'Like an Angry Alligator': 50 Years Since the Challenging Mission of Gemini IX (Part 1)

Gemini 9A launch Titan rocket Cape Canaveral NASA image posted on AmericaSpace

Gemini IX finally flew in June 1966, carrying astronauts Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan. Photo Credit: NASA

In many ways, NASA’s Gemini IX mission—tasked with spending three days in space, performing a lengthy spacewalk, a rendezvous, and a docking with an unmanned Agena target vehicle—was hamstrung by bad luck. First, in February 1966, its crew of astronauts Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were killed in an aircraft crash, pushing their backups, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, into the prime position. Then, in mid-May, the Agena itself was lost in a launch accident, as Stafford and Cernan waited patiently aboard Gemini IX for their scheduled launch, 90 minutes later. Fortunately, NASA had fabricated a replacement docking target, called the Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA), which was ready for launch at the beginning of June. Fifty years ago, this week, Gemini IX staged one of the most spectacular missions ever undertaken: a mission which underscored the dangers inherent in the highly unforgiving space environment.

Prior to See and Bassett’s deaths, Cernan confidently expected that he and Stafford would fly Gemini XII in late 1966. At the time, Deke Slayton, head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate (FCOD), employed a “rotation” system, whereby the backups for a given mission would ordinarily become the prime crew for a mission three flights downstream. During their training with See and Bassett, Cernan often found himself wandering along the production line of Gemini spacecraft at McDonnell’s plant in St Louis, Miss., to look at “his” future vehicle. At the time of the Gemini IX prime and backup crew announcement in November 1965, Stafford was in dedicated training for Gemini VI, and Cernan found himself in the peculiar situation of working without his command pilot. His role would be to shadow Charlie Bassett, one of whose primary objectives was to perform a two-hour EVA and test the Air Force’s Astronaut Maneuvring Unit (AMU). Looking like a massive suitcase, the AMU was so big that it would fly into orbit folded up, like a lawn chair, on the rear of Gemini IX.

Steadily, Bassett would maneuver himself along the length of the spacecraft to reach the AMU, then slip onto a bicycle-like seat, strap on the silver-white box, and glide off into space, using controls on a pair of armrests. From NASA’s perspective, the AMU was a critical tool for understanding how effectively astronauts could work outside their spacecraft.

Gemini IX backup crewman Gene Cernan performs a suited evaluation with the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU). Photo Credit: NASA

Gemini IX backup crewman Gene Cernan performs a suited evaluation with the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU). Photo Credit: NASA

In June 1965, Gemini IV’s Ed White had floated around for a few minutes, using a handheld maneuvering gun, but Bassett would take a far greater leap. His excursion would span more than a full orbit, and he would be in full control of his motion and direction, using 12 hydrogen peroxide jets, all the time remaining attached to Gemini IX by a long tether. Since underwater training did not yet form part of EVA preparation, Bassett and Cernan spent much of their time undertaking physical conditioning in the gym. Both men realized that strength and stamina were essential, and both played lots of handball and performed hundreds of press-ups. “Before long,” Cernan wrote, “we grew Popeye-sized forearms.”

The space suit itself was different from that worn by Ed White. This was partly due to the demanding AMU, one of whose searing hydrogen peroxide plumes jetted directly between Bassett’s legs! As a result, the suit’s trousers included additional heat-resistant materials and the complete ensemble featured white cotton long johns for biosensors, a nylon comfort layer, a Dacron-Teflon “net” to maintain shape, aluminized Mylar for micrometeoroid protection, together with fiberglass, and a metallic fabric, woven from the alloy Chromel R. One day, during training, Bassett and Cernan watched as a technician charred the material for five minutes with a blowtorch, confidently telling them that despite the intense heat of the AMU’s exhaust, they would remain comfortable inside their suits.

Five days before See and Bassett died, the AMU arrived at Cape Kennedy, Fla., for testing. Initial inspections were worrisomenitrogen pressurant leaked from its propulsion system and oxygen seeped from its life-support apparatusbut by mid-March its woes had been corrected and everything seemed on track for a 17 May liftoff. However, as detailed in a previous AmericaSpace article, the Agena target vehicle was lost in a launch accident, forcing a change of plans.

Several months earlier, NASA had directed General Dynamics to build a backup Atlas and McDonnell furnished a backup target vehicle, known as an Augmented Target Docking Adaptor (ATDA). It had to be ready within two weeks of any launch accident and it was targeted to fly on 1 June 1966. Known a little disparagingly as “The Blob” by the astronauts, it was similar in shape to the Agena. A conical docking collar would be jettisoned after it achieved orbit, allowing it to support Gemini IX’s rendezvous. At the stroke of 10 a.m. EDT on 1 June, it lumbered off Pad 14 at Cape Kennedy and thundered, almost perfectly into orbit. “Almost,” that is, because the docking collar only partially opened and did not properly separate from the vehicle.

