be a false start. Thunderstorms ominously approached the Cape, rainfall was copious, and a lightning strike caused the spacecraft’s computer to quiver. The latter, provided by IBM, had caused concern on Gemini IV and, this time around, had been fitted with a manual bypass switch to ensure that the pilots would not be left helpless again. The attempt was scrubbed with 10 minutes remaining on the countdown clock, and efforts to recycle for another try on 21 August got underway.
On this second attempt, no problems were encountered. Aboard Gemini V, Cooper turned to Conrad. “You ready, rookie?” Conrad, white as a sheet, replied that he was nervous. Surely the decorated test pilot who had flown every supersonic jet the Navy owned wasn’t scared? Conrad milked the silence in the cabin for a few seconds, then burst out laughing. “Gotcha!” he said with his trademark toothy grin. “Light this son-of-a-bitch and let’s go for a ride!” And ride they did. At 8:59:59 a.m. EDT, Cooper and Conrad were on their way.
Ascent was problematic when noticeable pogo effects in the booster jarred the men for 13 seconds, but smoothed out when the second stage ignited and were minimal for the remainder of the climb. Six minutes after launch, as office workers across America snoozed away their Saturday morning, Gemini V perfectly entered orbit. Nancy Conrad wrote that her late husband compared the instant of liftoff to “a bomb going off under him, then a shake, rattle, and roll like a ’55 Buick blasting down a bumpy gravel road—louder than hell.”
Hitting orbit made Cooper the first man to chalk up two Earth-circling missions. (Gus Grissom, of course, had piloted a suborbital flight on Liberty Bell 7, before commanding the orbital Gemini 3.) However, Gemini V would shortly encounter problems. The flight plan called for the deployment of the REP, nicknamed “The Little Rascal,” from the spacecraft’s adaptor, after which Cooper would execute a rendezvous test, homing in on its radar beacon and flashing lights. Before the REP could even be released, as Gemini V neared the end of its first orbit, Conrad reported, matter-of-factly, that the pressure in the fuel cells was dropping rapidly from its normal 58.6-bar level. An oxygen supply heater element, it seemed, had failed. Nonetheless, as they passed over Africa on their second orbit, Cooper yawed the spacecraft 90 degrees to the right and, at 11:07 a.m., explosive charges ejected the REP.
Next, the flight plan called for Gemini V to maneuver to a point 7 miles (11.2 km) below and 16 miles (25.7 km) behind the REP, although much of this work was subsequently abandoned. However, Chris Kraft’s ground team was becoming increasingly concerned as the fuel cell pressures continued to decline and when a pressure of 12.4 bars was reached this was insufficient to operate the radar, radio, and computer. Kraft had little option but to tell the astronauts to abandon their activities with the pod.
It seemed likely that a return to Earth would be effected and Kraft ordered four Air Force aircraft to move into recovery positions in the Pacific for a possible splashdown about 500 miles (800 km) northeast of Hawaii. A Navy destroyer and an oiler in the region were also ordered to stand by. Keenly aware of the situation, Cooper radioed that a decision needed to be made over whether to abort the mission or power down Gemini V’s systems and continue, to which Kraft told him to shut off as much as he could. All corrective instructions proved fruitless: neither the automatic or manual controls for the fuel cell’s oxygen tank heater would function. Nor could the heater itself, located in the adaptor section, be accessed by the crew. Cooper and Conrad even maneuvered their spacecraft so the Sun’s rays illuminated the adaptor, in the hope that it might stir the system back to life. It was all in vain.
By now, most of their on-board equipment—radar, radio, computer, and even some of the environmental controls—had been shut down, and, as Gemini V swept over the Atlantic on its third orbital pass, there was much speculation that a re-entry would have to be attempted before the end of the sixth orbit, because its subsequent flight track would take it away from the Pacific recovery area. Then, as the astronauts passed within range of the Tananarive tracking station in the Malagasy Republic, off the east coast of Africa, Cooper reported that pressures were holding at around 8.6 bars, suggesting, Kraft observed, that “the rate of decrease is decreasing.” As he spoke, the oxygen pressures dropped still lower, to just 6.5 bars, and fears were high that if they declined much further, Gemini V would need its backup batteries to support another one and a half orbits and provide power for re-entry and splashdown. The astronauts were asked to switch off one of the fuel cells to help the system, and as they entered their sixth orbit the pressures leveled-out at 4.9 bars.
Capcom Jim McDivitt asked Cooper for his opinion on going through another day under the conditions. “We might as well try it,” replied Cooper, but Kraft remained undecided. After weighing all available options, including the otherwise satisfactory performance of the cabin pressure, oxygen flow, and suit temperatures, together with the prestige to be lost if the mission had to be aborted, he and his control team emerged satisfied that oxygen pressures had stabilized at 4.9 bars. If there were no more drops, Gemini V would be fine to remain in orbit for a “drifting flight,” staying aloft just long enough to reach the primary recovery zone in the Atlantic, sometime after its 18th orbit.
Admittedly, with barely 11 amps of power, only a few of the mission’s 17 experiments could be performed, but Kraft felt “we were in reasonably good shape … we had the minimum we needed and there was a chance the problem might straighten itself out.” As Cooper and Conrad hurtled over Hawaii on their fifth orbit, he issued a “Go” for the mission to proceed. As the mission entered its second day, circumstances improved and pressures climbed. “The morning headline,” Kraft radioed on 22 August, referring to a newspaper, “says your flight may splash down in the Pacific on the sixth orbit.” Having by now more than tripled that number of orbits, Conrad replied that he was “sorry” to disappoint the media.
Notwithstanding the successes, the glitches continued. On 25 August, two of the eight small thrusters jammed, requiring Cooper to rely more heavily on their larger siblings and expend considerably more propellant than anticipated. It was at around this time that Gemini V broke Valeri Bykovsky’s five-day endurance record, and Mission Control asked Cooper if he wanted to execute “a couple of rolls and a loop” to celebrate; the laconic command pilot, however, declined, saying he could not spare the fuel and, besides, “all we have been doing all day is rolling and rolling!” When the record of 119 hours and six minutes was hit, Kraft blurted out a single word: “Zap!” Gordo Cooper, with an additional 34 hours from Faith 7 under his belt, was now by far the world’s most flown spaceman.
His response when told of the milestone was hardly historic … but matter-of-factly typical of Gordo Cooper: “At last, huh?”
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.