June’s Monthly History Milestone: Gemini IV Lifts Off
Gemini IV lifted off from Launch Complex 19 at Cape Kennedy on June 3, 1965, with astronauts James A. McDivitt and Edward H. White. Most remember the flight for demonstrating the ability of astronauts to operate safely in space with an orbiting vehicle. For 20 minutes, White, who carried a handheld maneuvering unit (known as a zip gun) powered by pressurized oxygen, was easily able to move about in space. Flight director Gene Kranz recalled the event as “one of those magical moments, like Alan Shepard’s launch and John Glenn’s re-entry, that are forever embedded in my memory.”
Gemini IV was also the first flight to be controlled by the newly built Mission Operations Control Room (pronounced MOKE-R) in Houston, Texas. Previously the Cape’s Mercury Control Center, deemed a dinosaur after only a few years, managed the Mercury flights and first few Gemini missions. The Houston control center was much larger than the old space, featuring new and faster computers and was surrounded by staff support rooms filled with spacecraft experts to help flight controllers during missions. The new MOCR represented a giant leap forward for the nation’s space program. Flight controllers appreciated the new facility, which was close to home, because it meant that they no longer had to spend precious time away from family, sleep in cheap motel rooms and eat at greasy diners.
(To see how the Mission Control Center continues to evolve and advance toward the future of space travel, check out “MCC-21: Tomorrow Starts Today” on page 6 of the May 2012 edition of the Roundup at: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/roundup/online/
As a result of these two factors many news reporters traveled to Houston to cover that summer’s story. Unfortunately, Building One’s auditorium (now known as Building Two) had only 800 seats for reporters, 300 seats short of those requested by the press. The requests overwhelmed the center, which anticipated 300 reporters for the launch and about 200 more following the liftoff. Given the shortage of space, the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) leased a building across the street from the center to serve as a news center, known as “Building Six.” The Gemini News Center in Nassau Bay accommodated the media who came to Houston to cover the Gemini Project. The news center ran television pictures of operations in the MOCR on a delayed basis. The use of TV cameras in orbit had been suggested by Public Affairs, but NASA Headquarters management vetoed the idea, declaring the costs frivolous.
Gemini IV, in orbit four days, one hour, 56 minutes, 12 seconds, was the longest flight ever managed to that date by MSC flight control, necessitating the teams to operate on a three-shift basis to cover the mission round the clock. Mercury flights were about 15 minutes to 34 hours in duration, and all were treated like short missions, even the longest flight of the project, which circled the Earth for more than 24 hours. Three flight directors headed up the Red, White, and Blue flight control teams for Gemini IV: Christopher C. Kraft, Eugene F. Kranz and John D. Hodge. The teams learned a great deal about managing long-duration spaceflight during the mission that they would apply to upcoming Gemini and Apollo missions.
One of the innovations instituted during Gemini IV was the change-of-shift briefing to keep the media abreast of mission events. After 10 hours in the control center, eight on console and two on handovers, the flight director participated in a press conference. Kraft remembers these change-of-shift briefings being difficult and long; other times they could be simple and short. Unfortunately, some reporters covering Gemini seemed obsessed with the number of fecal container bags--known as blue-bags--filled each day, and Kraft recalls that he would have to deliver a “blue-bag status” at these conferences.
After four days in space, the Gemini IV capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean, safely returning the crew to Earth. The press lauded the flight, and NASA management declared that the success of the mission could potentially accelerate the date the space agency expected to land on the moon.