Down to the Wire

While most eyes had been focused on Gemini 2 at Cape Kennedy, work on still-to-be-resolved development problems continued elsewhere. Two spacecraft systems indispensable for Gemini's first manned mission - thrusters and ejection seats - remained question marks through most of 1964, and a third - fuel cells - though not slated for Gemini 3, was as yet unqualified. What may have been the largest question of all centered on the Gemini Agena, which throughout 1964 fell further behind schedule.

In April 1964, Rocketdyne seemed at last to have solved its major problems in developing workable thrusters for Gemini, but misgivings persisted. When the Jet Propulsion Laboratory approached Rocketdyne about developing a small engine for the Surveyor spacecraft, Mathews protested. [210] He argued that the company was still a year away from having the Gemini orbital attitude and maneuvering system and reentry control system on a sound footing, and that the main reason the work had improved was the belief that it would get no more NASA small-engine contracts until Gemini work was almost done. Workloads in the California plant were heavy, as shown by the large demands for overtime, and the original $30-million contract had ballooned to over $74 million, of which almost $36 million was an overrun.

Despite the enormous infusion of effort and money, Rocketdyne had failed to maintain schedules and deliveries. Engines for Spacecraft 2, for example, due in February 1963, arrived on in January 1964, and "the delivered products leave much to be desired." Mathews thought it "quite evident that all three interested parties, the Gemini Program Office, the Surveyor Program, and Rocketdyne, will benefit through the selection of a vendor other than Rocketdyne," since the added work could only hamper Gemini without contributing much to Surveyor.45

This concern was echoed by manned space flight chief George Mueller;* in a memorandum to his counterpart in the Office of Space Sciences, which had charge of the Surveyor program, he urged that Rocketdyne be denied the contract. MSC Director Gilruth also acted, setting up a special committee to survey Rocketdyne's Gemini program. After hearing some harsh committee findings on 5 August 1964, Rocketdyne's president promised that whatever NASA wanted would be done. Gilruth sent him a long list of recommendations a week later. Some changes were already under way even while the committee was meeting, and more followed, including a reorganization of Rocketdyne's Space Engine Division.46

Among the recommendations was a full-scale NASA audit of Rocketdyne's business management practices and Space Engine Division operations. It was a large undertaking, and a report was not ready until April 1965. Its findings revealed a badly managed program. Having "grossly underestimated the magnitude and complexities" of its Gemini subcontract, Rocketdyne had been slow to set up a sound organization. As a result, budgets were poorly controlled "and operations were inefficient," producing "significant cost overruns and delays." Not only had outright overruns very nearly doubled the cost of the program, but, of the 358 engines that should have been delivered by November 1964 under the original contract terms, only 167 had actually been received. Frequent personnel changes at top levels reflected the [211] program's weak management, as did the company's complete inability to provide records showing the reasons for technical problems, what action they prompted, or what impact each problem had on costs and deliveries. The auditors recommended "that Rocketdyne's fee under the Gemini subcontract be adjusted."47

When this report was released in the spring of 1965, the worst was already over. Rocketdyne's performance had, in fact, begun to improve markedly in mid-1964, although as late as October Gilruth still thought an alternative source for thrusters might be a good idea. McDonnell received the first long-duration attitude maneuvering thrusters in October 1964, just five months after the new design had been released to production. By the time the audit report was issued, both the attitude and reentry control systems had been fully qualified in their Spacecraft 3 version. How greatly things had changed was shown most clearly when the long-life thrusters, not expected to be ready before Spacecraft 5, were actually installed in Spacecraft 4.48

Qualification of the Gemini escape system, like that of the spacecraft rocket systems, was essential before astronauts could be committed to a mission. Rapid progress early in 1964, which saw the development test program concluded, augured well, as did a good start on dynamic proof-testing. A preliminary sled-ejection test on 4 June 1964, to see if hatches and hatch actuators functioned properly under abort conditions, went off without a hitch. Qualification testing began on 1 July with a sled run to simulate conditions of maximum dynamic pressure after an abort during the powered phase of launch vehicle flight. Once again, everything worked.49

