Chapter 13

Agena on Trial

[297] Manned space flight and NASA faced the new year of 1966 in an ambiguous position. High achievement had marked 1963, capped by the exciting and important "76" mission at the very end of the year. But the key to more sophisticated missions, the Agena, was in serious technical trouble. Only with Agena could Gemini hope to realize a range of still-to-be-attained goals - docking, re-rendezvous, rendezvous with two separate targets during a single mission, and high-altitude flight goals that would be indispensable to Apollo, the program to land men on the Moon. But many doubted that Agena could be ready in time to meet Gemini's tight launch schedules. Year's end saw Agena's career in manned space flight once again called into question - and this time a substitute target had already been approved for development.

Agena, though most critical, was not the only problem. Extravehicular activity (canceled in the three previous missions) was supposedly ready to enter a more advanced stage. Unexpected development troubles demanded a last-minute effort (reminiscent of Gemini IV) to qualify equipment. Edward White had succeeded in his "space walk," but NASA faced a tougher EVA task - testing the Air Force's Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), a far more complex personal propulsion system than White had used. Step-by-step progress having been skipped, the EVA set for Gemini VIII in mid-March had to bridge the gap.

At the beginning of 1966, then, the Gemini program had met with success in seven straight missions, five with crews aboard. [298] Not all its goals had been attained, but many had. Now the Apollo program neared its operational stage. Might NASA halt Gemini to concentrate on Apollo? Administrator James Webb had used similar reasoning to conclude Project Mercury earlier than many desired. Although George Mueller, Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, knew of no move afoot to close down Gemini, he foresaw that many engineers in Houston might worry that they were nearly out of jobs. To assuage their misgivings, in December 1965 he made a case for flying all 12 Gemini missions. Even a cursory glance at the program's aims, Mueller said, showed healthy returns for nearly every item. While medical fears had been erased by the outcome of 14 days in space, NASA still needed to perfect techniques for rendezvous and extravehicular activities. Then, too, an experienced cadre of flight crews was essential, not only for flying missions but for astronaut and flight control training as well. LeRoy Day, Mueller's Deputy Director for Gemini, passed this reassurance on to Gemini Program Manager Charles Mathews in Houston.1 That potential morale threat allayed, the engineers could focus on such technical problems as making Agena work.

1 Letter, LeRoy E. Day to Charles W. Mathews, 11 Jan. 1966, with enclosure, [George E. Mueller], "Statement Regarding the Remainder of the Gemini Program," 27 Dec. 1965; André J. Meyer, Jr., notes on GPO staff meeting, 25 Jan. 1966, p. 2.

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