Gemini 6A: Third time’s a charm

At a Glance

Dates: 15 – 16 December 1965

Duration: 1 day, 1 hour, 51 minutes and 24 seconds

Commander: Wally Schirra (second of three spaceflights)

Pilot: Tom Stafford (first of four spaceflights)

Back-up crew: Gus Grissom and John Young

Objective: To perform the first ever rendezvous with another spacecraft.

The Crew

Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were something of a rarity in the sense that where other Gemini crews had been influenced quite a lot by personality compatibility, Schirra and Stafford were paired together almost solely because of their technical expertise. That’s not to say they didn’t get on. In fact, they actually balanced each other out quite well – Schirra was more outgoing and a renowned practical joker, while Stafford was more quietly efficient and jokingly seen as a schoolteacher-type figure by the other astronauts.

Schirra had already flown in space once before, making what many consider to be the best textbook flight of Project Mercury. Gemini 6A was just the kind of mission he loved: brief, succinct and with a clear technical, as opposed to scientific, goal.

Stafford, meanwhile, had joined NASA in 1962 with the second class of astronauts. He had initially been named to the crew of Gemini 3 alongside Alan Shepard but was pulled from the mission when Shepard was grounded due to a medical problem. Gemini 6A would be his first spaceflight.

Stafford (left) and Schirra at the press conference where they were announced as the crew of Gemini 6 | Credit: NASA

Firsts for Gemini 6A

Gemini 6A was the first ever spaceflight to conduct a rendezvous with another spacecraft. The ability to find a target in space and manoeuvre up to it would be crucial in a mission to the Moon, with the astronauts in the lunar module returning from the Moon’s surface needing to rendezvous and then dock with their colleague in the command module in order to return to Earth. Simply put, NASA’s hopes of landing on the Moon hinged on Schirra and Stafford proving that rendezvous was possible.

The Flight

The mission got off to several false starts. The original plan, with launch scheduled for 25th October 1965, called for the astronauts to rendezvous with an Agena Target Vehicle, an unmanned spacecraft specifically designed for rendezvous and docking exercises.

Their Agena, however, blew up six minutes into its flight. Schirra and Stafford’s launch was scrubbed (cancelled) for the first time.

NASA decided it would create an alternative mission, with its name being changed sightly from ‘Gemini 6’ to ‘Gemini 6A’. Rather than using an Agena as their rendezvous target, Schirra and Stafford would use Gemini 7 – a 14-day mission scheduled for December and crewed by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell – as their target instead.

The aborted second launch attempt of Gemini 6 | Credit: NASA

With Borman and Lovell waiting for them in orbit, Schirra and Stafford attempted launch for the second time on the 12th December 1965. This would turn out to be another false start, and this time it was a much more dangerous one for the astronauts. The engines on their Titan rocket ignited but after just over a second they shut down again. Mission rules dictated that Schirra, as commander, activate his and Stafford’s ejection seats. If the rocket had started to rise before the engines had shut down, it would have fallen back onto the launchpad and exploded.

However, Schirra had not felt any movement and went against the rules, deciding not to eject. His choice was backed up by the fact that the CapCom on duty in the firing room, Alan Bean, had not said a word over the radio.

It was protocol for the CapCom to call out the moment of liftoff to confirm to the crew that they were on their way. Bean, though, had not seen the rocket move an inch and so remained silent. Given the fact that the clock in the cockpit had started ticking (indicating to Schirra and Stafford that for all intents and purposes they had left the pad), if Bean had mistakenly verified that, they would likely have trusted his judgement and ejected.

Ejecting from a Gemini spacecraft was a temperamental process at best and absolutely lethal at worst. During one test involving dummies, the hatches had failed to blow and the seats had simply ploughed straight through them. Needless to say, that would have been fatal had real astronauts been involved.

Even in a successful ejection (with ‘successful’ defined as the astronauts not dying as opposed to not being injured), Schirra and Stafford would have been exposed to very high g-forces as they were thrown over 800 feet away from the rocket. What’s more, the cabin had been soaking in a pure oxygen environment for several hours by then. When exposed to the sparks from the ejection seats, Schirra and Stafford’s spacesuits would have gone up in flames.

