Sunday, January 20, 2008

Gemini XI Recovery

Recovery of the Gemini XI, 1966

These days the space shuttle’s return from a mission gets about 30 seconds on the evening news. Astronauts spend months in the Space Station ignored by the media unless there is a technical problem. Forty years ago it was very different. The space program had captured the imagination of the World and the media covered every aspect of launch and recovery with nearly everyone glued to their TV sets. I got to participate in this circus when I was selected to be part of the recovery team for Gemini XI in 1966.

The Russians always landed their spacecraft on land, but the US opted for bringing them down in the ocean. Not sure of the reason for this… softer landing maybe or perhaps a bigger target. In one of the early Mercury launches this decision did not look too smart as the spacecraft got swamped and sank. NASA figured it might be a good idea to put a floatation collar around the spacecraft to prevent losing the thing and all the important data carried on board. They determined that the job of entering the water after splash down and applying the collar would fall to the Navy’s “frogmen” (now known by everyone as the Navy SEALs).

The second job of these swimmers entailed inflating and tying a raft along side and getting the astronauts out of the spacecraft. After spending time weightless in space, the Gemini capsule became a claustrophobic seasick machine once it started wallowing in the waves. The astronauts couldn’t wait to get out of the thing. After a week or two in that cramped tin can it also stunk like a port-a-potty on a hot August afternoon.

The procedure called for us to get the collar installed, inflate the raft and then using a special wrench open the hatch to let them out. We had a telephone we’d plug into the spacecraft so we could talk to the astronauts and let them know how we were doing. On one of the early Gemini flights the boys wanted out so badly that they activated the explosive charge that blew the hatch from the inside. Unfortunately, one of our guys was in the process of peeking in the window and undoing the hatch at the time and the blown hatch caught him square in the forehead knocking him ass over tea kettle into the raft. This little embarrassment never made the news, but did lead to some changes by NASA instructing the astronauts not to blow the hatch except as a last resort.

In the early days the assignments to recovery teams got passed around to various Teams, alternating between East and West coast Teams. Eventually, because the launches and recoveries all occurred on the East coast and because of the retraining issues, all the recoveries became the job of Lt. Denny Bowman. Denny’s three-man team always had the primary recovery job and the three man backup team was assigned on a rotating basis to other frogs from UDT-21 and UDT-22.

A third team got sent down to wait off the coast of Florida in case the astronauts decided to abort and fire the space craft off the top of the rocket and into the sea. This never happened and seemed an unlikely option. The crash test dummies had never “survived” a test of this procedure.

After an eight month Med cruise with Third Platoon I got assigned the plum job of backing up Denny on Gemini XI. The two enlisted men assigned to my team were Paul Deaton and Sam Siaea. Both Paul and Denny were fellow classmates from Class 33 so I knew them like brothers and Paul had been with me on the Med cruise. Denny, unfortunately, passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. After Paul got out of the Navy he returned to college and then med school and has been a family practitioner ever since. Smart guy.

After some practice around Little Creek the six of us headed off to join the USS Guam, an LPH (helicopter carrier) designed to carry Marines and their equipment for airborne assaults during amphibious landings. Upon arriving we were surprised to see a huge disc mounted on the aft end of the flight deck. Although it may have had something to do with communi-cation with the spacecraft, the ostensible purpose was to transmit the TV signals back to the mainland. Our second surprise was the enormous number of civilians on board. CBS had the job of providing the pictures for all the other networks and had their own on camera people on board. Terry Drinkwater had drawn the long straw and would be the CBS personality on camera. Of course, NASA had a big contingent as did ITT who provided the communication. It must have been nearly 150 civilians along with the Navy personnel assigned for the recovery that crowded into the massive wardroom for the Captain’s welcoming speech.

After some general remarks and outlining the game plan for the launch, the wait while the astronauts circled the Earth for two weeks and the recovery, the Captain reminded the civilians on board that this was a US Navy ship. “This is not a cruise ship”, the Skipper pointed out. And, while they were aboard he expected them to observe the rules of a Navy ship. In particular no alcohol was allowed. Yeah right, I thought. The Captain really had no authority over the civilians and, of course, they ignored him. The civilians had nothing to do while the Guam circled Bermuda waiting for the astronauts to come down, so every afternoon a party started. The smell of whiskey and cigars filled the passageways where they were housed. Non-stop poker games became the norm and the search for ice the biggest challenge.

While the civilians partied we practiced. We had a dummy Gemini capsule that a helicopter would haul off some 10 or 20 miles from the ship and dump in the ocean. Following the beacon we’d locate the capsule, jump from the Navy Sea King choppers and do our thing, including hoisting guys up to the chopper. None of it was particularly difficult, but it gave us a chance to get off the ship and go for a swim.

