On this day in 1966 the Gemini XII spacecraft landed safely, marking the end of the Gemini program and paving the way for Apollo and what followed. What did Gemini XII accomplish?
It was the last of the Gemini Program missions. The crew consisted of James A. Lovell, Jr., the commander, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., the pilot. The back-up crew was L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. and Eugene Cernan. All four have their place in the history of space flight. Lovell went on to be a member of the Apollo 13 moon mission; Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11 and was the second human to step foot on the moon (after Neil Armstrong); Gordon Cooper was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts and, in 1963, became the first person to use a TV camera in space; and Eugene Cernan was on the Apollo 17 mission and was the last American to step off the lunar surface.
They launched at 3:46 p.m. EST on 11 November 1966, two days after the planned launch date. Almost four days later they were back on Earth, splashing down just 4.8 kilometers from the target, at 2:21 p.m. EST on 15 November. Within half an hour the crew was secured, and 67 minutes after landing the spacecraft was secured.
The mission was meant to pave the way for the Apollo program, so Aldrin and Lovell spent most of their time docking with Agena, an unmanned spacecraft launched for just that purpose, and moving about outside the spacecraft to test the feasibility of EVA (extravehicular activity).
Although it was his first spaceflight, Buzz Aldrin passed the test with flying colors, successfully docking (they called him “Dr. Rendezvous”), going on spacewalks (one of which lasted more than two hours) and even breaking out a sextant when their radar went on the blink.
Gemini XII was plagued by minor mechanical problems, but was considered another Gemini success and proved that astronauts could function in space for days on end AND move around outside the spacecraft with relative ease.
Photos of the mission can be seen in this gallery from the JCS Digital Image Collection.