Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ride 'em, Cowboy!

This week marks the anniversary of the flight of Gemini XI, which flew from September 12-15, 1966.

Commander Pete Conrad and Pilot Dick Gordon made space history by docking with their Agena target vehicle on the very first orbit after liftoff. This "M=1" rendezvous plan required extremely precise timing. The launch window was only 2 seconds, which would have been an unthinkably thin margin only a few years before. The Titan II lifted off less than 1/2 second into its launch window, and Conrad and Gordon were on their way to a rendezvous only 85 minutes later, over California.

Once docked, they set an altitude record, by using the Agena's rocket engine to propel themselves into an orbit with an 860-mile apogee. Other than the Apollo flights to the Moon, no other manned vehicle has flown that far from Earth to this day.

While the Gemini and Agena were docked, Dick Gordon undertook the first of two space walks. One of his tasks was to attach a 100-foot tether to connect the two vehicles for subsequent experiments. Sitting astride the nose of the Gemini while he worked at the Agena's docking collar, Gordon reminded Conrad of a bronco buster, and he called out, "Ride 'em, cowboy!" That image, captured on film and shown to American audiences after the mission ended, became the memorable image of the mission. It's certainly the one I most remember from that mission.

As with the spacewalks on Gemini IX and X, the EVA proved much more strenuous than anticipated. Gordon became so over-exerted that it was necessary to end the spacewalk early. A second EVA, in which Gordon stood up in his seat for two hours and leaned outside the hatch was as relaxing as the first EVA had been strenuous. Gordon fell asleep while he was standing in the hatch!

Conrad and Gordon were a fun-loving crew. They flew together again three years later, on Apollo 12. Conrad was smitten with the idea of flying a modified Gemini mission around the Moon - something he had been pushing for as a mission objective for Gemini XI. He didn't make it to the Moon on that flight, but he realized his dream on Apollo 12.