Corned Beef in Space
Two successful unmanned tests of the Titan II launch vehicle and the Gemini spaceship gave NASA confidence to go with a manned shake down flight with Gemini III. Gus Grissom, despite his loss of his Liberty Bell 7 Mercury capsule, had come to be known as the pilot who could find the glitches in a system. He was named Commander of the first manned flight. Rookie astronaut John Young was tapped to fly right seat.
The mission was to be a three orbit jaunt around the Earth to check spacecraft systems. While it had been decided the Geminis would just be numbered, Grissom pulled rank and named his spaceship ‘Molly Brown’, after a Titanic survivor. His craft this time was going to be unsinkable.
On March 23, 1965, Molly Brown headed for space atop its Titan II booster. When the second stage separated, Grissom fired the aft thrusters to push them into orbit. But he fired them a few seconds too long, giving the space ship too much speed. Even so, they achieved an almost nominal orbit.
Ninety minutes later, Grissom did something that had never before been done. He fired the Orbital Attitude and Maneuvering Systems (OAMS) for 75 seconds, and put Molly Brown into a near circular orbit. Forty-five minutes later he fired the OAMS rockets again and shifted the orbital plane of the spaceship, something that would be necessary during a rendezvous.
In the meantime, John Young pulled something from his spacesuit and handed it to Grissom. It was a corned beef on rye sandwich from a deli restaurant the astronauts frequented regularly on Cocoa Beach. Grissom took only one bite for fear of getting crumbs in the cabin…and of getting sick.
On the third orbit, the OAMS was fired a third time, with the spaceship turned with its aft section pointing in the direction of flight. This dropped the orbit by 75 kilometers. The craft would now reenter even if the retros didn’t fire.
The retros did fire, but the spaceship’s attitude was off, and it landed more than 80 kilometers from the pickup carrier. Grissom, mindful of his previous experience, would not open the hatches until the Navy frogmen secured the flotation collar around the craft.
But Molly Brown had proven Gemini could maneuver in orbit. It was time to push the envelop further.
A Stroll Around the Earth
Gemini IV would be a four day flight, to further test spacecraft systems, and with one more twist. One astronaut would take a brief stroll in space.
The Soviets already had done a spacewalk. This was our chance.
Jim McDivitt flew left seat, and Ed White would get to become a human satellite. Before he got that opportunity, however, there was one procedure to be tested. The crew was to attempt to rendezvous with the Titan II second stage.
Both the pilots and Mission Control would get a needed primer in orbital mechanics.
The second stage was ahead of the spaceship. McDivitt attempted to catch up with it by increasing the speed of the craft, just as you would on Earth. Ah, but terrestrial mechanics don’t work in orbit. Increasing speed moved the craft into a higher orbit. In a higher orbit, the speed of the craft decreased. This is because the higher the orbit of a satellite, the slower it needs to move to balance the pull of gravity.
The second stage moved further away.
Mission Control realized that what the crew had to do was drop down to a lower orbit—where they would speed up and catch up with the stage. They did so. When they had caught up, and actually moved somewhat ahead of it, they increased velocity and moved up to the second stage.
They were unable to stationkeep, however, as the learning situation had used too much fuel, and the remainder had to be conserved for the rest of the flight.
The next day, White was ready for his spacewalk. The crew depressurized the cabin, opened the hatch, and using a handheld propellant device called the ‘zipgun’, propelled himself away from the spaceship. He floated freely—although tethered to the craft—and described what a feeling of freedom it gave him. He used the zipgun to maneuver himself around, and found he had no ill feelings at all.
He was having a ball. So much so that after 16 minutes, Mission Control called up and told him “Get back in.” But White just couldn’t bring himself to do so. After a time, the ground called again with a sterner, “Get back in!”
This prompted McDivitt to advise, “”You better get back in.” White begrudgingly acquiesced. He had spent 36 minutes as a human satellite.
The first U.S. spacewalk was a resounding success.
The remainder of the flight proceeded without incident, until the crew attempted to set the computer to control reentry. It shut down. They would have to control reentry manually. As a result, they splashed down 80 kilometers off their targeted landing point, but the pickup task force had already begun moving towards the predicted landing point, and the crew was picked up almost immediately.
Shrimps in Space
Gemini V was a week long flight, with a primary mission of evaluating the radar system that would be used on the Agena vehicle which subsequent Geminis would dock with. This would be done with a Rendezvous Evaluation Pod (REP).
Pete Conrad and Gordo Cooper crewed the craft.
All went well for the first two orbits, and the crew was in the midst of evaluating the REP when the pressure in the O2 tank for the fuel cells dropped precipitously. REP evaluation had to be halted, and the spacecraft powered down to conserve power. Power gradually returned, and the rendezvous tests were picked up and successfully completed.
But another problem cropped up. One of their frozen meals was shimp. They had difficulty opening the package and the shrimp popped out into the cabin. For the remainder of the flight the little pink shrimp floated around the cabin as tiny pink satellites.
On the fifth day thruster No. 7 of the OAMS became inoperative, and No. 8 went out the next day. The system became increasingly erratic for the remainder of the mission. Splashdown was 145 km short of the target, but recovery went smoothly.
Despite the problems, the U.S. had wrested the space endurance record from the Soviets with a flight of almost eight days.
And although he had to share the record this time, once again, Gordo Cooper had flown higher, faster and further than any pilot in the world.
Titan II: NASA
White spacewalk: NASA
This post is part of the series: Rendezvous in Space–The Gemini Program
With President John Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had to develop and prove the techniques of rendezvous and docking two spacecraft in orbit. That was Gemini’s mission. Along the way, five astronauts would take a stroll in space.