President John F. Kennedy's decision in May 1961 to commit the United States to landing on the Moon before the end of the decade gave Gemini its central objective. NASA planners had been thinking about the Moon, an obvious goal for manned space flight, almost from the moment the agency itself was created in 1958. The Moon, however, was seen as a target for the 1970s, pending development of a huge rocket, called Nova. It would launch a spacecraft that would fly directly to the Moon, land there, and then return. This direct approach was widely accepted on the grounds that it was almost certain to work.
Some NASA engineers had advocated an alternative method, in which two or more spacecraft might rendezvous in orbit rather than proceed directly to the Moon. This approach promised enormous savings in fuel and weight; the lunar mission based on rendezvous might be launched with much smaller rockets, and therefore much sooner, than the direct mission. [xvi] The greatest drawback of this approach was its novelty. No one knew how hard a rendezvous in space might be. So long as time was ample, the direct method offered by far the safer prospect. When the President imposed a deadline, however, support for rendezvous waxed. It promised a quicker and cheaper road to the Moon, if it could be achieved. The "If" was a big one in 1961, big enough to justify the expense of a full-fledged manned space flight project to resolve it. Gemini was first and foremost a project to develop and prove equipment and techniques for rendezvous.
That the project turned out to be Gemini, however, rather than something else, resulted from a second distinct chain of causes. Government and industry engineers who worked in Project Mercury saw innumerable ways to improve their product. Constrained by the limited power of the Atlas rocket that launched Mercury, they had been forced to design a spacecraft with integrated systems; the inside of the capsule was crammed with layered components, filling every cranny and making it hard to build, hard to test, and hard to prepare for flight. As a first step it might do, but it could never be much more. Throughout 1959 and 1960, while the main effort centered on making Mercury work, thinking turned more and more to the kind of spacecraft that should come next; it should be based on the lessons learned in working on the essentially handcrafted, experimental machine that was Mercury, but modified to permit something more closely resembling routine building, testing, and operation than Mercury allowed. By mid-1961, these ideas coalesced into a concrete proposal for a new spacecraft, just when NASA was casting about for a means of working out the problems of rendezvous. Gemini's second taproot was an engineering concern to improve spacecraft technology beyond the first step that was Mercury.
Project Gemini owed its origins both to its predecessor - it built on the technology and experience of Project Mercury - and to its successor - it derived its chief justification from Project Apollo's concerns. The new project acquired other objectives as well: testing the concept of controlled landing, determining the effects of lengthy stays in space, and training ground and flight crews. The process through which a broad range of ideas and concerns came together in a clearly defined space flight program is the main theme of this book's first three chapters.
By December 1961, when the new project received its formal stamp of approval from NASA Headquarters in Washington, much of the design work had been done, many of the major decisions had already been made. A Gemini Project Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in February 1973) in Houston took charge of overseeing the effort. Just a week after project approval, the first major contract went to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation [xvii] for the Gemini spacecraft. A separate contract with North American Aviation had already initiated work on the paraglider landing system that was intended to allow Gemini to alight on land rather than water. Other key contracts were soon awarded through the Air Force Space Systems Division for the project's several rocket boosters: to Martin Company for the Titan II to launch the spacecraft, to Lockheed Missiles & Space Company for the Agena to serve as rendezvous target, and to General Dynamics Corporation for the Atlas to boost Agena into space. A matter of months sufficed to erect the whole structure of contracts and subcontracts that united the efforts of government and industry in Project Gemini.
Gemini thus moved quickly into its development phase, the central effort of 1962 and 1963. It was an unsettled period, as such times always are for high-technology projects. Although Gemini, perhaps more than most such undertakings, rested on already tested technologies, it still strained the limits of the known at some points. Inevitably this produced problems not always easy to resolve, the more so since Gemini was bound by severe time constraints. It could not, whatever happened, be allowed to overlap or interfere with Project Apollo. In one major instance, the paraglider, answers could not be found in time, and that goal had to be dropped.
Gemini's difficulties in its first two years were not solely technical, nor were technical problems perhaps even the most pressing. Gemini labored under a sharply restricted budget. The project faced a severe financial crisis during its first year and lesser such crises throughout its life. Within NASA and without, Apollo and the trip to the Moon always held center stage. Gemini got more than crumbs - its final cost exceeded a billion dollars - but the margin remained narrow. More than once, lack of funds threatened the loss of one or another of its major goals, and money problems played a key role in managerial changes in 1963. That year, however, also saw Gemini's development completed, the worst of its technical problems (except the paraglider) resolved or clearly on the way to solution. Project Gemini's development troubles and their outcome provide the central thread for Chapters IV through VII.
