The Home Stretch

After the guests had departed, Borman and Lovell realized that their incentive had gone with them. Events such as stationkeeping, experiments, getting out of their suits, and waiting for the VI-A visitors had sustained their enthusiasm. Even then, the novelty of space flight had worn thin, and their thoughts had strayed homeward. With VI-A gone and almost three days left, the mission began to drag. Beyond all doubt, 14 days inside this spacecraft was "a long haul in that short frame." While in drifting flight, Borman read some of Mark Twain's Roughing It, Lovell part of Drums along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds - both selected partly because they had nothing to do with the space program.83

During a mission as long as Gemini VII, impressions only indirectly connected with the flight naturally came to mind. Lovell indulged in a disquisition on legs, which were

affected the most by zero g because you don't realize how much exercise you do every day. Just combating Earth's gravity, you do quite a bit; and the legs are designed to do most of that work for you. They get you around - they walk - they lift up your body. Suddenly, for two weeks, this gravity is taken away. The legs don't have a job any more - they're just there. [A man without legs] for Gemini would have been perfect because you could utilize that space for something else. Everything except for maybe EVA. But in that spacecraft, we didn't use the legs for anything.84
A few minutes after Schirra had played his spirited rendition of "Jingle Bells," [292] Borman and Lovell took off their suits. They might as well be comfortable. Then they had to see about a thruster problem that had greeted them upon awakening. When Borman tried to fire thrust chambers 3 and 4, only whitish, unburnt fuel streamed out. The pitch thrusters stopped the spacecraft from yawing and thrusters 11 and 12 also helped, although they were a little too strong in control. One of the non-working thrusters was tested after the flight. The laminate in the thrust chamber was found to be the old-style 90-degree layup, instead of the new 6-degree design that had solved the burnout problem.85

But the thrusters were merely annoying; the fuel cell was a greater concern. Despite the warning light during the first revolution, the cell had provided enough electrical power for the spacecraft to operate normally for 126 hours. The ground analysis team, with an operating model set up in St. Louis, had helped keep it going, but power output was only partial by the end of the 12th day. The next day, the fuel cell threatened to quit completely as the warning light burned continuously. Gemini VII might have to end early with a landing in the Pacific Ocean, much as the crew disliked the idea of missing the 14-day goal. Test results in St. Louis, however, showed that the electrical system would carry them all the way. Relieved, Borman slept better than he had on any other night in space.86

Borman and Lovell finished their packing on the last day. Asked about their baggage, Borman said the cockpit was clean, he and Lovell were wearing their suits, and they were all set to go home.

Before the retrorockets fired, the ground stations kept the crew busy for two hours on the reentry checklist. Flight surgeon Berry reminded them to elevate their feet and pump their legs. Borman broke in to say that he and Lovell wanted to get out of the spacecraft as soon as possible. They had no desire to wait around to be stylishly hoisted aboard a carrier. As they started their last revolution - number 20 - the tracking stations along the circuit bade them goodbye. The music being broadcast included the tune "Going Back to Houston."87

With retrofire approaching in the darkness near Canton Island in the Pacific, the crew wondered - as do all astronauts - whether the rockets would fire. Lovell described his emotions graphically.

Retrofire has a unique apprehension in the fact that both of us are aviators and we understand the apprehension in flying. If you have an accident in an airplane, something's going to happen. . . . You hit something, or it blows up - you're coming down. Now, in liftoff and reentry, a space vehicle is like an airplane. Something's happening. But if the rockets fail to retro, if they fail to go off, nothing's going to happen. You just sit up there and that's it. Nothing happens at all. So that's the unique type of apprehension, because you know that you've gotten rid of the adapter, you know that you're going to have 24 hours [293] of oxygen, 10 hours of batteries, and very little water. So you play all sorts of tricks to get those retros to fire.88
The first retrorocket fired automatically and on time. The next two rockets followed in quick succession and, after a pause, the fourth fired. As the firings jolted them, Lovell said, with relief, "That's one big hurdle over with, tiger!" Borman answered, "You're right, ace."

