Project Gemini 50 years old

The programme provided the foundation of modern spaceflight procedure

Gemini 7 taken from the window of Gemini 6 as the two performed their rendezvous. The craft were just over 11m apart when this photo was taken.
Credit: Photo credit: NASA or National Aeronautics and Space Administration

By Elizabeth Pearson

23 March 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of Project Gemini’s first manned flight in space. The spacecraft would go on to provide the foundation for many of the procedures vital to modern space flight, paving the way for not only Apollo but for most modern crewed spacecraft. To commemorate the missions we talked to David Woods, editor of the Apollo Flight Journal and amateur space flight historian.


What caused the Gemini mission to be initiated?

Gemini bridged the time between the tiny Mercury spacecraft [the first human spaceflight programme in the US] and the far more capable Apollo spacecraft. America was beginning to fly the Mercury spacecraft, which was extremely limited in what it could do. They had realised that they needed a spacecraft that was far more capable than Mercury in order to be able to practice the sort of techniques they would need in the Apollo programme.


What was the purpose of Gemini?

Their number one goal was getting rendezvous right [getting one spacecraft to come alongside another mid orbit], then they were interested in space walking, long duration survival in space, seeing if the human body can survive in space long enough to go to the Moon and back.


How successful was Gemini?

There is a quote from Gene Cernan: “Gemini in its own historical context was perhaps as important as Apollo because without Gemini, there would have been no Apollo.”

Before the first flight they knew very little about how to operate in space. During Gemini 4 they attempted an inpromptu rendezvous with their launch vehicle. Immediately they found they themselves flying around and under it and past it. They didn't appreciate how orbital mechanics worked

They were running a mission every two months on average, ten missions one after the other, and by the end of that they were extremely capable. All the techniques for doing rendezvous were done first with Gemini, and Apollo just took them and transplanted them to the Moon.


What was the greatest moment of Gemini?

Probably the greatest moment was the rendezvous of Gemini 6 and 7. Gemini 6 had planned to go up and rendezvous with an unmanned vehicle called Agena which, as it ascended to the heavens, exploded!

Luckily they were about to launch the long duration flight, Gemini 7 that was going to be there for two weeks, Gemini 6 could rendezvous with them. So they launched Gemini 7, and they turned around the pad as fast as they could and got Gemini 6 in place, went to launch it... and the engine failed. The astronaut in command of the space craft, Wally Schirra, was sitting with his hand on the ejection seat controls, ready to bail out of there but he stuck there and they didn’t move and they saved the rocket. They got it fixed and they went up to meet the other two guys in orbit. It was the first successful rendezvous.


What is the project's biggest legacy?

It laid the foundations of all the space operations that are done routinely nowadays by all the world powers. It led to the techniques of rendezvous as well as fuel cells, and spacewalking and spacesuits. It underpins everything that is done routinely in space today.

David Woods co-wrote the Haynes Guide to Gemini along with David Harland. Win a signed copy on our Facebook page.

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