The same problem that had delayed development testing, one that had little to do with seat design, again brought the test program to a halt. Some of the pyrotechnic devices on which escape-system operation depended failed to arrive. The result was a four-month gap after the July run. In the meantime, NASA had decided to go ahead with a new test series. Sled and tower tests had been the only dynamic simulations planned for the system. Neither, however, could show the system working through its entire sequence as in a high-altitude abort. That became the purpose of a plan to eject the system from a high-flying F-106, worked out at a meeting between NASA, McDonnell, Weber Aircraft (the maker of the system), and the 6511th Test Group at El Centro, California, on 12 June. The first test, intended merely to show that the seat would work with the airplane, was set for September with the F-106 on the ground. Two flights, using production escape systems, were to follow, with the whole series to be finished in a month. Once again, however, lack of pyrotechnics caused delays. Enterprising engineers borrowed some from the ejection seat in North American's paraglider tow test vehicle, enabling them to run the ground test on 15 October. But nothing more could be done for three months.50

[212] Enough pyrotechnics were on hand for another sled run on 5 November, which revealed a flaw in seat design. An instant after it had been ejected, one of the seats suffered a structural failure of its armrest and side panel that stopped the separation and recovery sequence. Seat and dummy smashed into the ground, strewing wreckage for 140 meters along the track. The hard question now was whether or not the test program had to be revised. The answer was no, provided the reworked seat structure performed well in a test approximating the most severe conditions for which the system was designed. In a sled run on 11 December, it did just that. The system came through with flying colors, bringing that part of the qualification program to an end.51

It was perhaps just as well that Gemini 2 had been so long delayed. By the end of 1964, only one of the four major parts of escape-system qualification had been completed. Still to be conducted were simulated off-the-pad ejection (Sope), personnel parachute, and high altitude ejection tests. All three resumed in January 1965, when pyrotechnics at last began to arrive.

[213] First to get under way, on 11 January, was parachute testing. Four dummy drops and 12 live jumps from low altitudes over the next month turned up only minor problems. High-altitude testing followed.52 In the meantime, On 16 January (a year and a half after Sope development tests ended) Sope qualification testing began. Shortage of pyrotechnics had again been the chief culprit in the delay. The first try failed. One seat worked, but the catapult on the right-hand seat fired too soon and exploded when the seat jammed against the still partly closed hatch. Almost a month passed while all hatch actuators were modified and the results checked out. Both the redesigned actuators and the escape system proved themselves in flawless Sope tests on 12 February and 6 March.53

High-altitude ejection was the last test program to resume but the first to finish. Nothing went wrong in the first test, an ejection at 4,780 meters at mach 0.65 on 28 January. Two weeks later, however, in a test at 12,000 meters at mach 1.7, the aneroid device that was supposed to trigger parachute deployment failed, although everything else worked. That device also failed to deploy the ballute on 17 February, in the first high-altitude live jump, forcing McDonnell and Weber engineers to redesign the aneroid-controlled firing mechanism. Although the aircraft ejection test did not have to be repeated, since being ejected from the F-106 did not cause the failure, the parachute test program did have to be revised. That meant an extra 10 dummy drops and 5 live jumps, which began on 2 March. The final jump, on 13 March, qualified the personnel parachute system and completed the qualification of the Gemini escape system as a whole.54 And not a moment too soon. The launch of the third Gemini mission, the first to carry a human cargo, was only days away.

The demand for fuel cells was not so pressing in late 1964 as for thrusters and ejection seats, since Spacecraft 3 and 4 were already being converted to battery power as a result of earlier problems. GE's redesigned fuel cell, the P3, had not at first lived up to its promise. Test sections performed erratically, their outputs tending to decay under load and their lives falling far short of requirements. This prompted NASA Headquarters to ask GPO on 10 July to provide a backup battery-power module in case fuel cells were not ready for the fifth Gemini mission. This was a drastic step, since Gemini 5 was slated for seven days; a battery installation to handle so long a mission meant a severe weight penalty and a narrow limit on what might be achieved during the flight. One of the main reasons for putting fuel cells in Gemini had been to ease constraints on such lengthy missions. GPO directed McDonnell to work out with Eagle-Picher, the battery subcontractor, a plan for a backup system.55

