NASA PHOTO: On June 3, 1965 Edward H. White II became the first American to step outside his spacecraft and let go, effectively setting himself adrift in the zero gravity of space. For 23 minutes White floated and maneuvered himself around the Gemini spacecraft while logging 6500 miles during his orbital stroll.
The Mercury Program proved that man could indeed survive the trip into space. This was a big unknown and although animals had been successfully launched and recovered, it didn't tell the scientists what they really needed to know: could we survive and still perform physical and mental tasks.
NASA PHOTO: Gemini's 6 and 7 rendezvous in 1965
Once those questions were answered, the next logical goal was to put man on the moon. President Kennedy issued the challenge: put men on the moon by the end of the decade! A challenge that would be met, but would also be costly in men and equipment.
To the Moon!
On May 25, 1961, just 3 weeks after the successful Mercury Program put the first American, astronaut Alan Shepard, into space, President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending astronauts to the moon before the end of the decade. Imagine, manned space flight for the United States totalled less than 15 minutes total and the President issues the challenge that we can land on the moon.
Later that year, NASA expanded their short term goals by creating another program that would follow the Mercury Program. The name chosen for this project was for the third constellation of the Zodiac and its twin stars Castor and Pollux. That constellation was named Gemini, "the twins".
NASA PHOTO: Gemini 5 Prime Crew, Charles "Pete" Conrad and Gordon Cooper in their silver pressure suits are greeted by employees as they make their way to the launch pad.
Gemini Project would be a 2 man spacecraft that would become a training program for both astronauts and ground crews to provide valuable skills and technology that would later be used to land on the moon and return to Earth, safely.
Immediate goals were to study the effects on man of extended periods of time in weightlessness. Also it would be necessary to develop the necessary skill sets to rendezvous and dock with another orbiting spacecraft, be able to change orbit altitudes, and determine if many could successfully perform extra-vehicular activity (EVA) -- space walks.
The Gemini Spacecraft
The Gemini spacecraft was a cone-shaped capsule consisting of two components, a reentry module and an adaptor module. The adaptor module made up the base of the spacecraft. There were also 2 hinged doors that opened outward.
At the time of reentry, the spacecraft would be maneuvered to the appropriate orientation and the broad equipment section would be detached and jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere. This would expose the retrorocket module. The retro-rockets consisted of 4 spherical-case solid-propellant motors mounted near the center of the reentry adaptor module. They would fire to initiate the spacecraft reentry into the atmosphere, with attitude being maintained by a reentry control system of 16 engines.
The retrorocket module would then be jettisoned, exposing the heat shield at the base of the reentry module. Along with the heat shield, thermal protection during reentry was provided by thin Rene 41 radiative shingles at the base of the module and beryllium shingles at the top. Beneath the shingles was a layer of insulation and thermoflex blankets. When the descending capsule reached an altitude of about 9.3 miles the astronauts would deploy an 8' drogue chute from the rendezvous and recovery section. At 2 miles altitude the crew would release the drogue chute which in turn would pull out the 18 foot pilot parachute.
After the pilot parachute is deployed, an 84 foot main ring-sail parachute deploys. The spacecraft is then rotated from a nose-up to a 35 degree angle for water landing. At this point a recovery beacon is activated, transmitting via an HF whip antenna mounted near the front of the reentry module.
NASA decided to use a 2-man Mercury Mark II concept to further develop the program and achieve the necessary goals required for a moon landing. This concept became known as the Gemini Program. It took about 30 months to complete the design of the new capsule. The capsule would have thrusters for the crew to use in maneuvering the craft. It also had the first onboard computers necessary to go through the millions of calculations required to make onboard adjustments to the flight in real-time. The new capsule was twice as heavy as the smaller Mercury capsule and so the more powerful Titan II rocket was used for the launches instead of the smaller, less reliable Atlas rockets.
NASA PHOTO: The Titan II liftoff. The Titan II launch vehicle was used for carrying astronauts on the Gemini mission. The Gemini Program was an intermediate step between the Project Mercury and the Apollo Program. The major objectives were to subject the two men and supporting equipment to long duration flights, to effect rendezvous and docking with other orbiting vehicle, and to perfect methods of reentry, and landing the spacecraft.
The space race with the USSR was still on. The Soviet Union seemed intent on besting the Americans in every first, but this was to be short lived. Although the USSR successfully put 3 men into orbit and performed the first EVA, it almost ended in disaster when the Cosmonaut had problems re-entering the cramped cabin of the Voskhod because his space suit had ballooned up and made movement almost impossible. Computer problems and a faulty air lock sent the cosmonauts far off course and they landed in a heavily wood area of the Siberian forest where they would not be found for 2 days. The following year the Soviet's chief designer Sergei Korolev died, which effectively ended their race for the moon, at least that was what the American's believed.
The Gemini program would take the United States step-by-step through a series of successes and failures that would eventually put them on the moon. Political pressure to fulfill Kennedy's challenge within the decade caused multiple problems that eventually would lead to a tragedy in the Apollo program.