A Reversal of Fortunes
Gemini VI sat on Pad 19 as its Atlas Agena target vehicle lifted off from Pad 14. Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were ready to go for the first rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft.
But the rocket science fates had other ideas. Six minutes after liftoff, the Atlas Agena exploded. The mission was scrubbed.
Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were slated to take Gemini VII on a two week endurance cruise two months later, and Borman had an idea. He assaulted NASA officials with it.
Without an immediately available Agena, why could not two Geminis rendezvous and station keep? It took him weeks to convince officials of the merits of the concept. The major stumbling block was getting the pad ready quickly enough after the launch of VII to launch VI to meet its partner in space. Engineers worked the problem and said they could do it. So the twin missions were put into the program.
On Dec. 4, 1965, Gemini VII leapt towards space. Borman and Lovell would have about a week before they would have company, but they had plenty to do in the meantime. First task was to accomplish the station keeping with the Titan II second stage that Gemini IV had been unable to complete. Borman, armed with the knowledge of orbital mechanics Jim McDivitt had learned on IV, easily flew within 15 meters of the stage, but he decided that was too close.
The spent stage was tumbling and bucking as it vented gases, and Borman felt the stage was too unstable to remain in its vicinity. They had spent 15 minutes stationkeeping, so he fired his thrusters and moved away.
For the next six days, the two performed a variety of experiments, including becoming the first astronauts to remove their spacesuits and fly without them. It was considerably more comfortable, and necessary on long duration flights.
On Dec. 12, Schirra and Stafford entered Gemini VI—now dubbed Gemini VIA—for their rendezvous with VII.
But the rocket science gods weren’t through with VI yet.
It was a Sunday, and my wife and I had gone over to Cocoa Beach to watch the launch. There was a point on the beach that curved out into the ocean. From here you had a direct and unobstructed view of Pad 19. It was a gray day, about 55 degrees. But there was a brisk breeze off the Atlantic that made it feel like 35.
We watched with high anticipation as we listened to the countdown on a portable radio. “3-2-1-ignition." Flames billowed from the engines…then disappeared. The Titan II sat still on the pad. I expected to see the two astronauts come hurtling out of the craft in their ejection seats, as that was the procedure for a pad abort.
Fortunately, wily Wally Schirra, seasoned test pilot, felt no movement of the vehicle, and so did not pull the D-ring that would have ejected them.
We were not the only ones who saw the shutdown. At that exact time, VII was passing over the Cape. Borman radioed down wanting to know what happened. Schirra told him they had ignition but then it just shut down. “But we’re not going anywhere today." he lamented.
The problem turned out to be a dust cover that had been left in the engine. Three days later, VIA lifted off, and headed to keep VII company.