Assignment: 1965: Gemini IV and the Space Race

(Ed White performing America’s first space walk.)

As with most competitions between the United States and the USSR, the seeds for the Space Race were sewn during the Second World War. And in this instance, as with the suicidal competition over nuclear firepower, those seeds laid with Wernher von Braun and the V-2 rocket.

Von Braun conceived the V-2 as a way to conquer space, but the realities of the German war machine (and the race for the secret of the nuclear bomb) saw the V-2s used to attack targets undetected throughout Europe. As a result of this incredible (but ultimately underused) advantage, the US, the United Kingdom, and the USSR began a mad dash to collect as many German rocket scientists once the war ended. The US’s efforts, labelled Operation Paperclip, was the most successful, netting most of von Braun’s team of engineers. The US also managed to get their hands on more intact V-2 rockets than the other Allied Powers.

Despite this initial advantage, the Russians not only developed a better rocket, but they got a satellite¬†in space first with¬†Sputnik 1‘s launch in 1957. This sent an already paranoid American public into a tizzy, forcing President Eisenhower and Congress to create NASA and start the Space Race (as coined by Eisenhower himself) in earnest. After Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth on April 12th, 1961, President Kennedy set the goal for NASA to reach the moon by the end of the decade.

In 1964, the US launched the Gemini program, and the Soviets launched the Voskhod program. Again, the Russians were first in something: Voskhod 1 has a three-man crew, and their crew (due to space constraints) did not wear space suits. The latter was wildy dangerous, and it wouldn’t be until 1968 that the Americans would achieve the same feat. However, with Brezhnez’s coup of Khrushchev, the third and fourth Voskhod missions were cancelled to focus on reaching the moon. The result was that Voskhod 2 ended up being the absolute pinnacle of Soviet domination in space, as Alexey Leonov performed the first space walk. Even with this triumph, the mission was a morass of technical issues, with a difficult re-entry, Leonov’s suit inflating after 12 minutes of spacewalking (forcing him to ease pressure on his suit below the safety threshold just to get back in), the hatch door having issues closing, and other issues.

The Gemini missions started in earnest on March 23rd, 1963 (five days after Voskhod 2’s mission) with Gemini 3 (the first and second missions having been unmanned test flights) with three orbits around the Earth. Next up, however, was Gemini IV.

It’s June 3rd, 1965. As I hinted at previously, “Help Me, Rhonda” has overtaken “Ticket to Ride” as the #1 song in the country, and it’ll enjoy another week at the top before being overtaken by The Supremes and “Back In My Arms Again” (which is at #3 right now). Jim Clark won the Indy 500 on May 31st, which was also the day that Brooke Shields was born. Yesterday, Australian combat troops joined the Vietnam War for the first time. And while Gemini IV is in orbit, The Rolling Stones will release “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on the 6th and the Supreme Court will issue their ruling on Griswold v. Connecticut on the 7th, which for all intents and purposes legalized contraceptives for married couples (I’m sure that will come up later).

And, at Cape Kennedy in Florida, Gemini IV launches into orbit. Attention was at an all-time high for two reasons: one, it was the first American spaceflight controlled by the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. Two, the mission was broadcast internationally via satellite transmission. The objectives of the mission were threefold:

  1. Orbit the Earth for four days (at the time, the longest American spec flight) with 66 revolutions around the planet,
  2. Perform a space walk, and
  3. Perform a space rendezvous (the first of its kind) with the spent second stage of the Titan II launch vehicle that sent the Gemini IV into orbit.

First up was the space rendezvous, attempted during the first orbit. This part of the mission was actually unsuccessful, as maneuvering the command vehicle without radar into a poorly lit rocket spinning around spewing propellant. As such, mission commander Jim McDivitt scrapped this part of the mission after using up half of Gemini IV’s thruster fuel.

Next was the space walk, which was performed by the other man involved in the mission, Ed White. This part of the mission was planned for the second orbit around the Earth, but McDivitt delayed it briefly after the trouble with the space rendezvous. The space walk was also not without problems: there was a problem opening and closing the hatch to the spacecraft, and Houston was unable to directly speak to White (and it took 13 minutes for contact to be made with McDivitt). Outside of these issues, the space walk was a smashing success, with McDivitt’s spectacular photos of White published across the globe. The space walk was cut short, however, at 20 minutes. With Gemini IV about to hit the solar terminator line (plunging the Earth and the space walk into darkness) and exiting radio range, it was deemed too risky to continue.

Ultimately, the Gemini IV mission was a massive success for the US, with a number of great photographs and some good data collected from the three primary missions and 11 experiments. Moreover, with the shift in power and philosophy in the Soviet Union, the was the true beginning of America’s domination of the Space Race.

Next week, we turn our attention the England, and the British Invasion.

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