From Houston, CapCom See told them to fly a 35-degree left bank until computer guidance cut in. A surprised Lovell reminded Borman that 53 degrees had been planned. Borman questioned See, who confirmed the 35-degree bank.* By that time, however, the computer "had come in on the line. . . . it was actually commanding the spacecraft," with Borman banking to right and left, following the needles. As Lovell later said, "You have no control over how close you're going to get to the target. Your only control is how good that computer is doing, or how good your c.g. [center of gravity] was when you sat up the computer and the retrofire time. . . ."89

Borman rolled Gemini VII head down to use the horizon as a guide for keeping the proper spacecraft attitude. He could see nothing from his window, however, and had to depend entirely on his instruments and on Lovell, who finally saw the horizon after about six and a half minutes and began calling out adjustments. Borman concluded that reentering was definitely a two-man job for Gemini; there was no way to follow the needles on an instrument panel and watch the horizon at the same time.90

Because they had been weightless for so long, the onset of the g forces "felt like a ton. During the long glide, which did not have a sharp angle of descent, g forces never rose higher than 3.9 (contrasted with an average of 7.7 for the Mercury-Atlas orbital flights). But the higher g did not bother them too much, since they were very busy trying to get as close to that carrier as possible.

The reentry control system worked well, holding Gemini VII steady until the drogue parachute came out. The spacecraft rocked 2 Eat degrees to either side, giving the crew a shaking. On the way down, Lovell opened the snorkel; smoke and an acrid smell filled his hood, causing his eyes to water. But even his smarting eyes were glad to see the main parachute deploy. Little did the crew care that they hit the water with a heavy thud. Borman's thoughts were elsewhere; he was trying to spot the recovery helicopter. When he did not see any aircraft, he remarked. "Shoot! We must have missed it more than Walls did." The two command pilots had a small bet on who would land closer to the target. But Borman was not sure when he began to talk [294] with "Air Boss," pilot of one of the helicopters in the area of the spacecraft's descent; maybe they were near the aiming point, after all.91

On 18 December 1965, after 330 hours, 35 minutes, 01 second, Gemini VII came to rest on what Lovell called the good old aqua firma, missing the target by 11.8 kilometers.** Mission objectives had been achieved in fine fashion. Provided the crew came through in good physical condition, it could be assumed that an Apollo team could fly safely to the Moon and back.

Borman felt a little dizzy, Lovell not at all. Borman suggested that they get out of their suits, as it was warm in the spacecraft, but the effort was just too great. They turned on the oxygen repressurization valve and were soon comfortable. The pararescuemen were already working on the flotation collar, and the recovery helicopters were hovering nearby. Half an hour after landing, Borman and Lovell were greeted aboard the Wasp,92 the second spaceship crew the carrier's crew had snared in a few days.

When the returning spacemen came onto the deck of the carrier, they were tired but happy. They walked slightly stooped and a little gimpy-legged, partly because of their pressure suits and the ship's roll, but mostly because they were just plain weary. Perhaps even more remarkable than being able to walk across the deck without stumbling was the fact that the crew had been able to get into the "horse collar" to be hoisted into the helicopter. After being weightless for 14 days, this was a severe physical test. Berry was jubilant over the medical results of Gemini VII:

The most miraculous thing was when they could get out of the spacecraft and not flop on their faces; and they could go up into the helicopter and get out on the carrier deck and walk pretty well. They were in better physiologic shape than the V crew. Initially, their tilt-table responses were not as bad and did not last as long. It looked more like four-day responses, by far, than eight-day. The calcium loss was the same way. Amazingly, they maintained their total blood volume. They didn't get any decrease, but they did it in a peculiar way. They lost the red-cell mass still, but they replaced the plasma - they put more fluid in. Apparently, there had been enough time for an adaptive phenomenon to take place.93
When the detailed examination started, the physicians found that Lovell, who had worn the cardiovascular cuffs, had less blood pooling in his legs than Borman. After a good night's sleep aboard ship, both [295] men looked rested and said they were.94 They had made the long haul in that short frame in fine style.

Christmas week of 1965 was perhaps the high-water mark of manned space flight to that time. The string of successes had an unlooked-for effect, however - manned space flight became almost commonplace, the novelty had all but gone. Who did what and when tended to blur. Any single event, such as America's first suborbital flight or first orbital mission, became hard to recall. Perhaps more than it intended, NASA had achieved the program goal implied in the Project Development Plan of December 1961: to put space flight on something like a routine basis.95 The routine loses news value, and score cards on Russia versus America in the space race vanished when the lead clearly passed from East to West.