Early in August, GPO enlarged the scope of the study, asking McDonnell to cover the effects of substituting batteries for fuel cells in [214] all two-day rendezvous missions, of using Agena-supplied power in a combined long-duration and rendezvous mission, and of such changes on the fuel-cell program itself. McDonnell found the feat possible but costly, especially in weight. At a meeting on 14 August, Mathews and Burke decided to provide Spacecraft 5 with a combined system of batteries for the peak loads and fuel cells for basic power needs. If most of the experiments planned for the mission were discarded, Spacecraft 5 would only weigh 30 kilograms more with its battery-augmented system. NASA Headquarters sanctioned the change on 1 October.56

The combined system reflected GE's success, finally, in pinpointing the sources of fuel-cell shortcomings. GE engineers found that the life of test stacks declined as electrical load and the temperature of reactants rose. The greater the load - the amperage drawn from the stack - or the higher the inlet temperature, the shorter the stack's life. With a constant load, a change of only 17 kelvins (30F) in reactant temperature - 313 kelvins (103F) instead of 330 kelvins (133F) - more than doubled stack life, from 125 to 290 hours. Holding the temperature constant and varying the load produced similar results. With batteries to handle peak loads, a major factor in truncated fuel-cell life might have been countered.57

These findings were based only on analysis of prior test data. Now GE revised its test program to see what effect lowered inlet temperatures and reduced loads actually had on test stacks. The results confirmed the premise. Two test units under a steady three-ampere load with reactants at 297 kelvins (75F) lasted 1,100 and 800 hours. Further tests produced equally encouraging results at various levels of load and temperature under normal and abnormal conditions. All difficulties were not yet out of the way, but those that remained were largely matters of detail.58

Concern about "the rapidly rising costs of the General Electric fuel cell development program, coupled with the lagging development," persisted for a while; but, significantly, that worry was expressed in a memorandum never sent.59 The Gemini Program Office in Houston retained some doubts about fuel-cell prospects through the early fall of 1964, urging NASA Headquarters to allow batteries to replace fuel cells in Spacecraft 6 to ensure meeting the prime objective of that mission, rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle. Headquarters demurred until 6 November, but then granted the change.60

That decision stood, Spacecraft 6 eventually flying with battery power. In the meantime, however, the response of fuel-cell test units to lower temperatures was so marked during late summer and early fall as to convince both NASA and its contractors that the power system for Spacecraft 5 need not be augmented by batteries. That change was therefore canceled on 18 December 1964. [215] The Gemini fuel cell completed its basic qualification test program in May 1965, three months before it flew in the fifth Gemini mission.61

Agena was still further down the line, and its lagging pace showed no signs of speeding up during 1964. Project Gemini received its first Agena D at the end of April 1964, but nearly five months passed before it was converted into GATV-5001, the first Gemini Agena Target Vehicle. Lockheed completed that effort on 24 September and transferred the vehicle to the systems test complex, where cabling it up for preliminary vehicle systems tests began the next day. Not too surprisingly, testing did not run smoothly.

The hardest and most stubborn problems centered in Agena's command and communication (C&C) system - the electronic devices for tracking the vehicle, monitoring its subsystems, and passing commands to the vehicle in orbit. Because of Gemini's unique demand for rendezvous and docking, Lockheed had to design and prove a new C&C system for the Gemini Agena. The new design struck GPO as very good, a judgment confirmed by a special consultant group from Stanford Research Institute, which recommended only minor changes. During testing in October, however, parts of the system started acting up. Troubleshooting got GATV-5001 through its testing, but it seemed all too likely that the C&C system suffered from basic defects in its mechanical and electronic design. The question became, as Mathews later recalled, "Should we live with what we had, or should we back off and completely redesign the configuration?" When the problems persisted, the Air Force insisted on redesign, and Lockheed finally initiated a "Ten Point Plan for C&C Equipment" in February 1965.62

In the meantime, GATV-5001 had emerged from its preliminary tests in November 1964 and gone to Lockheed's Santa Cruz Test Base for a round of captive-firing tests. First, however, the target docking adapter had to be installed. This was the unit, built by McDonnell but carried aloft by Lockheed's Agena, to which the spacecraft would attach. When Lockheed workers hoisted the adapter into the test stand and tried to mate it with the Agena, they found it did not fit. After some struggling, they managed to get the two physically hooked together, but the wiring failed to match. The captive firing had to be postponed until January.63

