Five decades have now passed since the final curtain was drawn down on Project Gemini—America’s effort to perfect the techniques of rendezvous, docking, long-duration spaceflight, and spacewalking—ahead of fulfilling President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. On 11 November 1966, Gemini XII astronauts Jim Lovell and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin launched atop a Titan II booster from Pad 19 at Cape Kennedy in Florida, bound for a four-day mission to demonstrate a multitude of techniques and technologies, as Project Apollo’s first flight neared. However, their assignment to the final Gemini flight had emerged from the ashes of tragedy.
At the dawn of 1966, NASA was on its uppers. America’s first spacewalk had been successfully completed and the nation had twice beaten the Soviet Union’s lead in terms of long-duration spaceflight, by scoring eight days in orbit on Gemini V and almost 14 days on Gemini VII. Moreover, the failure of an Agena target vehicle in October 1965 had prompted an audacious plan to utilize Gemini VII and Gemini VI-A to accomplish the first rendezvous between two piloted craft in orbit. However, in February 1966, the original Gemini IX crew—Elliot See and Charlie Bassett—died in the crash of their T-38 jet and were replaced by their backups, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan. Three weeks later, on 21 March, Lovell and Aldrin were reassigned from the Gemini X backup crew to become Stafford and Cernan’s new backups.
For Aldrin, whose Nassau Bay backyard bordered that of the Bassetts, it was a devastating way to receive a flight assignment. Three weeks after the accident, he and his wife, Joan, visited Jeannie Bassett to tell her the news. “I felt terrible,” he wrote, “as if I had somehow robbed Charlie Bassett of an honor he deserved.” Jeannie responded with quiet dignity and characteristic grace: her husband, she explained, felt that Aldrin “should have been on that flight all along … I know he’d be pleased.”
During Project Gemini, a three-flight rotation system existed, whereby the backup crew for a given mission would usually rotate into the prime crew slot, three missions hence. Accordingly, in their original position on the Gemini X backup crew, Lovell and Aldrin might have rotated into the prime crew of Gemini XIII … although the caveat that the program ended with Gemini XII rendered this a “dead-end” assignment. By being advanced onto the Gemini IX backup crew, the pair could anticipate assignment to the Gemini XII prime slot. And without flying Gemini XII—and with the benefit of hindsight—it seems unlikely that Aldrin would ever have wound up as the second man on the Moon on Apollo 11.
As the Gemini XII flight hardware was readied for launch, it was accompanied by a deadline to end the program and press on with Project Apollo, whose end goal was the first piloted landing on the Moon. Indeed, when Lovell and Aldrin walked out to Pad 19 on 11 November 1966, they wore placards reading “The” and “End” on their backs. In addition to rendezvous and docking with an automated Agena target vehicle, Aldrin would perform EVAs to perfect the basics of spacewalking: removing, installing, and tightening bolts, operating connectors and hooks, stripping patches of Velcro, and cutting cables.
To physically condition themselves, Aldrin and Gene Cernan—who had rotated into the Gemini XII backup slot following his return from Gemini IX—spent a considerable amount of time underwater in the neutral buoyancy tank. They wore ballasted suits, Aldrin said later, to completely neutralize their buoyancy and approximate microgravity as closely as possible. “Eventually,” he wrote in Men from Earth, “I mastered the intricate ballet of weightlessness. Your body simply had to be anchored, because if it wasn’t, flexing your pinkie would send you ass-over-teakettle. And you don’t want to do that dangling at the end of an umbilical cord 160 miles above Earth.”
Plans to launch on 9 November 1966 were abandoned when a malfunctioning power supply in the Titan II rocket’s secondary autopilot reared its head, and Lovell and Aldrin were recycled to fly two days later. The morning of the 11th dawned fine and clear, and the Agena and its Atlas launch vehicle set off promptly from the Cape’s Pad 14 at 2:08 p.m. EDT. During insertion into space, an anomaly was noted in the target’s propulsion system and plans to boost Gemini XII into a higher orbit were abandoned. Strapped inside their tiny cabin, both astronauts could clearly hear the Atlas’ thunderous roar. At 3:46:33 p.m., it was their turn. “There was no noise at first,” Aldrin wrote, “but then a growing rumble began as the spacecraft rolled through its pre-programmed maneuver, twisting to the proper south-east launch trajectory.” Steadily, the Titan II accelerated, “like a subway train,” Aldrin recalled, and as they climbed ever higher the sky steadily darkened to pitch black. Inside their suits both men felt their limbs rise and their toes lift to touch the tops of their boots. It felt almost as if they were stretching their feet, but not quite. They were weightless.
Once established in their 100 x 170 mile (160 x 270 km) orbit, Lovell and Aldrin set to work on their checklists, preparing for rendezvous and docking with the Agena some three orbits—and a little over four hours—into the mission. At around 5:11 p.m. they made their first attempt at radar contact with the target and were surprised when the computer responded with the desired digits. “Houston,” radioed a jubilant Aldrin, “be advised we have a solid lock-on … two hundred thirty-five point fifty nautical miles.”
Their success, though, proved short-lived. As they circularized their orbit to align themselves “behind” and “below” the Agena, high above North America, Gemini XII’s radar began giving intermittent readings. It was at this stage that Aldrin’s years of rendezvous work came to the fore: He broke out the intricate charts and reverted to what he called the “Mark One Cranium Computer”—the good old human brain. In Men from Earth, Aldrin vividly described the hours-long effort: As Lovell piloted Gemini XII, he labored over the charts, barely able to see the closely-printed data, occasionally aware of the passage of orbital daytime into nighttime and vice-versa.
It paid off. Four hours into the mission, Lovell eased the spacecraft’s nose into the Agena’s docking collar and announced, somewhat nonchalantly, “Houston, we are docked.” The response from the ground, delivered with similar excitement, was a simple “Roger.” The potential seriousness of the rendezvous radar failure had been overcome by human brainpower and flying abilities. Should a similar contingency occur during a rendezvous situation in orbit around the Moon, Lovell and Aldrin’s work had at least proved that workarounds could be achieved. They had also used barely 280 pounds (127 kg) of their fuel supply in one of the project’s most economical rendezvous efforts.
For the fourth time in eight months, a Gemini was securely linked to an Agena and Lovell and Aldrin became the second crew to practice undocking and redocking. One attempt by Lovell during orbital darkness caused the docking latches to “hang-up,” producing a rather disturbing grinding sound, but he was able to “rock” Gemini XII free without damage. A few minutes later, they switched roles and Aldrin redocked them onto the target. All seemed to be moving exceptionally smoothly as the astronauts prepared for a four-day mission which would establish itself as a fitting end for Project Gemini and carried excited hope for Project Apollo and the voyage to the Moon.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.