While Gemini 8 wasn’t the mission that coined the phrase, ‘Houston, we have a problem’ (that would be Apollo 13) it was the first emergency in space. Gemini 8 actually marked two firsts in human spaceflight—the first time one spacecraft docked to another, and the first time astronauts were forced to make an emergency landing from orbit.
What happened? Well—picture this if you will. The 1960’s. America and the Soviet Union. The Cold War. The Soviets are consolidating their dominance in the Eastern Bloc, while America and the rest of the Western Bloc are attempting to contain the spread and influence of communism.
Simultaneous to the more earthly crises in Europe, and around the globe—such as in Berlin and Cuba—the two raced against each other for control of space as well. Initially, the Soviets lead. But they peaked when they sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961, and President Kennedy decided America just would not take second place.
He declared America would send a man to the moon and return him back again—and by the end of the decade at that.
While they could have just built a rocket with a couple of guys strapped to the front, pointed it at the moon, launched it, and waited for them to return then called it a day, they were given a very important stipulation beforehand: do this safely. Project Gemini commenced.
Its main mission was to figure out how to operate in the new sea of space. And it’s no surprise that NASA has looked to the Navy multiple times in its history to do just that. For example, equipment had to successfully exit and re-enter the atmosphere—and not burn up, which could be bad for passenger, and to do so, the best pilots had to be secured. Perhaps the most important task was to dock with another space vehicle. It was the Gemini 8 mission to complete that last one, and it did so. But at the last minute, the mission got an additional tasking from on high.
According to the Gemini 8 Mission Report, “At approximately 7:00:30 ground elapsed time, the crew noted that the spacecraft-Gemini Agena Target Vehicle combination was developing unexpected roll and yaw rates. The command pilot was able to reduce these rates to essentially zero; however, after he released the hand [controller], the rates began to increase again and the crew found it difficult to effectively control the rates without excessive use of spacecraft Orbital Attitude and Maneuver System propellants.”
Because of a stuck thruster, they were spinning out of control and quickly approaching a collective black out. Mission Commander, and former Naval aviator, Neil Armstrong and pilot David Scott had precious moments to act, and considering the situation, chances of recovery were “remote,” said Scott. Nonetheless, they took emergency action and broke away from the Agena spacecraft. They shut down the maneuvering system and activated the Reentry Control system (RCS).
With this last step, NASA’s brief on the mission says, “Mission rules dictated that, having activated the [RCS], they prepare for a prompt return to Earth.”
When they were able, they let Houston know they were in trouble. After struggling through the nearly 300-degrees per second roll and yaw of the vehicle for 20 minutes, Armstrong and Scott regained control, and following several additional orbits proceeded to reenter the atmosphere. They were somewhere over central Africa.
They splashed down east of Okinawa and were recovered about three hours later by destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason (DD 852). 12-ft plus swells complicated the recovery operation, but the astronauts were otherwise fine.
While not a part of the scheduled list of operations for the mission, the near-catastrophe of Gemini 8 did nonetheless mark an important milestone in the history of spaceflight. Against great odds, Armstrong and Scott successfully executed the first emergency landing from space.
Robert Gilruth, then Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center, is quoted saying, “In fact, the crew demonstrated remarkable piloting skill in overcoming this very serious [emergency] and bringing the spacecraft to a safe landing.”
While most could probably not imagine meeting such a harrowing challenge, the experience did nonetheless affect the two. Again from NASA’s page on Gemini 8, “Dave Scott tells us that, every year on March 16th, he and Neil mark[ed] the occasion with a private telephone call.”
The Gemini project continued after this with four more missions, surely learning much from previous mistakes. While Armstrong and Scott never flew in any of them, they both did fly in the next project, Apollo, and were the first and seventh persons, respectively, to walk on the Moon.
Interested in knowing more about the Navy’s role in space? Go here!