The View From 800 Miles
Young and Collins’ record for the highest orbit lasted about two months. Chuck Conrad and Dick Gordon on September 12, 1966 were ready to smash it, along with some other advances.
Their Gemini XI raced after the Agena target vehicle just two seconds after its launch. This was to be a first orbit rendezvous. NASA had already determined that a lunar orbit rendezvous would be a part of the moon landing program, and that would require a first orbit connection at the moon. It had to be perfected now.
Conrad and Gordon made it look easy. By now all the astronauts were well versed in orbital mechanics, and the two pilots made the orbital adjustments quickly, much of them on their own, as they were out of communication range with the ground. Eighty-five minutes after XI’s launch, the spaceship pulled to within 15 meters of the Agena.
Gordon radioed down, “Mr. [Chris] Kraft, would you believe M equals 1? (NASA speak for rendezvous achieved.) Seconds later, they were given the go ahead to dock.
Both pilots then practiced undocking and docking several times. They then fired the Agena’s engine to change the orbital plane.
Then Gordon exited the spacecraft for an EVA. He retrieved a couple of experiments from the Agena, and attached a 30 meter tether to both vehicles for a later experiment in artificial gravity.
After the EVA, and some sleep, the two prepared their big adventure. On the 26th revolution, they fired the Agena’s engine for 26 seconds. They were headed out. As they watched the Earth recede, Conrad radioed down, “the world is round."
They reached an apogee of 800 miles, and spent two revolutions at that distance. They then fired the Agena’s engine to bring them back down to 189 miles.The next day, they began the artificial gravity experiment with the tether. Theory said if two objects were connected, with one closer to the Earth than the other, it would produce a ‘gravity gradient’ that would create artificial gravity in the spaceship.
They undocked from the Agena and began to reel out the tether. The tether stuck, so they couldn’t do the gravity gradient experiment. So they attempted to do a spin experiment. In this, they put both craft into a rotation around each other. There were problems but the pilots solved each one in turn. Finally, they had a stable rotation. Although neither could feel any indication of gravity, objects in the cabin did slowly move to the back—now floor—of the cabin.
After releasing the tether, they rendezvoused again with the Agena, stationkeeping for a time.
Then it was time to come home, from the most successful Gemini mission ever.