Gemini 9A: Gene Cernan’s ‘spacewalk from hell’

Dates: 3 – 6 June 1966

Duration: 3 days, 20 minutes, 50 seconds

Commander: Tom Stafford (second of four spaceflights)

Pilot: Gene Cernan (first of three spaceflights)

Back-up crew: Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin

Objective: To perform NASA’s second-ever docking in space and to perform an EVA.

The Crew

Tragedy struck Gemini 9 before it even lifted off.

The original prime crew of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were killed when, while trying to land in atrocious weather at an airport in St Louis, Missouri, their jet crashed into the unsighted roof of a building. That building, ironically, was the McDonnell factory where their spacecraft was being built. 17 employees inside the factory were also injured due to falling debris.

The accident promoted Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan from back-up crew to prime crew with just four months to go before the scheduled lift-off.

Gemini 9 was Stafford’s second spaceflight, his first having been the historic rendezvous-achieving flight of Gemini 6A. It was the first flight for Cernan who, at the age of 32, became the youngest American to travel into space up to that point. It must have been a mixed bag of emotions for him, further compounded by the fact that in October 1964 another astronaut named Ted Freeman had also been killed in a jet crash. He was supposedly going to be named to the Gemini 9 back-up crew alongside Stafford, meaning it potentially and unfortunately took the deaths of three colleagues for Cernan to end up flying when he did.

Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan stand behind Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in their official crew portrait, taken a month before See and Bassett’s accident | Credit: NASA

The Flight

It took three attempts to launch the renamed ‘Gemini 9A’ which must have given Stafford a serious case of déjà vu. He was now nicknamed the ‘Mayor of Pad 19’ in reference to having been strapped into a spacecraft on that particular launchpad an amazing six times (three for Gemini 6A and three for Gemini 9A), with only two actual launches to show for it.

On 3rd June 1966, Stafford and Cernan finally lifted off in pursuit of their Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ADTA), a back-up uncrewed vehicle brought into use after their Agena exploded after liftoff just like Gemini 6A’s had.

Just after the ADTA reached space, telemetry indicated that the shroud that protected the docking adaptor during launch had failed to come away as planned. As Stafford and Cernan approached it, four and a half hours into the mission, they realised the extent of the problem.

“Look at that thing!” Cernan exclaimed. “What a mess!”

One end of the shroud was still attached to the slowly-spinning ADTA by four wires, while the other end looked like the gaping jaws of an animal.

“It looks like an angry alligator,” Stafford commented to Mission Control.

Gemini 9A’s ‘Angry Alligator’ with the shrouds that failed to separate | Credit: NASA

It meant that the planned docking – one of Gemini 9A’s main objectives – had to be cancelled. Stafford and Cernan instead conducted several rendezvous exercises over the rest of the first and second day that involved them backing away from the ADTA and then approaching it from different directions.

On the third day, Cernan opened the hatch above him to begin his spacewalk. He was to test the Astronaut Manoeuvring Unit (AMU), a newly-developed rocket pack of sorts which was worn like a backpack. To do so, Cernan would have to make his way to the adaptor section at the rear of the spacecraft where it was stored.

Unlike Gemini 4‘s Ed White, Cernan had no hand-held gas gun with which he could propel himself. Another objective of his EVA – and the one he would try to accomplish first – was therefore to test whether an astronaut would be able to successfully move around just by pulling on the tether that connected him to the spacecraft.

Gene Cernan snaps a photo of the Gemini 9A spacecraft | Credit: NASA

Things immediately started to go pear-shaped. Tugging on the tether – which Cernan took to calling ‘the snake’ – sent a ripple down it that jarred the spacecraft and then rebounded back towards him, causing him to start twisting and tumbling. Stafford was forced to use the thrusters to keep Gemini 9A steady, hoping in the process that Cernan wasn’t too close to them.

After nearly thirty minutes of this, Cernan eventually reached out and was able to grab one of the very few handrails installed on the outside of the spacecraft, already starting to feel tired. He clawed his way back to the hatch for a twenty-minute rest period.

He then started to try and make his way to the adaptor section where the AMU was kept. This time the problem was not with the tether but with his suit. Fully pressurised, it was extremely rigid and took an extreme amount of effort to make even the simplest of movements, made even harder by the lack of handholds or footholds. As he scrabbled around trying to find something to pull himself along with – and much to the alarm of the flight surgeon in Mission Control – his heart-rate soared first to 150 and then all the way up to 180 beats per minute.

