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Gemini
The Air Force considered using versions of the Gemini spacecraft developed for NASA and flying them on manned military missions as a precursor to more advanced activities. (credit: NASA)

The Blue Gemini blues

In recent years the early era of the Air Force’s manned space program has become less murky. Although the details of this early period are still relatively scarce, scholars—many of them working for the Air Force or with its support—have unearthed clues about efforts by General Bernard Schriever to get the Air Force into the manned spaceflight program by any possible means. One project that is now much clearer is the short-lived Blue Gemini program, which was a natural outgrowth of Schriever’s goal to get Air Force officers—blue suiters, as they called themselves—into orbit as soon as possible.

MISS, BOSS and Space Canary

One of the surprises is that the Air Force actually had a manned spaceflight program during the period when NASA was conducting Mercury. It was a secret program and never reached full development. The White House may not even have known about it at the time.

In 1958, before Mercury, the Air Force had sponsored a program named Man-In-Space-Soonest to develop a manned spacecraft. Lockheed was one of the contractors proposing a spacecraft for MISS. The company proposed a pressurized 1.5-meter diameter spacecraft that would ride atop an Atlas-Agena launch vehicle. It would have been slightly smaller than Mercury and certainly cramped for an astronaut.

One of the surprises is that the Air Force actually had a manned spaceflight program during the period when NASA was conducting Mercury. The White House may not even have known about it at the time.

MISS was canceled and the Eisenhower Administration ordered that human spaceflight was to be run by the new civilian space agency NASA. This did not stop General Schriever, however. The Air Force contracted Lockheed to build its pressurized spacecraft and stick a high-powered camera inside, turning the vehicle into a reconnaissance satellite. It was called Samos E-5 and it was a kludge of a spacecraft.

General Bernard Schriever, the legendary head of the Ballistic Missiles Division, approved E-5 in order to have a pressurized Air Force spacecraft that was large enough to carry a human, albeit a small human. Samos E-5 flew five times starting in spring 1961 and it failed every single time. But the pressurized capsule kept the Air Force in the manned spaceflight game even though NASA was supposed to be the government agency in charge of human spaceflight.

By the second half of 1960, the Air Force had contracted Lockheed to build a chimpanzee “life cell” for the spacecraft and was evaluating chimpanzee flights of up to fourteen days, including travel through the Van Allen radiation belts. This was part of the Bioastronautical Orbital Space System (BOSS) program.

It was clear from the context, however, that the Air Force had little interest in chimpanzee flights or bioastronautics per se. Even the official BOSS proposal indicated that the chimp research had limited utility and that the Air Force’s primary goal was to put a human in space for two reasons: to explore the usefulness of a manned spacecraft for military purposes, and because the Russians would have men in orbit too, some of them possibly carrying nuclear bombs.

The Air Force leadership clearly was not always thinking rationally about its manned spaceflight operations. Another parallel program with BOSS was called “Space Canary” and would have involved flying a rhesus monkey along with a human astronaut. The theory was that the monkey would show ill effects of spaceflight and serve as a warning to the human. It was not a particularly smart idea and fortunately it was canceled before any monkey was forced to fly with a stinky human in space.

BOSS was never approved, although the Air Force apparently tried to obtain funding for it at least twice in 1961 and then again in 1962. But what the existence of Samos E-5 and BOSS demonstrates is that the Air Force was not simply involved in the Dyna-Soar project during this early period, but was also actively working on a low-end manned spaceflight program. By 1962 General Schriever would get a better opportunity.

Mercury Mark II

The earliest proposal for a two-man Mercury capsule dated to January 1959, but it was not until March 1961 that NASA engineer Max Faget asked Mercury contractor McDonnell to consider designing a two-man Mercury spacecraft. By the summer of 1961 the “Mercury Mark II” was under early development. In late July, several NASA leaders from the Space Task Group traveled to St. Louis to see McDonnell’s proposals. The company displayed quarter-scale models of four spacecraft proposals: an Eighteen Orbit Mk. I, a Minimum Change Mk. II, a Reconfigured Mk. II, and a Two Man Mk. II. The company had also built a full-size wood and plastic mockup of the two-man spacecraft.

