The Visitors

On 15 December 1965, the mood of those working on the rendezvous mission - planners, pilots, and ground crew - was one of high anticipation. If on this third attempt Gemini VI-A would cooperate [286] and go into orbit, a truly significant world space "first" - rendezvous - might be chalked up. Russian endurance records had now been shattered in two successive American manned space missions, but achieving rendezvous would be navigationally significant to the Apollo program as well as important one-upmanship. Having a friendly target to approach, one that could point its transponder and talk back as Gemini VI-A called out its course and speed, created an atmosphere of confidence.66

At 8:37 a.m. Gemini VI-A rose from its pad. As if forcing it to move by will power alone, Schirra urged, "for the third time, go." A moment of wonder followed, as the launch vehicle seemed to shimmy. This shaking may have been only an impression; because of their recent experience, both pilots were highly attuned to movement and sound. At engine cutoff, Stafford checked the computer and got a reading of 7,830 meters per second. This told them they were on their way. Borman and Lovell in Gemini VII, passing near the Cape Kennedy area, saw nothing except clouds; but they soon learned from the Canary Islands communicator that the orbital parameters of VI-A were 161 by 259 kilometers. A few minutes later, as they flew over Tananarive, Malagasy Republic, they saw VI-A's contrail and got a brief glimpse of the visitors' spacecraft. They put on their suits and waited for company to arrive.67

The rendezvous profile, dubbed "M equals 4" by the mission planners for convenience (the "M" had no special meaning), scheduled the catchup to VII during the fourth revolution of VI-A. Schirra and Stafford faced six hours of maneuvering to reach Borman and Lovell.68

At insertion, the chase vehicle trailed its target by 1992 kilometers. The VI-A crew aligned the inertial platform to position their spacecraft for a height adjustment. Over New Orleans, after 94 minutes in space, Schirra ignited the thrusters to speed up by 4 meters per second. The perigee remained the same, but the acceleration kicked the apogee up to 272 kilometers. Gemini VI-A, being nearer to Earth and so moving faster, now lagged only 1,175 kilometers behind Gemini VII.69

Near Carnarvon, at 2 hours 18 minutes ground elapsed time, Schirra began a phase adjustment. This had a twofold purpose: to reduce the distance to the target and to raise the chase vehicle's perigee to 224 kilometers. He pressed the button to add 19 meters per second to his velocity. Over the Pacific less than half an hour later, Schirra turned his spacecraft 90 degrees to the right (southward) and ignited the thrusters to push Gemini VI-A into the same plane as Gemini VII. Now the distance between the two vehicles had narrowed to 483 kilometers.70

Three hours 15 minutes into the mission, Elliot See told Schirra [287] that radar contact should soon be possible with Gemini VII. The VI-A crew got a flickering radar signal, then a solid lock-on at 434 kilometers range. Over Carnarvon, at 3 hours 47 minutes, the aft thrusters fired for 54 seconds to add 13 meters per second to Gemini VI's speed. The result was almost a circle, measuring 270 by 274 kilometers. In slant range distance, the two spacecraft were now 319 kilometers apart and closing slowly.71

Schirra and Stafford placed Gemini VI-A in the computer (or automatic) rendezvous mode at 3 hours 51 minutes into the flight. While the lower orbiting vehicle gained slowly on its target, Schirra dimmed the lights on his side of the spacecraft to improve outside visibility. At 5 hours 4 minutes, he exclaimed, "My gosh, there is a real bright star out there. That must be Sirius." The "star" was Gemini VII, reflecting the Sun's rays from 100 kilometers away.

Gradual catchup of the target vehicle lasted until 5 hours 16 minutes; Schirra prepared to make the last rendezvous maneuvers. The two ships were now close enough to allow Spacecraft 6 to thrust directly toward Spacecraft 7. He fired the thrusters and closed on Gemini VII at a rate of better than three kilometers every minute and a half.72 Schirra and Stafford briefly lost sight of Gemini VII when it passed into darkness but soon picked up the target's running lights.73

