NASA was beginning to show cracks in their organization. The strain of President Kennedy's challenge of reaching the moon in that decade was forcing the organization to take risks. A number of serious failures had happened, but thankfully, no loss of life had occurred, except for the original prime crew for Gemini IX, Elliott See and Charles Bassett who were both killed in February, four months before the mission. The accident was blamed on pilot error (Elliot See, Jr.) when their plane struck the McDonnell building in St. Louis, Missouri as the two astronauts made their runway approach in bad weather. This fatal accident meant that for the first time, a backup crew would fly in place of the prime crew.
NASA PHOTO: Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, pilot of the Gemini 9-A space flight, took this picture of the nose of the Gemini 9 spacecraft while standing in hatch of spacecraft. Area of Earth below is the Pacific Ocean.
Gemini IX was coming on the heals of Gemini VIII in March 1966. During that mission a stuck thruster almost proved fatal and it cut what was to be a 3 day mission into just 10 hours. Two months later, Gemini IX was scheduled to rendezvous with an Agena docking module, but that launch date was postponed when the Atlas booster malfunctioned before lifting the Agena into orbit.
The mission was re-configured and scheduled for a June 1 launch with an augmented target docking adapter (ATDA) instead of the destroyed Agena.
NASA PHOTO: Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford (left) and Eugene A. Cernan, pilot,
After a successful launch and having the ATDA attaining orbit, Astronauts Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene Cernan were all set to follow the ATDA to begin the renamed mission Gemini IX-A, but at T-3 minutes a planned hold was put in place so the craft could be launched at the optimum time. When it came time to resume the countdown the ground computers couldn't reestablish contact with the onboard computers. This put a 48-hour postponement for the June 1 launch. The Gemini finally left the Kennedy Space Center on June 3, 1966.
Meanwhile, telemetry indicated there was a problem with the ATDA. It appeared from all data, that the protective shroud had failed to separate from the ship. The shroud was used during launch to protect the docking port. When Cernan and Stafford finally reached the orbiting ATDA, he referred to it as looking like ""It looks like an angry alligator out here rotating around." Stafford was tempted to maneuver his Gemini capsule and give the shield just a nudge to dislodge it, but Flight Director Kranz denied that request. It was then suggested that perhaps a space walk to the target so the retaining wires could be clipped, but after examining the sister ship in Los Angeles, it was determined there were too many sharp edges that could easily rip a fragile space suit. One final attempt was made to free the shroud. Ground control sent signals to the module to try to stress and unstress the restraining straps, but it was unsuccessful. This put an end to the docking portion of the mission.
NASA PHOTO: The Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA) as seen from the Gemini 9 spacecraft during one of their three rendezvous in space. The ATDA and Gemini 9 spacecraft are 66.5 ft. apart. Failure of the docking adapter protective cover to fully separate on the ATDA prevented the docking of the two spacecraft. The ATDA was described by the Gemini 9 crew as an "angry alligator.
Although the docking portion of the mission was over, the crew did manage to conduct several rendezvous attempts with the rotating module coming from different directions. This involved leaving the module and then go through the calculations to return and then actually return. They even completed a procedure known as a stationing where both ships maintained equal distance and revolution.
NASA PHOTO: The Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA) as seen from the Gemini 9 spacecraft during one of their three rendezvous in space. The ATDA and Gemini 9 spacecraft are 35.5 ft. apart.
The next phase of the mission was for Cernan to perform an Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) and test an astronaut maneuvering unit (AMU) developed by the Air Force.
Gemini IX-A's EVA
On June 5 the crew began making preparations for the EVA. The crew was beginning to exhibit signs of fatigue since they had only been able to grab a few minutes of sleep at a time over the last 45 hours. Suiting up inside the cabin was especially difficult, requiring starts and then taking a break to rest before continuing. After finally getting suited up, they opened the hatches with only a few minutes before sunset on this orbit. Cernan stood with in the hatch without leaving the craft waiting for sunrise.
The EVA was scheduled for almost 3 hours, but once Cernan got out of the capsule he immediately began having problems. Unlike previous EVAs in which the astronaut simply exited the cabin and floated about, Cernan's EVA was to take him to the back of the capsule where he would put on the AMU, but getting there proved an extremely difficult task. During the maneuver Cernan found that even the smallest motion in the weightless state, caused his entire body to react forcing him to continuously adjust his position to keep from floating away from the craft.
Going through the checklist required for the AMU took much longer than anticipated. Although footholds and hand grabs had been installed, they provided no means of leverage that would have not even been noticed on Earth. Ten minutes after sunset, his visor fogged up from his exertion. With the next sunrise, the fogging dissipated, but returned as soon as Cernan began working again the fogging returned.
With still at least 20 percent of the setup yet to be done, Cernan was reaching the point of exhaustion and had to rest. The fogging issue was becoming a serious problem. The mission required him to strap himself into the AMU, switch over to the AMU's oxygen supply and then fly the AMU and return, unstrap, and return tot he capsule. In theory and in testing this seemed reasonable, but in actuality, it was becoming extremely risky. The fogging meant that he was unable to see and perhaps would be unable to return to the correct position, unconnected himself from the unit and return to the cabin. After discussing the situation with Stafford and Mission Control, it was decided the best action would be to end the EVA and return to the cabin.
NASA PHOTO: An unusual view of the Gemini 9 spacecraft taken by Eugene Cernan during his Extravehicular Activity (EVA). His umbilical and spacecraft are visible though he is not.
After disconnecting himself from the AMU, Cernan felt his way back to the hatch. Here, Stafford grabbed his legs and pulled him into the cabin but a mirror that had been placed on the exterior so Stafford could keep an eye on Cernan had to be removed. After resting Cernan worked on removing the mirror, but so much exertion was required that his faceplate completely fogged up and the suit's cooling system was unable to keep him cool. After removing the mirror, Stafford pulled Cernan into the cabin and they closed the hatches and repressurized the capsule. In all, the EVA lasted 128 minutes.
NASA PHOTO: John C. Stonesifer (far right), with the Manned Spacecraft Center's Landing and Recovery Division, was on board to greet the astronauts as they were hoisted onboard the USS Wasp.
The next several days were spent working on various experimented and on June 6 they returned to Earth and landed almost right on the planned impact point in the Atlantic.