Moving Into Flight Operations

After a problem-filled 1963, Project Gemini looked toward better things in 1964. The first flight test of the spacecraft and its Titan II launch vehicle went off on April 11, raising hopes of a manned flight before year's end.33 Two days later, the Manned Spacecraft Center announced the names of the first crews for the two-man earth-orbital missions. As might have been expected, the Commander of the first Gemini mission was one of the Original Seven, Virgil I. ("Gus") Grissom, who had ridden the second suborbital Mercury flight in July 1961. Paired with Grissom was one of the second astronaut group, John W. Young. Their backup crew likewise had a representative from each of the first two astronaut classes, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., pilot on Mercury-Atlas 8, and Thomas P. Stafford.34

A week after the announcement, the four Gemini crewmen headed into a full mission-specific training schedule. At the spacecraft builder's plant in St. Louis, at MSC in Houston, and at the Cape in Florida they put in long hours learning the design and function of the spacecraft systems, following the assembly and testing of their spacecraft, attending briefings on program and mission objectives, and practicing such tasks as getting out of a floating spacecraft. Simulators duplicated as closely as possible most of the conditions of launch, orbital flight, and recovery (weightlessness being a notable exception), and in these simulators the crews practiced normal operations as well as all the likely malfunctions their training officers could think of [See Appendix 7 for a summary discussion of simulation and training]. Occasional trips to the Navy's man-rated centrifuge in Johnsville, Pennsylvania, gave them practice in enduring the acceleration forces ("g-loads") of launch and reentry. Training stretched from a planned 7 months to 1 1 when their flight was delayed by problems with the second unmanned test, and by the time their flight was ready for launch on March 23, 1965, the crews would have been hard to surprise with anything that might come up.35

When crews were named on July 27, 1964, for the second Gemini mission, Slayton broke the pattern of designating an orbital veteran as commander, choosing four inexperienced men for Gemini IV even though one Mercury astronaut had not yet been assigned.* James A. McDivitt and Edward H. White II were named commander and pilot of the prime crew, backed up by Frank Borman and James A. Lovell, Jr., all members of the second astronaut class.36 Flight experience seemed clearly to be a factor in Slayton's choice of crews, but it was just as clearly not the only factor. L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., pilot on the 34-hour, 22-orbit Mercury 9 mission, was not assigned until the Gemini V crew was named in February 1965; his pilot was Charles ("Pete") Conrad, Jr., of the second group. Their backups, both from the second group, were Neil A. Armstrong and Elliott M. See, Jr.37

After Grissom and Young completed Gemini 3, Slayton announced that their backup crew, Schirra and Stafford, would be the prime crew for Gemini VI, backed up by Grissom and Young. To trainees eagerly seeking some clue to their prospects for flight assignment, this signaled that appointment to a backup crew was the key to flying a mission. The system Slayton followed, as long as circumstances permitted, was to promote each backup crew to prime crew of the next available mission after their own prime crew had flown. Each flight had different objectives, requiring different training, and the prime and backup crews had to train as a team to perform most efficiently. Almost to a man, the astronauts professed being in the dark as to exactly how Slayton chose crew members for their first assignment, but that did not matter once they perceived that when they were named to a backup crew they were, at last, in line for a flight assignment.38

* Of the Original Seven, Glenn had resigned, Carpenter was working in Project Sealab, and Slayton was medically disqualified At the press conference naming the Gemini 3 crews it was also announced that Alan Shepard was suffering from a middle-ear inflammation that grounded him as well. (Later that year Shepard took over from Slayton as chief of the Astronaut Office.) Only Cooper remained unassigned at this time.

33. Hacker and Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans, pp. 194-200.

34. Ibid., 219.

35. Ibid., 220-24; Donald K. Slayton, Warren J. North, and C. H. Woodling, "Flight Crew Procedures and Training," in Gemini Midprogram Conference Including Experimental Results, NASA SP-121 (Washington, 1966), pp. 201-11.

36. Hacker and Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans, pp. 239-40.

37. Ibid., 255.

38. All the astronauts this author has interviewed have stated that they never understood exactly what determined their first assignment to a crew; see author's interviews with Alan L. Bean, Harrison H. Schmitt, Eugene A. Cernan, and Joseph P. Kerwin, Jr., transcripts in JSC History Office files; with Paul J. Weitz, transcript in Skylab files, Fondren Library, Rice Univ.; also Collins, Carrying the Fire, p. 141, and Slayton interview, Oct. 15, 1984. A special scientific committee convened at OSSA's request by Rice University to recommend ways to provide more opportunities for scientific training of astronauts noted that criteria for crew selection were a mystery to the astronauts; see n. 61, below.

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