By the end of 1963, Gemini was moving into its qualifying trials, which extended into 1965. The road was far from easy, but the worst was past, as reflected in the slow decline in the number of workers directly assigned to Gemini. Early 1964 saw the first of Gemini's 12 missions, an unmanned test of spacecraft and booster that was flawless. The long delay that followed was a reflection not on Gemini but on the Florida climate, as the launch site was buffeted by hurricanes. The second unmanned mission, in January 1965, proved that Gemini was ready to carry men aloft. Some two months later, Virgil I. Grissom and [xviii] John W. Young flew Gemini 3 through three circuits of Earth, and the project office set out after its planned goals. Gemini's qualification is the subject of Chapters VIII through X.
In striking contrast to the endless difficulties that had frustrated attempts to keep Project Mercury on schedule, Project Gemini came close to achieving a routine launch every other month throughout 1965 and 1966. Gemini XII closed out the program in November 1966. Gemini's operational phase was hardly so free of trouble as such a schedule might suggest, but the design that had been geared to easier testing and checkout proved its worth when coupled with the experience derived from earlier efforts. One by one, Gemini achieved its objectives, proving that astronauts could leave the shelter of their vehicle and function in space, that they could closely control spacecraft flight and landing, that they could survive up to two weeks in orbit without ill effects, and that they could rendezvous with a target in orbit. This is the story told in Chapters XI through XV.
The teams who serviced, flew, directed, and supported Gemini missions opened the near-space environment of Earth as a potential workshop and stilled some nagging fears about what might happen to men on the way to the Moon. They did not do it alone. Just as surely as the Gemini spacecraft rested on the shoulders of its Titan II launch vehicle, those who combined to make Project Gemini succeed stood on the shoulders of the giants who preceded them. Isaac Newton, who first formulated the laws of motion that Gemini applied in orbit three centuries later, wrote, "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." So, too, did Project Gemini, not the least on those of Newton himself.
And so, too, did the authors of this history of Project Gemini: Barton C. Hacker, who wrote the first ten chapters on design, development, and qualification; and James M. Grimwood, who described operations in the last five chapters. Although this book will not be the last word on Gemini, we enjoyed an access to its documentary remains and to its participants not likely to be duplicated.
Aid in threading a path through this embarrassment of riches came from many sources at the Manned Spacecraft Center, elsewhere in NASA, other government agencies (especially the Air Force), the Gemini contractors, and others. Their numbers preclude individual thanks, but the authors gratefully acknowledge their help. Combing the records and interviewing the actors proved an arduous and challenging task. The contemporary historian must beware the sensitivities of the many people he writes about who are still very much alive. This may be especially true of a project so successful as Gemini proved to be, since the afterglow of accomplishment tends to dim memories of things that went wrong. Yet the advantage of having the counsel of the participants in weighing the mass of evidence more than compensates for any concomitant handicaps. [xix] They cheerfully endured lengthy interviews, cleared up technical points, ransacked their files, and commented on drafts.
This help was all the more important because Project Gemini never attracted as much attention as either Mercury or Apollo. Having neither the novelty of the first nor the enormously exciting goal of the second, Gemini prompted relatively little outside description or analysis. Journalistic interest was largely confined to Gemini's manned missions in 1965 and 1966, and even that coverage was slight after the first two. Never as high in public consciousness as Mercury or Apollo, Gemini now lives mainly in the memories of those who worked on it. This in part reflects Gemini's ambiguous status even within NASA - important to be sure but somehow outside the mainstream that flowed from Mercury to Apollo. Gemini seemed less touched by outside events than its brother programs. In writing its history, we have adopted what in the history of science is often called an internalist approach. The course of Gemini's history was clearly dictated by internal technical demands, and the focal point of the story is the work of the Gemini Program Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Picking out the particular individual whose contribution was unique is seldom possible, not because such contributions were lacking but because Gemini was so much a team effort. Many of those team members, both from government and from industry, have remarked on the sense of unity and elan they enjoyed in those days and have suggested that Gemini might have achieved a good deal more than it was called upon to do. However true that may be, Project Gemini, in terms of its actual costs, schedules, and performance, must rank among the most successful research and development projects ever conducted d by the United States.
We would like to extend special thanks to those whose efforts in behalf of this book significantly lightened our burdens. Sally D. Gates, Historical Office Archivist-Editor, served indispensably in a multitude of roles: research assistant, editor, coordinator of the comment draft, compiler of appendixes, typist, proofreader, and friendly critic. Billie D. Rowell and Corinne L. Morris, both of the Historical Office, at various times organized and managed the office's archives and performed a variety of other services. Jewell Norsworthy, Center records management officer, helped retrieve documents that had been retired to holding areas. Ivan D. Ertel, former Center assistant historian, and Peter J. Vorzimmer, former contract historian, conducted a number of interviews on behalf of the Gemini history. This book was written under the auspices of the NASA historical program through a contract with the History Department of the University of Houston; it has benefited from the advice and assistance of NASA historians Monte D. Wright, Frank W. Anderson, Jr., Eugene M. Emme, and William D. Putnam, as well as University of Houston professors James A. Tinsley and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr. [xx] Although it is officially sponsored, its authors alone must bear full responsibility for whatever defects it contains.