Gemini 7: The two-week marathon no one wanted to fly

Dates: 4 – 18 December 1965

Duration: 13 days, 18 hours, 25 minutes and 1 second

Commander: Frank Borman (first of two spaceflights)

Pilot: Jim Lovell (first of four spaceflights)

Back-up crew: Ed White and Mike Collins

Objective: To study the effects of long-duration weightlessness and to act as a passive rendezvous target for Gemini 6A.

The Crew

There is an often-used trope in fiction that sees two characters of pretty different dispositions lumped together to carry out a certain task. One of these characters is usually stoic and serious and the other more relaxed and outgoing. Despite their apparent differences, they end up becoming very good friends. Frank Borman (a straight-shooting West Point graduate and Air Force test pilot) and Jim Lovell (a genial Naval Academy graduate and Navy test pilot) were – and still are, even in their 90s – NASA’s real-life incarnations of that trope.

Born within eleven days of each other in 1928, Borman and Lovell joined NASA in 1962 in the second group of astronauts. They were the second all-rookie crew of Project Gemini after Jim McDivitt and Ed White of Gemini 4.

Jim Lovell (centre) and Frank Borman (right) review mission requirements before their flight | Credit: NASA

‘Firsts’ for Gemini 7

Gemini 7 was NASA’s first go at proper long-duration spaceflight. It would virtually double NASA’s previous duration record, achieved during the eight-day flight of Gemini 5.

The Flight

While it is common today for astronauts to spend over six months onboard the International Space Station, back in the 1960s it was not known whether humans could survive even two weeks in space (the longest possible duration of a lunar landing mission). It was up to Gemini 7 to find out if they could, with Borman and Lovell essentially guinea pigs at the mercy of the flight surgeons.

It wasn’t necessarily only because of concerns around survival that many astronauts were glad not to be selected for Gemini 7. Instead, it was more because they didn’t view it as including very much flying – for the majority of the mission Borman and Lovell would simply drift along in what they called ‘chimp mode’. What’s more, the idea of having to spend two weeks crammed into a cabin no bigger than the front seats of a hatchback, unable to stand up or even move around and in extremely close proximity with another person, was really not very appealing.

Borman and Lovell lifted off on 4th December 1965, wearing lightweight spacesuits specially designed for long-duration flights, made of more flexible materials and featuring nylon ‘hoods’ rather than completely rigid helmets.

Lovell (left) and Borman leave for the launchpad | Credit: NASA

For the first few days of the flight, Borman and Lovell busied themselves with various medical experiments and tests of their spacecraft.

They also tested out a new ‘rest’ procedure. Previous Gemini flights had staggered sleep periods which had required one person to be awake at any given time to keep an eye on the spacecraft’s systems. However, that had proven to be virtually impossible because of Gemini’s small dimensions. The ‘off-duty’ astronaut was jarred awake whenever their colleague moved or talked to Mission Control. For Gemini 7 it was decided that Borman and Lovell could sleep at the same time (they tried their best to avoid the phrase ‘sleep together’).

Also, NASA had initially mandated that both Borman and Lovell keep their spacesuits on for the entirety of the flight as a safety precaution. However, despite their best attempts at designing a suit that was more suitable for a long-duration mission, the astronauts were still pretty uncomfortable and overheated. Borman repeatedly asked that they be able to take them off. NASA relented slightly and allowed them to take turns wearing the suits, eventually giving up and allowing both of them to take them off completely except for the rendezvous manoeuvre with Gemini 6A and for re-entry. It took the larger Lovell over an hour to get completely out of his suit, such was the lack of room inside the spacecraft.

Day eleven of the mission was the highlight for the astronauts, if only because they would finally have some company and something exciting to do. Gemini 6A with Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford aboard launched from the Cape, tasked with the completion of the first ever rendezvous with another spacecraft. Borman and Lovell were to be their target.

Six-odd hours later, Schirra and Stafford were station-keeping alongside their colleagues, with the two crews able to peer through their windows and wave at each other.

“Can you see Frank’s beard, Wally?” Lovell joked.

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

Gemini 6A’s appearance, though, was only fleeting. The next day Schirra and Stafford departed and made their return back to Earth. Borman and Lovell still had three more days to go.

Elliot See, the CapCom on duty at the time, couldn’t resist teasing them when he reported that Schirra and Stafford had been successfully recovered after their splashdown. “Wally and Tom looked very fresh and looked like they’d just been up for a local flight in a T-38.”

“That’s all they had been, for crying out loud!” Borman said, exasperated. “A couple of short timers.”

With the rendezvous over, Borman and Lovell were doing little more than coasting along and counting down the hours until they too could return home.

Having learned from the experiences of Gemini 5‘s Gordo Cooper and Pete Conrad, they had each brought along a book to read to pass the time. They also sang to each other.

Wave of clouds along the east flanks of the Andes Mountains | Credit: NASA

Perhaps inevitably, things slowly started to malfunction in their spacecraft in the final couple of days. Some of their thrusters stopped working and one of the fuel cells failed to work at full capacity. The batteries had to make up the difference in power. Like Gemini 5, they too slowly ran out of room to store all their rubbish. Lovell also lost his toothbrush, forcing him extremely reluctantly to share Borman’s.

Re-entry could not have come soon enough.

When the retrorockets fired, a relieved Lovell commented, “That’s one big hurdle over with, tiger!”

Over 330 hours after they had lifted off, they splashed down just over seven miles from their target. In doing so, Borman won a bet with Wally Schirra over who would land nearest to their target.

Just one question remained as far as the flight surgeons were concerned – with the two astronauts having been weightless for two weeks, what would happen to them once they returned to Earth and had to cope with gravity again? Would their hearts give out? Would their vision become permanently damaged?

The answer was, simply, no! Borman reported slight dizziness while waiting for the recovery troops to move in, but that was it.

A bedraggled and slightly wobbly Lovell and Borman are welcomed onboard the USS Wasp at the end of their mission | Credit: NASA

Half an hour later, Borman and Lovell very gingerly stepped down from the recovery helicopter and onto the deck of the USS Wasp. They had wobbly legs but that was pretty much expected after two weeks of no use. They were in surprisingly good spirits, at one point holding hands and joking that they wanted to tell the world they were engaged!

After several post-flight checks confirmed that they were perfectly healthy, Borman and Lovell successfully proved that no medical reason existed which could prevent a lunar flight from being made. It was therefore very fitting that both astronauts, along with Bill Anders, were selected for the crew of Apollo 8 – the very first mission to break free of Earth’s gravity and travel to the Moon.

Lovell also became one of just three people to travel to the Moon twice when he commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13. He holds the dubious record of being the only person in history who has gone to the Moon more than once but who hasn’t landed on it.

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