Gilruth may hake best summed up the bright look of things at that postrecovery conference on 18 December, when he said:

It has been a fabulous year for manned space flight. . . . I guess you all realize that this year, since March, we have put 10 men in orbit and brought them back. And we have accomplished the major part of the Gemini space objectives at this point in the program. The long duration, which was a major objective, some of us didn't really think you could go 8 or 14 days in that spacecraft . . . we have seen the men return in good shape with all their tasks done. . . . We have seen EVA this year in Gemini, and we have seen rendezvous. We have seen controlled reentry demonstrated, the controlled reentry technique that is so important to Apollo, and we have seen accomplished a whole raft of scientific experiments.96
NASA faced the new year with an equal number of manned Gemini flights still to be flown, and it expected to do this with an unbroken chain of successes. Morale was high, as many program objectives had been stamped "Achieved." Postflight celebrations were carried across the seas when President Johnson asked Borman and Schirra to make an eight-nation, good-will tour of the Far East. Meanwhile, engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center prepared for a "Gemini Midprogram Conference," to discuss the results of the first seven Gemini missions, as they had done for the Mercury program in the Summary Conference held in Houston in October 1963.97

* In the postflight report, Scott Simpkinson's evaluators noted that the flight controllers had been wrong and had given Borman an erroneous bank angle.

** Flight Control had told Borman of the procedures Schirra had used in flying the first computer controlled reentry. Since he was anxious to win his bet, the Gemini VII commander was glad to have the benefit of the Gemini VI-A commander's experience.

83 Borman and Lovell interviews.

84 Lovell interview.

85 "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 827, 830-31, 839, 863, 865; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 6-8, -9; TWXs, Kleinknecht to NASA Hq., Attn: Webb, and MSC, Attn: Gilruth, "Daily Report[s] No. 10," GT-11200, 16 Dec.1965, pp. 4, 7, and "No. 11," GT-11201, 17 Dec. 1965, pp. 4, 6; Meyer, notes on GPO staff meeting, 25 Jan. 1966, pp. 2-3; TWX, Mathews to McDonnell, Attn: Burke, "Contract NAS 9-170, Gemini," GP-7468, 7 Feb. 1966; memo, Clarence Q. Gay, Jr., to Day, "Use of 90 Billet on S/C #7," 15 Feb. 1966.

86 Borman and Lovell interviews; "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 862-64, 868, 869, 873-78; "Gemini VII Debriefing," pp. 95-99; "Gemini VII Mission Report," p. 6-7.

87 "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 950, 959, 960, 968, 971, 973, 978; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 7-7, -57.

88 Lovell interview.

89 Ibid.; "Gemini VII Debriefing," pp. 35, 36; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 7-8, -58; "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 979, 994.

90 "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 980, 986, 991; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 7-57, -58; "Gemini VII Debriefing," pp, 43, 44.

91 "Gemini VII Debriefing," pp. 45-52; "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 816, 996, 1007; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 7-58, -59, -74.

92 "Gemini VII Voice," III, pp. 952-53, 957, 964-65, 1008, 1011; "Gemini VII Debriefing," pp. 53, 56, 61; "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 4-20, 7-9.

93 Charles A. Berry, interview, Houston, 18 March 1968; Schweickart interview.

94 "Gemini VII Mission Report," pp. 7-75 through -77, 8-21; Charles A. Berry et al., "Mans Response to Long-Duration Flight in the Gemini Spacecraft," in Gemini Midprogram Conference, pp. 253-61.

95 "Project Development Plan for Rendezvous Development Utilizing the Mark II Two Man Spacecraft," MSC, 8 Dec. 1961.

96 "Post Recovery Press Conference," 18 Dec. 1965, tape 41A, pp. 1-2.

97 Letter, Mueller to Gilruth, 29 Nov. 1965; memo, Mathews to dist., "Preparation for Gemini Mid-Program Conference," GA-60237, 2 Dec. 1965; letters, Mathews to Col. Richard C. Dineen, GP- 61889, and Burke, GP-61885, 13 Dec. 1965; letter, Edward Z. Gray to Maxime A. Faget, "Report on Gemini Experiments at the Gemini Mid-Program Conference," 21 Dec. 1965; memo, Gilruth to Slayton, "Far Eastern tour of Astronauts Borman and Schirra," 9 Feb. 1966.

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