You are here

Tumbling in Orbit

Submitted by Nigel Bernard on Fri, 08/14/2020 - 07:26

Neil Armstrong and the Gemini 8 Mission

Story 10 in the nonfiction serial, Into Danger with the Adventurers - Twelve Epic Lives of the Twentieth Century

Part One

Neil Armstrong glanced to his right where the other astronaut, Dave Scott, was sitting. Scott had noticed that something was wrong. According to their instruments, the Gemini spacecraft was flying at an angle and was rolling over and over.

At that moment they were on the dark side of the Earth. They had the lights full on in the cockpit and there was little to see through the windows. In daylight they could have looked at the Earth’s horizon and seen that there was a problem. But on the dark side of the Earth all you can see are the lights of cities and flashes of lightning from storms far below.  They had to rely on their instruments. And the instruments showed that something was wrong.

As well as being in the dark, the astronauts were unable to speak to Mission Control in Houston. Spacecraft used different tracking stations around the globe to communicate. But they were crossing the Indian Ocean where there was no radio contact for another fifteen minutes. They couldn’t wait that long. They had to decide what to do on their own.

Neil grabbed the joystick and tried to correct the wrong position of the spacecraft by using the thrusters. These are tiny rockets on different parts of the spacecraft.  At first he thought he had succeeded, but then the spacecraft started to bank again. What was causing the problem? Neil and Scott thought they knew the answer. It must be the Agena rocket with which they had docked less than an hour before.  

The flight controllers in Houston had been worried about the Agena before Neil and Scott went into radio blackout. There had been problems sending commands to its computer. Six minutes before blackout, Houston sent them this message: ‘If you run into trouble and the attitude control system in the Agena goes wild, just send in the Command 400 to turn it off and take control with the spacecraft.’

Surely, the problem must be the Agena? The controls for the Agena rocket were on Scott’s side of the cockpit. Neil told him to switch them off. After switching off all the systems, the rolling stopped, but only for just over a minute. Still they continued to roll. Neil told Scott to switch the Agena systems back on and then off again, but this only made them roll faster. They made a quick decision. They would undock from the Agena. Neil undocked and fired the thrusters to push away from the Agena. But the Gemini continued to roll. Whatever was causing the problem, it wasn’t the Agena.

The roll got worse. They were now spinning once every second and in different directions. They were feeling dizzy and could lose consciousness very quickly. They entered daylight again and at the same time they regained radio contact. Scott wasted no time in telling Houston what was happening: ‘We have serious problems here. We’re ... we’re tumbling end over end up here. We’re disengaged from the Agena.’

Part Two

Neil Armstrong was born near a town called Wapakoneta in Ohio, America, in 1930. He had a younger brother and a younger sister. When he was about three his mother bought him a toy aeroplane. He used to zoom with it around the house. From then on he always took a great interest in flying. When he was six his father took him to a local airfield. They flew on a short flight in a plane which had three propellers and seated twelve passengers. His father was scared, but Neil really enjoyed it. At the age of sixteen he began flying lessons and within months he was flying solo. He learned to fly before he got his driver’s license. When he was seventeen he went to university to study aeronautical engineering. At university he also enjoyed music and he played the baritone horn in the university band.

In 1949 he joined the Navy as a pilot. He had to learn many new flying skills such as taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. At first, the aeroplanes he flew all had propellers, but in 1951 he began flying jet aircraft. This was the time of the Korean War. North Korea had invaded South Korea. China was on the side of North Korea and the United Nations, including America, supported South Korea. Neil flew many missions over Korea. On one occasion his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. As he fought to control it he was so near the ground that he hit a pole and lost part of a wing. He managed to gain height and then ejected to safety.

Neil left the Navy in 1952 and returned to university to complete his studies. During this time he continued to fly. In 1955 he finished university and became an experimental test pilot. This is a highly skilled and very dangerous job. A test pilot flies new aeroplanes to check that they are working correctly. This is hard enough, but an experimental test pilot flies new types of aircraft which have never been flown before. A test pilot must fly the plane according to a strict flight plan. As he flies he must be able to sense any problems with the aircraft, however small. Afterwards, he must be able to remember all the details of the flight and write a full report of what happened. To do this, he needs to be an expert in the various parts and systems of the aircraft.  And of course, a test pilot needs to react quickly and safely in an emergency. When an aircraft is flown for the first time, nobody can be absolutely sure what will happen.

