The VII/VI-A Decision

The gloom that descended upon Gemini was quickly pierced by a ray of hope. While the futile countdown for the spacecraft launch was still under way, Frank Borman rushed from the outside viewing stand to the Cape Kennedy Launch Control Center to find out what had happened. He found himself standing with Gemini VII crewmate James Lovell near two McDonnell officials, spacecraft chief Walter Burke and his deputy, John Yardley. The astronauts heard Burke ask Yardley, "Why couldn't we launch a Gemini as a target instead of an Agena?" Yardley recalled that the Martin Company had proposed a rapid-fire launch demonstration some months before. He asked Raymond Hill, now in charge of McDonnell work at the Cape, what he remembered about the study. Hill briefly outlined the plan, and all three began discussing how it could be adapted to carry out Burke's idea.

Borman listened with growing excitement as the McDonnell idea jelled. What he heard made sense, with one exception. When Burke began to sketch on the back of an envelope how an inflatable cone could be attached to Spacecraft 7 to permit docking, Borman drew the line; he disliked the thought of anything nuzzling into the equipment housed in his spacecraft's adapter section. Burke and Yardley found NASA manned space flight chief George Mueller and Gemini Manager Charles Mathews and tried out their scheme on them. Neither NASA official gave it much of a chance. The two McDonnell engineers left the building to see if they could sell their concept elsewhere.15

Burke's brainstorm was built on more than just a vaguely recalled Martin proposal. Shortening the launch intervals to two months had proven that hardware could be put into the pipeline faster than in the past. But if Gemini VII were to be the target for Gemini VI, the two vehicles would have to be launched less than two weeks apart. Mueller and Mathews simply refused to believe that it could be done. [271] Ironically, they were the prime movers in urging shorter schedules: but Burke's idea far exceeded their expectations.16

In September 1964, Mueller had asked Schneider if he thought activating a second launch complex would help to shorten the time between launches. Schneider's first reaction was no. But, in February 1965, he had his office study the value of launching two Gemini spacecraft either simultaneously or in quick succession. Eldon W. Hall, Schneider's Systems Engineering Director, reported that having two crews in orbit at the same time and trading pilots in mid-space would have public appeal. Other advantages might be using an unmanned Gemini for a space rescue or completing a rendezvous mission if a spacecraft failed to launch. But none of these things was worth the cost of a second pad and spacecraft modifications. In summary, Hall said, "It might be nice, but there is no overwhelming necessity."17

Mueller seized every chance to push for shorter launch schedules and new objectives to wring added experience from the Gemini program, especially for Apollo. In Houston, Mathews kept his staff on the lookout for new ideas for the missions. He had helped Hall with the report and agreed that the expense would be too great. Mathews did, however, arrange to procure spare parts for pad 19 so it could be swiftly restored after a launch.18

Because of the daily contact between NASA, the Air Force, and contractors, ideas for speeding up the program flowed freely at the Cape. One of these - a rapid turnaround of the launch vehicle - was the result of collaboration between Joseph Verlander, Martin chief at Kennedy, and Colonel John Albert, Chief, Gemini Launch Vehicle Division, 6555th Aerospace Test Wing. They proposed getting a fully checked Gemini Titan ready for launch and then parking it somewhere while a second launch vehicle was prepared for flight. One problem was how to move the first booster, since the engine contractor, Aerojet-General, insisted that the vehicle had to remain upright once it had been erected and checked out. The answer to that was a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, a helicopter powerful enough to lift and carry the upright Titan II. It was really quite a simple plan, though carrying it out might involve a lot of complexities. After a booster and spacecraft had been checked out in the usual manner, the spacecraft would be transferred to bonded storage and the launch vehicle would be hauled by helicopter to nearby pad 20, which was not in use at the time. Then a second booster and payload would be readied on pad 19 and launched. The stored and parked vehicles would be immediately returned to the pad and launched in five to seven days.