Schirra made two midcourse corrections spaced 12 minutes apart (at 5 hours 32 minutes and 5 hours 44 minutes). Six minutes later, at a range of 900 meters from his target, Schirra began braking his spacecraft by firing the forward thrusters. Soon he had no difficulty seeing Gemini VII. Fittingly, in the terminal stage of rendezvous, the VI-A astronauts saw the stars Castor and Pollux in the Gemini (Twin) constellation aligned with their sister ship. Then Spacecraft 7 flashed into the sunlight - almost too bright to look at. From a distance of 200 meters, it resembled a carbon arc light. Following the braking and translation maneuver, VI-A coasted until the two vehicles were 40 meters apart, with no relative motion between them. The world's first manned space rendezvous was now a fact. In Mission Control, the cheering throng of flight controllers waved small American flags, while Kraft, Gilruth, and others of the jubilant crowd lit cigars and beamed upon this best of all possible worlds. At 2:33 p.m., 15 December 1965, Gemini VI-A had rendezvoused with Gemini VII.74

When Russian Vostok III flew within five kilometers of Vostok VI on 12 August 1962, some people believed, with the help of Pravda news dispatches, that rendezvous had been accomplished. The two spacecraft, however, were in different orbital planes; nor could they maneuver to stop relative motion between them. In simple terms, it was good shooting from the pad, but the result was the same as if two bullets had passed in the middle of a battlefield. Schirra knew what a real rendezvous in orbit was:

[288] Somebody said. . . when you come to within three miles [five kilometers], you've rendezvoused. If anybody thinks they've pulled a rendezvous off at three miles, have fun! This is when we started doing our work. I don't think rendezvous is over until you are stopped - completely stopped - with no relative motion between the two vehicles, at a range of approximately 120 feet [40 meters]. That's rendezvous! From there on, it's stationkeeping. That's when you can go back and play the game of driving a car or driving an airplane or pushing a skateboard - it's about that simple.75
Borman and Lovell had been fascinated by the fireworks of VI-A's thrusters during braking and startled by the 12-meter tongue of flame. As Schirra and Stafford neared, there was a second surprise. Borman said, "You've got a lot of stuff all around the back end of you." Minutes later, during stationkeeping, Schirra told Borman, "So do you." Cords and stringers three to five meters long streamed and flapped behind both spacecraft.76

Rendezvous maneuvers had cost VI-A only 51 kilograms (113 pounds) of fuel. Schirra still had 62 percent left in his tanks. It had been easy, he said, and there was plenty of fuel for stationkeeping, flyarounds, formation flying, and parking the spacecraft in specific relative positions. Borman and Lovell were not so wealthy; Flight Control told them to stop maneuvers when the VII tanks dropped to an 11 percent supply.

For more than three Earth revolutions, the two spacecraft stayed at ranges of from 0.30 meters to 90 meters. VI-A approached VII to examine the stringers on one occasion. On another, they flew nose to nose. Schirra and Stafford swapped the controls back and forth because the Sun streamed so brightly through first one window and then the other. When it was time for Borman and Lovell to perform an experiment, Schirra and Stafford moved out 12 meters and parked. For some 20 minutes, in one instance, neither bothered to touch the steering handle, as the spacecraft remained stable in relation to its sister ship. On the first night pass, the two spacecraft faced each other at distances ranging from 6 to 18 meters. Schirra had worried about visibility during darkness, but it turned out to be excellent - docking light, handheld penlight, and even VII's cabin lights were clearly visible to him.

Using what Schirra called his eyeball ranging system, the VI-A crew did an in-plane flyaround of VII, roving out to 90 meters. Believing this was too far away to be called stationkeeping, Schirra hurriedly brought VI-A within 30 meters. The astronauts were highly impressed with their ability to control the spacecraft. Velocity inputs as low as 0.03 meter (0.10 foot) per second provided very precise maneuvering. Because of this fine control, he and Stafford concluded that nuzzling into and docking with a target vehicle would be no problem.

[289] As the pilots' bedtime approached, Schirra flipped the spacecraft blunt-end forward and fired his thrusters to impart a small separation speed. Eventually, the crews settled down 16 kilometers apart. Borman, who frequently caught sight of Gemini VI-A in the distance, remarked to the Rose Knot Victor tracking ship communicator, "We have company tonight."77

After launch, rendezvous, and stationkeeping, Schirra and Stafford were utterly exhausted and hungry. They ate a good meal and went to sleep. When Schirra awakened with stuffy head and runny nose, he was glad that the mission was flexible, with the option of landing after only one day of flight if everything had been done. He and Stafford had achieved all their mission objectives, and the flight controllers would not be able to give too much more attention to Gemini VI-A, anyway. Gemini VII's fuel cell needed help, and Borman, Lovell, and Mission Control had to focus on its problems if the mission were to be able to last 14 days.78

But Stafford caught everybody's attention for a few minutes. In an excited tone he reported:

Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI. We have 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 just might let me to pick up that thing.