He worked at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where dry lake beds were used for airstrips. He flew many different types of planes including the X-15. This was a rocket powered aircraft which had to be carried into the air under the right wing of a converted B-52 bomber. The X-15 would then be released and the pilot would fire up its rocket engine and zoom away. The X-15 was one of the fastest aircraft Neil had flown. On one flight he flew at nearly six times the speed of sound. The highest he flew was sixty kilometres, which is near the edge of space.

In 1956 Neil married Janet Shearon, who he had met at Purdue University. They went on to have three children. Sadly, their second child, Karen, became very ill and she died, aged two, in early 1962. During her illness Neil was still working as a test pilot.

Like all test pilots, Neil had a few accidents and close shaves. One day he was flying the X-15 high up near the edge of the atmosphere. He checked all the systems and they were working well. As he began to descend there was one more thing to test. This was a device called the g-limiter. It was supposed to stop the pilot from experiencing more than five g’s as the plane accelerated. Five g’s means feeling five times your own weight. But the device did not seem to be working. So he allowed the plane to go back up a little to try again, but he went too high. The air was so thin that the normal aircraft controls were of no use. By now he needed to turn to begin to head towards the landing strip. But he had to wait until the plane eventually came lower and there was enough atmosphere to turn. By the time he did turn he was a long way south from Edwards Air Force Base. He was supposed to land on the north lake bed. He knew he was too far away for that, but he reckoned he could just make the south lake bed. Emergency vehicles rushed to the scene as he approached and chase aircraft flew by his side to give him advice over the radio. He just made it to the southern tip of the airfield, narrowly missing the trees at its edge. It was true, he should not have allowed the aircraft to balloon back up out of the atmosphere, on the other hand, he had to try and test the g-limiter. And, he had brought X-15 safely back to base.

Some of his near misses occurred around the time of his daughter’s illness. Perhaps the worry and upset affected his flying. But the people he worked with knew he was an outstanding pilot. And his knowledge of engineering meant he had an excellent understanding of all the different parts of the aircraft.

Later in 1962, Neil applied to NASA, the American space organisation, to become an astronaut. The closing date for applications was 1 June, but he sent his application in too late. But the man in charge of the applications knew that Neil was a very good candidate. So he slipped it into the middle of the pile of other applications. The applicants had to have lots of medical investigations and do lots of strange tests. One test was to see how they coped on their own for two hours in a completely dark and soundproofed room. Neil coped by repeatedly singing a song to himself. But in the end it was all worth it because he was selected to be an astronaut.

 Neil was amongst the second group of American astronauts to be selected. The first group had been selected in 1959. There were seven in the first group and they flew in the Mercury spacecraft. They became known as the Mercury Seven. Alan Shepard was the first American to go into space. It was a suborbital flight which lasted only fifteen minutes. He reached a height of 188 kilometres and landed in the sea 487 kilometres from the launchpad. The first American astronaut to orbit the Earth was John Glenn. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy set America the goal of ‘landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth’ by the end of the decade. NASA began to design the Apollo spacecraft which would be able to go to the Moon. In the meantime they devised the Gemini rockets to test equipment and procedures they would need for the Apollo spacecraft.

Life as an astronaut was very busy. They had lots of different training and lots of new things to learn. They had many meetings and visited factories to learn about the new rockets that were being built. Each astronaut was given a particular thing to specialize in such as cockpit design, spacesuits, communication, rocket engines or electronics. Neil specialized in simulators and training. Simulators were mock-ups of the spacecraft in which astronauts would spend many hours practising. But what all the astronauts wanted to do most was to go into space. At last, Neil was given a mission. He would fly in Gemini 8 with Dave Scott.

Gemini 8 was an important mission. A key part of flying to the Moon would be the docking of two spacecraft. This had never been done before and it was a main goal of the Gemini 8 mission. Neil and Scott had to show that a docking could be done in space. The mission plan also involved a long spacewalk by Scott and various experiments. They were scheduled to orbit the Earth fifty-five times and spend nearly three days in space. The mission started well. The unmanned Agena rocket was launched into orbit from Cape Kennedy in Florida at 10 a.m. on 16 March 1966. Just over ninety minutes later, Gemini 8 took off. The Agena rocket had a special docking collar fitted so that Gemini 8 could attach itself. After over four hours of flight, Neil and Scott had visual contact with the Agena.  Neil was in charge of actually flying the Gemini. He brought Gemini 8 into position and docked with the Agena. All seemed to be going well. Then the spacecraft started to roll.

Part Three

The spacecraft was rolling and at the same time tumbling end over end. The rolling was so rapid that the vision of the astronauts was becoming blurred. The force of the roll was so great that things that were loose in the cabin such as flight plans and checklists were being pinned against the sides of the spacecraft.  Neil tried to keep his head in a fixed position as he struggled to focus on the instrument panel above. He knew that they would soon lose consciousness if the violent rolling continued.

