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Oklahoma Memories

Tom Stafford Flies Gemini 6

2010-12-13

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"7A...seven and six would you continue with the description of your station keeping. Right now 6 is about ten feet above at the left of seven. We're just flying nose-to-nose, approximately 15 feet apart.""

Those are voices from NASA. Gemini 6 was piloted by Tom Stafford, who had just become the second Oklahoman to fly in space.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

On December 15, 1965, Wally Schirra and Weatherford, Oklahoma's Tom Stafford flew the Gemini 6 mission that included the first rendezvous in space of two manned space capsules when Gemini 6 met Gemini 7 in Earth orbit. Schirra was the commander; Stafford was the pilot. The mission meeting and docking in space were extremely important, as Schirra explains.

"Rendezvous and docking are most essential to complete the Apollo lunar mission. Now on this mission with Gemini 7, we in 6 came within about a foot of Gemini 7. Shortly after that, Gemini 7 maintained station on us as well. Rendezvous and docking are feasible for manned crews.""

Fellow Oklahoman Gordon Cooper had flown the Gemini 5 mission, and now Stafford was the next to be in space on Gemini 6, but a series of problems and near catastrophes nearly caused that flight to be called off altogether. Originally Gemini 6 was to meet an Agena rocket in space, but as Stafford and Schirra were sitting in their capsule waiting for their launch, they watched the Agena blow up after it was launched. That was the first try. That mission was canceled, and NASA decided to substitute an alternate mission: a meeting in space of two Gemini spacecraft. Their flight would now be known as Gemini 6A and would launch eight days after the launch of Frank Borman and Jim Lovell in Gemini 7. When Gemini 6 tried again, the engines on their Titan 2 rocket shut down on the pad just after ignition but before the actual launch. That was their second try. Their third attempt to blast off occurred three days later, on December 15, 1965.

"The launch of Gemini 6 is scheduled at the beginning of the 118th revolution of Gemini 7. T-minus 48 and all still going well with our Gemini 6 countdown here at Launch Complex 19. All quiet on the communications at the present time. On my mark, twenty seconds. Mark. Go. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1...ignition. Engines start. We have a real liftoff. 27 seconds after the hour."

The planned meeting in orbit went off without a hitch.

""Ask them what their range is now. About 20 feet. Well, we're sitting up here playing bridge together, in formation with 7. Everyone is still here. Ahh, roger. Congratulations. Excellent. Thank you. It was a lot of fun."

Following the meeting with Gemini 7, Gemini 6A made a separation burn and slowly drifted out to 10 miles. This ensured that there wouldn't be any accidental collisions in space at night. Stafford explained just how tired they were after their full day in space.

""The Gemini 6 [unintelligible] How'd your separation burn go? [unintelligible]. Finally, we collapsed, or should I say, went into a deep sleep at 9pm Cape time, having been up since 4am that morning."

The next day, December 16, 1965, Gemini 6A made reentry, landing within a mile or so of the aircraft carrier, the first truly accurate reentry.

You can see the actual Gemini 6 capsule that Tom Stafford flew in on display at the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.