March 23, 2015 – Today marked the 50th anniversary of the Gemini III launch. Gemini III launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and was the first crewed Earth-orbiting spacecraft of the Gemini series.
Before Gemini, NASA had only flown in space a few times. The Mercury missions had proven that astronauts could fly in space, but Gemini was designed to demonstrate flight duration, teamwork and rendezvous methods that would be necessary to go the moon and return safely to Earth.
There were ten crewed flights in the Gemini program. In a span of 20 months from March 1965 to November 1966, NASA developed, tested and flew transformative capabilities and cutting-edge technologies in the Gemini program that paved the way not only for the Apollo missions, but also for the space shuttle program, building the International Space Station and setting the stage for human exploration of Mars.
NASA’s two-man Gemini spaceflights demonstrated that astronauts could change their capsule’s orbit, remain in space for at least two weeks, and work outside their spacecraft. They also pioneered rendezvous and docking with other spacecraft.
Gemini III lifted off Launch Pad 19 at 9:24 a.m. EST on March 23, 1965. Veteran Mercury astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom was selected as command pilot of Gemini III, making him the first person traveling into space twice. Joining Grissom was pilot John W. Young, the first member of the second group of NASA pilots to fly in space.
As the Command Pilot, Grissom was allowed to name the spacecraft. On his earlier Mercury flight, the hatch of the capsule prematurely opened after splashdown. Grissom was able to jump out of the capsule and was rescued by a helicopter crew, but the capsule filled with sea water and eventually sank.
Hoping to avoid the same fate on the new capsule, Grissom playfully called the capsule “Molly Brown” in reference to a popular broadway show at the time, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Molly Brown was Colorado’s noted survivor of the Titanic sinking. NASA management didn’t like the name, and it was the last time astronauts were allowed to choose the name for their spacecraft.
Gemini III’s primary goal was to test the new, maneuverable spacecraft. Grissom and Young orbited the Earth three times, and fired thrusters to change the shape of their orbit, shift their orbital plane slightly, and drop to a lower altitude.
The revolutionary orbital maneuvering technology paved the way for rendezvous missions later in the Gemini Program and proved it was possible for a lunar module to lift off the moon and dock with the lunar orbiting command module for the trip home to Earth. It also meant spacecraft could be launched to rendezvous and dock with an orbiting space station.
Once they were back on the ground, Grissom and Young received a telephone call from President Lyndon B. Johnson in which he congratulated the astronauts.
“This nation has embarked on a bold program of space exploration and research which holds promise of rich rewards in many fields of American life,” the president said. “Our boldness is clearly indicated by the broad scope of our program and by our intent to send men to the moon within this decade.”