Gemini 3: A great spacecraft but a lousy boat

At a Glance

Date: 23 March 1965

Duration: 4 hours, 52 minutes, 31 seconds

Commander: Gus Grissom (second and last spaceflight)

Pilot: John Young (first of six spaceflights)

Back-up crew: Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford

Objective: Test the Gemini spacecraft’s systems and perform the first orbit-changing manoeuvre in space.

The Crew

The crew of Gemini 3 was initially named as Alan Shepard and Tom Stafford, but when Shepard was diagnosed with a debilitating ear condition and subsequently grounded, both he and Stafford were taken off the mission. They were replaced by Gus Grissom and John Young, arguably NASA’s two best engineering-astronauts at the time. They were also quite similar characters – reticent and reserved yet extremely sharp-minded – and got along very well. Personality did play a part in crew selection for Gemini, more so than during Apollo, and according to Flight Director Gene Kranz, nowhere was a better match made than with the crew of Gemini 3.

Grissom had already made one spaceflight, a suborbital lob in 1961 as part of Project Mercury that made him the second American in space. John Young joined NASA the following year as part of the second group of astronauts. Gemini 3 was be his first, but by no means last, trip into space.

Young (left) and Grissom (centre) inspect a Gemini capsule in 1964 | Credit: NASA

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

At the end of his otherwise flawless Mercury mission, the hatch of Grissom’s capsule – named Liberty Bell 7 – blew due to a mechanical glitch when he was bobbing in the Atlantic awaiting recovery. Water flooded in and the capsule sank, lost at the bottom of the ocean for nearly 40 years. Grissom himself barely escaped drowning.

When it came time to name his and Young’s Gemini craft, Grissom came up with the tongue-in-cheek name ‘Molly Brown’, a reference to a Broadway musical – called The Unsinkable Molly Brown – about a lady who survived the sinking of a ship. NASA management frowned on Grissom’s choice and pressed him to come up with something else. They backed down, though, when Grissom only half-jokingly threatened to name it ‘Titanic’ instead. It was the last time during Project Gemini that NASA let the astronauts name their spacecraft.

‘Firsts’ for Gemini 3

Gemini 3 would rack up an impressive number of ‘firsts’. It was to be the first crewed mission of Project Gemini, the first NASA mission to feature a two-person crew, featured the first person to fly in space twice (Grissom) and the first astronaut not part part of the Mercury Seven to fly in space (Young), and was the first time a spacecraft would change the shape of its orbit around the Earth. During Project Mercury, the capsules had been able to change the direction they were pointing but not the direction in which they travelled.

The Flight

After a brief hold not long before launch because of a technical issue, Gemini 3 lifted off from Cape Canaveral on 26 March 1965 and reached an orbit slightly higher than had been planned due to their Titan rocket performing better than expected.

Just 15 minutes into the flight, Grissom noticed that Molly Brown was pulling, or yawing, to the left slightly. He attributed it to one of the thrusters used to manoeuvre the craft being stuck open slightly, but it was later proven to be the result of a venting water boiler.

A view of Northern Mexico, the Sonoran Desert and southern California | Credit: NASA

At the end of their first trip around the Earth, Grissom fired Molly Brown’s forward-facing manoeuvring thrusters and changed the shape of their orbit from an ellipse to a near-circle. It marked the first ever time the flight path of a spacecraft had been manually altered by its occupants.

With the main objective of their flight successfully achieved, Grissom and Young set about carrying out several experiments. One of these experiments, involving sea urchins, failed when a handle snapped off. A photography experiment was also only partially successful due to incorrect lens settings.

A third experiment of sorts called for Young to eat some specially prepared dehydrated food. Grissom was not supposed to eat anything. Young, however, had other ideas, and broke out a contraband corned beef sandwich to have instead (click the link for that story).

Four and a half hours into the flight, the re-entry process began. It was to be the first time that the occupants of a spacecraft would be able to manually control their re-entry through the atmosphere, making adjustments if necessary.

A Lousy Boat

Molly Brown did not produce as much lift as anticipated during re-entry and so Grissom and Young landed over 50 miles off-target. It had looked for a while as though that number would be higher, but Grissom was able to make adjustments to make up some of the distance.

When their main parachutes opened, the force jerked the duo forward in their couches. Grissom managed to hit his helmet on the instrument panel, the impact extreme enough to actually crack the faceplate. Young also scratched his.

Molly Brown splashed down in the Atlantic four hours, 52 minutes and 31 seconds after lift-off.

Young (in the life raft on the right) waits to be picked up by the recovery helicopter | Credit: NASA

The plan had been for Grissom and Young to be recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid. But with Intrepid being over 100 km away, Grissom instead requested they be recovered by a helicopter launched from a destroyer that was much nearer. He also decided to keep Molly Brown’s hatch firmly closed until Navy swimmers arrived and fixed a flotation collar, no doubt keen to avoid a repeat of his Mercury splashdown.

The issue with keeping the hatch closed was that it got very hot inside. This, mixed with the rolling waves outside, caused a few problems for Grissom. Young had been in the Navy prior to NASA and had spent a year onboard a destroyer before entering flight training. As such, he was largely unaffected by the conditions. The same could not be said of Grissom, who had been in the Air Force. He duly became seasick and threw up, the stench only adding to the miserable conditions inside the capsule.

“It was a great spacecraft,” Young later recalled, “but it was no boat.”

Despite the less than dignified ending, Gemini 3 had been a resounding success. With the spacecraft’s systems now proven, NASA could immediately move on with the rest of their schedule.

John Young went on to command a Gemini mission of his own (Gemini 10), became the first person to fly solo around the Moon as command module pilot for Apollo 10, landed on the Moon as commander of Apollo 16, and also commanded two Shuttle missions, including the very first. His career at NASA lasted for over 40 years – he retired from the agency in 2004 at the age of 74.

Gus Grissom was not so lucky. He had been on track to become the first person to fly in space three times when he was named commander of Apollo 1, and many think NASA were eyeing him to become the first person to walk on the Moon. However, in January 1967 he was killed in the Apollo 1 launchpad fire. He was 40.

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