No one seemed interested in the Gemini "rapid fire," or "salvo," proposal except its creators. When Verlander told O.E. Tibbs about it, the Martin vice president frowned on the idea of using the Skycrane helicopter. Albert outlined the plan to SSD Commander Ben Funk and [272] SSD Director of Gemini Launch Vehicles Richard Dineen but roused only mild interest. Burke and Yardley listened politely but did not seem impressed. Mathews told Verlander and Albert frankly that there was no place in the Gemini program for such an unorthodox suggestion. In August 1965, Albert took the scheme to Gemini V Mission Director Everett E. Christensen, but he received no encouragement there, either. This lack of enthusiasm was daunting, and the Martin plan seemed destined for limbo.19

Two months later, however, in the aftermath of an exploded Agena, the idea looked better, at least to Burke and Yardley. But they got no warmer reception than Verlander and Albert. Failing to sway Mueller and Mathews, they left the Launch Control Center for the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building, where an impromptu meeting on what to do next was in progress. Here they again urged their scheme, but, as Merritt Preston, the Kennedy launch operations manager, later said, "Poor Yardley and Burke were pounding a stone wall . . . they got the coldest shoulder I ever saw."

People at the meeting were more interested in the possibility of switching the 3,670-kilogram Spacecraft 7 with the 3,553-kilogram Spacecraft 6. Albert and others - among them some of the very men who had fathered the rapid turnaround plan - favored the proposed exchange. Having been rebuffed earlier, they now thought more conservatively. They reasoned that some of the time and work invested in Gemini VI launch preparations might be retrieved by using the booster already on the pad and checked out to launch the long-duration spacecraft. Burke and Yardley, on the other hand, pushed for removal of both the spacecraft and the booster, hoping to buy time for their proposal to be given further consideration. But the NASA, Air Force, and industry launch teams wanted to wait and see if GLV-6 had enough power to lift the heavier Spacecraft 7 into orbit.20

Mueller called NASA Administrator James Webb in Washington shortly after the Agena explosion and told him about the idea of exchanging spacecraft. Webb discussed it the next morning with his chief associates - Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden, Associate Administrator Robert Seamans, Associate Deputy Administrator Willis Shapley, and Mueller, now back from the Cape. If the switch could be made, the earliest launch date would be 3 December. If GLV-6 were not powerful enough to lift Spacecraft 7 into orbit, then the launch would take place on 8 December. Gemini VI, postponed to February or early March, would still fly before Gemini VIII. There was no mention of the Burke-Yardley proposal.21

Having made little headway at the Cape and with the spacecraft exchange plan gaining support, Burke and Yardley had headed for Houston to broach their idea to MSC Director Robert Gilruth. [273] On Tuesday morning, 26 October, while Webb and his colleagues were talking about exchanging the two spacecraft, Gilruth listened to Burke, smiled, and said, "Walter, you know things aren't like that in real life." Burke shot back, "Tell me what's wrong with it." Gilruth could come up with no convincing obstacle. He called George Low in to help him nitpick. The Deputy Director was intrigued by Burke's scheme. His only real doubt was whether the tracking network could handle two manned spacecraft at the same time. But that was a question for Flight Operations Director Christopher Kraft.

In the meantime, Mathews had arrived in Gilruth's office. He was no more able than Gilruth or Low to think of any insurmountable barrier to the plan. Gilruth asked Kraft to join them and show them the operational roadblocks that must be there. Taken aback, Kraft first said, "You're out of your minds. It can't be done." After thinking a few moments, though, he was not so sure. He called Sigurd A. Sjoberg, his deputy, to set up a meeting with his flight operations experts for 1:30 that afternoon. Flight Crew Operations chief Slayton was the next to hear the news, and he, in turn, sounded out the pilots for their reaction. Schirra and Stafford greeted the prospect with enthusiasm.22

