Chapter 1

Between Mercury and Apollo

[1] In Houston, Texas, December temperatures in the low sixties seem cool.1 And so it must have seemed to Robert R. Gilruth when he landed in the city on 7 December 1961, especially in contrast to the muggy end-of-summer heat that had greeted him on his first visit two and a half months before. Gilruth's September visit had followed close on the heels of the announcement that the Space Task Group (STG) he headed was moving to Houston. With several of his colleagues, he had come to look over the new site for his fastgrowing branch of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Now he was back in Houston to tell the city's business community something about his group and its work - putting American astronauts into space and eventually landing them on the Moon. The occasion was what the Houston Chamber of Commerce billed, with a bit of Texas hyperbole, as its 121st annual meeting. True, a chamber of commerce had been formed in 1840, but it soon vanished without a trace. Seventy years later, the 15-year-old Houston Business League voted to rename itself the "Chamber of Commerce."2 Whether the 1961 session was the 121st, the 66th, or the 51st, it was still a big event. Houston "was a businessman's town."3

And it was a booming town, sprawling over more than 480 square kilometers (300 square miles) of Texas Gulf Coast "like a bucket of spilled water."4 In the same month that Gilruth first visited Houston, the city's population had passed the million mark. And that, according to the president of the Chamber of Commerce, was one of the "most significant milestones of Houston's progress in 1961."5 [2] Houston and its people blended, not always smoothly, the South and the West. Chicanos joined blacks as part of the "problem" that sometimes troubled the ruling Anglos, who were "conservative, cautious, and business-oriented . . . because they reflect community attitudes."6 September 1961 was also the month when the first black pupils, twelve of them, entered Houston's white school system.7

But Houston's leaders, in a pattern that has marked American development at least since the 19th century, coupled social conservatism with economic opportunism. Founded as a lucky real-estate venture, the city had grown by exploiting the resources of a vast hinterland. Freewheeling promotion was, and remained, the order of the day, and nowhere more so than in the multibillion-dollar oil industry that Houston headquartered.8 The hotel to which Gilruth repaired was a perfect symbol of the city and a fitting site for the "121st" annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce. Brainchild of Glenn McCarthy - oil millionaire, land speculator, and all-round promoter - the Shamrock Hotel had taken five years to build and cost $21 million. It opened grandly on St. Patrick's Day 1949, with 50,000 people gathered to eat $42-a-plate dinners. Six shades of green garnished its outer walls, a prospect otherwise so dull that Frank Lloyd Wright refused to comment on it, though glimpsing the interior did move him to muse, "I always wondered what the inside of a juke box looked like." McCarthy lost the hotel when his oil empire collapsed five years later, and it ended up in the hands of another Texas entrepreneur, Conrad Hilton. So it was the Shamrock Hilton, with Hilton's portrait gracing the lobby instead of McCarthy's, when Gilruth arrived.9

Gilruth himself symbolized another of the "milestones of Houston's progress in 1961." On 19 September, just a day after the city officially topped a million, NASA had announced its choice for the site of a new multimillion-dollar manned space flight laboratory.10 It was to be near Clear Lake, some 32 kilometers southeast of the city on a tract of land donated by the Humble Oil and Refining Company. This, too, fit the pattern of Houston's growth, at least since World War I, as federal funds had begun to flow into the city like the oil that much of that money financed. The president of the Chamber of Commerce welcomed NASA's new move as "one of the Houston's most meaningful developments since the opening of the Ship Channel for deep sea shipping in 1915." Gilruth directed the new facility, the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), which came officially into being on 1 November l96l.11

The Center was, in fact, merely the renamed Space Task Group (STG), created in 1958 to put Americans in space via Project Mercury. So far, STG had managed to loop two astronauts over the fringes of the atmosphere on Redstone boosters and to orbit with an Atlas rocket a chimpanzee named Enos. But the much-delayed attempt to orbit a man still receded. [3] On the same day that Gilruth spoke to the Houston Chamber of Commerce, he announced that the scheduled 19 December launch of Mercury-Atlas 6, with John H. Glenn, Jr., aboard, was now postponed until 1962. The United States was not going to match, at least in the same year, the Soviet Union's feat of sending a man into orbit. Nonetheless, optimism prevailed. The causes of the delay were minor, and success seemed just around the corner.12

STG, like Houston, had boomed in 1961. Two largely successful manned suborbital flights, followed by Mercury-Atlas 4 with its "mechanical man" and the ape-bearing Mercury-Atlas 5, had eased the worries caused by Mercury's technical problems during 1960. In the meantime, STG had added the manned lunar landing program, Project Apollo, to its responsibilities. It had outgrown its makeshift facilities at Langley Research Center in Virginia and its old name as well. After a painstaking search, NASA settled on Houston for STG's new location and soon furnished the group with a new name to match its larger role.13