The test on 20 January 1965 simulated a full two-week mission. It included related firings of both primary and secondary propulsion systems, with operational data transmitted to telemetry stations at the test site and at Lockheed's Sunnyvale plant. The propulsion systems worked well, but the C&C system again had problems. One part, the programmer time accumulator, jumped erratically, picking up almost eight extra weeks. Shipped back to Sunnyvale on 1 February, GATV-5001 lost three weeks while Lockheed tried to fix the capricious timer. [216] A makeshift fix allowed GATV-5001 to move on to the next phase, electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference tests, while engineers continued their efforts to diagnose and cure the jumping timer. By 23 February, when the interference tests began, GATV-5001 was more than a month behind schedule.64

Interference tests ended 9 March, but the vehicle stayed in the anechoic chamber for another week while Lockheed checked out its answer to the erratic timer and to a telemetry synchronization problem that had also cropped up. On 18 March, GATV-5001 moved to the systems test complex for a planned six days of "minor" modifications: filters were to be installed in the command controller (another part of the C&C system) and the forward auxiliary rack (which supported the target docking adapter and housed most of the C&C gear) was to be aligned. These two tasks proved to be more than minor. The first eventually required a complete redesign, the second extensive machining. The result was another lost month. By the end of March, GATV-5001 was 66 days behind schedule.65

Final systems testing got under way on 9 April and ended with a simulated flight on 6 May. On 27 May, the Air Force and Aerospace team found GATV-5001 formally unacceptable for Gemini, since FACI (first article configuration inspection) from 10 to 26 May had shown that it was not flightworthy. SSD took the vehicle anyway, but conditionally. Lockheed was expected to correct all defects; some were merely matters of paperwork, but others, like propulsion and C&C systems qualification, were major efforts. GATV-5001 was then flown to the Cape on 29 May, to be used as a development test vehicle.66

In the meantime, the first Atlas booster for Gemini had joined the program on 1 December in San Diego. It had then been shipped by truck to Cape Kennedy, a six-day trip. It was erected on complex 14 a week later, to help in checking out the launch pad and ground support equipment. Finished with that by 11 February, the Atlas was moved to a hangar, there to be modified and stored until GATV-5002 arrived.67

* Mueller, of course, had an additional concern that did not affect Mathews: Rocketdyne was also the contractor for the Apollo thrusters and was a competitor with Space Technology Laboratories, Inc. (STL) for the lunar module descent engine. In January 1965, STL was awarded the development and production contract.

45 Letter, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: Schneider, "Rocketdyne performance on the Gemini Program; NASA Headquarters [sic] consideration as contractor for the Surveyor Program," GS-04072, 29 April 1964, with 18 enclosures.

46 Memo, Mueller to Homer E. Newell, "Surveyor Vernier Engine Program," 4 May 1964; letter, Low to Gilruth, "Funds for partial support of Lunar Excursion Module descent engine project," 11 Jan. 1963, with enclosure; MSC News Release 63-92, 29 May 1963; memo, Robert H. Voigt to Asst. Mgr., Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, "Parallel Development - LM Descent Engine, Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation Audit Report MSC 11-67A," 8 March 1967; letter, Gilruth to Mueller, 20 Oct. 1964, with enclosures; letter, Low to Meyer, 6 Aug. 1964; letter, Gilruth to Burke, 12 Aug. 1964; letter, Gilruth to Samuel K. Hoffman, 12 Aug. 1964, with enclosure, "Suggested Actions for Rocketdyne's Consideration"; letter, Low to Mueller, 28 Sept. 1964, with enclosure, "Recommendations."

47 Low letter, 28 Sept. 1964; memo, Voigt to dist., "Report on Review of Business Management Activities at Rocketdyne, A Division of North American Aviation, Inc. (Report No. WR 65-12) MSC 32- 0-656," 5 May 1965, with enclosure, Raymond Einhorn, "Review of Business Activities at Rocketdyne, a Division of North American Aviation, Inc.," Western Region Audit Office Report No. WR 65-12, April 1965, passim., but esp. pp. 4-5, 13-14, 59-60, 72-74.

