NASA Gemini 5 crew Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad

Gemini 5 astronauts L. Gordon Cooper and Charles “Pete” Conrad began their flight on August 21, 1965.  This was the first long-duration flight for the Gemini spacecraft: Cooper and Conrad were supposed to spend 8 days in space.  Eight days in space was an important milestone, because that is how long a trip to the Moon and back would take. Other mission objectives included evaluating the rendezvous guidance and navigation system, test a fuel cell electrical power system in flight, and determine the ability of an astronaut to maneuver his spacecraft in close proximity to another object in space.

After Gus Grissom named the Gemini 3 spacecraft “Molly Brown,” for the “unsinkable” passenger on the Titanic, NASA banned the naming of spacecraft. (This was an allusion to Grissom’s determination to not have the spacecraft flood after splashdown like his Liberty Bell 7 capsule. When NASA officials objected to his choice of name, Grissom told them his second choice was “Titanic.”  The officials partially relented and allowed “Molly Brown” to be the unofficial name for Gemini 3.)  As an alternative, Cooper lobbied hard to get permission for mission emblems that could be worn on their space suits. Cooper won the argument and, beginning with Gemini 5, NASA allowed the astronauts to design mission emblems. For Gemini 5, the emblem featured a Conestoga wagon with the slogan “8 Days or Bust” embroidered on it. NASA Headquarters objected to the slogan, so Cooper and Conrad had it covered. There were concerns that the flight would be perceived as a failure if it didn’t go the full 8 days.  It almost didn’t.

Gemini 5 was the first spacecraft to use fuel cells to generate electricity. The Gemini fuel cells combined hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. For the first two orbits, everything went well, then pressure in the oxygen tank dropped and the fuel cells could only produce a small amount of electricity. With Gemini 5 critically low on power, Mission Control considered ending the flight after less than a day in space.

One of the casualties of the reduced power was the Rendezvous Evaluation Pod, or REP. The REP was carried in the Adapter Section, and was released on the second orbit. The REP contained a transponder, dipole antenna, two dual-spiral antennae, and two flashing beacon lights like those on the Agena target vehicle planned for the next mission. Cooper and Conrad were supposed to practice radar tracking and orbital rendezvous techniques with the REP. They released the REP on schedule and were preparing for the all important rendezvous test when the fuel cell problems started.

The REP experiment was abandoned as Mission Control solved the power problems. This was a significant loss to the flight because this was an important step towards developing orbital rendezvous and docking techniques. Rendezvous and docking were major objectives for the Gemini program and were critical skills necessary to achieving Apollo’s goal of landing on the moon by the end of the decade.

Fortunately, the oxygen pressure stabilized and Cooper and Conrad had enough power to continue — barely. During revolution 7, they began slowly powering up the spacecraft and by revolution 17 Gemini 5 was operating at a high load condition. Mission Control came up with an alternative to the REP experiment:  Cooper and Conrad tracked a transponder on the ground at Cape Kennedy. The astronauts repeated this experiment three more times in lieu of the REP tests.

During the second day, the astronauts were able to operate Gemini 5 at a full power load several times. On flight day three, the power situation improved enough for them to perform a series of rendezvous maneuvers with a simulated Agena target vehicle. Following the onset of the power problems flight Mission Control continuously scheduled experiments and other activities in real time.

Flight day five brought a new round of problems as the orbital attitude and maneuvering system (OAMS) became sluggish and one thruster stopped working altogether.  Several fixes for the OAMS problem were attempted, but none worked.  When the crew woke up the next day, they discovered the entire OAMS system had become erratic and another thruster had stopped working. Mission Control ordered them to shut off the OAMS and let the spacecraft drift. Cooper only turned on the maneuvering system occasionally to stop excessive tumbling.

Despite the electrical and OAMS problems, the astronauts completed the mission. On the last two days of the flight, the electrical situation once again deteriorated to the point where close management was necessary. When Cooper and Conrad passed the eight day mark, they tore the covers off the “8 Days or Bust” slogan.

During the flight, they reported being able to see smoke at Laredo, Texas, a rocket sled firing at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, and the contrail of an airplane just before spotting a Minuteman missile launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. In the Atlantic, they spotted the prime recovery carrier, the USS Lake Champlain, and an accompanying destroyer.

Throughout the mission, Hurricane Betsy followed a track towards the planned recovery area. The Weather Bureau recommended that NASA bring the astronauts home one orbit early, during revolution 121. On the morning of August 29, the retrorockets fired while Gemini 5 was in darkness near Hawaii.  Cooper and Conrad splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean 190 hours, 55 minutes, 14 seconds after liftoff.  Despite problems with the electrical and maneuvering systems, Cooper and Conrad had managed to accomplish 16 of 17 planned experiments and their flight cleared the way for even longer flights and subsequent orbital rendezvous and docking tests.

Written by Greg Kennedy on August 18th, 2013 , Space History

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