Before the Moon: Neil Armstrong and the Gemini 8 Mission
By Artie Knapp
Many years ago, in 1957, a small object raced across the night sky. The former Soviet Union, now Russia, had put the first man-made satellite into space with the launch of Sputnik. This achievement by the Russians was the beginning of what is now known as “The Space Race.”
In a two-team race in the exploration of space, the United States found itself far behind. This fact was heightened even more when Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly into space on April 12th, 1961. During Gagarin’s historic flight, he orbited our planet before returning safely to Earth. Less than a month later, American Astronaut Alan Shepard became the second human and first American to fly into space. His mission was a suborbital flight, which means that he had reached space, but hadn’t orbited the Earth as Yuri Gagarin had.
In a speech at Rice University in 1962, American President John F. Kennedy set the goal that before the end of the decade, the United States would send a man to the Moon and return him safely to Earth. The president said it won’t be easy, in fact, it would be hard. But the challenge he said, is one that his country is willing to accept, one it’s unwilling to postpone, and one that it intends to win.
Over the next few years, the Soviet Union and the United States continued to have successful missions into space. Longer flights and more orbits of the Earth were achieved by both countries.
In 1966, an important NASA mission called Gemini 8 would mark the greatest test to date. Along with fellow Astronaut David Scott, Command Pilot Neil Armstrong would attempt the first-ever docking of two spacecraft in space. This task was essential if astronauts were to visit the Moon on future NASA missions called Apollo.
After the Gemini 8 spacecraft soared into space, it aligned with the target vehicle called the Agena. The Agena spacecraft had earlier reached Earth’s orbit when it was sent into space on an unmanned rocket. Flying towards and connecting one ship to another takes great skill and steadiness. But astronauts are highly trained pilots.
As the Agena edged closer in Gemini 8’s window, Armstrong moved the spacecraft at just a few inches per second. Astronaut David Scott then radioed to NASA, “Flight we are docked. Yes, it’s really a smoothie.” The two ships had become one. History was made! The combined spacecraft then made two successful Earth orbits as one ship. But suddenly there was trouble! A malfunctioning thruster with Gemini 8’s flight control system caused the spacecraft to begin spinning out of control.
With each passing second, the Gemini 8 spacecraft rolled completely around. Command Pilot Armstrong informed NASA of the dire situation. During the spins and rolls, Armstrong managed to reach up and activate the spacecraft’s reentry system. This stabilized the spacecraft so that it was no longer spinning, but by activating the reentry system, NASA decided the mission had to be cut short for safety reasons. The crew understood it was time to bring the Gemini 8 home. A short time later they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.
The Gemini 8 mission was originally scheduled to last for three days, to include Astronaut David Scott exiting the spacecraft for a two-hour spacewalk. The thruster malfunction, however, had cut the mission to just ten hours. In spite of this, Gemini 8 was a success. Two astronauts returned safely and the milestone of the first docking in space was critical to the success of future moon missions.
On July 20th, 1969, Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon during NASA’s Apollo 11 mission. The late President Kennedy’s goal had been realized. While on the moon, Neil Armstrong and fellow Astronaut Buzz Aldrin left a plaque. The plaque reads: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD.” During the mission, the astronauts acknowledged their fellow comrades from Apollo 1 who had tragically died in a launch-pad fire. They also acknowledged the Soviet Union, who had lost cosmonauts in the exploration of space as well.
The Space Race was two countries competing to achieve firsts in space. But they were really on the same team. As facts are learned about space, we all benefit from the knowledge, no matter who discovered them first. Today, the United States and Russia work together on the International Space Station. One team. Working hard each day to help better understand our world and to make it a better place for us all.