Gemini 11: The astronauts who fell asleep during a spacewalk

Dates: 12 – 15 September 1966

Duration: 2 days, 23 hours, 17 minutes and 9 seconds

Commander: Pete Conrad (second of four spaceflights)

Pilot: Dick Gordon (first of two spaceflights)

Back-up crew: Neil Armstrong and Bill Anders

Objectives: To perform the first ever ‘direct-ascent’ rendezvous with an Agena, carry out two spacewalks and try to create artificial gravity by spinning their joined spacecraft and Agena around.

The Crew

Dick Gordon (left) and Pete Conrad pose for their official crew portrait | Credit: NASA

Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon were two of NASA’s most colourful characters, but they were also two of their most competent pilots. They had first met when they were roommates aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger in the late 1950s and had been very good friends ever since.

Both got into NASA on their second try. Conrad had applied to be part of the first group of astronauts in 1959 and was accepted into the second class in 1962, while Gordon had applied to the second class and was accepted into the third in 1963.

Conrad had already been into space once before when he flew Gemini 5 alongside Gordo Cooper. For Dick Gordon, Gemini 11 would be his first spaceflight.

The Flight

Conrad and Gordon lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Centre on 12 September 1966 in pursuit of their Agena, which had been successfully launched just over an hour and a half before.

It was their third attempt at getting off the ground. The first attempt, on the 9th, had been scrubbed after a leak in one of the oxidiser tanks in their Titan rocket was discovered. The second, on the 10th, was because of an autopilot problem in the Atlas rocket due to launch their Agena.

Once finally in orbit, Conrad and Gordon’s first task loomed. They were to carry out the first ever ‘direct-ascent rendezvous’. Where previous crews had conducted their rendezvous after about four orbits of Earth (roughly six hours into the mission), Gemini 11 would try to complete theirs during their very first orbit (~90 minutes in). Such a manoeuvre would mimic the one used by astronauts returning from the Moon’s surface in the lunar module in their rendezvous and re-docking with the command module.

Gemini 11 lifts off from the Kennedy Space Centre | Credit: NASA

Relying almost entirely on readings from the onboard computer and radar and with minimal assistance from Mission Control, Gemini 11 sidled up to the Agena just 85 minutes after launch and completed its docking ten minutes later.

With almost 70 hours of the mission still remaining, the main objective of the mission had already been completed. What’s more, Conrad and Gordon still had well over half of their manoeuvring fuel left. This meant that they could attempt what Gemini 10‘s John Young and Mike Collins hadn’t been able to do (an error during that mission’s rendezvous meant they consumed a lot more fuel than anticipated).

They were able to un-dock and re-dock several times with the Agena both in daylight and in darkness. Gordon was even given responsibility for one of these manoeuvres, marking the first time that a co-pilot and not a commander conducted a docking with another spacecraft.

The rest of the mission’s first day was completed by several experiments and a minor burning (firing) of the Agena’s engine in preparation for more major ones later on.

After a rest period lasting eight and a half hours, the first of two EVAs began. Gordon left the confines of the spacecraft with the aim with fastening a 100-foot tether from the Agena to Gemini 11 for a future experiment.

Knowing that he had to have both hands free to complete his task, Gordon tried out a tactic he had used during training. He ‘sat’ on the nose of Gemini 11 with his feet wedged between the spacecraft and the docking cone of the Agena in an attempt to keep himself steady.

“Ride ’em, cowboy!” Conrad shouted jokingly.

Dick Gordon sits on the nose of Gemini 11 as he tries to attach a tether from the the spacecraft to the Agena | Credit: NASA

However, while this had worked for Gordon during training he found that in zero-g he tended to float away from Gemini 11. As had been the case with both Gene Cernan during Gemini 9A and Mike Collins during Gemini 10, he struggled severely with a lack of proper handholds and footholds which meant he had to fight his rigid, pressurised spacesuit to just stay in one place.

“How are you doing?” Conrad asked him.

“Tired, Pete,” was the simple answer.

While Gordon did finally manage to attach the tether, sweat was stinging his eyes and he was breathing extremely heavily. Conrad made the decision to end the EVA early, cancelling a planned test of a hand-held manoeuvring gun. Gordon was back inside Gemini 11 after 33 minutes instead of the planned 107.

