Iowans, the Choice is Clear … And Here's Some Space History

I suppose most Iowans who are disappointed with the field of potential Republican candidates — and let’s face it, the field as a whole has been pretty disappointing for the last several months — will just stay away from the caucuses, but here’s an alternative for the more daring: show up and support the Anti-Candidate!

As always, I’m available as your convenient throwaway write-in vote for any office, anywhere. I don’t make any promises, not even to show up for the job … that way I won’t be as much of a disappointment as your run-of-the-mill politicians.

And what other candidate offers you occasional space history items? None, I tell you!

Speaking of which: a half-century ago today — January 3, 1962 — NASA announced that its two-manned vehicle program, a major precursor to the eventual Apollo missions to the Moon, would be named “Gemini.” Up until that point it had been called Mercury Mark II, and NASA considered other names such as “Diana,” “Valiant,” and “Orpheus.” But Gemini it became.

For more on the names of NASA’s early missions, check out the “Origins of NASA Names”.

I’m the Anti-Candidate, and I approved this space history post.

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Last Gemini Launch

Forty-five years ago today — November 11, 1966 — Gemini XII launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Titan-II rocket.

(Gemini-12 astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin outside the capsule during an EVA. NASA image.)

Gemini-12 astronauts James A. Lovell, Jr. and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., spent 4 busy days in space, completing three extra-vehicular activities (EVA) — including one full-up “spacewalk” — as well as docking with a target vehicle, an Agena that was launched less than 2 hours earlier.

During one of the spacecraft’s orbits on November 12th, the crew were able to take pictures of a total eclipse that was visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

With the completion of the Gemini program, the U.S. space program turned its full attention to Apollo and the Moon.

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Space History Double Shot: Gemini-11 and STS-48

Forty-five years ago today — September 12, 1966 — astronauts Charles “Pete” Conrad, Jr. and Richard F.Gordon, Jr., launched from Cape Canaveral on the Gemini-11 mission.

Gemini-11 mission objecttives were “to achieve a first orbit rendezvous and docking with the Agena target vehicle, to accomplish two ExtraVehicular Activity (EVA) tests, to perform docking practice, docked configuration maneuvers, tethered operations, parking of the Agena target vehicle and demonstrate an automatic reentry.” The 3-day mission also carried several experiments.

Gemini-11 marked the first time two tethered spacecraft were rotated to impart a gravity-like acceleration.

The hatch was closed at 9:57 a.m. [on September 14] and shortly afterwards the spacecraft were undocked and Gemini 11 moved to the end of the 30 meter tether attaching the two spacecraft. At 11:55 a.m. Conrad initiated a slow rotation of the Gemini capsule about the GATV which kept the tether taut and the spacecraft a constant distance apart at the ends of the tether. Oscillations occurred initially, but damped out after about 20 minutes. The rotation rate was then increased, oscillations again occurred but damped out and the combination stabilized. The circular motion at the end of the tether imparted a slight artificial “gravitational acceleration” within Gemini 11, the first time such artificial gravity was demonstrated in space. After about three hours the tether was released and the spacecraft moved apart.

Twenty-five years later, on this date in 1991, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-48. Astronauts John O. Creighton, Kenneth S. Reightler, Jr., Mark N. Brown, Charles D. Gemar, and James F. Buchli deployed the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS).

(Artist’s conception of UARS. NASA image.)

UARS was designed to operate for three years, to “make the most extensive study ever conducted of the Earth’s troposphere, the upper level of the planet’s envelope of life sustaining gases which also include the protective ozone layer.” The spacecraft was decommissioned in December 2005.

Unfortunately, UARS has been in the news recently: the 14,500-pound observatory is expected to fall back to earth later this month in an uncontrolled reentry.

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Gemini Ten

Forty-five years ago today — July 18, 1966 — John W. Young and Michael Collins launched from Cape Canaveral on the Gemini-10 mission.

(Agena target vehicle as photographed from the Gemini-10 capsule. NASA image.)

Gemini-10 featured the first dual space rendezvous: Young and Collins rendezvoused with two target vehicles, Agena-10 and then Agena-8. In fact, Gemini-10 first docked with Agena-10, and then the astronauts moved the entire dual-spacecraft assembly into the orbital rendezvous with Agena-8.

One of the flight objectives was to retrieve experiment packages from the two Agena vehicles. The spacewalk was “limited to 25 minutes of outside activity due to lack of fuel,” and did not go exactly as planned:

Despite difficulties due to lack of handholds on the target vehicle Collins removed the fairing and retrieved the micrometeoroid detection equipment. During the EVA he lost his camera. He also retrieved the micrometeorite experiment mounted on the Gemini 10 spacecraft, but this apparently floated out of the hatch and was lost when Collins reentered the capsule.

