Saturday, June 4, 2016

50 Years Ago: Gemini 9 and the Angry Alligator

Mission patch for Gemini IX.
Fifty years ago on June 3, astronauts Gene Cernan (pilot) and Tom Stafford (Command pilot) blasted off from Launch Complex 19 at Cape Kennedy in Florida. Officially the mission was known as Gemini 9A, because elements of the planned flight had changed from the original mission. Designed as a mission to dock with the Agena Target Vehicle (ATV) and perform a spacewalk, details changed when the ATV failed to reach orbit on May 17 and the follow up Gemini mission was postponed. 
Stafford and Cernan prepare to enter the Gemini capsule (Spacecraft SC9).
Preparing to close out the capsule. Backup astronauts have left a humorous note for the main crew.
 A backup target craft, the Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDP) was rushed to completion and launched on June 1st. Although it achieved orbit, sensors indicated that the payload fairing had not ejected properly. NASA decided to go ahead with Gemini 9A to at least complete the rendezvous and EVA portions of the mission. 

Liftoff from LC-19.
 Liftoff from Pad POV.
Gemini IX A reached an orbit of 148 miles. The primary mission of rendezvous began. A second goal was for Gene Cernan to leave the capsule, move to the rear of the service module, and put on a Astronaut Maneuvering Unit designed by the Air Force. In addition, the astronauts would complete seven experiments from inside the craft.
With the shroud ajar, docking would be impossible.
After 3 hours and 20 minutes of flight, the astronauts spotted the ADTP in the distance and nudged the spacecraft closer. When they arrived at the rendezvous, Stafford described it as looking like an angry alligator. It was determined that the explosive bolts holding the shroud had fired correctly, but two lanyard straps were holding the fairings in position. Eventually the fault would be traced to ground engineers from McDonald had prepared the ADTP mating to the thruster stage without consulting with the Douglas engineers who had prepared the ADTP to work with the original Centaur booster, which was not used.
Stafford in the command pilot's seat.
Backup astronaut Buzz Aldrin suggested that during the EVA, Cernan might use certain tools available in the craft to cut away the straps so the shroud would finish deploying. Ground engineers denied the attempt for fear of the sharp edges around the ADTP shroud and thruster stage. With docking cancelled, the crew rested during the second day, and Cernan prepared for the EVA on the third day. 
Astronaut Gene Cernan on EVA, attached by life support umbilical cords.
Cernan ran into difficulties during the spacewalk. The inflation of the suit caused quite a bit of inflexibility and stiffness, more than the astronauts had prepared for in ground training. Cernan had difficulty moving around and the twisting umbilical caused orientation problems. He eventually tried to move to the back of the service module for work with the AMU. Lack of handholds and the stiff suit made even simply moving a couple of feet very painful and difficult. While working to make connections from the AMU to his suit, his visor fogged up and he had to try using his nose to clear a spot for seeing. His heart beat rose to 180 a minute, and he was sweated profusely. Once the connected, Cernan asked for permission to proceed. Knowing that Cernan would have to disconnect from the capsule while exhausted and in pain, Stafford decided to call a stop to the procedure and get Cernan back inside. Reversing the steps, Cernan finally got back to the hatch but Stafford had to make quite an effort to help him re-enter the hatch feet first and get back into the cramped cabin. The total time of the EVA was 128 minutes.
Splashdown on June 6th, 1966.
The astronauts completed the rest of the experiments and on the 45th orbit began re-entry procedures. They landed a record 700 meters from their planned touchdown, and were quickly picked up by the carrier USS Wasp. 
USS Wasp alongside the recovered capsule.
The astronauts posed on the capsule for press photos.

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