Gemini 5: ‘Eight days in a garbage can’

Dates: 21 – 29 August 1965

Duration: 7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes and 14 seconds

Commander: Gordo Cooper (second and last spaceflight)

Pilot: Pete Conrad (first of four spaceflights)

Back-up crew: Neil Armstrong and Elliot See

Objectives: To test the Gemini spacecraft’s rendezvous guidance and navigation system, to demonstrate the ability of astronauts to cope with long-duration spaceflight, and to test out newly-designed fuel cells.

The Crew

Cooper (centre left) and Conrad (centre right) during suit-up operations the morning of their flight | Credit: NASA

On the face of it, the pairing of Gordo Cooper and Pete Conrad for Gemini 5 was a slightly strange one.

Cooper was a member of NASA’s first class of astronauts who was known for his tendency to annoy high-ranking management officials with occasionally questionable judgement. For instance, the day before his Mercury flight he had flown virtually supersonic past the administration building at the Cape at extremely low level (so low that the people on the second floor of the building were able to look down on his plane) to express his displeasure at last-minute changes made to his spacesuit. He came very close to being pulled from the mission.

Conrad, meanwhile, had been been unsuccessful in his application to join Project Mercury in 1959 because of his lackadaisical attitude to the psychological tests. Upon being handed a blank piece of paper and asked to describe what he saw, Conrad deadpanned, “You gave it to me upside down!” This, along with a couple of other incidents, led him to be deemed ‘unsuitable for long-duration spaceflight’ and duly rejected from the process. He was, though, successful in his application to the second group of astronauts in 1962 and ironically was selected to fly on Gemini 5 – NASA’s first attempt at long-duration spaceflight.

‘Firsts’ for Gemini 5

With astronauts no longer allowed to name their spacecraft due to an incident in the run-up to Gemini 3, Cooper and Conrad instead created NASA’s first mission insignia as an alternate way to personalise their flight. It featured a covered wagon and the slogan ‘8 days or bust’ – a reference to the planned duration – and was to be displayed on their spacesuits. NASA management was extremely reluctant to approve the design, and Cooper and Conrad were made to cover up the slogan with pieces of canvas which were to be removed after the flight only if they had completed the full eight days, lest the press have a field day about it being a bust.

Credit: NASA

The Gemini 5 spacecraft was the first spacecraft to be powered by fuel cells rather than chemical batteries. They lasted for far longer than batteries and were much more efficient. For a long-duration mission – one able to go to, land on and come back from the Moon – these fuel cells would be crucial.

The Flight

Gemini 5 lifted off on 21st August 1965.

Only a couple of hours into the mission Conrad noticed that one of the new fuel cells was already running into problems. The oxygen pressure had started to drop, forcing Cooper to switch off all of the fuel cells as a precaution. By their seventh orbit, however, the pressure had stabilised and Mission Control read a procedure to Cooper and Conrad that allowed them to power safely back up once again, essentially saving the rest of the mission from being cancelled.

It was by no means the only technical problem Gemini 5 would face. During Project Mercury the spacecraft’s cabin had often tended to overheat, but Cooper and Conrad found that the temperature of theirs actually dropped significantly. At one point Conrad joked that their ‘breath would freeze on the windshield’ when they had everything powered down and were trying to sleep.

Despite the temperature problems, Conrad was still managing to remain relatively upbeat, with CapCom Jim McDivitt wryly commenting that he ‘sure [did] talk a lot’.

Conrad: What do you want me to do, sing you a song?

McDivitt: Think you can?

Cooper: He sings off key.

Conrad (singing): Over the ocean, over the blue, here’s Gemini 5 singing to you.

McDivitt didn’t appreciate Conrad’s singing, and asked him to go back to talking instead.

View of the lower tip of Baja, California and Bahia de la Paz | Credit: NASA

Day three of the mission was the highlight for the two astronauts. It involved them conducting several rendezvous exercises with an imaginary target. Manoeuvring a spacecraft to a precise point was something that had not been tried properly before, but Cooper nonetheless managed to do it almost perfectly.

Things started to go downhill from day four. The fuel cells malfunctioned again, producing more waste water than anticipated and drinking water that was slightly acidic.

Then, over the course of the fifth and sixth days, the Orbital Attitude and Manoeuvring System (OAMS) repeatedly malfunctioned and forced Cooper to power a part of the spacecraft down again.

With the vast majority of their planned experiments now cancelled as a result, except for medical and photographic ones, the astronauts were mostly at a loss for things to do. Conrad would later comment that he wished he had brought a book along to pass the time.

Pete Conrad inside the Gemini 5 spacecraft | Credit: NASA

A brief moment of solace for the crew came on day seven when a call for them got patched through from an unusual location. Scott Carpenter, one of Cooper’s astronaut colleagues from Project Mercury and now an aquanaut, was 200 feet underwater off the coast of Hawaii as part of the Navy SEALAB experiment designed to test the limitations of saturation diving and long-duration human isolation.

Rather humorously, due to the mixed oxygen and helium atmosphere of the SEALAB module, Carpenter’s voice was extremely high-pitched.

Carpenter: SEALAB II transmitting from 200 feet down. We’re off Hawaii. How do you read, Gordo?

Cooper: Good, how you doing, Scott?

Carpenter: I read you, Gordo. You’re doing a great job. We almost missed you this time. We were just brought down this afternoon and I’m glad we got a chance to tell you what a great job that you guys are doing. Hope you have a very pleasant reentry shortly.

With the rest of the call cut short due to a garbled signal Cooper and Conrad set about preparing for re-entry, which could not have come soon enough for them. Not only were they slightly sleep deprived and still shivering, their spacecraft had filled up with assorted items of rubbish over the course of the mission, making it not the most pleasant place to be. At one point a sachet of freeze-dried shrimp split open, causing the little pink snacks to float all over the cabin.

7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes and 14 seconds after they lifted off, Cooper and Conrad splashed down in the calm seas of the Atlantic. They had successfully broken the world space endurance record, marking the first time that the record was held by the US and not the Soviets. However, like the two missions before them, Gemini 5 landed quite a way off its targeted landing zone. This time, the problem was due to a computing error that put the Earth’s rotation at less than it actually was.

Conrad (left) and Cooper onboard the USS Lake Champlain after their recovery | Credit: NASA

Cooper and Conrad were successfully recovered by the USS Lake Champlain and found to be in generally good physical condition, with only lower-than-normal blood plasma and calcium levels being noted.

Though their mission paved the way for NASA to continue with their planned schedule for the rest of Project Gemini – having demonstrated the viability of long-duration spaceflight and of rendezvous techniques – the two astronauts did not necessarily look back on their mission with much fondness. Conrad summed it up best when he labelled Gemini 5 as ‘eight days in a garbage can’.

Conrad went on to command Gemini 11 and landed on the Moon as commander of Apollo 12, making him the third person to walk on the lunar surface. He also – again, ironically for a guy initially deemed ‘unsuitable for long-duration spaceflight’ – commanded the 28-day-long Skylab 2 mission, the first crewed flight to the first American space station.

Gemini 5 was Gordo Cooper’s last spaceflight. He had fallen out of favour with NASA management and wasn’t seen to be putting enough effort into his training. Despite being assigned to the back-up crew for Gemini 12, it was (perhaps deliberately) a dead-end job as there was no Gemini 15 to which he could hope to rotate. He was also assigned as back-up commander for Apollo 10 which would have normally meant he would command Apollo 13, but NASA had no real intention of making good on that. He left the agency in 1970.

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