The First Flight

By 3 March 1964, spacecraft and booster were at last together on launch complex 19 at Cape Kennedy. The series of tests that showed all booster systems were working had just been completed, and the spacecraft had been hung on a tripod in the "white room" atop the launch vehicle erector. This room, with its four levels and 4.5-tonne [195] (5-ton) crane to hoist the spacecraft, was sealed off from the outside world and maintained at a constant temperature of 295 kelvins (72F) and a constant relative humidity of 50 percent, to provide a controlled environment for the spacecraft and the upper stage of the booster. Next to the erector was an umbilical tower 31 meters high. Its seven booms supported 31 cables and lines to spacecraft and booster, feeding electrical power, propellants, and other needs until the moment of launch. Gemini-Titan I was scheduled to lift off on 28 March 1964.2

A premate systems test on 4 March confirmed the spacecraft ready for mating the next day, when the spacecraft-to-launch-vehicle adapter would be bolted to the booster's upper stage. The effort was delayed briefly when a McDonnell worker dropped his wrench on the dome of the oxidizer tank just below the spacecraft. A plastic sheet protected the dome, but the impact produced a scratch 0.95 centimeter (0.375 inch) long and 0.0038 centimeter (0.0015 inch) deep in the steel surface, just 0.16 centimeter (0.64 inch) thick at the point of impact. The area was burnished to the depth of the scratch and tested to confirm that the metal was still solid.3

After the spacecraft and launch vehicle had been mechanically mated, they also had to be connected electrically. But first the booster's status had to be checked in a combined systems test. That was slated for Sunday, 8 March, to be followed by three electronic-electrical interference tests between 9 and 13 March, to make sure there was no serious incompatibility. Minor problems delayed the booster combined systems test until Tuesday, and interference testing did not start until Thursday, 12 March.4

The first try at an interference test had to be scrubbed, and that cost another four days. On Monday, 16 March, however, the test went off without any trouble, prompting the crew to run through the second test at once. The attempt went awry through a procedural error. Another try, on Thursday, 19 March, brought bad news. Some amplifiers in the circuits that controlled the boosters tandem actuators (which shifted the engines to alter flight path) showed noisy outputs. A special dry run the next day produced the same problem, and the third interference test had to wait until the trouble was resolved. There was some question about how that was to be done, which was settled on Tuesday 24 March, when Martin troubleshooters pinpointed the problem - in the test equipment. Another test, on Wednesday, confirmed the finding. A conference that evening concluded that the data from the dry run the previous Friday met the intent, if not the precise format, of interference testing. The test equipment was removed that night.5

But the tests had taken almost two weeks longer than planned, forcing the launch to be postponed to 7 April 1964. Things now began to move more smoothly. On Friday, 27 March, a combined systems [196] test and simulated flight produced no serious problems.6 The following Tuesday, 31 March, all the nonflight parts that GLV-1 had carried to the Cape were replaced and Pogo gear installed. GLV-1 was scheduled to have its tanks filled with propellants that night as part of a complete countdown exercise, the wet mock simulated launch.

At 9 p.m., as shift workers were clearing the area for the start of tanking, someone saw smoke pouring from a switch at the pad. A burnt-out transformer and switch motor forced the test to be suspended, since there were no spares on hand and the switch performed a crucial function. It automatically transferred the launch complex to auxiliary power if commercial power failed. Safety demanded that the launch area be deluged with water in case of propellant leak; a power loss would leave that system inoperable for about 30 minutes if the automatic switch were not working. Workmen found a spare transformer at 1:18 Wednesday morning and installed it, but a new motor was harder to locate. One was finally borrowed from the blockhouse since that system could be run by hand.7 But another day had been lost.

Propellant loading resumed just before 10 Wednesday night and finished four hours later. The countdown began at 5 o'clock Thursday morning, but now came weather trouble. The Cape was under an "atmospheric inversion," a blanket of warm air above cooler air near the ground, which would block the upward dissipation of toxic fumes in case of accident. The count was held from 7 to 8:30, when the inversion started to break up. Ground crews then removed the propellant lines leading to the booster tanks and the count resumed. It followed its normal course until three minutes before launch, T-3, when a minor problem (quickly corrected) required the count to be recycled to T-5. Five minutes later, at half-past noon, the count reached T-0, the moment when the booster's first-stage engine would have ignited in a real launch. The test was a complete success, free of spacecraft problems and marred only by a minor procedural error in the launch vehicle countdown. After a vibration test of GLV-1, the tanks were drained of propellants, a five-hour process finished at midnight.8

