The story of how the space missions evolved from the X-15 fighter jet in 1959 to get people into space is explained. The programs began with the Mercury missions: 7 men were selected to carry the first astronaut into space “on top of a rocket capsule”. There was a rush because of competition with Russia: initially not much was known (a) whether the rockets would work, and (b) whether man could survive in space. At the beginning an ape called “Ham” was the first animal that flew. Eventually Alan Shepard was selected, BUT it is learned that the Soviet Union had been the first nation to put a man in space: Yuri Gagarin.
Then John Glenn was selected in 1962 for the longest mission:5 days of weightlessness. He takes off but runs into trouble – the world waits – but the Friendship 7 flight worked and “it was obvious that the Russians are not beating us”.
The process moves on to a more scientific set of missions, led by Scott Carpenter, called the Aurora program. More problems arise, but are overcome. Aurora 7 is recovered.
The next program are the Gemini launches, and here president Kennedy announces the goal of flying to the moon and back.Ten missions are planned. John Young and Gus Grisman are chosen. A new launch missile, the Titan was scary – “the rocket was like a controlled explosion”. Engineers fix the problems. In March 1965, “it was white knuckles” when Gemini 3 was launched but the astronauts were recovered.
The next big challenge was “walking in space”, also known as EVA – Extra Vehicular Activity. During this time weightlessness was tested using a specially modified plane called “the vomit Comet”. Spacesuit design was another problem – going from 250 degrees above zero to 250 degrees below zero rather quickly.
There was still competition with the Soviets, and NASA rushed matters. It was “a risky business” with EVA training performed in secret. On Gemini 4, in 1964, Ed White made the first EVA.
Then it was the “Rendezvous” effort where two spacecraft could coordinate for an eventual moon landing. Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 came within 20 feet of each other for 3 orbits. Then Gemini 7 travelled 6 million miles in 14 days. The effort weakened the astronaut’s legs.
Finally Dave Scott and Neil Armstrong demonstrated docking in 1966 in the Gemini 8 flight. There were problems, but recovery was achieved.
There were 4 Gemini missions left. Gene Cerman and Tom Stafford flew Gemini 9. It didn’t work. Neither did more Gemini attempts.
Finally Buzz Aldrin, who practised weightless motion under water, on Gemini’s final mission, Aldrin conducted three successful EVAs.
Things were then set for the Apollo missions.