The World’s First Space Rendezvous

Posted on Tue, December 15, 2015

Fifty years ago, on December 15, 1965, Gemini VI and VII met for the first rendezvous in space. This was not NASA’s original plan. Gemini VI, commanded by Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra and piloted by Tom Stafford, was supposed to have orbited on October 25, to rendezvous and dock with an Agena target vehicle. But the unpiloted Agena spacecraft blew up during launch that morning, stranding the crew waiting in their vehicle on Launch Complex 19. This failure could set the program back months. But then Walter Burke and John Yardley of Gemini spacecraft contractor McDonnell Aircraft remembered an idea earlier floated by Titan II booster contractor Martin: launch two Geminis in quick succession. Gemini VII was to be next in early December. Stafford’s fellow Group 2 astronauts Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were scheduled to endure a two-week medical mission, proving that humans could survive the longest possible Apollo mission to the Moon. Why not launch Gemini VII first, then clean up the launch pad and send VI, now called VI-A by NASA for its changed mission, to rendezvous with it? That would require a change in the test protocol, by taking down Schirra and Stafford’s Gemini-Titan and putting it in protected storage, then hurriedly building it up again after VII’s launch.

Gemini VII capsule on display in the Museum. Image: Dane Penland, Smithsonian, SI 2002-591


On December 4, Borman and Lovell were hurled into orbit by their modified Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile. The Gemini VII spacecraft was the heaviest ever launched, a bit over 3,636 kg (8,000 lbs.), in part because of the extra food and water supply, and in part because the capsule was retrofitted for a transponder to return the radar signal from VI-A. Working long hours, pad crews cleaned up the launch damage and re-erected the other vehicle. Only eight days later, on Sunday morning, December 12, Schirra and Stafford again sat on their backs in the ejection seats, awaiting launch. The countdown went to zero, the engines started, and after a second or two, cut off—something I remember vividly from live TV at my parents’ house in Calgary, Alberta. I was then a 14-year-old space nerd. In the cockpit, the mission clock started running and the abort alarm went off. Schirra should have pulled the D-ring between his legs and ejected the two from the spacecraft, an extremely dangerous procedure. But he knew from his Mercury-Atlas launch in October 1962 that they had not lifted off. If they had, their vehicle would have toppled back on the pad, producing a catastrophic explosion. But nothing happened. The astronauts waited tensely in the spacecraft as launch control figured out how to back out of a countdown with a fully fueled and armed rocket. Schirra told them: “We’re just sitting here breathing.” The cause for the cut-off was a launch-pad connector plug that came out of the booster a second too early. But subsequent examination showed that the ground crew had accidentally left a plastic dust plug in one of its engines. If it had launched, that engine might have failed. The cut-off was a stroke of luck.

Launch of Gemini VI-A on December 15, 1965. Image: NASA, GPN-2000-00061


Three days later, on December 15, Schirra and Stafford tried again. This time everything worked perfectly. As soon as they got into orbit, they began the four-orbit procedure to catch up to Borman and Lovell’s spacecraft. Based on computer calculations and, when they were close enough, radar data, Schirra fired his thrusters several times to gradually match orbits. Early in the afternoon they glided up to Borman and Lovell’s spacecraft, the first successful rendezvous in history. Mission Control in Houston broke out the flags. (The Soviets had twice, in 1962 and 1963, put two human spacecraft in orbits only a few kilometers or miles apart, but the Vostok cosmonauts had no maneuvering capability.) For three orbits—about five hours—Gemini VI-A and Gemini VII circled each other, at least once coming nose-to-nose a short distance apart. As a joke, Schirra and Stafford held a “Beat Army” sign in the window, referring to the annual Army-Navy football game. Both had gone to the Naval Academy, although Stafford served in the Air Force. Their target was Borman, a West Pointer. At the end of the station-keeping period, Schirra and Stafford pulled away for safety and took their long overdue meal and sleep period. With all of their objectives achieved, Mission Control would let them come home after one day.

This photo of the Gemini VII spacecraft was taken through the hatch window of the Gemini VI-A spacecraft during rendezvous. Image: NASA, S65-63194


The next morning, December 16, a couple of orbits before retrofire, the Gemini VI-A astronauts played a joke on Mission Control and their friends in orbit. Schirra reported “an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit …. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one. …. You might just let me try to pick up that thing.” Schirra and Stafford then played “Jingle Bells” on a tiny harmonica and set of bells, which are today exhibited in our Apollo to the Moon gallery. A few hours later, they successfully splashed down in the Atlantic near the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. It was the first computer-controlled, precision landing. In Gemini VII, the departure of their companions threw Borman and Lovell into a funk. They had to endure two more days in a tiny space often compared to the front seats of an old Volkswagen Beetle. It also smelled like a men’s room after 12 days of no baths, no privacy for bodily functions, and an overheated cabin that made wearing a spacesuit almost unbearable. Most of the time they were in their underwear. Thrusters stopped working and the fuel cells that supplied electricity looked like they might fail. But they limped to the end and made a successful landing on December 18, a little closer than VI-A, winning a bet between Borman and Schirra. After helicopters took them to the carrier deck, Lovell joked that, as a result of spending two weeks in close quarters: “We’d like to announce our engagement.”

Gemini VI-A and VII on the USS Wasp. The beryllium shingles on the nose sections of the spacecraft have been removed, probably to prevent seawater corrosion. Image: NASA, S65-65948


Gemini VI-A and VII were a space race triumph for the U.S., and fulfilled much of two major program objectives needed for success with Apollo: rendezvous and long duration. After these missions, the Moon seemed closer.