Monday, March 23, 2015

50 Years Ago: First Manned Gemini Mission Blasts Off

Gemini 3 crews (L-R): John Young, Gus Grissom, and backup crew Wally Schirra, Tom Stafford.

Fifty Years ago the first manned flight of a Gemini spacecraft lifted off from Launch Complex 19 on the Cape Kennedy installation. Astronauts Gus Grissom (who flew on Mercury's second sub-orbital flight) and rookie astronaut John Young rode the spacecraft perched on the Titan II rocket. The 4 hour 52 minute flight lifted off at 9:24 am Eastern time on March 23 and the Gemini spacecraft successfully entered orbit. 

The gantry lowers into firing position.

Titan II missile lifts off from the pad carrying the GT-3 capsule and crew.

Th 3-orbit mission was designed to test the flying capabilities of the Gemini spacecraft. Besides a thorough checkout of the life support and operational systems, the crew was to test their ability to change orbital levels, maneuver, and manually control their descent to a splashdown location. All parameters were successful, although they did end up about 80 miles from their expected landing position.

View of a Gemini mission lifting off from LC-19.

During the flight, it turned out that the playful John Young had snuck a corned-beef sandwich onto the capsule. During the flight, he surprised Grissom with a sandwich he pulled out from his flight suit. Each astronaut took a bite, then stowed the sandwich away. Mission controllers were later upset, worried that crumbs might have gotten into the flight controls and endangered the mission.

There was also a slight thruster problem, in that a left yaw variation kept occurring. This was later traced to a venting water boiler. This problem would have dire consequences in a later Gemini flight.

After splashdown, the crew moved into rafts once Navy divers secured the craft and helicopters arrived to remove the crew.

Once safely returned to Earth, the crew had to wait a half hour longer than expected while the recovery ship USS Intrepid moved to their location. Considering the loss of the Mercury capsule earlier, Grissom and Young decided not to open the hatches until the recovery divers had arrived.

The empty capsule about to be hoisted aboard USS Intrepid.

With the completion of GT-3, the Russians seemed to still be ahead - they had already had a three-man mission (Voskhod 1), and their two-man mission (Voskhod2) had completed an EVA as well. For NASA, however, it was the first flight of an American two-manned craft, and the first re-entry of a manned capsule where the crew could change their splashdown site. NASA was ready to begin the long series of Gemini test missions which would prepare crews for the Apollo program. 

The Gemini 3 capsule was preserved, and today can be seen at the Grissom Memorial in Mitchell, Indiana.

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