For Houston, it was love at first sight, but the 750 NASA workers faced with moving 2,400 kilometers from Tidewater Virginia to Gulf Coast Texas in the midst of Project Mercury were less enthusiastic. Gilruth himself had qualms after his first view of the new site in September, shortly after it had been swept by Hurricane Carla.14 The decision had been made, however, and the space fever that promptly seized Houston helped smooth the changeover. A crowd of some 900 greeted Gilruth with a standing ovation when he stepped to the dais at the Shamrock Hilton to begin his remarks.15

What Gilruth had to say turned out to be headline news and earned him another standing ovation when he finished. NASA, he revealed, planned to launch a third manned space flight program to fill the gap between Mercury and Apollo. He outlined a half-billion dollar project to orbit a two-man Mercury capsule via the Air Force's new Titan II booster. The key goal was to develop orbital rendezvous, a novel technique NASA planned to use in the Apollo mission to the Moon. Once in orbit, the crewmen would steer their rocket-powered craft to a meeting with an unmanned Agena spacecraft, boosted into orbit separately by an Atlas.16 Gilruth had learned only that day of NASA Headquarters' approval of the new project.17

Still something of a puzzle was what to call it. In making it public, Gilruth labeled it a "two-man Mercury." Inside NASA, at one time or another, it had gone by the name of Advanced Mercury, Mercury Mark II (the one-man capsule being Mark I), or simply Mark II. Within three months, however, an ad hoc "program-naming" committee in NASA Headquarters decided on "Gemini" for the new project. Recognition for having picked that name, along with a bottle of scotch as prize, went to Alex P. Nagy in NASA Headquarters. [4] Gemini, "The Twins," was one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac. Nagy thought that "'the Twins' seems to carry out the thought nicely, of a two-man crew, a rendezvous mission, and its relation to Mercury. Even the astronomical symbol (II) fits the former Mark II designation."18 [GRAPHIC HERE]

By an unlikely coincidence, since Nagy disclaims any knowledge of astrology, Gemini as a sign of the zodiac is controlled by Mercury. Its spheres of influence include adaptability and mobility - two features [5] the spacecraft designers had explicitly pursued - and, through its link with the third house of the zodiac, all means of communication and transportation as well. Astrologically, at least, Gemini was a remarkably apt name, the more so since the United States is said to be very much under its influence.19 To those with no more than a passing knowledge of astrology, however, Gemini must have seemed a most obscure choice. To this day, its proper pronunciation has not been settled in NASA. Although an informal survey of astronomical opinion came down on the side of a terminal "ee" sound, many still opt for "eye."20 The new program publicly became Project Gemini on 3 January 1962.21


1 The Houston Post, 7 Dec. 1961.

2 David G. McComb, Houston, the Bayou City (Austin, Tex., 1969), pp. 50-51, 121.

3 Ibid., p. 257.

4 Ibid., p. 199, quoting French journalist Pierre Voisin, as reported in The Houston Post, 4 May 1962.

5 The Houston Post, 8 Dec.1961; McComb, Houston, pp. 206-207.

6 McComb, Houston, pp. 232-33.

7 Ibid., p. 226.

8 Ibid., p. 185.

9 Ibid., pp. 194-96.

10 NASA News Release 61-207, "Manned Space Flight Laboratory Location," 19 Sept. 1961; Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, NASA SP-4201 (Washington, 1966), pp. 390-91; Stephen B. Oates, "NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center at Houston, Texas," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 67, no. 3 (January 1964), p. 355.

11 MSC Announcement No. 2, "Designation of STG as 'Manned Spacecraft Center,'" 1 Nov. 1961.

12 Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, p. 409.

13 Robert B. Merrifield, "Men and Spacecraft: A History of the Manned Spacecraft Center (1958-1969)," chap. IV, "Transition to Center Status (January 3 - September 19, 1961)," [1972], draft MS in MSC historical archives.

14 Ibid., chap. I, "Introduction."

15 The Houston Post, 8 Dec. 1961.

16 Ibid.; U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Aeronautical and Astronautical Events of 1961: Report, 87th Cong., 2nd sess., 7 June 1962, p. 71.

17 Memo, Paul E. Purser to Robert R. Gilruth, "Log for week of December 4, 1961," 15 Dec. 1961, p. 2.

18 Letter, Alex P. Nagy to George M. Low, 11 Dec. 1961; memo, Purser to Gilruth, "Log for week of December 11, 1961," 18 Dec. 1961, p. 2; memo, Purser to Gilruth, "Log for week of December 25, 1961," 2 Jan. 1962, p.2; memo, Robert C. Seamans, Jr., to Adm., NASA, "Membership of the NASA Project Designation Committee," 17 March 1961; memo, Harold L. Goodwin to Nagy, "Selection of the Name 'Gemini,'" 3 May 1962; letter, Seamans to Eugene M. Emme, 3 June 1969.

19 Louis MacNeice, Astrology (Garden City, N. Y., 1964), pp. 85-86, 292, 294.

20 Daniel D. McKee, interview, Los Angeles, 19 May 1967.

21 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962: Report, 88th Cong., 1st sess., 12 June 1963, p. 1.


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