Interestingly, unlike Gene Cernan, Mike Collins and Gemini 4’s Ed White, Gordon had no problems re-entering the spacecraft and closing the hatch above him. This can probably be attributed in part to him being the smallest of all of the astronauts to have completed a spacewalk to that point.

Gordon returns to the hatch of Gemini 11 at the end of his shortened first EVA | Credit: NASA

After the struggles of previous spacewalks NASA had learned to schedule periods of more light activities immediately afterwards to give the astronauts a chance to recover. Conrad and Gordon only had to carry out a few photographic experiments and medical checks before settling down for their second sleep period.

When they woke, the two astronauts lit the Agena’s main engine for 26 seconds to boost their speed and therefore their altitude. Because of Gemini 11 and the Agena being docked nose-to-nose, the increase in velocity threw Conrad and Conrad forward into their restraints.

“Whoop-pee-do!” Conrad laughed.

The burn broke the record set by Gemini 10 a few months earlier of the highest altitude reached by human beings. Gemini 11 still to this day holds the record for highest altitude reached by an Earth-orbital flight, higher than every Shuttle flight and the International Space Station.

46 hours and 7 minutes into the mission, Gordon began a stand-up EVA. This time he was attached to the spacecraft by a very short tether, one that kept him from floating out all the way out of the hatch. It was not as physically demanding as the first spacewalk and Gordon was able to successfully complete his experiments, which involved taking photographs of the stars with different types of cameras.

India and Sri Lanka as seen from Gemini 11 during Gordon’s stand-up EVA | Credit: NASA

It was a task that could only be done while Gemini 11 was on the night side of Earth. So what did Conrad and Gordon do while they were on the day side? With only their spacesuits separating them from the void of space – and with Gordon having half his body hanging out of Gemini 11 – they dozed off.

“Gemini 11, Houston at Tananarive. Standing by,” CapCom John Young hailed after a while. At first he didn’t get any response and he had to repeat himself.

“Roger,” Gordon eventually said. “You’ve got two guys taking catnaps up here, that’s all.”

“Say again?” asked Young.

“I said we were taking a catnap.”

“Roger. That’s a first. First sleeping in a vacuum.”

After two night passes and a few hundred photographs, Gordon re-entered the spacecraft again and closed the hatch above him.

The penultimate objective of Gemini 11 was something that had not been tried before by any previous mission. Just under 50 hours into the flight, Conrad undocked from the Agena. The tether that Gordon had attached between the two craft during his first EVA unfurled as they pulled away.

A 100-foot tether connecting Gemini 11 and the Agena | Credit: NASA

The plan was to spin the joined spacecraft around to try and generate some form of artificial gravity. Despite running into a few problem with the tether – it got snagged a couple of times and then began moving like a skipping rope rather than going taut – when they got the spin rate up to 55° a minute they noticed that the camera they had left floating in front of them moved to the back of the cabin and stayed there. Conrad and Gordon had indeed generated a small field of artificial gravity.

The experiment lasted for four hours before Conrad jettisoned the docking bar that the tether was attached to and backed away.

The next ‘morning’, and 66 hours into the mission, the two astronauts conducted one last rendezvous with the Agena and completed their final round of experiments.

It left just one last task for Conrad and Gordon to try and accomplish. Or, rather, for their spacecraft to accomplish. Commanders of the previous Gemini missions had manually flown their spacecraft through a significant portion of re-entry. For Gemini 11, and for the first time in the Gemini programme, the process would be completely automatic.

The onboard computer performed admirably. It guided Conrad and Gordon to a successful splashdown just over 4.5 kilometres from the USS Guam after 71 hours, 17 minutes and 8 seconds in space.

Gemini 11 had further shown that while NASA could now consider rendezvous and docking to be almost routine tasks, they were still struggling with spacewalking. This left them with just one last mission – Gemini 12 – in which to try and master it.

Conrad and Gordon returned to space together in 1969 as commander and command module pilot of Apollo 12 respectively with Conrad becoming the third person to walk on the Moon. He also commanded the 28 day-long Skylab 2 mission in 1973. For a while Gordon was in line to command Apollo 18, but the mission was unfortunately cancelled due to budget cuts.

Gordon (left) and Conrad onboard the USS Guam at the end of their mission | Credit: NASA

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