Project Gemini: NASA's Early Steps to Space

astronaut on gemini mission
Astronaut Ed White outside his Gemini capsule in 1965. NASA

Back in the early days of the Space Age, NASA and the Soviet Union embarked on a race to the Moon. The biggest challenges each country faced were not just getting to the Moon and landing there, but learning how to get to space safely and maneuver spacecraft safely in near-weightless conditions. The very first human to fly, the Soviet Air Force pilot Yuri Gagarin, simply orbited the planet and didn't really control his spacecraft.

The first American to fly to space, Alan Shepard, did a 15-minute sub-orbital flight that NASA used as its first test of sending a person to space. Shepard flew as part of Project Mercury, which sent seven men to space: Shepard, Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, and Gordon Cooper.

Developing Project Gemini

As astronauts were doing the Project Mercury flights, NASA started the next phase of the "race to the Moon" missions. It was called the Gemini Program, named for the constellation Gemini (the Twins). Each capsule would carry two astronauts to space. Gemini began development in 1961 and ran through 1966. During each Gemini flight, astronauts performed orbital rendezvous maneuvers, learned to dock with another spacecraft, and did spacewalks. All these tasks were necessary to learn, since they would be required for the Apollo missions to the Moon. The first steps were to design the Gemini capsule, done by a team at NASA's manned spaceflight center in Houston.

The team included the astronaut Gus Grissom, who had flown in Project Mercury. The capsule was built by McDonnell Aircraft, and the launch vehicle was a Titan II missile. 

The Gemini Project

The goals for the Gemini Program were complex. NASA wanted astronauts to go to space and learn more about what they could do there, how long they could endure in orbit (or in transit to the Moon), and how to control their spacecraft.

Because the lunar missions would use two spacecraft, it was important for the astronauts to learn to control and maneuver them, and when required, dock them together while both were moving. In addition, conditions might require an astronaut to work outside the spacecraft, so, the program trained them to do spacewalks (also called "extravehicular activity"). Certainly, they would be walking on the Moon, so learning safe methods of leaving the spacecraft and re-entering it were important. Finally, the agency needed to learn how to bring the astronauts safely home.

Learning to Work in Space

Living and working in space is not the same as training on the ground. While astronauts did use "trainer" capsules to learn the cockpit layouts, perform sea landings, and do other training programs, they were working in a one-gravity environment. To work in space, you have to go there, to learn what it's like to practice in a microgravity environment. There, motions we take for granted on Earth produce very different results, and the human body also has very specific reactions while in space. Each Gemini flight allowed the astronauts to train their bodies to work most efficiently in space, in the capsule as well as outside it during spacewalks.

They also spent many hours learning how to maneuver their spacecraft. On the down side, they also learned more about space sickness (which nearly everyone gets, but it passes fairly quickly). In addition, the length of some of the missions (up to a week), allowed NASA to observe any medical changes that long-term flights might induce in an astronaut's body.

The Gemini Flights

The first test flight of the Gemini program didn't carry a crew to space; it was a chance to put a spacecraft into orbit to make sure it would actually work there. The next ten flights carried two-man crews who practiced docking, maneuvering, space walks, and long-term flights. The Gemini astronauts were: Gus Grissom, John Young, Michael McDivitt, Edward White, Gordon Cooper, Peter Contrad, Frank Borman, James Lovell, Wally Schirra, Thomas Stafford, Neil Armstrong, Dave Scott, Eugene Cernan, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

Many of these same men went on to fly on Project Apollo.

The Gemini Legacy

The Gemini Project was spectacularly successful even as it was a challenging training experience. Without it, the U.S. and NASA would not have been able to send people to the Moon and the July 16, 1969 lunar landing would not have been possible. Of the astronauts who participated, nine are still alive. Their capsules are on display in museums across the United States, including the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS, the California Museum of Science in Los Angeles, the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, IL, the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral, FL, the Grissom Memorial in Mitchell, IN, the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City, OK, the Armstrong Museum in Wapakoneta, OH, and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Each of these places, plus a number of other museums that have Gemini training capsules on display, offer the public a chance to see some of the nation's early space hardware and learn more about the project's place in space history.