Overall, though, the Gemini-10 mission was successful: Young and Collins splashed down on July 21st, having completed another step in the pathfinder checklist on the way to the Moon.

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Another Step Toward Apollo: Gemini-9

Forty-five years ago today — June 3, 1966 — Gemini-9 launched from Cape Canaveral on a Titan-II rocket.

(Gemini-9 in orbit. NASA image.)

The crew of Gemini-9, Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan, carried out a series of maneuvers to simulate future Apollo rendezvous maneuvers. They were supposed to actually dock with a target vehicle, but they saw “that the launch shroud … had failed to deploy and was blocking the docking port.”

Another part of the mission profile was to test the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, but that test also ran into difficulty:

On 5 June at 10:02 a.m. EST the Gemini capsule was depressurized and the hatch above Cernan opened. Cernan was out of the spacecraft at 10:19, attached by an 8 meter long tether which was connected to Gemini’s oxygen supply. He had no gas maneuvering unit as was used on Gemini 4. He retrieved the micrometeorite impact detector attached to the side of the capsule and then moved about the spacecraft. He had great difficulty manuevering and maintaining orientation on the long tether. He took photographs of Gemini from the full length of the tether and finally moved to the back of the capsule where the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU) was mounted. He was scheduled to don the AMU, disconnect from the Gemini oxygen supply (although he would still be attached to the spacecraft with a longer, thinner tether) and move to 45 meters from the capsule. The task of donning the AMU took “four to five times more work than anticipated”, overwhelming Cernan’s environmental control system and causing his faceplate to fog up, limiting his visibility. It was also discovered that the AMU radio transmissions were garbled. These problems caused Stafford to recall Cernan to the spacecraft. He reentered the spacecraft at 12:05 p.m. and the hatch was closed at 12:10. Cernan was the third person to walk in space and his total time of 2 hours, 8 minutes was the longest spacewalk yet.

The image above shows one of the pictures Cernan took of the Gemini spacecraft.

Stafford and Cernan de-orbited and splashed down on June 6th.

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An Important Day in Rocket History

Eighty-five years ago today — March 16, 1926 — Dr. Robert H. Goddard made history near Worcester, Massachusetts, when he launched the first liquid-fueled rocket.

(Dr. Robert Goddard with his first liquid-fueled rocket. Image from the USAF Museum. Click to enlarge.)

Operating on gasoline as its fuel and liquid oxygen as the oxidizer, the vehicle reached the lofty height of 41 feet during its 2.5-second flight, but it proved the concept and led to bigger and more powerful vehicles.

In Dr. Goddard’s memory, the Goddard Space Flight Center was established in Greenbelt, Maryland, in 1959. The facility was dedicated 50 years ago today, on the 35th anniversary of his historic rocket launch.

You can read more about Dr. Goddard on this NASA page and this USAF page. You can also examine archives available through Clark University.

Fulfilling the promise of Dr. Goddard’s first launch, 45 years ago today astronauts Neil Armstrong and Dave R. Scott launched on the Gemini-VIII mission. Their Titan-II rocket put them into the proper orbit to perform the first manned docking of one spacecraft with another, in this case an Agena target vehicle that had been launched earlier in the day.

The Gemini-VIII mission did not go exactly as planned, however:

About 27 minutes after docking at 5:41 p.m. the combined vehicle began to go into a violent yaw and tumble. Armstrong disengaged the Gemini capsule from the GATV causing it to roll, pitch, and yaw even more rapidly than when it was connected to the GATV, approaching and possibly exceeding a rate of one revolution per second. Armstrong and Scott managed to deactivate the OAMS and in a final attempt to counteract the violent tumbling all 16 reentry control system (RCS) thrusters were utilized to damp out the roll. This manuever succeeded in stabilizing the spacecraft at 6:06:30 p.m. but ended up using 75% of the RCS fuel. It was then discovered that one of the 25-pound Orbit Atitude and Maneuver System (OAMS) roll thrusters (roll thruster no. 8) on Gemini 8 had been firing continuously, causing the tumbling.

Because of the use of so much propellant, Gemini-VIII was forced to end its mission early and make an emergency landing. Still, they had achieved another milestone of rocket-based travel, presaged by Dr. Goddard’s launch not too many years before.

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Gemini Titan VI

Forty-five years ago today — December 15, 1965 — astronauts Walter M. Schirra, Jr. and Thomas P. Stafford launched from Cape Canaveral on the Gemini VI-A mission.