In Florida, hopes for switching the spacecraft faded when an analysis of GLV-6 showed that it lacked the power to orbit the Borman-Lovell spacecraft. At a meeting in the office of John Williams, Director of Spacecraft Operations, the Cape leaders were now forced to consider the Burke-Yardley suggestion they had scorned before. As they tinkered with a tentative work schedule for a nine-day pad checkout, they began to see glimmers of light. Merritt Preston telephoned Mathews in Houston and LeRoy Day in Washington and told them it might work, after all, as far as the machines were concerned. Day found that Mathews was now in favor of the plan. Hardware was apparently no obstacle, but tracking and control operations were still a question mark.23

Kraft came back from lunch with Low and outlined the gist of the proposal to his staff. The men in John Hodge's Flight Control Division found it "a hell of a great challenge and to a man they wanted to press on as soon as possible." One of them suddenly said, "Why don't we handle it as if one of the spacecraft were a Mercury-type and the other a Gemini-type spacecraft?" Mercury controllers at the tracking stations observed data on their consoles, summarized it, and forwarded the result by teletype to Mercury Control Center. Gemini VII could be handled that way while it served as a passive target for Gemini VI. For Gemini missions, the stations were fitted with computer communications processors. As the spacecraft passed overhead, the processors interrogated the appropriate systems for specific data, which were automatically transmitted to Mission Control. [274] Gemini VI, the active partner in the rendezvous, would be controlled by the more sophisticated system. With this as a basis, an operational mode was laid out.

After Gemini VII lifted off, flight control would be carried out in the normal manner while the pad was being prepared for the second launch. Once the flight controllers were sure the orbiting spacecraft was operating properly, Mission Control would concentrate on Schirra and Stafford in their spacecraft, and the tracking network would watch Gemini VII, record data, and send information by teletype to the Houston controllers. This mode would continue until the complicated rendezvous mission ended and Gemini VI-A (so called to distinguish it from the originally planned mission whose objective had been rendezvous with Agena) returned to Earth. Then Gemini VII would become the focus of communications again. Kraft was soon convinced that the operation could be carried out safely. He told his Mission Planning and Analysis Division to set up the flight plan so the second launch could take place as soon as the pad was ready.24

At 3 o'clock that afternoon, Kraft told Gilruth that he was ready to talk, and he sounded excited. An hour later, Gilruth, Low, Mathews, Slayton, Burke, and Yardley heard what Kraft had to say. They talked about it for an hour, then Gilruth called Mueller, who liked the dual control idea but wanted to sleep on it. Burke and Yardley left for St. Louis with a promise from Gilruth to let them know within 24 hours what Headquarters decided.25

But the news was beginning to leak out. James C. Elms, Mueller's deputy, heard from Washington reporters that there were rumors that NASA was going to fly two manned spacecraft at the same time. He phoned Houston to ask Low what was going on. When Low had told him about the plan, they decided to warn Mueller about the danger of news leaks. Realizing that speed was now vital, Mueller called Seamans at home. It was too late to do anything that evening, and Seamans asked Mueller to come over the first thing in the morning to discuss the subject. Although Seamans was very interested in what he heard on Wednesday morning, he told Mueller to keep it quiet until he could pass it along to Webb and Dryden.26

That afternoon, 27 October, Webb, Dryden, Seamans, and Shapley met to discuss the Burke-Yardley proposal. Because Dryden had been concerned about adding extravehicular activity to Gemini IV at the last minute, Seamans felt he had to play devil's advocate. Even before Seamans finished, Webb was intrigued. Believing himself to be less conservative than Seamans about novel ideas, however, Webb telephoned Mueller and asked him point-blank if it would work. Mueller asked him to wait while he double checked with Gilruth in Houston.

