Silver Linings

The last half of 1963 witnessed Project Gemini beset by technical problems that stubbornly resisted solution. No major Gemini system - whether launch vehicle, paraglider, spacecraft, or target vehicle - could confidently be judged ready to fly. These months, in which the approved Project Development Plan of December 1961 had scheduled Gemini's first four flights, became instead a time of troubles; even the revised schedule of April 1963, which called for a first flight before the end of that year, proved beyond reach. And as if to underscore those troubles, the Soviet Union showed that it still held the lead in the space race; 1 November 1963 saw the launch of Polet I, a new spacecraft planned "for use in manned orbital rendezvous flight." Although unmanned, it "described complex figures in space" that shifted its first nearly circular orbit to a highly elliptical 1,437- by 343-kilometer orbit.84

Yet, throughout these months that seem so trying in retrospect, the enthusiastic engineers and technicians, both in government and industry, sustained optimism that transcended the hard facts.85 Part of that optimism might be chalked up to experience. The pattern of rising costs, sagging schedules, and tough problems was a familiar one at the cutting edge of aerospace technology. Then, too, although the precise nature of Gemini's problems could not have been predicted, they did arise where they were expected - in those systems that demanded the greatest advances beyond current technology. That the escape system, for example, should be hard to develop and qualify scarcely came as a surprise. It had to meet standards far more stringent than had ever been imposed on ejection seats before, and the general nature of the problems to be met could be, and were, foreseen.86

Initial schedules and cost estimates tend to be based on the most optimistic assumptions, the completely troublefree development of many complex systems. And these estimates depend on guesswork when new technology is involved - informed and reasoned, to be sure, but guesswork nonetheless. Rightly or wrongly, an organization like NASA assumes that Congress, the source of the money to make things go, [163] prefers fast, cheap programs: the shorter the time and the lower the price, the better a program's chances for support. But there is another, perhaps more weighty, reason for planning optimistically. If time and money are provided for contingencies, then they tend to be used simply because they are there. On the other hand, starting with the strictest limits and yielding further increments of time and money grudgingly may well produce the optimum achievement of the desired goal.87 In reality, most of Gemini's troubles in 1963 and later were the product of careful planning and design, credited to the program's first manager, James Chamberlin, that got the project off to such a quick and promising start. This auspicious beginning encouraged NASA to move toward a more ambitious program, to push Gemini closer to its design limits. Problems that might have looked only mildly worrisome in the context of the original Gemini concept took on a more threatening guise when the margin for error had been much reduced.

For a variety of reasons, then, Gemini workers were more confident than a backward look at the difficulties may seem to warrant. But the problems were real; and their gravity should not be downgraded even though, in almost every instance, they responded finally to efforts to resolve them.

84 Theodore Shabad, "Soviet Craft Put into Final Orbit, " The New York Times, 3 Nov. 1963; Shabad, "Soviet Satellite Run from Earth," The New York Times, 4 Nov. 1963; Astronautics and Aeronautics, 1963, p. 413.

85 Letter, Blatz to Barton C. Hacker, 28 Sept. 1970.

86 Hecht memo, 22 Sept. 1970.

87 Meyer interview; memo, Meyer to Historical Office, "Comments on Chapter 5 of the Gemini Narrative History," 18 June 1970.

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