The Spacecraft Flight Readiness Review Board* convened Friday afternoon, 3 April, in the conference room of the Engineering and Operations Building, headquarters for MSC's Florida Operations. A check of items left open from the preflight review of 18-19 February [197] showed that everything had been taken care of except a circuit breaker not yet fully qualified. It was close enough, however, for McDonnell to certify it flightworthy, a judgment the board shared. Only two new problems had cropped up since the earlier review, both easily corrected. The board judged all systems ready for flight, pending the outcome of the final systems test, a simulated flight scheduled for 5 April. When the simulated flight went off without a hitch on Sunday, Spacecraft 1 was ready for its mission.9

Flight readiness of the launch vehicle was reviewed Saturday afternoon. The Air Force reported two problems, one of which turned out to be nonexistent. The other involved a missing report of the results of an analysis of a failure in the secondary autopilot. The report was still absent on the eve of flight, but a phone call confirmed that the problem had been analyzed. After the simulated flight on Sunday, Walter Williams convened the Mission Review Board. Spokesmen for every group involved in the mission reported everything ready - "all systems 'go.'" At noon, Williams announced that NASA was "proceeding toward a launch not earlier than 11:00 a.m. Wednesday, April 8."10

The final decision for launch came on Tuesday morning. At 7:30, 7 April, SSD's Status Review Team for GLV-1 met, took a last look at the launch vehicle, and agreed it was ready to go. That recommendation was passed on to the Flight Safety Review Board at 9:00 a.m. The board approved GLV-1 for flight and committed it to launch, with lift-off set for 11 the next morning.11

Preparations for the final countdown were already under way. The first part of the planned 390-minute split countdown started before dawn on Tuesday. That 60-minute segment ended at 5 a.m., when the count was held for 23 hours to prepare the spacecraft for final countdown, install and hook up pyrotechnics, run some launch vehicle tests, and load propellants. GLV-1's tanks were topped off at 4:10 Wednesday morning, with about 75 people from Martin, the Air Force, Aerojet-General, and Aerospace on hand. Thirty systems experts from McDonnell and MSC arrived at the blockhouse at 4:30.The hold ended right on time, an hour later, and final countdown began at 6 a.m. or T-300. No flaw marred the entire five-hour process.

One second after 11 o'clock Wednesday morning, 8 April 1964, the booster's first-stage engine ignited. Of this one-second discrepancy, a joking Williams later remarked to a roomful of reporters, "There must be something wrong with the range clock." Four seconds later, the 136-tonne (156-ton) vehicle lifted from the pad on that curiously lambent flame so distinctive of Titan II's hypergolic propellants.12

Within moments, Gemini-Titan 1 vanished into the hot Florida sky, beyond reach of human senses but not electronic sensors. Telemetered data flowed back to mission controllers at the Cape, telling [199] them that the launch was as nearly perfect as it looked. Two and a half minutes after liftoff, the 118 tonnes (130 tons) of propellants in its first stage exhausted after driving Gemini-Titan 1 64 kilometers high and 91 kilometers downrange, GLV-1's first-stage engines cut off. The second-stage engine flared into life, and the four bolts that had held the two stages together exploded as they were designed to, cutting the spent first stage loose from the still-accelerating second stage and spacecraft. Five and a half minutes after launch, the second- stage motor stopped, its 27 tonnes (30 tons) of propellants gone. Now 1,000 kilometers downrange and 160 kilometers high, coasting at a speed of 7,888 meters (25,879 feet) per second, Gemini Spacecraft 1, with the second stage of GLV-1 still attached, was in orbit.13

Everything had gone beautifully. Purists might cavil at an excess 7 meters (24 feet) per second launch-vehicle speed that propelled the spacecraft into an orbit reaching out 320 kilometers instead of the programmed 299 kilometers. But they could scarcely deny the handsome achievement of the main goals - proving that the booster could do its job and that combined with the spacecraft its structure was sound. "There's no question these objectives were met," Walter Williams observed to the press shortly after launch.** The nearly flawless performance of the launch vehicle elated its sponsors, prompting one of them, Major General Ben Funk of SSD, to call it "just completely a storybook sort of flight."14

The mission of Gemini-Titan 1 was much shorter than its actual trip. Only the first three orbits were part of the flight plan. When Spacecraft 1 passed over Cape Kennedy for the third time, about 4 hours and 50 minutes after launch, the first Gemini flight came to a formal close. The spacecraft had been expected to orbit Earth for three and a half days. Because of its slightly higher than planned orbit, it actually stayed up for nearly four days. During that time, the Manned Space Flight Network,*** a round-the- world system of tracking stations controlled from Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, followed the vehicle by radar. On Sunday, 12 April, during its 64th pass, the steadily slowing spacecraft plunged back into the atmosphere, ending its career in flames over the South Atlantic, midway between South America and Africa.15

[200] NASA Associate Administrator Robert Seamans commended "the Air Force for its most successful Launch Vehicle Program."16 So fine a performance of the first mission augured well for those to follow and surely enhanced the prospect that Gemini astronauts would be in orbit before the end of the year. But the glow of accomplishment soon faded before the hard work yet to be done. While the launch vehicle was now qualified for manned missions, the spacecraft was not. Despite the gratifying success of Gemini-Titan 1, and some real progress on troublesome spacecraft systems, there was no time to rest on laurels. The target vehicle for Gemini's later missions was still a very large question mark, and Gemini's chronic money woes were far from settled. For all of that, Gemini's future in the spring of 1964 must have looked much brighter than it had only a few months earlier.

