Space & Innovation

50 Years Ago, Armstrong Made Heroic Emergency Landing

Neil Armstrong's emergency landing 50 years ago changed the agenda of Gemini 8, but likely saved the crew's life.

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When Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott left Earth at 11:41 a.m. on March 16, 1966, everyone expected they would be in orbit for three days. NASA's Gemini Program was designed to help get NASA to the moon in the future Apollo missions, so they were testing the skills and technologies astronauts would need for a lunar landing. This included docking with a vehicle (in this case, an Agena target vehicle) and performing a spacewalk -- only the second ever done in NASA history at that point.

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As commander of the spacecraft, one of Armstrong's major tasks was to make sure that his crewmate (Dave Scott) performed a spacewalk safely. Spacewalks were a new skill for NASA, as only one had been done before: Ed White's brief 23-minute sortie on Gemini 4. Scott had an ambitious agenda, including mounting a camera on the spacecraft and testing out a backpack while tethered to the spacecraft. In a sense, Scott was lucky the spacewalk never went forward. Later Gemini astronauts reported extensive problems with not having enough handholds on the outside of the spacecraft, making it difficult to get a grip as they moved around.

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Gemini 8 was supposed to chase after a docking target called the Gemini Agena Target Vehicle (ATV), usually referred to as the Agena. This would be the second attempt to catch up with an Agena; the first, slated to work with Gemini 6, exploded before it got to orbit. The Agena lifted off just a couple of hours before Gemini.

The plan was to do four dockings with the Agena

to test out the procedure in different conditions. As it turned out, however, the Agena docking set off a set of nearly fatal problems for the Gemini 8 crew.

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The Gemini 8 crew did the first docking ever in space at 6 hours, 33 minutes into the mission. All went well for about 27 minutes,

according to the Gemini 8 mission report

, until the crew noticed the docked spacecraft were moving unexpectedly. When the crew realized that it would take too much fuel to stabilize the spacecraft, they undocked. That's when they knew something was wrong with the spacecraft itself, as it eventually rotated as fast as almost one complete revolution per second. Armstrong quickly activated the re-entry control system, saving the crew from blackout and big trouble. (It turned out the spacecraft had a stuck-open thruster.) But activating the re-entry system forced them to land just over 10.5 hours after launch.

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Many observers have praised Armstrong's quick reaction in space, and some say that led to the decision to appoint him as the commander of the first moon landing -- Apollo 11. (Famously, he landed Apollo 11's Eagle spacecraft manually -- with less than 30 seconds of fuel left -- after the spacecraft drifted into a very rocky zone). Dave Scott also went to the moon, as commander of Apollo 15. Until Armstrong's death in 2012, the two astronauts had a way of commemorating the event; every year on March 16, according to the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, they would have a

private phone call

.

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