This time, however, it was Gemini IX which was not quite ready to go. Launch was scrubbed when a glitch was detected in the spacecraft’s inertial guidance system and the attempt was rescheduled for 3 June. Tom Stafford had endured a harrowing abort on Gemini VI in December 1965 and pad leader Guenter Wendt could not resist a little fun, nicknaming him “The Mayor of Pad 19,” because he had spent so much time there. Some of the pad technicians also took part in the ribbing by hanging a large sign on the door to the elevator. It read: Tom and Gene, notice the “down” capability for this elevator has been removed. Let’s have a good flight! Gemini IX’s new backups, Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin, added their own placard, with a few lines of verse:

 

We were kidding before

But not anymore

Get your…uh…selves into space

Or we’ll take your place.

 

Lifting off atop the Titan II was, for Cernan, like “a feeling of slow pulsation,” followed by “a low, grinding rumble” as the rocket climbed steadily to orbit. That slow-motion start to the mission soon gave way to an increasing sensation of incredible speed, as the Titan thrust the two astronauts—both gritting their teeth—into the high atmosphere and beyond. When the second stage shut down, Cernan beheld nuts and bolts and bits of string floating around the cabin as he entered the magical realm of weightlessness. With three days of complex objectives ahead of them, their first task was to rendezvous with the ATDA … and find out the extent to which its jammed docking collar might impede the success of their mission.

Following the loss of the Gemini-Agena Target Vehicle (GATV) on 17 May 1966, an Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA) was pressed into service as a backup. It was launched on 1 June 1966. Photo Credit: NASA

Following the loss of the Gemini-Agena Target Vehicle (GATV) on 17 May 1966, an Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA) was pressed into service as a backup. It was launched on 1 June 1966. Photo Credit: NASA

They acquired a good radar lock on their quarry and at first it seemed that the docking collar might have successfully separated. Unfortunately, as Gemini IX drew closer, it became clear that it was actually gaping, half-open, like an enormous pair of jaws. “It looks like an angry alligator,” Stafford told Mission Control with dismay. Initial hope that he might be able to nudge it with his spacecraft’s nose to fully open the jaws was rejected as too risky by Flight Director Gene Kranz, and Stafford was forced to station-keep at a distance of about 35 feet (10 meters). It was clear, he reported, that the ATDA’s explosive bolts had fired, but two neatly-taped lanyards stubbornly held the shroud in place. The high tensile strength of these lanyards made it inadvisable to nudge the jaws. Moreover, Gemini IX’s parachutes were housed in its nose and damaging them was unthinkable.

On the ground, at a strategy meeting that night with senior managers Bob Gilruth and Chris Kraft, Gemini IX backup pilot Buzz Aldrin suggested sending Cernan outside to manually clip the lanyards with a pair of surgical scissors. Astronauts Jim McDivitt and Dave Scott, in Los Angeles, Calif., at the time, were dispatched to prime contractor Douglas Aircraft’s plant to examine a duplicate ATDA and determine if this could be done. Their consensus: It was possible, but would leave many sharp edges which could tear Cernan’s suit. Also, the tumbling of the ATDA, together with an almost complete lack of EVA experience and the dangers of the explosive bolts holding the lanyards together posed their own risks.

In the meantime, efforts by controllers to tighten and relax The Blob’s docking cone, in the hope that the action might free the shroud, were unsuccessful. “That only pushed out the bottom part of the shroud,” wrote Cernan in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, “and forced the other end, which was open, to partially close. Contracting the collar had the reverse effect, and to us, it seemed that those moving jaws were opening and closing.” The alligator seemed to be laughing at their misfortune.

After the mission, it would become clear that the problem centered on the fact that the Agena, the ATDA, and the shroud were built by three different organizations, namely Lockheed, McDonnell, and Douglas. Before McDonnell technicians had made a final inspection on the ATDA at Cape Kennedy, a Douglas engineer had supervised a practice run, with the exception of the lanyards which controlled the electrical disconnect to the explosive bolts. In the interests of safety, the lanyards were not hooked up for the test.

Crucially, the Douglas engineer was then forced to return home and attend his pregnant wife, telling his McDonnell counterpart to “secure the lanyards.” Consequently, on launch day, the McDonnell crew followed procedures published by Lockheed, which had themselves been copied from Douglas documentation. The instructions referred to a blueprint which was not present and the engineer’s absence meant that those technicians responsible for fixing the ATDA’s shroud simply wondered what to do with the dangling lanyards and decided that their best and safest bet was to tape them down. It was those taped-down lanyards which had now ruined Stafford and Cernan’s target in orbit.

It was a classic example of the old metaphor Too many cooks spoil the broth.

 

 

 

The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.

 

 

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