Monday, 23 March 2015

Celebrating 50 Years Since the First Flight of Gemini

Gemini 7 as seen from Gemini 6, December 15, 1965. NASA photo

Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first walk in space, performed by the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov from the Voskhod 2 spacecraft. That week in 1965 also marked a turning point in the 1960s space race that is largely forgotten today but remains vivid to me.

Leonov's space walk was the last of the string of unbroken Soviet 'firsts' in space that began with the 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik. The first animal, the first man and the first woman in space were all Soviet. Rockets from Russia were the first to hit the Moon, to see the Moon's far side, and the first to go into orbit around the sun. Soviet cosmonauts had flown longer and higher than American astronauts, and the first three-member and two-member crews were Soviet. 

As a youngster seeing the grainy newspaper photos of Leonov flying in space that mid-March weekend a half century ago, I wondered when U.S. astronauts would reply to the latest Russian feat. It had been nearly two years since the last U.S. astronaut had flown, and there was no internet, spotty newspaper coverage, and only two television channels. Then the local TV guide arrived, promising coverage of the first crewed flight of a new American spacecraft called Gemini that could carry two astronauts.

Soon it was March 23, and I got up early to watch Walter Cronkite live from Cape Kennedy describe the launch of Gemini 3, which carried Mercury veteran Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and John W. Young, the first of a new group of astronauts, into space for three orbits. 

Three orbits was just five hours - no more than John Glenn had flown three years earlier. But Grissom and Young were the first astronauts to change the orbit their spacecraft was travelling in. And their flight opened the door to nine more flights by Gemini spacecraft over the next twenty months that would give America the clear lead in the race to the Moon, a lead that it would never relinquish.

The next Gemini flight included America's first space walk and then was followed by flights of up to two weeks in length that broke Soviet endurance records and proved that astronauts could live in weightlessness for the time it took to get to the Moon and back. Two Gemini spacecraft became the first to rendezvous in space. In 1966, Gemini spacecraft chased, caught and joined up with Agena rockets, and Gemini astronauts found out how hard it was to work in space. The final Gemini flight in November 1966 showed how the earlier difficulties encountered by spacewalking astronauts could be overcome.

Along the way, Gemini saw target vehicles explode during launch, a Gemini crew calmly sit through an emergency launch vehicle shutdown on the launch pad, and two astronauts named Neil Armstrong and David Scott survive America's first emergency in space when their Gemini 8 spacecraft spun out of control. Both went on to command trips to the Moon.

The skills that served American astronauts and the soon-to-be-legendary flight control teams in Houston during Apollo were honed during the Gemini program.

Today Gemini lives in the shadow of the Apollo flights that followed. 

Years later, I would discover an important fact about Gemini that had almost been lost. The Gemini spacecraft was designed by a Canadian aerospace engineer named Jim Chamberlin.

Chamberlin, born in Kamloops B.C. one hundred years ago and raised in Toronto, had been chief aerodynamicist for the highly advanced but ill-fated CF-105 Avro Arrow. When the Arrow was cancelled in 1959, Chamberlin led the team of 31 Canadian and British engineers who went from Avro to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States. First, he brought his badly needed aircraft production experience to NASA's Mercury spacecraft that carried America's first astronauts into space.

In 1961 Chamberlin began work on what was supposed to be an advanced Mercury spacecraft capable of carrying two astronauts. Instead he proposed major changes that led to the creation of the Gemini program, and Chamberlin became Gemini's first program manager.

Although the new spacecraft resembled Mercury, it contained many improvements that made it easier to build, service and fly. U.S. astronauts of the time said Gemini was their favourite spacecraft. While Mercury was the Model T, Apollo an SUV and the shuttle a large truck, Gemini was the sports car of American spacecraft.

I learned about Chamberlin's work while researching my first book Arrows to the Moon. Although Chamberlin was removed as Gemini program manager before the spacecraft flew, he was recognized by NASA and many leaders of the U.S. space program for his work creating Gemini, and later for  his contributions to Apollo and the space shuttle prior to his death in 1981. 

After I wrote Arrows to the Moon, I have heard a great deal about what most Canadians consider to be the sad story of the Avro Arrow. But I think there's a happy ending - the Avro Arrow had an offspring called Gemini. 
Jim Chamberlin in the 1960s.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, I had never heard of this Canadian connection before. Thx!