Mueller told Gilruth that Webb liked the idea and thought it important enough for the President to announce. [275] Mueller warned the MSC Director that there could be no hedging. Once President Johnson made the plan public, the nation would be committed. How, Mueller wanted to know, did Gilruth feel about the proposal after thinking it over for 24 hours? Affirming that it still looked good to him, Gilruth nevertheless asked for half an hour to count the votes. Mueller gave him 15 minutes. Gilruth and Low polled Kraft, Slayton, Mathews, and Preston, stressing what a presidential announcement implied. When the affirmative ballot was unanimous, Gilruth called Mueller, who notified Webb that he had a deal.27

Webb then tried to reach presidential aide Jack Valenti but talked with Joseph Laitin, an assistant, instead. Laitin asked the Administrator to send the proposal to the White House so it could be forwarded to the President who was at his ranch near Austin, Texas. Webb drafted a memorandum for the Chief Executive, while Julian Scheer, NASA Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, composed a press release.28 The NASA chief informed the President that, barring serious pad damage after the launch of Gemini VII, Gemini VI-A could be flown in time for Schirra and Stafford to rendezvous with Borman and Lovell. Webb told President Johnson, "I believe it will be encouraging to you . . . to learn that we have gained enough strength in . . . the Gemini program to consider. . . such a quick turnaround."29

On Thursday, 28 October, a press conference was held at the Texas White House to announce the Gemini VII/VI-A rendezvous mission. That a plan of such scope could be suggested, discussed, approved, and announced in scarcely three days was a sign of the managerial and technical trust that Gemini had already come to inspire. William D. Moyers, the President's Press Secretary, told the news media about the plan and answered questions from reporters. Moyers said the mission was targeted for January; back at MSC, however, everyone from Gilruth on down was working toward an early December flight.30

At Cape Kennedy, normal methods now had to be suspended. From the hardware standpoint, success depended upon the performance of the launch preparation teams. Members of the NASA, Air Force, and Aerospace teams met and agreed on the best way to implement the plan. In this emergency situation, Aerojet-General engineers came through with procedures for handling the vehicle in a horizontal position, even though they had said earlier it must not be done. The Air Force's 6555th Aerospace Test Wing took GLV-6 down, one stage at a time, and placed it in bonded storage under plastic cover. On 29 October, the team erected GLV-7 on pad 19.31 Spacecraft work began when the McDonnell Cape team was rounded up to hear about the new mission. "Oh, man, you are crazy!" was the first reaction of pad leader Guenter Wendt when he saw the "S/C #6 Pad Schedule," which listed tasks for nine hectic days after the Gemini VII launch. [276] But he, like everyone else, tackled the challenge enthusiastically. While these exact schedule details were being pinned down, Spacecraft 6 was secured in a building on Merritt Island.32

Crew training presented no serious problems. Schirra and Stafford were honed and ready to go. They stepped aside while Borman and Lovell flew the simulator, taking only occasional sessions to keep sharp. Rendezvous plans remained unchanged. But Gemini VII's flight plan was altered to circularize the orbit, so Spacecraft 7 would travel in the same path that the Agena would have used.

Although Kraft's group had a workable concept for flight control, the operations experts still had a lot of work ahead setting up simultaneous controls for two manned spacecraft. Goddard Space Flight Center, in charge of the tracking network, began altering station layouts to allow voice communications with Gemini VII and VI-A at the same time. Equipment at Goddard was also adjusted to ensure that computer programs for two manned spacecraft could be prepared.33

Schirra and Stafford wanted to add extravehicular activity to the flight plans - perhaps Stafford could change places with Lovell in a demonstration of space rescue - but they met a pronounced rebuff. Borman's goal was a 14-day mission. He wanted nothing to do with any proposal that might threaten it. "Wally could have had all the EVA he wanted," Borman later said, "but I wasn't going to open the hatch." There were real hazards in trying to exchange pilots in mid-space, since the life support hoses would have to be detached and reconnected in a vacuum, leaving the pilots with only the backup system to depend on as they traveled between the two spacecraft. It might have looked great in the headlines, Borman added, "but one little slip could have lost the farm."

