What is the Gemini program?

If you have read the book The good thing or watched the movie of the same name, you might know a thing or two about the Mercury program, which was NASA’s first manned spaceflight program. And of course, many are familiar with the Apollo program, which put the first human on the Moon. However, there would be no Apollo program without the Gemini program, which took place between the Mercury and Apollo programs from 1964 to 1965.

While Mercury focused on getting people into space, Gemini worked to keep them there for an extended period – in preparation for Apollo’s one- to two-week lunar journeys – and practice the maneuvers and techniques necessary to effect a landing. The Gemini program sent a two-astronaut spacecraft into Earth orbit. The missions have helped NASA understand and master the challenges of spacewalking, rendezvous and docking, and long-duration spaceflight. Check out some of the key achievements of the Gemini program below.

The launcher and the spaceship

To launch the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft, NASA used ballistic missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads. For the Apollo program, huge Saturn launch vehicles were specially designed to carry the much larger lunar spacecraft.

The Gemini Titan II on liftoff in 1964. US Air Force Titan IIs propelled 10 two-astronaut Gemini spacecraft into orbit. Image courtesy of NASA.

The Gemini spacecraft began as the Mercury Mark II, an enlarged capsule manufactured by McDonnell Aircraft in St. Louis. As contractor of the Mercury spacecraft, the company had experience critical to Gemini’s success.

The black Gemini re-entry vehicle looked like an enlarged Mercury capsule. Attached to its white adapter module, it was even taller. The adapter module carried oxygen, water, electrical power, thrusters and thrusters needed for multi-day missions and orbital maneuvers. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Frank Borman and James Lovell spent 14 days in the cramped cockpit in the photo above from December 4 to December 18, 1965. Both hatches have been removed, making the cabin roomier than it actually was. Each astronaut had only a small window in front of his face.

Their mission was above all medical. They endured experiences regarding food, waste and sleep. Gemini VII also served as the target vehicle for Gemini VI-A during the world’s first space rendezvous.

Learn to travel to space

The Apollo command and the lunar modules had to connect after a lunar landing. NASA used the Gemini program to practice rendezvous and docking in space.

Gemini VI was supposed to dock with an Agena rocket stage, but the Agena failed to reach orbit. So when NASA launched Gemini VII for a 14-day medical mission in late 1965, it also launched Gemini VI, renumbered Gemini VI-A due to the mission change, to meet him. The two spacecraft successfully met. In 1966, Gemini VIII successfully docked with an Agena.

Thomas Stafford on Gemini VI-A took this photo of Gemini VII during their rendezvous on December 15, 1965. Image courtesy of NASA.

Learning to live in space

Flying to the Moon would require missions lasting longer than a week; it took three days just to get there. No Mercury astronaut had spent more than 34 hours in space. The Gemini missions were to prove that humans could live in weightlessness for up to two weeks. Three Gemini missions in 1965 extended time in space from four to 14 days.

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