As things stood, though, thanks to Schirra’s instincts and Bean’s silence, the astronauts and their spacecraft lived to see another day.

The culprit behind the engine shutdown was found and remedied, and the pair successfully launched on their third try. It was 15th December 1965.

“It’s a real one!” crowed Schirra.

Third time’s a charm! Gemini 6A finally lifts off from the launchpad | Credit: NASA

Once successfully in orbit, they set about chasing down Borman and Lovell in Gemini 7.

Keeping in a lower orbit compared to Gemini 7 allowed Schirra and Stafford to move at a faster speed than their colleagues and thus start reeling them in. They were scheduled to finally reach Borman and Lovell six hours into the mission.

Radar lock was achieved three hours in, which indicated a distance of 396 kilometres/246 miles between Geminis 6A and 7. Based on this and further information provided by Stafford, Schirra was able to perform several burns of Gemini 6A’s thrusters to adjust their velocity and orbital plane.

Five hours in, he dimmed the lights in the spacecraft cabin and joined Staffford in peering out of the window to look for any sign of Gemini 7.

“I have a lighted target at about 12 o’clock,” Schirra reported to Mission Control. “It may be a star and it may be 7. We’ll check her out.”

It was indeed Gemini 7, reflecting the Sun’s light.

Now 900 metres away, Schirra and Stafford began firing Gemini 6A’s forward-facing thrusters to slow them down. They sidled up to within 120 feet of Gemini 7 and with one last adjustment cancelled out all relative motion between the two spacecraft. The first ever space rendezvous had been successfully achieved.

Upon being asked by Mission Control to report their status, Schirra quipped, “We’re all sitting up here playing bridge together.”

The view of Gemini 7 from inside Gemini 6A | Credit: NASA

Over the next four and a half hours, the astronauts continued their ‘stationkeeping’. It was down to Schirra and Stafford to do most of the manoeuvring since they had a lot more fuel to spare than Borman and Lovell, with Schirra taking great pleasure in spinning and pirouetting his spacecraft around that of his colleagues. At one point the distance between the two spacecraft was just 30 cm.

Schirra even found time to fit in one of his trademark ‘gotchas’. When talking with his Project Mercury colleague Alan Shepard, they noticed that Frank Borman was the only one out of the crews of Gemini 6A and Gemini 7 who had not attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis. He had instead attended West Point, which was Annapolis’s arch rival when it came to sports. Schirra and Shepard (another Annapolis graduate) came up with a plot to have a little dig at Borman.

Under the guise of the flight surgeons needing Borman to check to see if his vision had been affected by being in space for eleven days, Stafford held up a sign – which read ‘beat Army’ – to the window of Gemini 6A and asked Borman to see if he could read it.

Borman, not missing a beat, replied, ‘Looks like it says “beat Navy” to me!’

Gemini 6A’s ‘beat Army’ sign is held up against the window for Borman to see | Credit: NASA

With the rendezvous completed and the day coming to a close, Schirra and Stafford once again fired their thrusters, this time to move away from Gemini 7. It was to ensure that once they settled down to sleep there would be no accidental coming together.

25 hours, 51 minutes and 24 seconds after lift-off, Gemini 6A successfully splashed down eleven miles from its target in the Atlantic Ocean and was recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Wasp. It was the first spacecraft recovery to be broadcast on live TV.

Schirra and Stafford had done their job perfectly. They had proven a key component of a flight to the Moon was possible and, what’s more, had shown that it took the use of less fuel than anticipated.

Stafford was back in space just three flights later as commander of Gemini 9A. He also commanded Apollo 10 (the dress rehearsal for Apollo 11) and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (the joint docking mission with the Soviet Union).

Wally Schirra returned to space as commander of Apollo 7, the first crewed mission of the Apollo programme and the first mission after the Apollo 1 fire. It made him the only astronaut to have flown in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. He would always maintain, though, that Gemini 6A was his favourite flight of the three.

Schirra (left) and Stafford speak to the crew of the USS Wasp. Note the large cake that the aircraft carrier’s kitchen made to celebrate! Credit: NASA

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