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Gemini Titan VI-A

"My gosh, there is a real bright star out there. That must be Sirius." Astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford autographed this photograph of the Gemini VI-A launch for me in person.  Photo Credit: NASA
Crew Autographed Photo Of Gemini Titan VI-A LaunchGemini VI was supposed to be the first mission to rendezvous and dock with another vehicle in space.

Walter Marty Schirra, Jr. was selected to be the commander of this mission. Thomas Patten Stafford was chosen to be the pilot.

The rendezvous and docking target was intended to be an Agena vehicle launched by an Atlas rocket. On October 25, 1965, the launch of the Agena failed. There was no target in orbit for Gemini VI to pursue.

After much debate, an alternate rendezvous plan was developed.  Gemini VII, which was slated as a long duration mission, would be launched before Gemini VI.  The Gemini VII spacecraft itself would become the rendezvous target for Gemini VI.

With a new mission objective, Gemini VI was renamed Gemini VI-A.  The success of Gemini VI-A required an unprecedented turn around time by the technicians who prepared the launch pad and vehicles for launches. There had never before been an attempt to launch two space vehicles from the same launch pad in such a short period of time.

Gemini Titan VII was successfully launched with astronauts Frank Frederick Borman, II, and James Arthur. Lovell, Jr., on December 4, 1965.  Eight days later on December 12, astronauts Schirra and Stafford were poised for launch aboard Gemini Titan VI-A. In violent fury, the rocket engines on the mighty Titan came to life precisely on time.

In the spacecraft, the mission elapsed timer begin its upward count. This should have been an indication of liftoff of the launch vehicle.  This clock should not have begun counting until liftoff occurred.  As suddenly as it began, the fury subsided.  The engines had unexpectedly shut down.

The cause of the engine shutdown was a premature indication of liftoff. At 1.2 seconds after rocket ignition, but before liftoff, an electrical plug connected from the launch pad to the rocket fell out of the rocket prematurely.  This electrical connection was only supposed to be severed after liftoff had occurred. The severing of the connection was the signal that started the mission time elapsed clock in the spacecraft cockpit.

The prematurely interrupted vehicle to pad electrical connection led the Titan's control system to believe that liftoff had occurred.  However the control system sensed no upward motion in the launch vehicle.  With these two conflicting conditions indicating malfunction, the Titan control system shutdown the rocket engines.

Astronaut Schirra had very little time within which to act.  If the rocket had actually lifted off it would soon begin crashing down upon the launch pad in a huge fireball.  If that were the case then Schirra should have pulled the ejection handle and taken himself and Stafford away from the vehicle with the ejection seats. In the blink of an eye, a steely Schirra surmised that the vehicle was still firmly attached to the launch pad and no ejection was necessary.

By taking the appropriate inaction, Schirra saved his Gemini VI-A mission for another day.  On December 15, 1965, eleven days after the launch of GT-VII, astronauts Schirra and Stafford made another attempt and successfully lifted off on board GT-VI-A.

During the rendezvous operations Schirra radioed, "My gosh, there is a real bright star out there. That must be Sirius." It was actually sun reflecting off of the Gemini VII spacecraft.

Schirra and Stafford were able to track down the Gemini VII spacecraft already in orbit and achieved the first successful rendezvous in space.  This rendezvous technique was a critical factor in the plans for landing on the Moon and returning safely to the Earth.

Gemini VI-A returned from orbit and splashed down on December 16. The primary recovery vessel for Gemini VI-A was the USS Wasp.  The mission duration for Gemini VI-A was 1 day, 1 hour, 51 minutes, and 24 seconds.

Gemini VI-A was the last Gemini spacecraft to be powered solely by batteries.  Longer missions required a fuel cell system to produce enough electricity.

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UPDATED : April 18, 2009
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