Review: Gemini Flies!

Gemini Flies! Unmanned Flights and the First Manned Mission
by David J. Shayler
Springer Praxis, 2018
paperback, 330 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-3-319-68141-2

Gemini has long been considered by space aficionados as the overlooked aspect of NASA’s early human spaceflight programs. It didn’t have the historic firsts of the Mercury program, nor the historic accomplishments of Apollo. Yet, the Gemini program demonstrated the key technologies and techniques needed for Apollo’s success, including rendezvous and docking, spacewalks, and long-duration spaceflight.

“For a long time, Gemini was a program overshadowed by the achievements of Apollo (1960–1975) and the initial American manned space program, Project Mercury (1959–1963),” writes David Shayler in the first chapter of his new book, Gemini Flies!. He seeks to rectify that oversight with a book that examines not just the overall Gemini program, but instead focusing on its initial development through the first mission with astronauts on board, Gemini 3.

Gemini had its roots, Shayler notes, in a concept called Mercury Mark II that expanded the original Mercury spacecraft to accommodate two astronauts and be able to carry out longer missions. By late 1961, McDonnell was on contract with NASA to develop that larger spacecraft, which would become known as Gemini after an internal NASA naming contest. Gemini would be launched on the Titan II, the only vehicle available at the time for launching the larger Gemini spacecraft.

Gemini was, at one point in its development, conceived as a workhorse vehicle for human spaceflight rather than an interim stepping stone to Apollo. At one point in planning for Gemini, NASA considered flying “deep space excursions” and circumlunar missions with Gemini by using a Centaur upper stage. Those plans didn’t last long, and other innovations, like the use of a paraglider “Rogallo Wing” to allow the capsule to glide back to a land landing, also fell by the wayside so that Gemini could focus on its core objectives of developing capabilities needed for Apollo lunar missions.

First, though, Gemini needed to fly. Shayler uses the book to examine the development of Gemini, as well as the man-rating of the Titan II, with the occasional colorful anecdote. Shayler notes that the rocket, which used a mixture of toxic propellants, formed a distinctive cloud at the base of the launch pad at liftoff known as the BFRC, or Big F***ing Red Cloud. “Clearly, anything related to Titan in the Gemini program was memorable,” he writes.

Shayler provides a high level of detail about not just Gemini’s development, but its uncrewed test launches and, then, the flight of Gemini 3 with Gus Grissom and John Young on board. The three-orbit flight of the spacecraft gets three chapters in the book, one for each orbit, plus coverage of the launch itself and the splashdown and recovery in other chapters. That level of detail is far more than what the casual spaceflight enthusiast might expect, or even want, in a book, but historians and Gemini devotees will appreciate the attention to detail that Shayler provides about the mission in the book.

Shayler, who wrote a single-volume history of Gemini, Gemini: Steps to the Moon, nearly 20 years ago, says in the books’ preface he was inspired to return to Gemini after a series of books by Colin Burgess on the six Mercury missions. Gemini Flies! is the beginning of a similar series of books, with one volume planned per mission (although Geminis 6 and 7 will be combined into a single book.) That detail, he says, is needed to give the program its full historical due: “The story needs to be told, step by step, mission by mission, of a program that followed in the wake of the pioneering missions of Mercury and created the confidence to embark upon Apollo and beyond.” This book is a confident first step in that endeavor.