* The board was headed by Walter Williams and recorded by Lester Stewart; other members were Mathews, F. John Bailey, Jr., Christopher Kraft, Donald K. Slayton, and Merritt Preston from, respectively, the Gemini Program Office, Reliability and Flight Safety, Flight Operations, Flight Crew Operations, and Florida Operations. They evaluated all waivers, deviations, modifications, discrepancies, and work done at the Cape. McDonnell and MSC systems engineers were on hand to answer questions and assist the board.

** This was Williams' only Gemini launch. On 16 March, this veteran director of all the country's manned space flights resigned from NASA to accept a position as vice president and general manager of Aerospace's Manned Systems Division, to take effect after the first Gemini flight. Williams was replaced as Gemini Operations Director by Kraft, who had become MSC Assistant Director for Flight Operations in the November 1963 reorganization.

*** Network stations used for Gemini-Titan 1 were Kennedy; Grand Bahama Island; San Salvador; Bermuda; Woomera, Australia; Hawaii; Point Arguello, California; White Sands, New Mexico; and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

2 TWX, Walter J. Kapryan to Mathews, AMR-03-03-105, 3 March 1964; Gemini-Titan II Air Force Launch Vehicle Press Handbook (Martin-Baltimore, ca. December 1964), pp. 7-10, -13.

3 TWX, Kapryan to Mathews, AMR 03-03-106, 3 March 1964; TWX, N. A. Mas and Maj. Carl Ausfahl to Bernhard A. Hohmann, Col. Richard C. Dineen, and Lt. Col. D. B. Ingram, AS/Cape 89-64, 6 March 1964; TWX, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: William C. Schneider, "GLV Status Report No. 20A," GT-55073, 27 March 1964; memo (telephone), Head, Launch Vehicle Systems Office (LVSO), to Mgr., GPO, "Launch vehicle systems daily status for March 5, 1964," 6 March 1964.

4 Head, LVSO, memo, 6 March 1964; TWXs, Kapryan to Mathews, AMR 03-09-107, 9 March and AMR 03-11-109, 11 March 1964; memo, Leon DuGoff to Mathews, "Launch Vehicle Summary report for Period March 2 through March 6, 1964," 9 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mathews, "Milestone Report for March 6, 1964," 9 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mathews, "LVS Daily status for 3-964," 10 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mathews, "LVS Daily Status as of 1430, EST, March 11, 1964," 11 March 1964.

5 TWXs, Kapryan to Mathews, AMR 0313-110, 13 March, AMR 03-23-120, 23 March, and AMR 03-27-126, 27 March 1964; TWXs, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS/Cape 118- 64, 13 March, and 138-64, 26 March 1964; TWX, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: Schneider, "GLV Weekly Summary Report No. 21," GT-55070, 24 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mathews, "GLV status report for March 18," n.d.; telephone call from DuGoff to GPO, 3:03, 19 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mgr., GPO, "Gemini launch vehicle status report," 20 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mgr., Test Ops., "GLV daily status for March 23, 1964," 24 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mgr., Test Ops., "GLV daily status for March 24, 1964," 25 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mgr., Test Ops., "GLV status report for March 25, 1964 through 8:00 a.m. March 26, 1964," 26 March 1964.

6 DuGoff memo, 26 March 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mgr., Test Ops., "Launch Vehicle Systems Summary Report for Period March 23 through March 29, 1964," 30 March 1964; TWXs, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS Cape 139-64, 27 March, and 142-64, 30 March 1964.

7 TWX, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: Schneider, "GLV Status Report No.26," GT-55089, 3 April 1964; TWX, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS/Cape 148-64, 1 April 1964; TWX, Kapryan to Mathews, AMR 03-31-134, 1 April 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mgr., Test Ops., "Combined daily status for April 1 and April 2, 1964 for GLV," 2 April 1964; "Gemini Program Mission Report for Gemini-Titan 1 (GT-1)," MSC-R-G-64 1, May 1964, pp. 12-10, -23; TWX, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: Schneider, "Daily GLV Status Report No. 29," GT-55096, 9 April 1964.

