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Gemini Titan VIII

"We're tumbling end-over-end up here. We're disengaged from the Agena." This photograph shows astronauts Armstrong and Scott inside there Gemini spacecraft awaiting recovery.  Astronaut Dave Scott autographed this photo for me.  Photo Credit: NASA
Gemini VIII Recovery Photo Autographed By Astronaut ScottGemini VI-A proved that rendezvous in space with another vehicle was possible. Docking, or the joining of two spacecraft in orbit, was still an elusive goal.

The intended docking target for the Gemini program was the Agena. The Atlas Agena launch vehicle had exhibited terrible reliability.  Its failure before the originally planned Gemini VI mission cost Schirra and Stafford their docking opportunity.

Gemini VIII was the next mission that would attempt docking.  This could occur only if the Agena could attain orbit.

The Gemini VIII commander was Neil Alden Armstrong. He was a veteran test pilot with experience flying the X-15 rocket plane.  Armstrong's pilot on Gemini VIII would be David Randolph Scott.

On March 16, 1966, at 11:00 AM Eastern Standard Time, an Atlas with the Agena docking target for Armstrong and Scott lifted off.  Unlike it predecessor, this Agena reached a successful orbit. Forty one minutes later, Gemini Titan VIII lifted off to pursue its target.

The rendezvous phase of the mission went very well.  Armstrong and Scott had caught up with the Agena and flew in tandem with it.  While Armstrong performed this station keeping exercise, Scott inspected the Agena.  They had to make sure there were no dangerous issues with the Agena before docking with it.

No problems were seen and Armstrong was given the go ahead for docking. At a rate of about 3 inches per second, Armstrong nosed his Gemini spacecraft into the docking adapter on the Agena.  Armstrong called down to mission control, "Flight, we are docked! It's ... really a smoothie - no noticeable oscillations at all."

The Agena vehicle had its own propulsion and attitude control systems. These systems could be controlled both from the ground and from the crew on the Gemini spacecraft. Armstrong and Scott began to put the Agena through its paces.

Suddenly the crew realized they had serious problems.  Instead of being in level flight, their attitude indicator told them they were now in a 30 degree roll.  With the Gemini's attitude control system, Armstrong struggled to stop the rolling motion of the vehicles.

Armstrong stopped the motion briefly, but then it began again.  Not only that, but they began to roll faster and faster.  Frantically the crew flipped switches on and off hoping to isolate the problem.  Nothing seemed to work.

The crew noticed that their attitude control system fuel had dropped to 30 percent.  This might indicate that the problem lay with the Gemini spacecraft and not with the Agena.
The decision was made to undock from the Agena. Armstrong once again steadied the two craft. Scott hit the undocking button and they backed away from the Agena.

Armstrong radioed, "We have serious problems here. We're tumbling end-over-end up here. We're disengaged from the Agena."

That was when their problems really began.  Gemini VIIII was now spinning at a dizzying rate of nearly one revolution per second. The rate was so fast that the crew had difficulty reading the instruments on their control panel.  Nearing the point of blackout, Armstrong made the decision to shut off the orbital attitude control system and switch on the reentry attitude control system.

At first nothing seemed to happen, but slowly the motion of the Gemini spacecraft was stopped.  Armstrong and Scott then proceeded to isolate what had caused their problems in the first place.  By methodically reactivating the orbital maneuvering system, they were able to determine that thruster number 8 was stuck on.  This was the source of their gyrations.

Although the crew was now in a stable flight configuration, their mission had come to an end.  Mission rules dictated once the reentry control system has been activated, the spacecraft return to Earth as soon as possible. There was no backup to the reentry control system. If a problem developed with the reentry system, the crew might become stranded in orbit.

Gemini VIII made an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean.  This emergency landing at a contingency site meant that the recovery ships were not in the optimum position.  Three hours after splashdown, the crew was on board the recovery vessel.  The ship was a United States Navy destroyer named the USS Leonard F. Mason.

Mission duration for Gemini VIII was
10 hours, 41 minutes and 16 seconds.  The mission accomplished the first docking in space.  Many mission objectives were lost however due to the abbreviation of the flight.  Thankfully another brush with disaster in space was averted by the actions of a well trained crew.

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UPDATED : January 8, 2007
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