Neil Armstrong’s First Time in Space

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Everyone knows who Neil Armstrong is and why he is famous. 

Being the first person to set foot on the moon has placed him in a unique position in world history, and he is a name that people will probably remember for thousands of years.

But Apollo 11 was not his first spaceflight. 

His first flight aboard Gemini 8 was, in many respects, far more exciting and impressive than his exploits on Apollo 11. 

Learn more about his short, yet important flight aboard his 1966 Gemini 8 flight on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


The Gemini program was a series of spaceflight which took place in 1965 and 1966. The purpose of the program was to serve as a bridge between the Mercury program, which was the first experiment to see if humans could survive in space, and the Apollo program, which was to land people on the moon.

Each Gemini mission was designed to test various aspects of space flight, which would become necessary in the Apollo program. 

Gemini 3 tested spaceflight with two people in one capsule.

Gemini 4 conducted the first US spacewalk by astronaut Ed White.

Gemini 5 was a week-long spaceflight and was the first use of fuel cells, and orbital navigational systems, which would be used in later flights.

Gemini 7 was launched before Gemini 6, and the primary goal of the mission was to see if humans could live in space for two weeks. 

Gemini 6 took place during Gemini 7, and it was the first time two spacecraft rendezvoused in orbit. 

The reason why Gemini 6 and 7 were out of order is that Gemini 6 was originally going to be the test of the first docking in space. Gemini 6 was going to dock with an unmanned device called the Agena Target Vehicle.

The Agena was going to be launched first, and then Gemini 6 was supposed to rendezvous with it, dock with the target, and fly with the two devices attached. It was an extremely important test in what would necessary for the Apollo missions to be successful,. 

Unfortunately, the Agena exploded during its first flight while Gemini 6 was waiting on the launch pad, so the mission was scrubbed, and the mission objectives Gemini 6 was changed to rendezvous with Gemini 7 while it was in orbit. 

This meant that the important Agena rendezvous and docking would take place on Gemini 8. 

The crew of Gemini consisted of two first time astronauts: Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott.  Armstrong was a civilian test pilot and Scott was an Air Force test pilot. Both of them were in the second class of Astronauts recruited after the original Mercury 7. This flight marked the first time that an American civilian ever orbited the earth.

The launch took place on March 16, 1966, the day of the 40th anniversary of the launch of the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket by Dr. Robert H. Goddard. 

The launch of the Agena took place first, and everything was flawless. The problems from Gemini 6 didn’t recur.

Gemini 8 launched about 90 minutes later and this too went well. Everything was going to plan so far. The goal was for Gemini 8 to catch up to the Agena vehicle, do the first docking in space between two vehicles, and then do a series of tests during the course of the 3-day mission. 

About 5-hours into the mission they had rendezvous with the Agena and were given the go-ahead to dock. Armstrong moved the Gemini capsule in at 8 centimeters per second and made the first docking in orbit.

Dave Scott radioed ground control and said  “Flight, we are docked! Yes, it’s really a smoothie,”

Here is where things started to go wrong. 

After they docked with Agena, they started to roll. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Armstrong stopped the roll with the thrusters aboard the Gemini capsule, but it started again as soon as they got it under control.

Ground control was worried there might be something wrong with Agena, so they gave the order to undock so they could assess the problem.

The problem was, as soon as they undocked, having lost the mass of the much larger Agena vehicle, the capsule started spinning faster. 

The capsule was spinning at almost one revolution per second. At this rate, they would soon be rendered unconscious. When you are in space, you don’t want a spinning spacecraft.

In their attempts to stop the roll while attached to the Agena, they had dropped the fuel in their orbital maneuvering thrusters down to 30%. Armstrong realized that the problem was probably with their capsule. 

Armstrong used the reentry control thrusters to stop the spin. After several minutes of terror, they managed to get the spin under control and stabilize the spacecraft. 

Once they were stable, they tested the orbital control thrusters and realized that one of them had been stuck on, which caused the spin to go out of control.

The problem was, stopping the spin used up 75% of the reentry maneuvering fuel. There wasn’t enough fuel in the capsule to complete the mission as originally planned. 

For the first time in the history of the American manned space program, they had to abandon a mission and conduct an emergency landing. 

The original landing site was supposed to be in the Atlantic, but that was supposed to be 3 days later. Now they were going to have to reenter over China and splashdown in the Pacific, several hundred miles east of Okinawa.

The US Navy ship the USS Leonard F. Mason was immediately ordered to the recovery point as were spotter planes to try to confirm the landing. 

The landing went according to plan, and despite some seasickness, both astronauts were recovered. 

This was the first real emergency that NASA faced in the manned space program.  It was a much smaller version of what would happen years later with Apollo 13.

After another problem with the docking vehicle on Gemini 9, they managed to get it right on Gemina 10. 

The problems with the trusters lead to changes in the electrical systems for the rest of the Gemini missions as well as for the Apollo capsule. In the future, all the electrical connections to thrusters would be on separate circuits. 

It also showed the flying skill of Neil Armstrong who would again show his still on the Apollo 11 mission when he took manual control of the LEM in the final phase of the moon landing and managed to set down with only 30 seconds of fuel left. 

The follow-up to the mission also instigated the first set of NASA Mission Failure Investigation Policy And Procedures. This was a similar investigative system that would be used after the Apollo 1 disaster and Apollo 13. 

Today, you can see the original Gemini 8 capsule which is on display at the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. 

For the best, and really the only dramatization of the events of Gemini 8, I’d recommend the movie, First Man, with Ryan Gosling playing the role of Neil Armstrong.