8 TWX, Mathews to NASA Hq., Attn: Schneider, "Combined Daily Status for April 1 and 2 for GLV, No. 27," GT-55092, 3 April 1964; DuGoff memo, 2 April 1964; TWX, Kapryan to Mathews, AMR 04-03-137, 3 April 1964; TWX, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS/Cape 150-64, 3 April 1964; memo, DuGoff to Mathews, "Daily status for April 2 through 1300 April 3, 1964 for GLV," 3 April 1964; Edward F. Mitros, telephone interview, 16 Oct. 1973.

9 Letter, Mathews to Walter F. Burke, GP-03530, 24 March 1964, with enclosure, "Data Required in Support of S/C No.1 Flight Readiness Review;" memo, Mathews to dist., "Gemini Flight Readiness Review Procedure," GT-05031, 24 March 1964, with enclosure, subject as above, 29 Feb. 1964; TWX, Mathews to Space Systems Div. (SSD), Attn: Dineen, and McDonnell, Attn: Burke, GP-54650, 30 March 1964; TWX, Mathews to SSD, Attn: Dineen, and McDonnell, Attn: Burke, GT-55081, 31 March 1964; TWX, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS/Cape 149-64, 2 April 1964; memo (telephone), Head, LVSO, to Mgr., Test Ops., "Daily Status Report from April 3 to April 5, 1964 for GLV," 6 April 1964; TWX, Kapryan to Mathews, 94-06-141, 6 April 1964; TWX, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS Cape 15364, 6 April 1964; W. Harry Douglas and Lester A. Stewart, telephone interviews, 23 Feb. 1973; Warren J. North, telephone interview, 28 Feb. 1973.

10 "GT-1 Mission Report," pp. 12-13, -14; MSC News Release, GT-1, 6 April 1964.

11 MSC News Release, GT-1, No. 2, for release at 9 a.m., 7 April 1964; "GT-1 Mission Report," pp. 12-10, -14; memo (telephone), Head, LVSO to Mgr., Test Ops., "Daily Status Report for April 6, 1964, for GLV," 7 April 1964; TWX, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS/Cape 156- 64, 7 April 1964.

12 "GT-1 Mission Report," pp. 4-1, 6-1; TWXs, Mas and Ausfahl to Hohmann, Dineen, and Ingram, AS/Cape 156-64 and 16264, 8 April 1964; NASA News Release 64-70, "First Gemini Orbital Flight Scheduled," 30 March 1964, pp. 5-7, 8; Paul P. Haney, handwritten notes for GT-1 mission commentary, 8 April 1964; [Janet Shrum], "Weather report at 0800, April 8, [1964];" Bastian Hello, interview, Baltimore, 23 May 1966; "News Conference, Gemini/Titan-1," 8 April 1964, p. 2.

13 "GT-1 Mission Report," pp. 4-2, -8, 5-34; Gemini-Titan II Air Force Launch Vehicle Press Handbook (Martin-Baltimore, 2nd ed., Manned Space Flight, ca. March 1965), pp. iii, vii; [Ivan D. Ertel], Gemini Program, MSC Fact Sheet No. 291 (Houston, February 1965).

14 "GT-1 Mission Report," p. 4-8; "GT-1 News Conference," pp. 2, 3; "Walter [C.] Williams Resigns to Join Private Industry," MSC Space News Roundup, 1 April 1964; letter, George E. Mueller to Christopher C. Kraft, Jr., "Operations Director for Gemini GT-2," 16 July 1964; "Christopher Kraft Picked to Direct Next Gemini Flight," MSC Space News Roundup, 5 Aug. 1964; MSC Announcement No. 64-187, "Appointment of Operations Director for GT-3," 23 Dec. 1964.

15 Robert W. Fricke, Jr., "Mission Directive for Gemini-Titan II Mission I, GT-1 (Spacecraft No. 1)," NASA Project Gemini working paper No. 5005, 14 Nov. 1963; "GT-1 Mission Report," pp. 2-1, -2, 4-1, -3; [Ertel], Gemini Program; NASA News Release 64-70, p. 15; "Gemini Program Gets OR to a Successful Start," MSC Space News Roundup, 15 April 1964; "Manned Space Flight Network Performance Analysis for the First Gemini Mission," Goddard Space Flight Center X-552-64-206, 1 May 1964, Supplemental Report No. 12 to "GT-1 Mission Report"; William R. Corliss, "The Evolution of the Manned Space Flight Network through Gemini," 1 Dec. 1967, pp. 102-10; MSC News Release, GT-1-3, 7 April 1964.

16 "Minutes of the Twelfth Meeting, Gemini Program Planning Board, Monday, April 20, 1964," p. 1.

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