Sunday, June 5, 2016

50 Years Ago: The Missing Crew of Gemini 9

Prime and Backup crews for Gemini 9. Front (L to R): Elliot See, Charles Basset. Back (L to R): Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan.
There's a very good reason why NASA assigns a backup crew to every spaceflight mission.
The Gemini 9 mission was planned as the 7th manned Gemini flight and the 13th manned American flight since the first flight of Alan Shephard.  The crew assigned to this mission was to be command pilot Elliot See and pilot Charlie Basset. Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan were assigned as backup crew. The backup crew did the same training as the prime crew, and knew the mission parameters inside and out.

Elliot See during backup training for Gemini V.
Commander Elliot See, Jr. was a Navy pilot who was selected to be an astronaut in the second group of astronauts, nicknamed the "New Nine". He had an Engineering degree, and had worked in the Navy as a test pilot being well versed in engine performance and testing. He was backup for the Gemini V mission, and was placed in command of the Gemini IX mission.
Charles Bassett learning to perform in micro gravity in a "Vomit Comet" flight.
Charles Bassett II was a captain in the US Air Force where he did graduate work in Electrical Engineering before being assigned as a test pilot. He performed over 3,600 hours of flight time and worked at Edwards AFB testing many aircraft. He joined NASA's third astronaut group, and was assigned to the Gemini IX flight because of his strength in zero-G training. For both See and Bassett it would be their first flights.
Tom Stafford (L) with Wally Schirra (seated) during training for Gemini 6.
Tom Stafford originally graduated from the Naval Academy but became an officer and trained to fly with the US Air Force. He graduated from the USAF test pilot school in 1959 and became an instructor at the flight testing school. He also was selected as one of the New Nine astronauts. He was not unfamiliar with learning backup crew roles, as he was scheduled to fly the first Gemini mission with Alan Shepard. When Shepard was flight disqualified for medical reasons, he was moved to backup crew and their prime positions were taken by Gus Grissom and John Young. He eventually flew as pilot in Gemini VI with Wally Schirra and then positioned to backup crew for Gemini IX.
Gene Cernan in the Gemini style spacesuit.
Gene Cernan started his degree in Electrical Engineering at Perdue University and ended up with a Masters from the US Naval Postgraduate School. He flew attack jets such as the A-4 Skyhawk, and joined NASA along with Bassett in the third group of recruits. Gemini IX would be his first flight.
NASA T-38 training aircraft.
Astronauts were assigned by NASA to flight T-38s for a couple of reasons. First, the astronauts were all pilots at the time, and they needed to keep their flight proficiency and skill honed to a fine degree. Second, astronauts were sent all over the country, sometimes for public appearances, sometimes for training, sometimes for assignments they had in working with the corporations building the equipment they would fly in space. Having their own aircraft saved countless hours off their busy schedule over flying with commercial flights.  On February 28th, 1966, both prime and backup crews for Gemini IX flew T-38s from Houston TX to the McDonnell Aircraft manufacturing center in ST. Louis, MO. See and Bassett flew in one plane, and Stafford and Cernan flew in another.
Crashed remains of the T-38 in the parking lot.
The weather was poor with rain and low clouds. During landing procedures, both planes' pilots discovered they had overshot the runway. Pilot Stafford chose to pull up for another try. Pilot See evidently tried to circle and land on a parallel runway, but the plane was too low and See activated the afterburner to gain altitude. Unfortunately the plane clipped the Building 101 roof, losing the right wing and landing gear. the plane tumbled into the parking lot beyond, where both See and Bassett died from their injuries. Curiously, they died within 500 feet of the Gemini capsule they were to fly in the mission.
With the death of the prime crew, NASA faced a public relations disaster as well as an upset in scheduling. However, thanks to careful planning, the backup crew of Stafford and Cernan were able to move to the prime crew position and eventually fly the Gemini IX mission, 50 years ago today.

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