He finally made it to the back of the adaptor section, but perspiration had completely fogged up his helmet. He was forced to rub his nose against his visor every few minutes to create a small hole through which he could see.

Gene Cernan and ‘the snake’ during his EVA | Credit: NASA

When he tried to begin working on the AMU, he once again struggled to stay in the right place. Every attempt to twist a dial ended up twisting him around instead because he had nothing to properly brace himself against. What’s more, during his earlier struggles with the tether he had accidentally split the seams of the inner insulation layer in his suit. His back was now aching with a major sunburn-like itch.

Working as Cernan was at the rear of the adaptor section, Stafford could no longer visually see his crew-mate and was relying on the communications link provided by the tether. This too went awry. When Cernan swapped to the oxygen and power provided by the AMU backpack rather than the spacecraft, the weaker signal couldn’t fully reach Stafford, resulting in very garbled communications.

With Cernan gulping his way through his oxygen supply, his heart-rate triple what it normally would be, his back blistering in the unfiltered sunlight, effectively blind and virtually deaf, Stafford was reminded of an unwelcome conversation he had had the morning of their launch.

He had been taken aside by Deke Slayton, a member of the Mercury Seven who was effectively their boss. Slayton told him that if Cernan was incapacitated while he was doing his EVA, Stafford couldn’t just cut him loose. Having a dead astronaut stuck circling the Earth would have doubtless ended the space programme. Stafford’s only option would be to try and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere with Cernan’s body trailing out of the open hatch behind him. That, however, would have killed both of them. With the hatch open, the heat of re-entry would incinerated the spacecraft and Stafford along with it.

Tom Stafford inside the Gemini 9A spacecraft | Credit: NASA

Stafford was unwilling to let the situation spiral to a point where that horrific scenario might become a reality. “I’m giving a no-go for AMU,” he told Mission Control. It effectively pulled the plug on the rest of the EVA. Scrap the backpack, Cernan’s only task was now to get back inside Gemini 9A.

Easier said than done.

Like Ed White, the only other American to conduct an EVA before him, Cernan was considered tall for an astronaut even without the extra bulk of the extremely rigid spacesuit and helmet. When he finally made it back into the spacecraft, he struggled to get far enough into his seat to close the hatch above him.

With his legs jack-knifed under him and into the space beneath the instrument panel – like a contortionist trying to do the limbo – and his spine compressed to the point it brought tears to his eyes, Cernan would write in his autobiography that, “I just couldn’t remain trapped in that awful position. Air could not get to my lungs, spots danced before my eyes, and incredible agony lanced through me as I clung to the edge of consciousness.”

Finally, and mercifully, just over two hours after it had begun Cernan and Stafford were able to snap closed the hatch and re-pressurise the cabin to end what Cernan later dubbed the ‘spacewalk from hell’.

An exhausted Gene Cernan safely back inside Gemini 9A | Credit: NASA

The astronauts were not supposed to have loose globules of water floating loose inside the cabin, lest they interfere with the electrical systems, but Stafford took one look at Cernan once he had taken off his helmet and decided to ignore that particular rule for a moment. He grabbed a water nozzle and sprayed Cernan in the face with it in an attempt to cool him down.

Later that day, Stafford and Cernan headed back to Earth and splashed down less than one mile from the USS Wasp. It was the most accurate splashdown out of the entire Gemini programme.

In his post-flight medical, it was discovered that Cernan had lost 13 lbs (just under 6 kg) in weight over the course of the mission just through sweat. It was clear that there was a lot that NASA still had to learn about spacewalking, and they were starting to run out of time to fix it.

Gemini 9A wasn’t the last time that Stafford and Cernan worked together. Both flew on Apollo 10 – effectively the dress rehearsal for Apollo 11 – with Stafford acting as the mission’s commander and Cernan the lunar module pilot. Cernan then went on to land on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17 in 1972, making him the last person to walk on the lunar surface to date and one of just three people to travel to the Moon twice along with Jim Lovell and John Young. Stafford also commanded the joint mission with the Soviet Union (the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) in 1975.

Cernan (left) and Stafford wave to crew-members aboard the USS Wasp | Credit: NASA

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