August 31, 2012

Colby Cosh on Neil Armstrong’s finest moment

Filed under: History, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:30

No, it’s not what you think at all:

On March 16, 1966, Armstrong and future Apollo 15 moonwalker David R. Scott became the first human beings to dock an orbiting spacecraft with an independently launched satellite, the Agena. (As proofs-of-concept go, this one has been more important to spaceflight than the moon landings.) The procedure proved surprisingly unchallenging; when the Gemini capsule nosed into place, Armstrong blurted out, “It’s really a smoothie!” The Gemini-Agena combo — mankind’s first “space station” — moved out of radio contact with mission control 28 minutes later. When it came back in range after another 15, Armstrong’s first words were, “We have serious problems here.” A wiring problem had left one of the attitude thrusters on Gemini stuck in the “on” position — firing continuously and causing an increasing left roll. Unsure what was causing the problem, Armstrong made the snap decision to separate from the Agena. But the problem was on their side, and without the Agena’s inertia, the Gemini craft began to spin even faster.

Press accounts said the pair were spinning at about one revolution per second. Senior mission controller Chris Kraft has since noted that their peak rotation was actually 550 degrees a second. Only a trained test pilot could make good decisions while whirling around in freefall 90 times a minute — and Armstrong justified the use of test pilots in space for all time by using Gemini’s re-entry thrusters to dampen the roll and save himself and Scott. By rule, the use of those thrusters meant the mission had to be aborted early. Armstrong and Scott suffered tense hours as they waited to see if they would splash down short of their Pacific landing zone, on the soil of Communist China.

Armstrong was rueful about the abort, which cost Scott the chance to make a spacewalk and cut short the experiment with Agena. But NASA was impressed. One of the agency’s main concerns before the moon missions was that astronauts trying to set down the lunar module would refuse to abort the landing, even if they ran too short on fuel to leave the moon. Armstrong, alone among astronauts of the time, had established a record of outstanding sanity in the face of an emergency. He would probably like to be remembered for that — for making the right choice, a pilot’s choice — at least as much as for the trail he left in the dust of the moon.


  1. Great writing, Mr. Cosh.

    Comment by Allen W. — August 31, 2012 @ 20:27

  2. That incident was recreated in a mostly factual way by HBO’s 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Here’s a 7-minute clip of the docking and thruster problem:


    Comment by Chris Taylor — September 1, 2012 @ 01:19

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