At the time of this writing, fellow boomer and big-time astronaut Scott Kelly (born 1964) is aboard the International Space Station (ISS) along with American doctor-astronaut-flight engineer Kjell Lindgren, one Japanese man and two Russian cosmonauts. Their mission is to study communications and conduct various experiments while living one year in space. The mission duration is twice that of any previous ISS crew, an intentional scheduling to study the long-term effects of space on the human body. NASA is gathering information for a possible mission to Mars in the 2030s.
Fifty years ago this month, in August of 1965, a similar mission was launched by NASA to investigate the effects of space on humans. Gemini 5 was a week-long mission with pilot Charles “Pete” Conrad and command pilot Gordon Cooper on board the spacecraft as it orbited the planet. In all the astronauts spent eight days in space, the time it would take to fly to the moon and back.
After losing out to the Russians on being the first in space and the first to walk in space, America was determined to get back in the Space Race and had begun to catch up. It was May 25, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy announced our goal of sending men to the moon — and back — by the end of the decade. In December of that year, NASA expanded the Gemini missions to include two-man spacecrafts.
Gemini 5 was to be the first big test for going to the moon. After launch, the astronauts were to rendezvous with a practice pod that had been released from the spacecraft in a test of maneuverability and navigation. Gemini 5 was to be first in another regard, in that it had fuel cells for power. However, from the start the crew had trouble with the fuel cells that resulted in a diminished electrical power supply. Mission Control considered scrapping the mission, but once the fuel cells were turned off and restarted, the crew was ordered to give the cells tasks that steadily increased the need for more power. It was determined that the mission could proceed.
Having missed their window to meet with the pod, an alternative plan was suggested. Buzz Aldrin had a PhD in orbital mechanics, and offered a plan where the astronauts would be tasked to navigate to a specific location. The plan was accepted and executed on the third day. It was the first time a spacecraft carried out precision maneuvers, and it worked perfectly.
A few other glitches prevented the astronauts from completing some of the planned experiments, though the vast majority were performed, including medical tests, measurement tests and photography of the Earth.
On August 29, 1965, the crew positioned the spacecraft to return to Earth. In a controlled reentry, they rotated the capsule to create lift and drag. Everything seemed to work as planned, but a programmer had mistakenly entered the rate of rotation of the Earth. As a result, the capsule splashed down 80 miles from the planned coordinates in the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite a few glitches the mission was a success. NASA had the information it needed, and proved that men could survive in space for the time necessary to get them to the moon and back. The Space Race was about to get very interesting.
Mister Boomer doesn’t remember Gemini 5 in particular, but he, like many boomers, watched every space launch and splashdown with great interest. He followed the articles in the daily newspaper day by day for every mission from Mercury to Gemini and on the Apollo. He was mesmerized by the prospect of space travel that had been imagined by science fiction writers, starting with his reading of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. He has been a big fan of the Space Program ever since.
Flash forward to our current space endeavors, and it is truly amazing what we have accomplished in fifty years. No one could have imagined that the U.S. and Russia would cooperate on space missions back then; the Cold War and Space Race were intertwined. Let’s hope tensions between our two countries doesn’t bring us back to a time when we were more interested in national pride than the pursuit of knowledge and discovery.
Did you watch and listen to reports about Gemini 5 fifty years ago, boomers?