Over "one," the communications circuit, came the strains of the pilots playing "Jingle Bells."* The spirit of Christmas glowed - Gemini VII was about to begin its 12th day and VI- A, having demonstrated rendezvous in fine fashion, was going home.79

Schirra said, "Really a good job, Frank and Jim. We'll see you on the beach." He then flipped VI-A blunt-end forward and jettisoned the equipment section; retrofire followed automatically.80

Schirra placed the spacecraft in an inverted (heads down) attitude to see Earth's horizon. Nearing the 100,000 meter fringe of the atmosphere, Schirra set the bank angle at 55 degrees left and held it until computer guidance took over at 85,000 meters. The spacecraft threatened to overshoot its planned landing point. This had to be countered by banking first left, then right. Since the Gemini spacecraft obtained [291] its greatest lift flying straight ahead, banking cut lift and shortened range.

The crew turned the computer off at 24,000 meters, deployed the drogue parachute at 14,000 meters, and punched out the main parachute at 3,200 meters. Gemini VI-A landed about 13 kilometers from its planned impact point, recording the first successfully controlled reentry.81 For another first, they did it in full view of live television beamed from the Wasp via satellite transmission. As on his Mercury, flight, Schirra elected to remain aboard his spacecraft while it was hauled onto the carrier deck. Thus, on 16 December 1965, after 16 revolutions (and 25 hours, 15 minutes, 58 seconds), the world's first manned spaceflight rendezvous mission became a matter of record.** 82

* Michael Knapp, producer of the Bill Dana "Jose Jimenez in Orbit" record album in the early sixties, had given Schirra a small four-hole harmonica on 8 December 1965. (Knapp also provided many of the music tapes that were broadcast to the Gemini crews from the Mission Control Center.) Stafford, the other half of the two-man space band, jingled small bells. Frances Slaughter, of the Cape Flight Crew Operations Office, had fastened them to his boots before a training simulation, for a joke, and he took the bells on the flight to provide the rhythm section. It had been Schirra who furnished the corned beef sandwich that had created such a furor for the Gemini III crew. Asked some time after his flight why he "didn't get too much static for the harmonica," Schirra replied, "I think the timing was pretty good on that."

** The National Aeronautic Association, representing the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, certified Gemini VII/VI-A for four manned space flight achievements: longest distance in orbit, longest duration in orbit, distance in group flight, and duration in group flight.

66 Tindall and Czarnik interviews; Dean F. Grimm, Thomas P. Stafford, and Walter M. Schirra, Jr., "Report on Gemini VI Rendezvous," 28 Feb. 1966, p. 1; Henry L. Richter, Jr., Instruments and Spacecraft, October 1957 - March 1965, NASA SP-3028 (Washington, 1966), pp. 313-15.

67 "Gemini VI-A Mission Reports," p. 1-1, -2; Evert Clark, "At Last, Gemini 6 Day Is Perfect As Even Sun Comes Out in Time," The New York Times, 16 Dec. 1965; "Gemini VI Debriefing," pp. 13, 18; "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 751, 752, 755; "Gemini VII Debriefing," p. 145; "Gemini 7/6 Flight Controllers," [p. 15]; "Gemini VI-A Post Launch Report No. 1," p. lb.

68 Grimm, Stafford, and Schirra, "Gemini VI Rendezvous," pp. 1-2; "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," p. 1-2.

69 [Ivan D. Ertel], Gemini VII/Gemini VI: Long Duration Rendezvous, MSC Fact Sheet No. 291-D (Houston, Jan. 1966), p. 9; "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 4-15, -16, -18; "Gemini VI-A Post Launch Report No, 1," lb; Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1965: Chronology on Science, Technology, and Policy, NASA SP-4006 (Washington, 1966), p. 551.

70 "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 416, -18, 7-17; TWX, Kleinknecht to NASA Hq,, Attn: Webb, and MSC, Attn: Gilruth, "Special Rendezvous Report - Gemini Mission VII/VI," 15 Dec. 1965; Grimm, Stafford, and Schirra, "Gemini VI Rendezvous," pp. 1-2; Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1965, p. 551.