(The Gemini-VI capsule, taken from Gemini-VII. NASA image. Note the “Beat Army” message.)

Gemini-6A was originally scheduled to launch on October 25th, but that launch was cancelled because the rendezvous target vehicle — an Agena, launched an hour before the scheduled Gemini-6 liftoff — did not reach orbit. The mission was recycled and another attempt was made on December 12th, but “the launch was aborted one second after engine ignition because an electrical umbilical separated prematurely. This was the first time an astronaut mission was aborted after ignition start.”

As we noted a few days ago, Gemini-VII was already in orbit, and rendezvoused with Gemini-VI while the two spacecraft were in orbit together:

First radar lock indicated a distance of 396 km. Two more major thruster burns preceded the final braking maneuver at 2:27 p.m. EST. Rendezvous was technically achieved and stationkeeping begun at 2:33 with the two Gemini spacecraft in zero relative motion at a distance of 110 meters. Stationkeeping maneuvers involving the spacecraft circling each other and approaching and backing off continued for 5 hours 19 minutes over three and a half orbits.

I find it interesting that this launch occurred five years to the day after the Pioneer-31 (or Pioneer-Z, or Atlas Able 5B) mission, to place a satellite in orbit around the Moon, failed when the booster exploded a minute after liftoff. Especially in the early days, no doubt our astronauts were all “steely-eyed missile men.”

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Gemini-VII: Another Step Toward the Moon

Forty-five years ago today — December 5, 1965 — astronauts Frank Borman and James A. Lovell, Jr. were orbiting the earth in their Gemini capsule.

(The full Moon seen above the limb of the Earth, taken from Gemini-7 on December 8, 1965. NASA image.)

Gemini-7 actually launched 45 years ago yesterday, from Cape Canaveral atop a Titan launch vehicle. (It’s also known as Gemini-Titan-7.)

Borman and Lovell spent 2 weeks in orbit, and performed the first space rendezvous with Gemini-6, which was supposed to launch first but was delayed by a problem with its Titan booster.

Stationkeeping maneuvers involving the spacecraft circling each other and approaching and backing off continued for 5 hours 19 minutes over three and a half orbits. During the maneuvers, all four astronauts on both spacecraft took turns in the formation flying activities and photographs were taken from both spacecraft. This marked the first time two spacecraft were maneuvered with respect to each other by their crews.

Read more about the program at this Gemini history page.

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Forty-five years ago today — August 21, 1965 — astronauts Gordon L. Cooper, Jr., and Charles P. “Pete” Conrad, Jr. launched from Cape Canaveral on the Gemini-V mission.

(Gemini-V launch. NASA image.)

Cooper and Conrad spent eight days in space, evaluating the effects of prolonged weightlessness and testing rendezvous capabilities and maneuvers in advance of the Apollo missions to the Moon.

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First U.S. Spacewalk: Ed White Steps Out of Gemini-IV

Forty-five years ago today — June 3, 1965 — astronauts James A. McDivitt and Edward H. White launched from Cape Canaveral on a Titan-II rocket.

(Ed White on the first U.S. spacewalk. NASA image.)

A little over four hours into the flight, Ed White stepped out of the Gemini-IV capsule for the first-ever extravehicular activity (EVA) by a U.S. astronaut. His EVA lasted about 20 minutes and met all the mission objectives, though he and McDivitt had some trouble getting the hatch closed when he got back in the spacecraft.

Some great high-resolution images of the EVA are available at

McDivitt and White stayed in orbit for four days. One interesting side note to the mission was a famous UFO sighting by McDivitt while White was sleeping, of an object shaped “like a beer can with an arm sticking out”; it is likely he saw the second stage of their Titan-II. The claim is disputed by UFO enthusiasts, but the 1981 article by James Oberg linked above asks,

Is any conclusion possible after so many years, when the supporting evidence has been trashed and the eyewitness testimony has become fossilized by countless repetitions? The principal leg of the [UFO enthusiasts’] endorsement — that there weren’t any candidate objects within 1,000 miles — has been demolished by the recognized presence of the beer can-shaped Titan-II stage. McDivitt, more than a decade after the fact, refused to believe he could have misidentified that object — but both his degraded eyesight [because of issues in the Gemini capsule] and different viewing angle at the time of the sighting eliminate any reliability from that claim — and years of UFO research have taught us the surprising lesson that pilots are, in truth, among the poorest observers of UFOs because of their instinctive pattern of perceiving visual stimuli primarily in terms of threats to their own vehicles.

As to that last bit, about pilots perceiving objects as threats until proven otherwise … that’s probably a good thing. And possibly a lesson we could apply to other endeavors.

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