48 Memo, Day to E. Z. Gray, "Backup 25-pound thruster development," 2 June 1964; Gilruth letter,20 Oct.1964; "Gemini Propulsion by Rocketdyne - A Chronology," 15 May 1967, p. 5; Weekly Activity Report, 21-27 March 1965, p. 1.

49 Weekly Activity Reports, 31 May - 6 June, p. 1, and 28 June - 4 July 1964, p. 1.

50 Memo, Clarence C. Gay, Jr., to Day, "Status Review of Pyrotechnic Program," 5 Oct. 1964; Quarterly Status Report No. 10, for period ending 31 Aug. 1964, pp. 19, 24-26; Weekly Activity Report, 1-7 Nov. 1964, p. 2; "Abstract of Meeting on Mode I Abort Test Program, June 16, 1964," 18 June 1964; TWX, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, GP-54793, 19 June 1964; memo, Schneider to Assoc. Adm., Manned Space Flight, "Miscellaneous Points You Have Raised," 10 Aug. 1964; memo, Stephen D. Armstrong to dist., "NASA Defense Purchase Request Number T-28860-6," BG6-976, 14 Sept. 1964, with enclosure; Gordon P. Cress, interview, Burbank, Calif., 5 July 1966; Mathews, "Gemini Summary," pp. G-5,-6; Weekly Activity Report, 27 Sept. - 3 Oct. 1964, p. 2; Quarterly Status Report No. 11, for period ending 30 Nov.1964, p. 19; letter, George W. Jeffs to Dir., MSC, Attn: Armstrong, "Contract NAS 9-1484, Paraglider Landing System Program, Monthly Progress Report No. 19 (November 1964)," 64MA15681, 11 Dec. 1964, p. 2.

51 Cress interview; Quarterly Status Report No. 11, p. 18; Consolidated Activity Report, December 1964, p. 25; letter, Cress to MSC Historical Office, "Comment Draft on Chapters 7 & 8 of Gemini Narrative History," 511/GPC/2120, 1 Dec. 1971.

52 Weekly Activity Report, 10-16 Jan. 1965, p. 2; Quarterly Status Report No. 12, for period ending 28 Feb. 1965, p. 10; Col. Clyde S. Cherry, interview, Edwards AFB, Calif., 20 April 1966.

53 Quarterly Status Report No. 12, p. 9; Weekly Activity Report, 28 Feb. - 6 March 1965, p. 2; Cress letter, 1 Dec. 1971.

54 Quarterly Status Report No. 12, pp. 9-11; Hilary A. Ray, telephone interview, 6 March 1973; Quarterly Status Report No. 13, for period ending 31 May 1965, pp. 8-9; Cress letter, 1 Dec. 1971.

55 Weekly Activity Report, 19-25 July 1964, p. 1; Meyer, notes on NASA/MAC management meeting, 17 July 1964, pp. 4-5; letter, Schneider to Mathews, 10 July 1964; Meyer, notes on GPO staff meeting, 14 July 1964, pp. 1, 3; "Gemini V Mission Directive," NASA Program Gemini working paper No. 5028, 21 July 1965, pp. 2-1, 3-4.

56 TWXs, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, GV-52498, 5 Aug., and GS-53297, 7 Aug.1964; Meyer, notes on NASA MAC management meeting, 14 Aug. 1964, pp. 4-6; memo, Mathews to dist., "Responsibility assignments," 20 Aug. 1964, with enclosure, "NASA/ MAC Management Meeting 14 August 1964," p. 4; letter, John Y. Brown to MSC, Attn: Mathews, "Minutes of NASA/MAC Management Meeting of 18 September 1964," 306-16-7784, 28 Sept. 1964, with enclosure, p. 2; Mitchell, "Management Panel Meeting, September 29, 1964," p. 5; TWX, Schneider to MSC, Attn: Mathews, "Fuel Cell in Spacecraft Five (5) and Six (6)," 1 Oct. 1964.

