En Route to the First Moon Landing — Gemini 5, Fifty Years Ago

Conrad (left) and Cooper in the Gemini 5 capsule prior to launch. (NASA)

Gemini is the forgotten leg of the space race. Mercury got us started; Apollo put us on the moon; Gemini was sandwiched between.

If Mercury was D-Day and Apollo was VE-Day, Gemini was Patton and the Third Army cutting through France, Germany, and 2 million Nazis. Or if Apollo was Hiroshima and VJ day, Gemini was Los Alamos and Trinity.

In 1961, when President John Kennedy set December 31, 1969, as the deadline for a moon landing, Alan Shepard’s 15 minutes in space was the grand total of America’s experience with manned space flight. A lot had to be done before a moon landing could be attempted, or even planned. In fact, a lot had to be done to find out if a moon landing was even possible.

Flying 250,000 miles from the earth to the moon requires extreme precision — could a spacecraft put itself in the right orbit to make the trip? There’s no air on the moon’s surface — could men work in a vacuum? After a spacecraft landed on the moon’s surface, it would have to take off again and rendezvous with a module in lunar orbit — could one spacecraft’s orbit be matched to another’s? Could two spacecraft rendezvous in orbit? Could they dock? It takes a week to get to the moon and back — could a spaceship function for a week in space? Could men survive a week without gravity?

These were the questions that the Gemini missions were designed to answer.

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Geminis 1 and 2 tested the Gemini hardware and the Titan rocket that put it in orbit. Gemini 3 was the first manned mission; it performed the first ever orbital maneuver, which changed the capsule’s path around the Earth from a loop of 87 nautical miles by 121 to a lower orbit of 85 by 91. Could a spacecraft adjust its orbit precisely? Yes.

On Gemini 4, Ed White performed our first space walk. Could a man work in a vacuum? Yes.

Fifty years ago, on August 21, 1965, Gemini 5 was launched. It was the first long-duration space flight, the first test of a fuel-cell system that could function long enough to fly men to the moon and back. So far, all the Mercury and Gemini flights had used batteries. Perhaps more important was that Gemini 5 was the first test of a man’s ability to spend a week in constant free-fall, without feeling gravity or being able to stretch his legs outside in some fresh air.

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The two men chosen to the fly the mission were Leroy Gordon Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad. Two troublemakers. Gordo Cooper made the last Mercury flight, a mission from which he had almost been bumped as punishment for buzzing NASA offices at low altitude in a fighter jet. Just before Gus Grissom’s Mercury flight, Gordo buzzed Gus’s rocket, causing a minor crisis. Once, during a trip to Huntsville, Ala., Gordo decided to land his NASA jet on a very short airstrip, conveniently close to a meeting he had to attend. His jet was near empty, but the ground crew refused to refuel it, saying that it would suicidal for Gordo to try taking off from such a short runway. So Gordo climbed back into plane and took off, on fumes. He made it to the next airport over, which filled him up.

Gordo, a very fine pilot with nerves of steel, radioed a growing list of failures down to mission control before calmly adding, “Other than that, everything’s fine.”

Gordo was a very fine pilot and had nerves of steel. On the 19th orbit of his Mercury mission, his capsule went haywire. The automatic reentry system died. The environmental system started to go out, carbon dioxide started to build up, and the attitude thrusters started to fail. Cooper radioed the growing list of failures down to mission control before calmly adding, “Other than that, everything’s fine.” Using hash marks in the window and his wristwatch to keep time, Gordo flew his spacecraft back through the atmosphere and set a new record for landing precision, splashing down just four miles from the aircraft carrier that picked him up.

Pete Conrad could have joined Gordo as one of the original Mercury astronauts, but he got fed up with Mercury’s battery of medical tests. When a psychiatrist asked him to describe what he saw in a Rorschach inkblot, Conrad went on at great and sexually explicit length. When the psychiatrist asked him to describe what was on a blank sheet of paper, he looked at it thoughtfully and said, “It’s upside down.” After his umpteenth enema, he decided he’d had enough. He delivered the enema bag to the clinic’s officer in charge, along with a resignation.

Afterward, his file was annotated: “Not suitable for long duration spaceflight.” But he was such a damned good pilot, and so damned likable, that NASA hired him for the second astronaut class. He went on to command the second moon landing and the first mission on America’s first space station.

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As you can imagine, Pete and Gordo were well suited to each other; they probably hold the combined record for most-gregarious astronauts . They had to contain themselves for eight days — “eight days in a garbage can,” as Conrad put it: The Gemini capsule had less interior space than the front seats of a Volkswagen Beetle. You’ve probably seen photos of spaceflight patches: little sewn designs of rockets, planets, and mission names. Gordo Cooper invented the idea, for Gemini 5. He had a patch stitched onto his and Pete’s spacesuits — a covered wagon that was stamped with the slogan “8 days or bust.”

The mission started badly — the rocket experienced heavy “pogo,” length-wise buffeting that makes an astronaut feel like he’s being bounced on a pogo stick. For 13 seconds, the pogo was so extreme that Cooper and Conrad couldn’t speak or see straight. Steel-nerved as he was, Cooper didn’t abort the mission, waiting as long as he could for things to settle down. Which they did. The rocket delivered them perfectly into orbit, and the mission was back on track.

Two hours later, the new fuel cells started acting up, which meant a planned rendezvous exercise had to be delayed, which meant they couldn’t use their intended rendezvous target, which gave a young astronaut named Buzz Aldrin a chance to cut his teeth in the big time. Buzz had a PhD from MIT in orbital rendezvous. He designed a “phantom rendezvous” exercise, which allowed Cooper and Conrad to rendezvous not with an object but with a fixed point in space. Once again the mission was back on track.

#share#Pete and Gordo rapidly became exhausted. They slept alternately—in so tiny a capsule it meant that neither of them slept at all; neither could work quietly enough for the other to drift off. So they decided to start sleeping simultaneously, letting their capsule drift through space while Mission Control kept an eye on it. Things were back on track.

On the fifth day, four of the Gemini’s 16 thrusters began to malfunction, but the crew was able to shut them down before any harm was done. Aside from the cancelation of some thruster-related experiments, everything else went perfectly, through splashdown in the Atlantic — fifty years ago today. The mission lasted 7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes, and 14 seconds. It orbited the earth 120 times and traveled 3 and a quarter million miles. Could men and machines last in space long enough to fly to the moon? Yes.

But could they meet up in orbit and dock? To find out, stay tuned for the 50th anniversaries of Gemini 6 and 7. Coming this Christmas.

Conrad and Cooper back on Earth (NASA)

Josh GelernterJosh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.


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