Whether they are executing a precision rendezvous and docking maneuver with the Mir space station or greasing another shuttle landing, astronauts routinely demonstrate that they are among the best pilots on the planet. But back at the beginning of America's space program, it looked like just about anybody could have done the job--and the overqualified men tasked to fly Project Mercury knew it.
"I initially said they should take one of those circus performers they'd shoot out of a cannon because Mercury wasn't a "pilot in space,' it was a "human in space,' " says Wally Schirra, a member of NASA's first astronaut class. "We didn't really contribute very much to the flight of the vehicle. We were lab specimens."
On Mercury, the astronaut was along for the ride. A booster would launch him and retrorockets would bring him back down. In between, nothing on the Mercury capsule would allow him to perform the simplest of pilot acts: alter his flight path. Sure, he could turn, pitch, and roll this way and that. He could see where he came from and where he was going. But for the Mercury astronaut, where he was going was a done deal only minutes into the mission. The very instant the booster's engines shut down, the capsule's trajectory was set.
But things began looking up for NASA's fledgling astronaut corps in December 1961, when NASA unveiled its second spacecraft design, the Mercury Mark II. Black and white and, unlike its predecessor, a two-seater, it was soon renamed Gemini, after the zodiac sign for twins. But many of the pilots who would ride the enlarged Mercury-type capsule into orbit gave the spacecraft another handle. They called it the Gusmobile.
That's "Gus" as in Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom. "Gus really had a big hand in everything, from the way the cockpit was laid out to what instruments went where," says John Young, Grissom's partner on the first manned Gemini flight, Gemini 3. "It was his baby."
Grissom, like Schirra, was a member of NASA's "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts and on July 21, 1961, became America's second man in space. But the same suborbital Mercury flight that put Grissom in the history books did something else. It made him the odd man out.
"When Gus finished his Mercury flight, he knew he was out of the loop because we had to go through the seven," Schirra says. "And he looked at it and said, "My God, we are not going to have that many flights! I'm going to go up to St. Louis and play with Gemini.' So it was essentially his spacecraft. He practically had it to himself."
NASA had been wrestling with the idea of a Mercury followup since 1959. Its goals evolved into something more lofty and much more complex than just putting two men inside a somewhat larger Mercury capsule and hurling them into the unknown. It became a testbed in which to prove all the major concepts needed for a manned mission to the moon. Could man survive in zero-gravity long enough to travel from Earth to the moon and return? Could astronauts manipulate their trajectory with enough precision to rendezvous and dock with another spacecraft? Could an astronaut leave the relative safety of the spacecraft's cabin and "walk" in space? And finally, could an astronaut control his spacecraft's reentry into Earth's atmosphere?
Gemini would tell them.
What Grissom would tell the engineers at McDonnell's St. Louis plant, where the Gemini was being built, was how to make it a pilot's spacecraft. "Since we had to fly the beast, we want one that will do the best possible job," he wrote in Signal magazine before his Gemini flight. Grissom, who died with astronauts Edward White and Roger Chaffee in the January 27, 1967 Apollo 1 fire at Florida's Cape Kennedy, became a spokesman for the astronauts during the design of the vehicle. And he was determined to see that the limitations of Mercury were not repeated. In a Gusmobile, the astronaut was going to be an integral part of the system rather than a backup.