We even practiced night recoveries. On one black night they dropped the capsule far out of sight of the ship. As we neared the site the helicopter pilot got a bit lax and he started bouncing the flat-bottomed Sea King off the tops of the 10’ waves. He hit two with resounding thumps nearly knocking me off my feet. I figured that with both doors wide open that heli-copter would sink like a stone and I got ready to bail out if he hit another one. The pilot managed to get the craft aloft again and then in that “no sweat” pilot twang calmly spoke into my headphones, “Sorry about that fellas. Spacecraft’s just ahead.” After we’d installed the collar and inflated the raft, the helicopter left. Following the roar of the chopper and the brightness of the landing lights, the sudden silence and total darkness came as a bit of a shock. We scanned the horizon and not a single ship was in sight. The three of us sat there riding the large swells in silence for a while until Paul muttered what we all thinking. “I hope they don’t forget we’re out here,” he said.

After what seemed like my longest two weeks at sea, the boys (Conrad and Gordon) were finally headed back to Mother Earth. It was a perfect day for a splashdown with calm seas and bright sun. We loaded into the waiting helicopters in full wet suits and tanks. The tanks were required because of the toxic fuel the spacecraft spilled into the ocean when they first splashed down. It quickly dissipated and by the time we hooked up the collar and inflated the raft we could dump the tanks.

My team’s job was primarily to back up Denny’s team in case their helo malfunctioned. However, on this mission our secondary mission was to try and recover the Rendezvous and Recovery Module, a piece of the spacecraft that breaks away when their chute opens. It had the floatation characteristics of an anvil and had always gone directly to the bottom. We were going to try to get on it quickly and attach an inflatable raft. NASA had a strong desire to retrieve it if we could.

Since I owned a Calypso underwater camera just like the ones NASA used and had been taking pictures during the training exercises for the NASA boys, they outfitted me with two underwater cameras and wanted me to take photos of the splashdown and shots of the astronauts being hoisted into the helicopters. My tasks were to drop Paul and Sam with a raft on the R & R Module and then photograph the recovery from the air and then from the water.

Our two helos launched without incident when the Gemini XI spacecraft reentered the atmosphere and were on station about 2 miles off the bow of the Guam when their parachute opened. I wore headphones and could listen to the astronauts talking to the ship and the communication between the ship and the pilot. I could only talk to the pilot.

By the time the space program got to Gemini XI the NASA boys had that reentry calculation down pat and Conrad and Gordon were going to splash down right off the bow of the ship.
We spotted the bright red and white parachute at about 5000 feet and circled around as it slowly descended. Denny and his guys were on it as it hit the water. Our pilot had us over the R & R module at about the same time and Paul and Sam jumped out. I pushed the raft out right after them and we headed back to the spacecraft where I started snapping pictures of the recovery.

The astronauts have the option of riding the raft and spacecraft back to the ship or being hoisted in the helicopter and flying back to the ship. It seems kind of silly to go through getting hoisted into the helicopter for a ride of less than half a mile. But, the short ride gave them a chance to get out of their space suits and make an entrance on the flight deck in front of the TV cameras and the formal reception committee while being welcomed by a Navy band. Conrad and Gordon opted for the helo ride.

When the astronauts were gone I jumped into the sea and swam up to join Denny and his crew at the spacecraft. It was still warm when I arrived. We rode it until the ship maneuvered along side and got it hoisted aboard. Our job was finished.

Sam and Paul were not successful in saving the R & R Module. It sank like the stone it was before they could hook on to it, although they hung on until they were below 100 feet down before giving up.

I’ve always regretted that I took the Gemini recovery so casually. We considered ourselves serious special warfare operators and this was a simple job. We aimed to stay aloof of all the hoopla. At the time I was so casual about it that I neglected to mention to my Mom that I would be on the recovery. She first heard about my involvement when the TV guys mentioned my name on national television. She was watching…. like just about everyone else in America I guess. I never heard the end of that one.

When we got back to Little Creek we were interviewed by the local TV people and various newspapers and for months afterward received requests for autographs that arrived in the mail. I began to realize that I had missed the boat. I could have taken a ton of action photos that might be of some interest to my children and grandchildren. I wound up with copies of about a dozen 8 x 10s that I had taken for NASA.

At the time the World was fascinated with every aspect of the space program. The astronauts represented the best and the bravest of America and what they were doing unimaginable.
Today everyone wants to know what’s happening with Brittany and OJ. Different time. And, I gotta tell you, for all my blasé attitude, I was pretty excited when I saw that spacecraft dangling below the big parachute right in front of me. We were a tiny piece of the event, but I now consider myself lucky to have been there.


karen333 said...

My grandson is in the Navy, he is on an lSD.

Dick's Pizza said...

Hey, Dad! I still haven't gotten to scan in the pictures, but I posted a few *color* pictures onto the article that I found on
Love, K

Heide said...

Great pictures and story. Did you take these?

Heide said...

Oops, I just read Karen's comment stating where she found these. Still, a neat story.

rod freed said...

Dick, another fascinating, well written article. You continue to amaze. Look forward to the next one. Rod

Anonymous said...

I am very intersted in UDT and I collect space stamps and covers. I would like to obtain your autograph for my collection. I am enclosing my could you please send me your address. great article. Best Wishes