Schirra and Stafford did not give up and turned to Low for help. The Deputy Director learned that Stafford, one of the taller astronauts, sometimes had trouble getting out of and back into the spacecraft in zero-g tests. Even the barest chance that this might happen during the mission made the whole idea seem too risky to Low, but he passed the crew's wishes on to NASA Headquarters. The consensus in the executive offices was that there should be no EVA on Gemini VII - VI-A. Ironically, Spacecraft 6 was the first vehicle to be specifically designed for EVA. Schirra had worked hard to get it out earlier, so he and Stafford could focus on rendezvous. He had done too good a job. As he later remarked, "I wrestled that out of there so well that I couldn't get it back in when we had the delay."34

15 Frank Borman, interview, Houston, 18 April 1967; John F. Yardley, interview, St. Louis, 13 April 1966; letter, Paul P. Van Riper to Eugene M. Emme, 31 July 1969; memo, James E. Webb to the President, "Space Rescue," 2 June 1965; memo, Carl B. Peterson to Dep. Dir., "Martin rescue study," 4 Aug. 1965.

16 Ted A. Guillory, "Gemini VII Flight Plan," Preliminary, 4 Oct. 1965, Section II, "Flight Plan."

17 Memo, Schneider to Mueller, "Second Launch Pad for Gemini," 17 Sept. 1964; memo, Hall to Dep. Dir., Gemini Program, "Simultaneous Launch of Two Gemini Spacecraft," 19 Feb. 1965.

18 Low, interview, Houston, 7 Feb. 1967; Mathews, interview, Houston, 2 Dec. 1966; Meyer, notes on GPO staff meeting, 7 April 1965, p. 2.

19 Joseph M. Verlander, interview, Cocoa Beach, Fla., 29 Aug. 1967; Col. John G. Albert, interview, Patrick AFB, Fla., 26 May 1967; Raymond D. Hill, Jr., interview, Titusville, Fla., 23 May 1967; Yardley interview; Walter D. Smith, interview, Baltimore, 23 May 1966; Preston, interview, Cape Kennedy, Fla., 24 May 1967; H. H. Luetjen, interview, Cape Kennedy, 25 May 1967; J. Carroll Curlander, interview, Baltimore, 24 May 1966; "Dual Countdown for Gemini," April, and "Rapid Fire Gemini," 28 July 1965, revised 20 Aug. 1965, Martin Co. studies (Van Riper letter, 31 July 1969).

20 "Gemini Program Mission Report, Gemini VI-A," MSC-G-R-66-2, January 1966, p. 3-28; "Gemini Program Mission Report, Gemini VII," MSC-G-R-66-1, January 1966, p. 3-40; Yardley, Preston, and Albert interviews; "Transcription of Spacecraft Test Conductors Log during period October 25 to October 27, 1965 (following GT-6 mission scrub resulting from Agena failure)," n.d., p. 141.

21 There is little or no documentation of the events covering the VII/VI decision. Most of the material came from desk calendars, note pads, and interviews with the chief actors. The MSC History Office is deeply indebted to Paul P. Van Riper, Professor of Public Administration, Cornell University, who did a study on major NASA decisions and was kind enough to allow us the use of his research and to offer his personal assistance in piecing together what actually happened and when. Memo, Nina Scrivener (Webb's secretary) to Van Riper, 25 March 1967, with enclosure, "Summary of Telephone Conversations re Gemini 7/6," n.d.; Van Riper, notes on interview with Mary S. Turner (Robert C. Seamans, Jr.s secretary), 17 March 1967, using her 1965 desk calendar pad; Van Riper, notes on interview with Col. Lawrence W. Vogel, 14 March 1967, based on notes taken at meetings in Webb's office; Van Riper letter, 31 July 1969.

22 Yardley and Low interviews; Gilruth, interview, Houston, 21 March 1968; Meyer, notes on GPO staff meeting, 27 Oct. 1965, p. 1.

23 Memo, Mueller to Seamans, [GLV performance analysis], 27 Oct. 1965; Kapryan, interview, Cape Kennedy, Fla., 25 May 1967; Preston interview; Van Riper, notes on interview with Preston, 5 Jan. 1967; Meyer notes, 27 Oct. 1965, p. 1; W. A. Krzywicki (McDonnell), "S/C #6 Pad Schedule," 30 Nov. 1965 (annotated, "official release date [30 Nov.] not day plan made" and "plan developed 10/26 or 27"); William Hines, "Space Aides Map Plans after Gemini 6 Setback," The Evening Star, Washington, 26 Oct. 1965; John Troan, "Space Shot in November?" The Washington Daily News, 26 Oct. 1965.

