Gemini 7 lifted off from Complex 19 at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on December 4, 1965. (From 1963 to 1973, Cape Canaveral was named Cape Kennedy to honor slain President John F. Kennedy.) Frank Borman was Command Pilot and James Lovell was Pilot for the flight. The primary objective for Gemini 7 was for the pair to spend two weeks in orbit to evaluate the physiological effects of long duration space flight. The mission emblem designed by the astronauts featured an Olympic torch to symbolize the marathon nature of the flight. This was the fourth piloted flight of the program because six weeks earlier, the launch of Gemini 6 had been cancelled.
Gemini 6 was supposed to accomplish the first rendezvous and docking in space, but the Atlas booster for the Agena target vehicle malfunctioned. Orbital rendezvous and docking and long duration space flights were two of the primary goals for the Gemini program. Both techniques were critical to the success of later Apollo flights to the moon. As events worked out, Gemini 7 played a role in achieving both goals. When NASA managers considered options for salvaging the Gemini 6 mission, they came up with the idea of using Gemini 7 as a passive target for an orbital rendezvous. While the two craft would not physically link up, the critical maneuvers required to track and catch up with another object in space would be tested for the first time.
Borman and Lovell carried 20 individual experiments that included observation of targets on the ground; navigation in space; using a proton electron spectrometer to measure radiation in space; and studying the effects of space flight on the astronauts themselves. Fourteen of the experiments had been performed on earlier flights. By repeating them, researchers hoped to gain data covering a range of subjects under varying flight conditions. The experiments included the use of an in-flight exerciser that comprised a pair of elastic bungee cords attached to a nylon handle on one end and a nylon foot strap on the other end.
Gemini 7 blasted off at 2:30 PM EST, within 3.7 seconds of the scheduled time. Immediately after they reached orbit, Borman and Lovell turned the spacecraft around and flew in formation with the Titan II second stage. “Station keeping” with the spent stage was originally planned for Gemini 4, but could not be accomplished on the earlier mission because the stage was tumbling excessively. This time the Gemini 7 crew maintained a distance of 60 to 150 feet from the stage for about 15 minutes before they performed a separation maneuver. Their next task was to power down the spacecraft in preparation for the 14-days mission.
Because the flight was to last two weeks, Borman and Lovell wore lightweight space suits, the David Clark Company G-5C. Sometimes called the “grasshopper suit” because of its unusual appearance, it only had two layers: a neoprene coated nylon twill pressure bladder and an HT-1 Nomex restraint and cover layer. Designed for maximum comfort and mobility when uninflated, the G-5C was strictly for emergency intravehicular wear. It had a hood-like helmet with a built-in clear visor. For impact protection, Borman and Lovell wore Navy crash helmets. One of the chief advantages of this suit for long missions was that it could be removed in flight.
Approximately 45 hours into the flight, Lovell removed his G-5C suit. Borman reported feeling hot and uncomfortable, even in the lightweight suit, but NASA officials insisted that one of the astronauts wear a pressure suit at all times in case of an emergency. Finally, six days after launch, Lovell put his suit back on and Borman could take his off. Flight controllers finally relented and on flight day 8, both astronauts were allowed to remove their G-5C suits. They both reported that being allowed to fly in just their “Constant Wear Garments,” which resembled long underwear, significantly increased their comfort and mobility. They were required to put their space suits back on for the orbital rendezvous with Gemini 6. After completion of the rendezvous portion of the mission, they once again removed their suits and flew in a “shirtsleeves” environment until retrofire and reentry.
As soon as Gemini 7 cleared the pad, crews began preparing for the Gemini 6 launch of Walter M. Schirra and Thomas P. Stafford. Gemini 6 stood ready just nine days later. The countdown proceeded smoothly and the Titan ignited. Then, just 1.2 seconds after ignition, an electrical plug attached to the booster prematurely pulled free and the engines shut down. Schirra had his hand on the abort handle, ready to eject, but opted to wait. He hadn’t felt the booster move, so he decided it was safe to remain in the spacecraft. It turned out that was the right decision. The rocket had not moved and Schirra’s decision preserved the opportunity to try again.
While preparing the booster for another launch attempt, technicians learned the premature shutdown had been quite fortuitous. They discovered a plastic cover had been left in a propellant line. If the rocket had lifted off, the engine would have soon faltered and the astronauts would have had to eject.
Three days later, on December 15, Gemini 6 finally lifted off from Pad 19. Six hours later, Schirra and Stafford guided their craft within a foot of Gemini 7. The two craft remained in formation for several hours. Their mission accomplished, Schirra and Stafford returned to Earth the next day.
Fellow astronaut Pete Conrad, who spent 8 days in space aboard Gemini 5, advised the Gemini 7 astronauts to take along some books to read. Borman chose Mark Twain’s Roughing It; Lovell took Drums Along the Mohawk by Walter D. Edmonds. Late in the flight (approximately 283 hours after launch) two of the six fuel cell stacks deteriorated to such an extent that the astronauts took them off line. The remaining four stacks continued producing adequate power to meet spacecraft requirements until Borman and Lovell started preparations for retrofire and reentry, when they brought the main batteries on line. Two of the maneuvering thrusters also malfunctioned but were not critical to continuing the flight. Gemini 7 remained in space until December 18.
After circling the earth 206 times, Borman and Lovell fired the retrorockets and reentered the atmosphere. They splashed down in the West Atlantic where they were recovered by the primary recovery vessel, the U.S.S. Wasp. The total flight duration was 329 hours, 58 minutes, and 4 seconds. Post flight examinations showed Borman and Lovell were in generally good physical shape; in fact, they were in better shape than some astronauts who completed shorter missions. Gemini 7 stood as a record for the longest space flight until June 1970 when Soviet cosmonauts Nikolayev and Sevastyanov spent 18 days in space aboard Soyuz 9.