The two-man Mercury Mark II soon entered development. The larger two-man version of the spacecraft would be capable of operating for longer periods in orbit and would allow an astronaut to exit the vehicle in flight. This bigger spacecraft would require a larger launch vehicle, a converted Titan 2 ballistic missile. The Titan 2 was an Air Force missile and naturally required close coordination between NASA and the Air Force.

Another parallel program with BOSS was called “Space Canary” and would have involved flying a rhesus monkey along with a human astronaut. It was not a particularly smart idea and fortunately it was canceled before any monkey was forced to fly with a stinky human in space.

In late 1961 NASA officials entered into discussions with the Air Force’s Ballistic Missiles Division over utilizing the Titan 2 to launch what was soon renamed the Gemini spacecraft. Although the details are still unclear, these Air Force officers soon recognized that the new spacecraft would be useful for their purposes. NASA was paying for Gemini’s development, and the Air Force could simply buy additional vehicles.

For Air Force leaders Gemini was attractive because it would be ready much earlier than the Dyna-Soar spaceplane, which would not make its first flight until 1965 or later. That was a long time for the Air Force to wait to fly a man in space. A further problem was that the Air Force needed to figure out what missions a man could perform in space, and it made little sense to wait years for Dyna-Soar to offer that opportunity. General Schriever and others realized that Gemini could enable them to gain experience that could then be used with Dyna-Soar. By February 1962 the Air Force was actively evaluating Gemini for military space missions.

MODS to Blue Gemini

According to Lieutenant Colonel Mark Erickson’s new book Into the Unknown Together, a history of NASA-DoD cooperation, the Air Force had been conducting low-level studies of a Military Test Space Station (or MTSS) since 1958. By June 1962 these studies had morphed into the early design definition for the Manned Orbital Development Station, or MODS. MODS would utilize a Gemini spacecraft atop a cylindrical pressurized habitat containing experiments. The Gemini and MODS laboratory would be launched into orbit atop a Titan 3 rocket, which was a Titan 2 equipped with two large solid rocket motors. MODS was planned to become operational by 1965, shortly before Dyna-Soar.

But soon the Air Force officers who were working on the MODS proposal realized that waiting another three years for MODS would not offer them early spaceflight experience. By August 1962 they proposed Blue Gemini, a series of seven Gemini flights, some in cooperation with NASA, which would be flown before MODS became operational.

By October 1962 the Air Force had designated Blue Gemini as Program 287, and outlined its goals in a document known as a “Partial System Package.” The PSP, which was only declassified a few years ago, provides the fullest explanation yet about the purposes of Blue Gemini.

The goal of Blue Gemini was to “provide a manned, short-duration, orbital vehicle which will activate the USAF military man-in-space programs, demonstrate military operations and techniques, and test and qualify subsystems and components.” The Military Orbital Development System would not be ready until 1966. At the time that Blue Gemini started, NASA planned on flying Gemini from late 1963 through 1965. Blue Gemini could get the Air Force into space by 1964, with missions throughout 1965 leading up to the first MODS launch.

The goal of Blue Gemini was to “provide a manned, short-duration, orbital vehicle which will activate the USAF military man-in-space programs, demonstrate military operations and techniques, and test and qualify subsystems and components.”

Blue Gemini consisted of four principal pieces of hardware: an off-the-shelf Gemini spacecraft, a Titan 2 launch vehicle, an Atlas launch vehicle, and an Agena rendezvous target. The Gemini was intended to serve as an astronaut trainer; provide an early capability for space maneuvering, rendezvous, and docking experience; and serve as a testbed. Gemini was intended to provide life support for a crew of one or two for up to fourteen days. Air Force Space Systems Division was in charge of the program.

Blue Gemini was also intended to provide experience in training of manned satellite control and support facilities operation. Because Gemini was then planned to return to a land touchdown using a paraglider, the Air Force version would also require activation of recovery facilities at Edwards Air Force Base and early training of recovery personnel, which the Air Force was planing on doing anyway for Dyna-Soar. Thus Blue Gemini would enable earlier training for the X-20 Dyna-Soar recovery operations.