There was also the danger of the nearby Agena rocket. When he separated from the Agena, Neil had used a sharp burst of thrusters to make sure they a got a safe distance away from the unmanned rocket. But with the Gemini out of control, it was possible they might crash into the Agena. By now they had tunnel vision. Everything around the edges was black. Neil fought to control the spacecraft, but it was no use, he just couldn’t stabilize it.

There was only one option left. The Gemini had another set of thrusters. These were part of the re-entry control system (RCS). These were only intended for bringing the spacecraft back down to Earth. But perhaps Neil could use the RCS to control the spacecraft. The switch was located in an awkward position above his head, and the switch was surrounded by other similar switches. Barely able to see, he raised his hand and felt for the right switch. In training astronauts and pilots have to be able to locate all the controls blindfolded. This training was now paying off. He found the switch and activated the RCS. He used the RCS thrusters as gently as he could. He didn’t want to waste the fuel otherwise they may not have enough to return to Earth. Gradually, he regained control. A relieved Scott radioed mission control to let them know: ‘Okay. We’re regaining control of the spacecraft slowly in RCS direct.’

Neil then spoke to mission control as well: ‘We’re pulsing the RCS pretty slowly here so we don’t control roll right. We’re trying to kill our roll rate.’

Once he had regained control, Neil made sure they were not near the Agena. He then went back to the thrusters of the main system and tried each one separately. Everything seemed fine until he switched on Thruster Number Eight. Instead of giving a short burst it just stayed on and the spacecraft started to roll again. He switched it off. He had found the problem. If he had known this before he would not have separated from the Agena. But it was too late now. Also, because he had activated the RCS, he knew they had to return to Earth as soon as possible.

Just over three hours later they re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down into the Pacific. They were picked up by a helicopter from an American ship. When Neil clambered into the helicopter everybody was shaking his hand. But he did not feel like being congratulated. True, they had successfully docked with the Agena and had survived a dangerous ordeal, but there had been much more to do on the mission.

Part Four

After Gemini 8, some astronauts criticized Neil behind his back for separating from the Agena. But the managers at NASA knew better. He had remained calm under pressure and brought himself, Scott and the spacecraft safely back to Earth. And an important lesson had been learned. When two spacecraft are docked together they have to be treated as one single craft. This was important for the Apollo missions when the command module and lunar module would be docked together for long periods of time. Neil soon put the disappointment of Gemini 8 behind him and began preparation for the Apollo space missions.

Neil was the commander of Apollo 11. This was the first manned mission to land on the Moon. It had a three-man crew. Michael Collins was the Command Module pilot. He stayed alone orbiting the Moon while Neil and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface in the Lunar Module. As commander, it was Neil’s job to fly the Lunar Module while Aldrin read out their height and speed and other information from the instrument panel. They descended under control of the computer at first. Despite some initial communication problems and some program alarms because of a computer overload, everything seemed to be going well. But as they neared the surface Neil could see they were going to hit some boulders so he took control himself and flew on to land in a smoother area. He had only a few seconds of fuel left. Once more, he had remained calm under pressure. A few hours later, on 21 July 1969 he stepped onto the Moon with the famous words: ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

After the Apollo mission, Neil retired from being an astronaut. But he continued to fly and helped to develop fly-by-wire systems for aircraft. With these systems, when the pilot moves the control column, an electrical signal is sent by wire to the various parts of the plane to make them move. The Lunar Module had been one of the first machines to ‘fly’ using a fly-by-wire system.

Neil later sat on the boards of various companies and got involved with several business projects. Also, from 1974 to 1979, he taught engineering in the University of Cincinnati. In 1972 he had joined the board of the aircraft company Gates Learjet. In 1979 he flew one of their business jets to a height of 15,000 metres in just over twelve minutes, which was a record for business jets at that time. In 1986 the space shuttle Challenger blew up during its launch. Afterwards, Neil joined the Presidential Commission set up by President Ronald Reagan to investigate the causes of the accident.

Neil died in 2012. Throughout his life he kept away from the limelight. He did not like being a celebrity and always saw himself primarily as an engineer, not a famous astronaut. But he will always be remembered as the first man to walk on the Moon. However, the flight of Gemini 8 was important preparation for the Moon mission. It could have gone badly wrong, but, thankfully, it was Neil Armstrong at the controls.


A particularly helpful source was:

Hansen, J.R. (2005) First Man - The Life of Neil Armstrong (London: Simon & Schuster)