24 Low interview; John D. Hodge, interview, Houston, 12 March 1968; Gerald M. Truszynski, interview, Washington, 13 Sept. 1966; memo, Mathews to Asst. Dirs., Flight Ops. and Flight Crew Ops., "Real and delayed time telemetry data recording, Gemini VI-A and Gemini VII," GT-65197, 3 Dec. 1965; TWXs, Mathews to dist., "Gemini Mission Designations," GT-11165, 20 Nov., and GT-11168, 26 Nov.1965; memo, Mueller to Adm., "Gemini VI-A Mission," 18 Nov.1965, with enclosure, "Mission Operation Report: Gemini VI-A Flight," M-913-65-08, 18 Nov. 1965; routing slip, Kraft to [MSC Historical Office], 2 July [1969], with enclosure.

25 Gilruth, Low, and Yardley interviews.

26 Low interview; letter, Day to MSC, Attn: Grimwood, "Comments on the Final Manuscript of the Gemini History," 23 June 1971; Putnam, notes on interview with Seamans, 20 July 1967; Van Riper, notes on Turner interview; letter, Seamans to Emme, 30 July 1969; Van Riper letter, 31 July 1969.

27 Van Riper, notes on interview with Willis B. Shapley, n.d. (probably March 1967); Vogel, notes taken at meetings in Webb's office, 27 Oct. 1965; Putnam notes, 20 July 1967; Van Riper, notes on Turner interview; "Summary of Telephone Conversations re Gemini 7/6"; Van Riper, notes on Vogel interview; Seamans letter, 30 July 1969; Van Riper letter, 31 July 1969; Gilruth and Low interviews; letter, Scrivener to Van Riper, 8 Aug. [1969]; letter, Alice McGilvra to Van Riper, 5 Aug. 1969.

28 Putnam notes, 20 July 1967; Van Riper, notes on interview with Julian Scheer, 8 Dec. 1966; "Summary of Telephone Conversations re Gemini 7/6."

29 TWX, Webb to Joseph Laitin, The White House (draft press release and memorandum for the President), 27 Oct. 1965, 7:10 p.m., e.s.t.

30 News Conference #176-A at the White House (Austin, Tex.), 28 Oct.1965; Low interview; Meyer notes, 27 Oct. 1965, p. 1.

31 Letter, Bernhard A. Hohmann to MSC, Attn: Grimwood, 12 Aug. 1969, with enclosure, annotated pages of draft chapter; "Gemini Launch Vehicle Operations, GT-7 & GT-6B," n.d.; Yardley interview.

32 Hill and Luetjen interviews; Guenter F. Wendt, interview, Cape Kennedy, Fla., 25 May 1967; Krzywicki, "S/C #6 Pad Schedule"; "Transcription of Spacecraft Test Conductors Log," p. 144; TWX, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, and KSC, Attn: Preston, "Contract NAS 9-170, Gemini, Disposition of Spacecraft 6 and All Equipment Assigned Thereto," GP-7386, 28 Oct. 1965.

33 Riley D. McCafferty, interview, Cape Kennedy, Fla., 25 May 1967; TWX, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, "Contract NAS 9-170, GT-7 Crew Training," GV-12185, 26 Sept. 1965; "Gemini VI-A Mission Report," pp. 7-8, -9; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 7-9, -10; Truszynski and Grimm interviews; Howard W. Tindall, Jr., interview, Houston, 16 Dec. 1966; "Gemini 7/6 Mission Control Procedures Briefing," 24 Nov. 1965.

34 Schirra, Borman, and Low interviews; Larry E. Bell, interview, Houston, 10 Sept. 1968; Vogel, notes on meetings in Webb's office, 29 Oct. and 2 Nov.1965; TWX, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, "Extravehicular Life Support System Installation in Spacecraft 6," GS-53397, 29 Dec. 1964.

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