Flights

The initial phase of Blue Gemini operational missions would consist of two missions where an Air Force astronaut would fly as a Gemini co-pilot on a NASA mission. Those missions would accomplish NASA objectives. The next phase would consist of two NASA Gemini missions flown by Air Force crews. The flights would meet NASA objectives necessary for the Apollo program. However, if space and weight permitted, and they did not interfere with NASA’s mission objectives, the Air Force astronauts could also conduct some of their own experiments. These flights would involve the second NASA rendezvous flight and the second NASA rendezvous and docking flight.

The third phase would consist of a series of three follow-on Air Force flights at four-month intervals. The first would involve rendezvous and docking with an Agena target vehicle. The next two missions would not involve a target vehicle but instead carry dedicated experiments. The last mission would occur in November 1965, about four months before the first scheduled launch of MODS. All of the missions would utilize the NASA Gemini launch pad at Cape Kennedy.

The Blue Gemini vehicle would essentially be an off-the-shelf NASA vehicle, although the later missions might require modifying the vehicle by replacing one of the astronauts with a payload. In addition, approximately 90 kilograms could be added to a 0.85-cubic meter volume in the adapter section at the expense of some maneuvering capability. Removing a man and his associated equipment freed up 0.85 cubic meters and an additional 270 kilograms of payload.

At the time NASA was planning to make land landings with Gemini, flying it down to the ground under a paraglider. The Air Force determined that by adjusting Blue Gemini’s orbit to 36 degrees, they could bring the spacecraft down at Edwards Air Force base, the same place planned for Dyna-Soar landings.

From AMU to Vostok

The Air Force proposed a number of possible experiments for Blue Gemini. A top priority would be testing of the Astronaut Mobility Unit, a backpack that would allow a spacewalker to move around the spacecraft. A prototype had already been tested aboard a KC-135 aircraft flying zero-G parabolas. The Air Force expected that the AMU would require two test flights in space.

The primary goal would be to test rendezvous and inspection techniques, but the ultimate goal might be to reach a 65-degree orbit, which the Blue Gemini planning document noted was the orbit used by Soviet Vostok vehicles.

Other proposed Blue Gemini missions included testing a stellar inertial navigation unit and also deploying an expandable structure in space and monitoring it over a period of two days. A far more ambitious mission would involve flying a single astronaut and using the extra space to carry a ground mapping radar. The astronaut would deploy an 5.5-meter-long antenna and use it to map the ground at a resolution of approximately 15 meters. Several years later the National Reconnaissance Office would fly a top-secret mission named QUILL that attempted to do the same thing. That mission was successful, but the resolution was apparently so low that the super secret spy agency did not attempt to fly another radar satellite mission for two decades.

Other intelligence sensors such as signals collection antennas and infrared or optical sensors could also be carried in the extra seat. But perhaps the most ambitious proposal was to conduct rendezvous with what the Air Force euphemistically labeled “non-cooperative targets.” These missions were intended to take advantage of the Gemini spacecraft’s propulsion capabilities, particularly when attached to an Agena target vehicle.

The primary goal would be to test rendezvous and inspection techniques, primarily by intercepting either a NASA Gemini Agena after its tracking beacon had died, or a target launched on a Scout rocket or from the Blue Gemini itself. But the ultimate goal might be to reach a 65-degree orbit, which the Blue Gemini planning document noted was the orbit used by Soviet Vostok vehicles.

Political tug-of-war

Soon after the Air Force had defined its possible goals for Blue Gemini, the program became the focus of a bureaucratic struggle that led to its downfall. NASA officials had supported increased Air Force reliance upon Gemini, believing that it would result in cheaper operations of their own Gemini. In November 1962 NASA officials met with representatives of the Air Force’s Space Systems Division to discuss the Gemini design.

