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?

(Tony Reichhardt)
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"I had the ability to maneuver the Agena from the right side of the Gemini's cockpit," Gordon says. "There was this little coder--the "Orphan Annie coder,' as I called it, because it looked like one of those little ring decoders kids used to get. By working the coder's rings and hitting "send' by moving a lever to either "0' or "1,' you could transmit signals to the Agena. You could do everything from tell the Agena what direction it should point, to fire its big engine."

During the Gemini 10 and 11 missions they did just that. The right-seaters on those missions (Michael Collins on Gemini 10 and Dick Gordon on Gemini 11) ended one of their long digital conversations with the Agena by sending the sequence 041-571-450-521-501, the command to fire the engine. After an 84-second pre-fire routine, John Young and Collins on Gemini 10 and, later, Pete Conrad and Gordon on Gemini 11 became spectators at an out-of-this-world fireworks display.

"At first, the sensation I got was that there was a pop, then there was a big explosion and a clang," John Young said at a mission debriefing following Gemini 10. "We were thrown forward in the seats. Fire and sparks started coming out of the back end of that rascal. The light was something fierce and the acceleration was pretty good. The shutdown on the PPS [Primary Propulsion System] was just as unbelievable. It was a quick jolt and the tailoff I never saw anything like that before, sparks and fire and smoke and lights."

On September 14, 1965, 25 seconds' worth of sparks, fire, smoke, and lights lofted Gemini 11 to a new Earth orbit and an altitude record of 853 miles. Conrad and Gordon became the first humans to witness the planet in true spherical splendor.

"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."


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"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."


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"We had a window-mounted 16-mm camera and I decided that during this reentry I was going to take the camera and hold it up against the window to get a really good view of the reentry plume," he says. "And I did that and we got some very good shots. But you can also see where the Gs built up it was hard to hold. You can tell that the camera does change its position. I let go and it slammed into my chest. But we got some pretty good pictures on that one."

By 40,000 feet the Gemini crew deployed a drogue chute, which further slowed and stabilized the spacecraft. At 10,000 feet the Gemini's 58-foot-wide main chute unfurled and the spacecraft pitched forward so its occupants could return to Earth upright.

"The Gemini splashdown was easy," Dick Gordon says. "You are sitting up, and I remember going submerged and seeing the change in the color of the ocean. And then you pop back up like a cork."

Moments later, as the nose-mounted reentry control thrusters hissed and smoked, each Gemini crew discovered two very important things about the Gusmobile. One was that the heatshield, which had so recently prevented them from being incinerated, was now acting like a frying pan, making the cabin uncomfortably hot and sticky. Wally Schirra describes the other: "Gemini was my favorite spacecraft," he says, "but it made a lousy boat."

While Gemini was making crews seasick, NASA was building the next generation of spacecraft, one that would fly beyond Earth's orbit. That too was a stunning accomplishment, but the Apollo craft that would take us to the moon was more of a transport--not the hot and nimble fighter that was the Gusmobile.

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