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Gemini 8: First Docking, First Space Emergency (1966)

Like most missions with the two-seat Gemini capsules, Gemini 8 started out to be a first. As it turned out, there were two firsts in the mission depicted on the cover of March 28, 1966.

Forty-nine years ago this month, learning to dock and undock two orbiting spacecraft was a key hurdle in the intense series of orbital experiments carried out by the Gemini project en route to a lunar landing. Gemini 8 was the first to try it, linking up with an Agena docking target launched the day before.

Liftoff of the Agena on March 16, and Gemini 8 on March 17, went as planned. With civilian test pilot Neil Armstrong, the commander, at the controls, and the Air Force’s David Scott prepared to conduct the second U.S. spacewalk during the three-day orbital flight, the Gemini used radar and thrusters to maneuver up to the Agena from below and make a flawless docking.

“Flight, we are docked,” Scott radioed. “Yes, it’s really a smoothie.”

Those words proved to be premature. As the linked spacecraft started a pre-programmed set of maneuvers, the stack went into a roll. Armstrong used the capsule’s Orbit Attitude and Maneuvering System (OAMS) thrusters to stop it, but the roll started back up again.

He and Scott managed to retain enough control to undock, but the Gemini went into an accelerating tumble that quickly reached one revolution per second, enough to cause the crew to black out.

“Well, we consider this problem serious,” Armstrong called. “We’re toppling end over end but we are disengaged from the Agena.”

Armstrong shut down the OAMS and used the capsule’s reentry thrusters to regain control.

The crewmen later were honored for their skill in recovering from the first U.S. spacecraft emergency. They landed in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, reentering the atmosphere out of range of ground-tracking stations and cutting their flight to 10 hours. 41 minutes.

Scott shot the cover photo of the Agena through his window as he and Armstrong inspected the target for launch damage.  In those days before digital imagery he used a Hasselblad 70mm film camera, which may account for the delay in getting the images distributed for public release.

That gave Space Technology Editor William J. Normyle time to prepare a detailed report on plans for Gemini 9 and subsequent missions in the push to achieve President John Kennedy’s promise to land men on the Moon by the end of the decade. Reading through it today, it is striking that the project continued even before the cause of the anomaly was determined.

Armstrong and Scott were test pilots, accustomed to taking risks to collect data for the engineers.  Controllers in Houston later described Armstrong’s voice as “calm, as though he were on the ground.” That quality foreshadowed his tone three years later when he made his immortal call, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

► Read the article from the October 21, 1957 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology:

Review Of Gemini 9 Flight Plan Scheduled (part 1)

Review Of Gemini 9 Flight Plan Scheduled (end) and Agena Stabilizes In Near-Circular Orbit

► Aviation Week is approaching its 100th anniversary in 2016. In a series of blogs, our editors highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history, including viewpoints from the industry's most iconic names and stories that have helped change the shape of the industry.

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Aviation Week & Space Technology marked its centennial in 2016. Here, we highlight editorial content from the magazine's long and rich history.

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