Ghosts of Gemini

Forgotten photos show the human face of NASA’s early astronaut program

During the first space rendezvous in December 1965, Jim Lovell’s helmet is barely visible in Gemini 7’s window (facing us in the center of the frame), in this photo taken from Gemini 6. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
While conducting the first American spacewalk, on June 3, 1965, Ed White clambered around outside the Gemini 4 capsule, attached by a tether. At one point, crewmate Jim McDivitt chided, “You smeared up my windshield, you dirty dog!” NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
One of the newly digitized photos from Gemini 4 shows that McDivitt took the trouble to document White’s smudges. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
Using Hasselblad cameras with tack-sharp Zeiss optics, the Gemini crews were pioneers of orbital photography. On Gemini 10, future Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins opened his hatch to space, stood up, and photographed a color plate extended on a rod to test the accuracy of color photos in space. Back on Earth, Collins told debriefers: “It made little sense to me to try to retrieve that plate. So I just flung it overboard.” NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
Collins (shown inside Gemini 10) and crewmate John Young suffered severe eye irritation while Collins was outside taking pictures -- so much so that he had to end his "standup spacewalk" early. The exact cause was never determined. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
"I kept getting distracted by the quality and beauty of the images," says Mark Robinson, who spearheaded the project to digitize the Gemini images. As a lunar scientist, he was particularly struck by this photo of a full moon over the Pacific, taken by the Gemini 7 crew. "From a historical point of view, that was their goal," he says. "They were learning how to work and fly in space, to get to the moon. What an appropriate image this is." NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
In a recent blog post, we came to the conclusion that a Gemini 4 photo of Ed White was likely the first closeup picture taken by another astronaut inside a spacecraft. Well, we were wrong. After reviewing all the Gemini 4 frames, it appears that this badly exposed shot of White's crewmate Jim McDivitt was the first. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
Sunset as seen from Gemini 7. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
The Indian subcontinent as seen from Gemini 11. Pete Conrad's and Dick Gordon's mission was the highest ever in Earth orbit -- reaching up to 850 miles at one point. The Gemini astronauts captured hundreds of scenes of the planet. Says Robinson, "These are our first comprehensive looks at the Earth in color from space." NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
During Gemini 7, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell captured this picture of a Polaris missile streaking through the atmosphere after an underwater launch from off the Florida coast. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
Borman and Lovell appear not to have taken any still photos of each other during their two-week Gemini 7 endurance flight, so this closeup view of a helmeted Borman peering out the window, taken from the approaching Gemini 6, is a rarity. The two astronauts flew together again three years later, on Apollo 8. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
The Mercury astronauts were the first to notice that frozen drops of urine, vented overboard from the spacecraft, sparkled like fireflies in the sunlight. Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford captured one of these showers in a photo on Gemini 6. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
An extreme blow-up of a Gemini 6 photo reveals Jim Lovell of Gemini 7 taking a picture of his own as the two spacecraft met up in December 1965. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
As they approached their Agena docking target, Gemini 8's Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott could make out the lit instrument panel inside the Agena. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
On Gemini 9, future moonwalker Gene Cernan struggled with overheating and overexertion during his time outside the capsule, leading NASA to revamp its training and procedures for spacewalks. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University
Ed White peers out the window during his Gemini IV mission. NASA/JSC/Arizona State University

Gemini was the middle child of the early space program, the one we always have trouble remembering. Mercury had the right stuff, Apollo had the moon. Gemini had…hardware demonstrations. Yet these two-man missions—10 over the course of 20 months in 1965 and 1966—worked out some of the fundamentals of spaceflight, from spacewalking to orbital docking.

The Gemini astronauts also took some of the most memorable photos in NASA history. You’d think we would have seen them all by now. But with NASA's help and funding, a team of researchers at Arizona State University led by lunar scientist Mark Robinson has retrieved from the archives (and scanned at high resolution) dozens of outtakes that never made it into wide circulation.

In frames snapped from a slightly different angle, just seconds later, familiar Gemini scenes come to new life. And occasionally, something unexpected pops out. Ed White, who likely would have walked on the moon had he not died in the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 that also killed crewmates Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, appears in this moody portrait (above) from Gemini 4—a ghost in the machine, emerging from the shadows nearly half a century later.

See the gallery above for more Gemini images, and be sure to visit ASU's online March to the Moon gallery for the full collection, complete with high-resolution, downloadable versions.

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