Learning to Work in Space: Buzz Aldrin and Gemini XII

Buzz Aldrin will be remembered as one of the first two humans to walk on the Moon during Project Apollo. In the eyes of the public, this achievement eclipsed his significant contributions to the previous Gemini project. Two key goals of this program, which launched 10 crews of two astronauts in 1965 and 1966, were to perfect rendezvous and docking and to learn how to work outside the spacecraft. Both were essential to Project Apollo’s moon landing objectives. Aldrin, an Air Force pilot who completed a doctorate in orbital rendezvous theory before becoming an astronaut in 1963, played a pivotal role in pioneering techniques for encountering another spacecraft. More accidentally, he also became the first astronaut to demonstrate just how much useful work could be done during a zero-gravity spacewalk. On Gemini XII, the program’s newest flight, he showed that with proper handholds, footholds and rest periods, anything useful can be done. This success came after astronauts on the previous three missions had problems completing their tasks, in two cases becoming dangerously overheated and exhausted. Demonstrating that someone could work in a spacesuit was the only thing that needed to be accomplished before Gemini ended.

Aldrin’s presence on XII was the product of a tragic accident. In early 1966, the first crew of Gemini IX was killed in a crash of their T-38 jet. Their replacements, Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan, took over the mission. Their new backup team became James Lovell and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. (Buzz officially adopted his nickname as a legal name in 1988). Lovell and Aldrin had originally been named Gemini X’s replacements, which, in the usual rotation after three missions, would have made them XIII’s crew – except there was no XIII. The program was limited to 12 flights. As Aldrin was well aware, he would not have flown into Gemini had it not been for the loss of his compatriots. And if he hadn’t, it was unlikely that he would have been part of the main crew of an early Apollo mission, and therefore would not have taken part in the first lunar landing.

Astronauts Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin, prime crew of Gemini XII. (NASA)

Being Gene Cernan’s replacement on Gemini IX, and therefore potentially occupying the right seat on XII, put Buzz Aldrin in the middle of training for extravehicular activity (EVA) – NASA jargon for spacewalking. space. Cernan had an ambitious goal on IX: float on the back of the Gemini spacecraft and strap on a US Air Force jetpack called the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU) and fly. But when he was finally able to take that walk on June 5, 1966, it was a disaster. Cernan discovered that the laws of physics in weightlessness were catching up with him. Without proper grips or toeholds, he struggled trying to do a real job. In addition, the Gemini spacesuit, which only cooled the body through circulating oxygen, was overwhelmed. Cernan’s visor fogged up from his sweating and he was forced to make an emergency return to the cabin.

Cernan’s failed EVA forced NASA’s Houston Center to deal with his inadequate spacewalking experience and training. The only previous EVA, that of Edward White on Gemini IV in June 1965, involved little real work and was fun. Gemini VIII’s emergency landing in March 1966 prevented David Scott from taking his EVA, which would have demonstrated that the spacewalk was in fact difficult. As I’ve written elsewhere, the main response came from a small contract for the NASA Langley Research Center. Environmental Research Associates, a small company run by two partners, was experimenting with underwater training in a school swimming pool outside Baltimore. Cernan went there in July and tried to put an AMU model into a Gemini adapter mockup. He was relieved to find that floating in “neutral buoyancy” demonstrated that many of his problems working in weightlessness were created by the medium and his inadequate equipment, as some wondered if the failure was just his fault.

The Gemini program was on a busy schedule of a launch every two months, so neither Michael Collins on Gemini X nor Richard Gordon on Gemini XI had time to incorporate underwater training for EVA. As a result, they both struggled, especially Gordon, who had more ambitious tasks ahead. He struggled to attach a tether between the Gemini XI spacecraft and the Agena rocket stage he had docked with, becoming so exhausted that he, like Cernan, had to abandon the rest of his EVA targets. As a result, only Aldrin, who had witnessed Cernan’s pool experiments, had time to return to Baltimore to train and work on the procedures and equipment developed in the pool.

Buzz Aldrin during underwater training in zero gravity before the Gemini XII mission. (NASA)

Aldrin’s main EVA goal was to repeat the AMU experience, this time with footholds and handles that could make donning possible. In the school pool in Owings Mills, Maryland, Aldrin trained in September 1966 to do just that. But much to his chagrin, and that of the Air Force, NASA management canceled the AMU on Gemini XII, fearing it was too complicated and problematic. The main objective should be to demonstrate that zero-G work was feasible before the end of the Gemini program. Aldrin was instead given tasks such as turning a bolt, plugging in electrical connectors, and operating a power tool. When he returned to the pool in October, he felt his goals were so simple that the monkey he had given his wife as a pet could have achieved them. While underwater one day, he let out a piercing scream over the radio. When Cernan (now his replacement) and the safety divers reacted in surprise, he said, “Shut up and pass me a banana.” After that, unknown individuals left a steady supply of bananas in Aldrin’s office in Houston.

Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell finally launched on Gemini XII on the afternoon of Veterans Day, November 11, 1966. They immediately set about chasing the Agena target vehicle which was mounted from a nearby launch pad from Cape Canaveral 90 minutes earlier. But Gemini XII’s radar could not maintain a stable lock on Agena’s transponder. Buzz, who also went by the nickname “Dr. Rendezvous,” was able to demonstrate his skills with the manual backup method he had helped develop. He used a sextant to take optical observations and used maps to calculate the numbers to put into the computer. Lovell then knew when to fire the thrusters. The rendezvous and docking went well.

On the second day in orbit, Aldrin made a “stand-up” EVA, floating in the hatch opening and doing science experiments such as astronomical photography with an ultraviolet camera. It was a technique first tried on Gemini X and XI. It was easy. Day 3 had the real test. First, he attached a camera to the Gemini spacecraft, pulling his hand over the nose of the spacecraft on a handrail added for this purpose. He used a short tether attached to his waist to restrain himself as he hooked a large tether between the spacecraft and the Agena. Unlike Gordon’s experience trying to wrap his legs around Gemini’s nose to stay in place, Aldrin had no problem. Then he moved to the back of the Gemini spacecraft to work his “busy box” of tasks. Two “golden slippers” – yellow toe clips similar to shoe covers – stabilized her position. He experimented with one or two size fasteners, worked with bolts and washers, and used a tool to cut metal. Then he returned to the Agena, where he worked on another “occupied box” with electrical connectors and experimented with an electric screwdriver. He took prescribed rest periods between tasks. Buzz was back in his seat after 2 hours and 20 minutes without incident. The next day he did another stand-up EVA.

Buzz Aldrin removes a micrometeoroid package to return it to the spacecraft during extravehicular activity on the Gemini XII mission. (NASA)

Aldrin certainly did not solve the problem of doing useful work in weightlessness on his own. Without the pioneering work in neutral buoyancy training at a school pool outside Baltimore, he and NASA would not have had the tools to do so. But it was he who helped refine the tools and techniques and then demonstrate them in space. Project Gemini was able to end with that last box checked, and he, along with Lovell and Cernan and other Gemini astronauts, went to the Moon at the start of Apollo.


Michael J. Neufeld is the Museum’s curator for Mercury and Gemini spacecraft and for rockets and missiles until 1945.

Maria D. Ervin