Flying the Gusmobile
It didn't look remotely like a fighter plane. So why did astronauts who flew the Gemini spacecraft compare it to one?
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, September 1998
(Page 4 of 6)
"We went over the top and I said, "Houston, Eureka! The world is really round,' and they rogered," Conrad says. "I didn't think much about the comment at the time--that is, until I got back to the astronaut office and got all these letters from the Flat Earth Society in which they explained to me that the earth was flat. But they did acknowledge that it was indeed disk-shaped."
"Right after we got into orbit we were supposed to "station keep' or fly formation with the booster," Borman says. "We were flying formation and taking photographs and infrared measurements and I started calling it a "bogey,' which is an old fighter pilot term. Well, a lot of the UFO freaks on the ground picked this up and said we had seen a UFO because we had referred to our booster as a bogey. Just this past year I got a call from a producer at "Unsolved Mysteries" and they said, "We read your account about your seeing a UFO on Gemini 7 and would you come on the program?' I told them: "I'd love to come on your program because I'd love to straighten that out.' I explained what it was I saw and I said, "I don't think there were UFOs,' and the producer said, "Well, I'm not sure we want you on the program.' "
Particularly for Gemini's long-duration crews, working the hind end of the maxim "what goes up must come down" was a happier affair. To prepare for reentry, the crew activated the two sets of reentry thrusters ringing the Gemini's nose, turned their spacecraft blunt-end first, and explosively jettisoned half the white adapter section, revealing four solid propellant rocket motors. At a precise instant designated by both Houston and the world's first digital computer in a manned spacecraft, a 2,500-pound retrorocket exploded to life for 5.5 seconds, followed in quick succession by three others.
Dick Gordon had been in space for three days on Gemini 11 and thought retrofire was "nothing to write home about." But after 190 hours and 15 minutes of zero-G, retrofire was a real boot in the pants for Gordon Cooper: "I think [the retrorockets] only provide about one-half G of acceleration, but when they kick in, especially after eight days, they make you feel you are going to go around the world the other way."
As the Gemini began its long, shallow, half-hour dive into the atmosphere, one last segment of adapter section was jettisoned, exposing the Gemini's heatshield. Using the reentry control system mounted in the spacecraft's nose, the command-pilot rolled the spacecraft 180 degrees, or "heads down," so that the horizon was visible in the upper portion of his cabin window. Over the next 10 minutes the crew members split their time between working the reentry checklist and grabbing final glimpses of the world from Earth orbit.
At 400,000 feet the Gemini descended into the first tendrils of upper atmosphere and an ion-induced light show began. Wally Schirra likened reentry to being at the base of a Bunson burner's flame. Frank Borman thought it was like "flying in a neon tube." John Young remembers the colors: "The first thing you notice is at about six and one-half minutes after retro fire a slight orange haze that envelops the spacecraft. And this haze layer increases and changes color to a dark green. It's a very beautiful thing. And then orange sparks of ablative material start flying forward."