Ten piloted Gemini spacecraft were launched between March 1965 and November 1966. Unlike earlier American spacecraft, Gemini capsules were designed to carry two astronauts. Before returning to the earth, the crew jettisoned the resource compartment and the deorbiting system. The reentry module floated to a watery splashdown on earth using a parachute.
In early 1961—just weeks after Shepard had become the first American in space—President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation with this ambitious goal: to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth by the end of the decade. With a total cost estimated at $25 billion in 1960s dollars, the Apollo program became a massive effort utilizing the combined energies of 400,000 people at NASA, other government and academic facilities, and aerospace contractors.
NASA realized, however, that it would not be possible to jump directly from the simple Mercury flights in Earth orbit to a lunar voyage. The agency needed an interim program to solve the unknowns of lunar flights. This became the Gemini program, a series of two-astronaut missions that took place in 1965 and 1966.
The Gemini missions were intended to develop and test the building blocks of a lunar flight. For instance, Gemini astronauts had to maneuver and dock two orbiting spacecraft, since astronauts would need to execute such a maneuver before and after landing on the Moon. Gemini included long-duration spaceflights of a week or more—the amount of time necessary for a lunar landing flight—as well as spacewalks that demonstrated the ability of an astronaut to perform useful work in the vacuum of space, and controlled reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The Gemini spacecraft had less than twice the crew space of Mercury, but it was far more capable. Gemini crews could change their orbits, and even use a rudimentary onboard computer to help control their craft. Gemini was also the first spacecraft to utilize fuel cells, devices that generated electrical power by combining hydrogen and oxygen.
At the same time, the USSR was preparing a new generation of spacecraft for its own Moon program. The Soviets staged a series of intermediate flights in a craft designated Voskhod(Sunrise). Described as a new spacecraft, Voskhod was actually a converted Vostok. In October 1964 Voskhod 1 carried three cosmonauts—the first multiperson space crew—into orbit for a day-long mission. By replacing the Vostok ejection seat with a set of crew couches, designers had made room for three cosmonauts to fly, without space suits, in a craft originally designed for one.
In March 1965, just weeks before Gemini’s first piloted mission, Voskhod 2 carried two space-suited cosmonauts aloft. One of them, Alexei Leonov, became the first human to walk in space, remaining outside the craft for about ten minutes. In the vacuum of space Leonov’s suit ballooned dangerously, making it difficult for him to reenter the spacecraft. Voskhod 2 proved to be the last of the series. Further Voskhod flights had been planned, but they were canceled so that Soviet planners and engineers could concentrate on getting to the Moon.
Ten piloted Gemini missions took place in 1965 and 1966, accomplishing all of the program’s objectives. In March 1965 Gus Grissom and John Young made Gemini's piloted debut and became the first astronauts to alter their spacecraft's orbit. In June, Gemini 4’s Ed White became the first American to walk in space. Gemini 5’s Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad captured the space endurance record with an eight-day mission. Gemini 7’s Frank Borman and Jim Lovell stretched the record to 14 days in December 1965. During their flight they were visited by Gemini 6’s Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford in the world’s first space rendezvous. Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott succeeded in making the first space docking by mating Gemini 8 to an unpiloted Agena rocket in March 1966, but their flight was cut short by a nearly disastrous episode with a malfunctioning thruster. On Gemini 11 in September 1966, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon reached a record altitude of 1,370 km (850 mi). The final mission of the series, Gemini 12 in November 1966, saw Buzz Aldrin make a record five hours of spacewalks. At the conclusion of the Gemini program, the United States held a clear lead in the race to the Moon.
Soyuz and Early Apollo
By 1967 the United States and the USSR were each preparing to test the spacecraft they planned to use for lunar missions. The Soviets had created Soyuz(Union), an Earth-orbiting version of the craft they hoped would fly cosmonauts to and from the Moon. They were also at work on a Soyuz derivative for flights into lunar orbit, and a lunar lander that would ferry a single cosmonaut from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface and back. Two parallel Soviet Moon programs were proceeding—one to send cosmonauts around the Moon in a loop that would form a figure-8, the other to make the lunar landing.