Gemini 6—a spaceflight in 1965—was scheduled to perform the first-ever docking of two spacecraft in orbit. But something went wrong.
After the countdown reached zero—and millions watched live on TV—the craft stayed put on the pad. It did not move. Filled with explosive fuel, two astronauts perched atop it all in their tiny Gemini capsule. Should the commander, Wally Schirra, pull the abort handle for a wild and dangerous ride away from the booster? Would the booster soon explode and kill the crew?
Schirra had seconds to decide.
So did some less famous people inside a bunker near the launch site. Nerdy engineers who worked “launch sequencing.” The people in the block house decided that the astronauts should stay with the vehicle. For one thing, the abort procedure was so dangerous, that alone could kill the crew. Also, the vehicle hadn’t exploded. True, it still could. But these engineers had worked a lot of launches and had pretty good instincts about these things.
The “suits”—that is, the higher ups—were not happy. They came bursting in and ripped into the engineers. They wanted to know what the hell was going on. Why hadn’t these guy told the crew to execute the escape plan?
Not many people knew this story. I only know it because someone who was there told me. The father of a childhood friend worked in launch sequencing from the earliest days of the space program until the Apollo 1 fire in 1967.
In any case, Larry Mendler and his co-workers were getting a pretty unpleasant scolding when two more guys entered—Schirra and Tom Stafford. The crew.
What are you yelling at these guys for? Schirra said the launch sequencing people made the same decision he did. The right decision. The crew defended the line workers over the suits.
Not that day, but later the crew did launch and had a successful mission. You don’t need to be a scientist to appreciate space history. You need to be interested in people and stories. Space history is full of great stories. Our purpose is to share them with you here and give you context to understand the events that shaped and are shaping our species’ adventures in space.