71 "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 1-2, 4-12, -16, -19; "Gemini VI-A Post Launch Report No. 1," p. 1c; Kleinknecht, "Special Rendezvous Report."

72 "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 4-12, -19, 7-2, -20; Grimm, Stafford, and Schirra, "Gemini VI Rendezvous," p. 2; memo, Tindall to dist., "Rendezvous odds and ends," 65-FM1-212, 212, 30 Dec. 1965; "Gemini VI Debriefing," pp. 27, 37-38.

73 Thomas P. Stafford, Walter M. Schirra, and Dean F. Grimm, "Rendezvous of Gemini VII and Gemini VI-A," in Gemini Midprogram Conference, p. 291; "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," p. 7-21; "Gemini VII Voice," III, p. 766; Grimm, Stafford, and Schirra, "Gemini VI Rendezvous," p. 14.

74 Kleinknecht, "Special Rendezvous Report"; Grimm, Stafford, and Schirra, "Gemini VI Rendezvous," p. 11; Stafford, Schirra, and Grimm, "Rendezvous of Gemini VII and Gemini VI-A," p. 291; "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 7-23, -24; Hodge interview; Tindall memo, 30 Dec. 1965; "Gemini VII Voice," III, p. 769; "Jubilation," caption of photo in MSC Space News Roundup, 23 Dec. 1965.

75 U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Science and Astronautics, Astronautical and Aeronautical Events of 1962: Report, 88th Cong., 1st sess., 12 June 1963, pp. 146-47, 148; Robert Korengold, "2 Reds Go on Orbiting As Observers Report Signs of Rendezvous," The Washington Post, 14 Aug. 1962; David Miller, "Split-second Precision Put 2 Vostoks Close Together," New York Herald Tribune, 14 Aug. 1962; Korengold, "Both Reds Pass Million Miles Travel in Orbit," The Washington Post, 14 Aug. 1962; TWX, Rhett Turnipseed to NASA, Houston, "Text of an Interview by an Izvestia Correspondent with the Soviet Cosmonaut Pavel Romanovich Popovich [21 Dec. 1965]," 29 Dec. 1965; "Gemini 7/6 Astronaut Post Flight Press Conference," 30 Dec.1965, tape 8, p. 2; James M. Grimwood and Ivan D. Ertel, "Project Gemini," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 81, no. 3 (January 1968), p. 407; [Ertel], Gemini VII/ Gemini VI, p. 16.

76 "Gemini VII Debriefing," pp. 137-38; "Gemini VI Debriefing," pp. 59-60; "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 767-68, 771.

77 "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 7-2, -25, -26, -27; "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 763, 774; "Gemini VI Debriefing," pp. 69, 70, 71, 80, 84, 100; memo, Duncan R. Collins to Chief, Mission Planning Office, "Recommended activities for Gemini VI/Gemini VII mission," GS-64090, 3 Nov. 1965; Tindall memo, 30 Dec. 1965.

78 "Gemini VI Debriefing," pp. 113, 114, 117-18; "Gemini Mission Rules, Gemini VIA," 4 Nov. 1965, p. 2-1.

79 "Gemini VII Voice," III, p. 825; letters, Michael Kapp to Schirra, 8 Dec. 1965, and Grimwood, 29 March 1967; Sarah W. Lopez and Riley D. McCafferty, telephone interviews, 9 June 1969; Frances Slaughter, telephone interview, 10 June 1969; Stafford, telephone interview, 2 Oct. 1969; Schirra interview.

80 "Gemini VI Voice Communications (Air-to-Ground, Ground-to-Air and On-Board Transcription)," McDonnell Control No. C-115269, n.d., p. 124.

81 "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 7-29, -30; "Gemini VI Debriefing," pp. 155, 169, 171-72; notes, James L. Gibson, "Crew Activities during Reentry Phase of Gemini VI-A," 17 March 1966.

82 TWX, Office of Sec. Defense to DOD Mgr. for MSF Support Ops., Andrews AFB, Md., 19 Oct. 1965; letter, John S. Foster, Jr., to Seamans, 19 Oct. 1965; Grimwood and Hacker, Gemini Chronology, p. 265; memo, Philip H. Bolger to Actg. Dep. Dir., Gemini, "World Records to Be Certified during Gemini VII/VI-A," 2 Dec. 1965; Carl R. Huss, telephone interview, 7 June 1973.

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