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This Week In Aviation History: A Meeting In The Realm Of Heroes

If you believe that America is the greatest country in the world, it’s a fine season to recall the reasons why. These men are some of them...If you believe that America is the greatest country in the world, it’s a fine season to recall the reasons why. These men are some of them...

As the United States prepared for flying to the moon, landing there and returning to Earth, many problems needed to be overcome, not only in theory, but in fact. This week in 1965, one major step was overcome. The problem was how to rendezvous two spacecraft. During the Gemini program, this was to be tested using the two man Gemini and an unmanned Gemini Agena Test Vehicle (GATV) as a rendezvous and docking target.

Plan A
On October 25, 1965, as the Gemini 6 crew of Walter Schirra and Thomas Stafford prepared for launch, their target sat on a nearby pad, itself ready for flight. The Atlas rocket, with the GATV perched on top, was to go into orbit first. The Gemini, complete with rendezvous radar, would then ascend and chase the GATV for docking. But as the Atlas-Agena roared upward and headed downrange, telemetry returns showed disturbing events. The Agena (singular) was now being tracked as multiple targets. The craft had exploded. Apparently, this was a result of Agena’s engines firing as they were supposed to ... the explosion was *not* supposed to happen.

Plan B
Left without a target, the Gemini 6 launch was delayed. A plan was formulated to delay the launch of Gemini 6, and launch the long duration mission of Gemini 7 first. James Lovell and Frank Borman launched on December 4th, for a two-week mission to determine effects of space on physical endurance, and to run medical tests. On December 12th, Gemini 6 was to launch and chase down Gemini 7. That craft would then become the -- manned -- rendez vous target for Gemini 6.

But again, as Gemini 6 got under way, plans went awry. Shortly after engine ignition on the Titan II booster, the engines shut down. The seconds that followed posed some very unpleasant questions: Had the engines run long enough for the hold-downs to release? If they had, the Titan would settle back to the pad, crumbling and tearing before the hypergolic fuels fed each other into an inferno. The Gemini crew had seconds to pull the D rings on their ejection seats and leave the maelstrom of fire that would shortly engulf them. But Schirra and Stafford stayed put. An electrical plug had fallen out, and the shutdown command went through before release. Gemini was still safely atop the Titan, but the launch had yet again been delayed.

Plan C -- Endgame
On the morning of December 15, 1965, space veteran Schirra -- with the rookie Stafford by his side -- tried again. The men stepped back into the same capsule, atop the same rocket, on the same launchpad ... and then, they went into space. As their craft rocketed aloft from Florida, the crew of Gemini 7, in orbit above, sighted their contrail and made preparations for the meeting. Just over five and half-hours later, at 2:33 p.m., the two spacecraft were meters apart, with no motion between Gemini 7 and Gemini 6. Manned orbital rendezvous had been achieved. The two crews floated about each other, with Gemini 6 doing most of the maneuvering -- Gemini 7 was still in the midst of the endurance run and had to save fuel.

Of Men And Heroes
There were some jibes traded about traffic congestion, and the three Naval Academy graduates had fun with West Pointer Borman when Schirra held up a timely 'Beat Army' sign in his window. The crews then separated, rested and Gemini 6 prepared for home. But first, the astronaut's merry prankster Schirra had his pilot Stafford report on a low trajectory object below them. The Gemini 6 crew then played 'Jingle Bells' on harmonica and bells. Shortly after, they made their landing on December 16th. The Gemini 7 crew stayed to complete their 14-day run, and landed on the 18th, the second crew in days to recover aboard the carrier USS Wasp. All were “home” -- and safe -- for Christmas.

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About This Author:
Brian Nicklas is a researcher and the Asst. Reference Chief in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution. As a freelance aerospace writer and photographer he has covered the space program to military aviation, and has flight experience in gliders to blimps. He is an alumnus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach in Aeronautical Studies and was recently named a Contributing Editor to Air&Space/Smithsonian Magazine. As an unlicensed pilot, he flies in whatever he can when not building airplane models.
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