Project Gemini was a crucial proving ground for manned spaceflight technology. After Mercury showed that people could survive in space, Gemini proved that men could work and live for long periods in orbit and outside of spacecraft. Gemini also explored atmospheric re-entry techniques and pioneered complex orbital rendezvous and docking techniques that are still used today.
Gemini bridged the gap between Mercury, the first U.S. manned space program, and Apollo , which landed men on the moon. Gemini's goals were to study long-duration spaceflight, develop techniques for rendezvous and docking in space, and conduct extravehicular activities or "spacewalks." After two unmanned test flights in 1964, 10 manned Gemini missions took place in 1965-1966. Two of these -- Gemini VI-A and Gemini VII -- flew at the same time in order to rendezvous in orbit with each other.
The U.S. Air Force played an important role in Gemini. As with the earlier Mercury program, the USAF contributed boosters and launch crews, flight medicine, facilities and tracking and recovery services. The Gemini Titan launch vehicle was the most important USAF element, a modified Titan II ballistic missile that was the only booster capable of lifting the Gemini spacecraft into orbit. More than half the crewmen (9 of 16) who flew Gemini missions were Air Force officers.
Gemini B Spacecraft
The spacecraft on display at the museum, although flight-rated, never flew. It was used for heat testing and transferred to the Air Force for use in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. MOL was intended to conduct military reconnaissance experiments in orbit and was part of a wider USAF plan to explore military manned space flight. This plan included an expanded USAF role in Gemini called "Blue Gemini," which envisioned several all-USAF Gemini flights as a transition to the MOL project. It was determined, however, that NASA control of Gemini -- separate from the USAF's MOL program -- was in the best interests of staying ahead of the Soviets in the moon landing race, and in maintaining NASA's peaceful international image.
NASA and the USAF still worked closely together on Gemini, however, since the USAF remained vitally interested in Gemini rendezvous and docking techniques for MOL. The Gemini B/MOL craft on display is externally similar to NASA's Gemini spacecraft but has many modifications. The most obvious is the addition of a circular hatch through the heat shield to allow passage between the spacecraft and the laboratory.
Despite advanced planning including the selection of crews, development of a new launch vehicle, and the construction of a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the MOL project was cancelled in June 1969 because of budget constraints.
The spacecraft on display is on loan from the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.