The details of this period remain unclear, but it appears that although Air Force Space Systems Division officials were in favor of Gemini, the senior civilian leadership of the Pentagon soon went even further. In December 1962 several NASA officials went to the Pentagon to propose greater DoD participation in Gemini. They were surprised when Secretary of Defense McNamara showed up at the meeting and proposed that the DoD take over Gemini completely, and perhaps take over all manned spaceflights in low Earth orbit.

As James Webb later explained it, this was a typical McNamara maneuver: “knock you down on the floor with a sledgehammer, and then, while you’re down, ask you to sign off on a particular decision.” NASA officials immediately viewed this proposal as a threat to their program. The Air Force, they argued, would not be able to maintain the Gemini program’s focus on development techniques required for the Apollo lunar landing program. They protested vigorously.

In December 1962 several NASA officials went to the Pentagon to propose greater DoD participation in Gemini. They were surprised when Secretary of Defense McNamara showed up at the meeting and proposed that the DoD take over Gemini completely, and perhaps take over all manned spaceflights in low Earth orbit.

However, Air Force officials had also been surprised by the proposal, and they were opposed to it as well. They believed that if they were given full responsibility for Gemini, it would threaten Dyna-Soar, which was always their ultimate goal in manned spaceflight. They resisted McNamara’s proposal. With NASA and the Air Force opposed, McNamara backed down, but instead proposed a joint development of Gemini, rather than NASA development and Air Force purchase of “off-the-shelf” spacecraft.

All of these negotiations took place during the middle of January 1963 and by late in the month they reached a compromise: rather than a joint program, Gemini would be viewed as a program “serving common needs.” Air Force experiments could fly on NASA Gemini missions.

Almost simultaneously McNamara killed both MODS and Blue Gemini. They had been two of thirteen new space programs that the Air Force had proposed in January 1963 and McNamara had rejected all thirteen of them.

McNamara’s decision remains puzzling. Certainly the Air Force had become overly ambitious about space. The service sought an increase of $420 million in its budget at a time that the entire Department of Defense space budget was $1.55 billion. This increase included $75 million for MODS and $102 million for Blue Gemini.

But if canceling MODS and Blue Gemini was primarily about reducing costs and reigning in the Air Force space program, how come slightly over a month before McNamara had proposed that the Air Force take over the entire Gemini program, which would have had the opposite effect—both increasing Air Force space participation and costing a lot of money?

One theory advanced by historians is that McNamara saw Gemini as an opportunity to kill the increasingly expensive Dyna-Soar program, which by one estimate had already cost over half as much as the Mercury program and had only produced a wooden mockup. Cost estimates for Dyna-Soar projected that it would ultimately cost two to two and a half times the cost of the entire Mercury program. The problem with this theory is that there is no indication before this period that McNamara had problems with Dyna-Soar’s cost. His opposition to Dyna-Soar appears to have started in early 1963 and grown throughout the year until he announced its cancellation in December 1963. In its place, he also announced the creation of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, or MOL. MOL was in essence the revived MODS.

When MOL was started, the Air Force had already lost a year of development work on its military space station. But the service had not lost everything. Some of its proposed experiments for Blue Gemini, particularly the Astronaut Maneuverability Unit, had been transferred to NASA’s Gemini missions. Unfortunately, Air Force and NASA planners had underestimated the difficulties of EVA operations, and they were never able to test the AMU on Gemini.

The Air Force never achieved its goal of owning its own manned spacecraft. After its birth from the ashes of MODS and Dyna-Soar, MOL would struggle along for six years, its schedule continuously slipping, its purpose changing dramatically, and its cost constantly rising. After several years of near-cancellations, it was finally killed by the Nixon administration in the summer of 1969.

Blue Gemini only existed for about five months. It represented perhaps the most logical of the Air Force’s manned spaceflight programs. At relatively minimal cost the military could have evaluated the utility of manned space missions, gaining experience in the first half of the 1960s. That experience probably would have demonstrated what the military ultimately learned at higher cost without ever flying a mission: that there was nothing that a military astronaut could do in orbit that could not be accomplished cheaper by a robot.


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