On this day in 1966, the Gemini XI space capsule was launched. It was the penultimate mission in NASA’s second manned spaceflight program. On board the 5.8 by 3 metre capsule were Charles Conrad and Richard Gordon, who was undertaking his first spaceflight. The back-up crew included Neil Armstrong, who had made his first spaceflight some months earlier in Gemini VIII.
The plan to conduct a second manned spaceflight program was developed in 1961, and officially announced in January 1962. The first Gemini spaceflight, an unmanned test flight, was launched in April 1964. The objectives of the mission were to build on the successes of Project Mercury, and lay the foundations for deeper space exploration, including an eventual Lunar expedition. The $5.4 US billion Gemini program would comprise some twelve spaceflights, the last ten of which were manned. All of the manned flights were launched from NASA’s Florida launch pad at Cape Canaveral, using the Titan II launch rocket.
The Gemini program was developed to hone techniques that would become crucial for long space missions. Unlike the previous Mercury program, the Gemini capsule was designed to be fully manoeuverable in space, and had the capability to alter its orbital altitude. It was during the program that American astronauts carried out their first spacewalks, and experimented with the linking, or “rendezvous” of two vehicles. With the use of the Agena Target Vehicle (ATV), an orbiting spacecraft launched with a view to aiding mission development, the Gemini capsules were able to experiment with highly complex docking procedures.
Gemini XI was one of the shorter program missions, returning to Earth just shy of 72 hours after lift-off. Despite a brief delay in take-off, the mission was considered an immense success, with all primary objectives, as stated by Mission Control, being achieved. As well as the docking manoeuvers and the extra-vehicular activity, an experiment to create artificial gravity through the spinning of the two tethered spacecraft proved highly constructive.
Gemini XI’s flight remains notable for achieving the highest altitude in orbit ever recorded. Using the thrust rockets from the ATV, Gemini XI reached a height above Earth of almost 1370 kilometres (nearly 740 nautical miles). To this day, manned spaceflights have only achieved greater distances from Earth on Apollo Moon-landing missions.
Credit: Image courtesy of NASA
Caption: A photograph of the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka, taken from Gemini II.