57 Meyer notes, 14 Aug. 1964, pp. 3-6; Quarterly Status Report No. 10, pp. 40-41.

<58 "NASA/MAC Management Meeting 14 August 1964,"p. 3; Meyer, notes on GPO staff meeting, 6 Oct. 1964, p. 2; Robert A. Dittman, "Gemini Program Office Staff Meeting Minutes, October 6, 1964," p. 3; Quarterly Status Reports: No. 10, pp. 40-41, and No. 11, pp. 11, 15-16.

59 Letter, Schneider to Mathews, 22 Sept. 1964, with enclosure, draft memo, Mathews to McDonnell, "Request for Information Concerning the General Electric Effort on Subcontract PO Y 20153R," 22 Sept. 1964.

60 "NASA/MAC Management Meeting 18 September 1964," p. 2; Mitchell, "Management Panel Meeting, September 29, 1964," p. 5; TWX, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: Schneider, GP-51508, 7 Oct. 1964; TWX, Schneider to MSC, Attn: Mathews, "Spacecraft #6 Configuration," 13 Oct. 1964; memo, Eldon W. Hall to Dep. Dir., Gemini, "Power supply for GTA-6," 12 Oct.1964; memo, Day to Schneider, "Use of Fuel Cell Spacecraft #6," 19 Oct. 1964; TWX, Schneider to MSC, Attn: Mathews, 6 Nov. 1964.

61 Letter, Brown to MSC, Attn: Mathews, "Minutes of NASA MAC Management Meeting 18 December 1964," 306-16-8320, 23 Dec. 1964, with enclosure, p. 4; memo, Mathews and Wesley L. Hjornevik to Dep. Dir., "United States General Accounting Office draft report to Congress regarding Gemini fuel cells," GP-62337, 1 I Aug. 1966, with enclosure, "Detailed Comments on GAO Draft Report;" Mathews, "Gemini Summary," p. G-5.

62 "GATV Progress Report, October 1964," LMSC-A605200-2, 20 Nov. 1964, pp. 2-3, -4; "GATV Progress Report, February 1965," LMSC-A605200-6, 20 March 1965, p. 4-I; "GATV Progress Report, March 1965," LMSC-A605200-7, 20 April 1965, p. 4-1; Wambolt and Anderson, "Launch Systems Final Report," p. III.E-1; Mathews, "Gemini Summary," p. G-6.

63 "GATV Progress Report, November 1964," LMSC-A605200-3, 20 Dec. 1964, pp. 2-3, -5, 7-8; Quarterly Status Report No. 11, pp. 4, 37; "GATV Progress Report, December 1964," LMSC-A605200- 4, 20 Jan. 1965, pp. 2-1, -3, -5; Consolidated Activity Reports: 18 Oct-30 Nov., p. 16, and December 1964, p. 14; "GATV Progress Report, January 1965," LMSC-A605200-5, 20 Feb.1965, p. 2-1; Harold W. Nolan, interview, Sunnyvale, Calif., 1 July 1966; TWX, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, "Contract NAS 9-170 Gemini TDA-1 Delivery," GP-54878, 3 Aug. 1964.

64 Quarterly Status Report No. 12, pp. 32-34; "GATV Progress Report, January 1965," pp. 2-1, -2; "GATV Progress Report, February 1965," pp. 2-1, -4, -5, -8.

65 "GATV Progress Report, March 1965," pp. 2-1 through -6; "GATV Progress Report, April 1965," LMSC-A605200-8, 20 May 1965, p. 2-3; "Abstract of Meeting of [sic] Atlas/Agena Coordination, April 13, 1965," 5 May 1965.

66 "GATV Progress Report, April 1965," p. 2-1; "GATV Progress Report, May 1965," LMSC-A605200-9, 20 June 1965, pp. 2-1, -2, -3, -4, -6; Wambolt and Anderson, "Launch Systems Final Report," p. III.G-3.

67 Weekly Activity Reports: 29 Nov. - 5 Dec., p. 3, and 6-12 Dec. 1964, p. 4; "Abstract of Meeting on Atlas/Agena Coordination, January 12, 1965," 20 Jan. 1965; "Abstract of Meeting on Atlas Agena Coordination, February 16, 1965," 1 March 1965; Quarterly Status Report No. 12, p. 52.

Previous Next Index