Today I want to share with you a book you are unlikely to see. Few libraries have it and it commands unreasonable prices in used books stores. It’s writing style is not artistic. Yet it is a moving book, because of its subject, its author, and its timing. The book is Gemini, by Virgil “Gus” Grissom.
Every American knows something about Apollo. Most have at least heard of Mercury, but the Gemini program has been largely forgotten. That is reasonable enough; youth looks forward. At the time, however, Gemini saved America’s faith in the space program at a time when Soviet advances had made us look foolish and hopelessly outclassed.
Here is a brief summary for the terminally young: the Mercury program, consisting of two sub-orbital flights followed by four orbital flights, put America into space, but the one man capsules – not yet called spacecraft, for good reason – were largely occupied rather than flown. Gemini was a two man spacecraft which could change orbits, meet up with other orbiting objects, and was fully under control of its pilots.
If Mercury was a Volkswagen and Apollo was a Winnebago, Gemini was a sports car.
Mercury capsules had windows in the hatch, only placed there at astronaut insistance. Astronauts could look out, but not forward. Gemini’s viewports were moved to a front facing orientation, like the eyes of a predator. It’s pilots had to see where they were going, because they were actually flying their space craft.
For Apollo to do its job, NASA had to learn to rendezvous, dock, and perform EVAs (extra vehicular activities – space walks) and provide a cadre of astronauts who had proven their ability to do these things. That was the purpose of Gemini.
Grissom was the second American in space and the command pilot of the first manned Gemini mission. He provides a first hand look at the program through it’s brief five year span. The book was written just after the last Gemini flight.
Speaking of 1965, Grissom says: ”We had put ten men and five spacecraft into space and returned them safely, performed EVA, and achieved rendezvous. It was a pretty good record for a program that only two years before had appeared to be foundering.” Eventually sixteen astronauts flew on ten manned Gemini missions.
Grissom’s book is an excellent summary. His style charmingly represents a working astronaut who is not a writer. Nevertheless, the book is haunted. We know that, in the words of Grissom’s editor and friend Jacob Hay, “Within weeks after completing the first draft manuscript of this book, Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom was dead, killed with his colleagues Lieutenant Colonel Edward M. White, and Lieutenant Commander Roger B. Chaffee, in a flash fire aboard the Apollo spacecraft they were scheduled to take aloft in its first manned flight on Feburary 21, 1967.”
The launchpad fire occurred on January 27, 1967, forty-nine years ago today. For details, see Jay Barbree’s Live from Cape Canaveral (2007), especially chapter nine, ”I’ve got a fire in the cockpit!” Also see post 27, That Was My Childhood.
The book Gemini would have been hard to read when it came out shortly after the fire. It is even harder to read today, given our understanding of the incompetence that led to the disaster. Knowing that the primary cause was flammable materials in an all oxygen atmosphere, it is hard to hear Gus admit that, “For their part, the medical people weren’t really entirely happy over out 100 per cent oxygen supply.”
Still – the book is joyful, and clearly written my a man who loved what he was doing. Gus says he was writing the book for his sons, and the sons and daughters of the other astronauts, and for other sons and daughters throughout America. He meant me (I was senior in high school when the book was published), and he meant you, whatever your age.
Grissom’s book Gemini is largely forgotten, but what he and his fellow astronauts did will not fade from our memories.