by an anonymous Special Forces veteran
The year 2020 marked the first time in 19 years that SpaceX and NASA launched a manned mission on a U.S.-made spacecraft. The return of the U.S. to space and the recent creation of the U.S. Space Force harkens back to the earlier days of America’s ascendance as a space-faring nation, a time when space was a national security priority and Special Forces played a crucial role in support of that mission.
The Space Launch Site 19 Complex Mission board (Image Credit: A Field Guide to American Space Craft https://www.americanspacecraft.com/pages/misc/lc19.html)
Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. 2019.
Standing in the bright sunlight, a large brown painted sign sits posted forlornly just off of “ICBM road” adjacent to the abandoned and decaying space launch Complex 19, once the focal point for America’s Gemini space program.
On the sign are the names and crew members of the entire Gemini space program listed in the order of their launches. Scanning the names, many are familiar, the giants of the early U.S. space program, Grissom, Borman, Lovell to name a few… By each mission number, the name and military rank held by those who flew the missions is listed, all holding field grade officer ranks in the Navy or Air Force.
On the board, there is one notable exception to that distinguished list of military astronauts…on the top right half of the sign next to “GT-8” the name of Neil Armstrong is prefaced not by any military rank, but only as “Mr. Neil Armstrong.” Directly below Armstrong, his fellow GT-8 astronaut Major David Scott, USAF is listed. Gemini VIII was indeed a mission of firsts.
Of the 10 two-man space missions of the Gemini program, it was the only mission piloted by a civilian astronaut, it was also the first mission in which a spacecraft would maneuver and dock with another vehicle. A very risky, but essential maneuver for the fledgling space program.
Gazing down the road leading to the abandoned complex, thick vegetation and rusted-out remains of the blockhouse and launch structures paint a much different picture of this remote and desolate stretch of the Cape. It looked very different in the 1960s when this spot was alive and bursting with activity…
Abandoned Space Launch Site 19 Complex (Image Credit: A Field Guide to American Space Craft https://www.americanspacecraft.com/pages/misc/lc19.html)
Cape Kennedy, Florida. 0941 EST, Wednesday, March 16, 1966.
Flashback to 1966…
Complex 19 was bristling with action! On the pad, the Titan II rocket with the Gemini capsule atop was primed and ready for launch on what was to be perhaps the most significant mission for NASA to date. Prime pilots for the mission, Astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott walked down the gangway toward the Gemini VIII spacecraft and lowered themselves into the hatch, the time…thirty-eight minutes past the hour.
Launch Complex 19 circa 1960s (Image Credit: Air Force Space and Missile Museum http://afspacemuseum.org/ccafs/CX19/)
“This is Gemini Launch Control. We are T minus 114 minutes for Gemini VIII on Pad 19 and nineteen minutes away from the Altas/Agena liftoff on Pad 14.”
Mission Commander Neil Armstrong (right) and pilot David R. Scott prepare to board the Gemini-Titan VIII.. Gemini VIII successfully launched at 11:41 a.m. EST, 16 March 1966. The mission conducted the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit and landed safely back on Earth after an emergency abort. (Image Credit: NASA)
Hooking up…the team of astronauts was embarking on one of the most ambitious and technically challenging missions of the Gemini program.[i]
Halfway around the world, in a remote, arid corner of an airfield near the ancient port city of Aden, another team was also busy at work. Wearing fatigues and Green Berets, this team was on standby, equipment at the ready to respond in the event something went terribly wrong with Gemini VIII.
Project Gemini was NASA‘s second human spaceflight program during the infancy of the United States space program. Conducted between projects Mercury and Apollo, Gemini started in 1961 and concluded with the last missions flown in 1966. Unlike the previous Mercury space capsules, the Gemini spacecraft carried a two-astronaut crew, apropos as Project Gemini was named after the Latin word for “twins.” A total of ten Gemini crews and sixteen individual astronauts flew low Earth orbit (LEO) missions during 1965 and 1966 as part of the program.[ii]
The Gemini space project was a crucial step in America’s space race with the Soviet Union. During Project Mercury, the United States demonstrated that it could put a man into space, orbit the earth and return the astronauts safely, but it was only a fledgling step in paving the way to putting a man on the moon. The Soviet space program was determined to demonstrate its ability to out perform the U.S. in space. In February 1966, the USSR successfully landed the Luna 9 becoming the first nation to conduct a survivable landing on a celestial body, jockeying into first place in the race to the moon.
In order to successfully land astronauts on the moon before the end of the decade, NASA had a plethora of technical challenges that needed to be resolved. From longer duration space flights, extravehicular “space walks” to maneuvering and docking with spacecraft, all critically important steps that required perfecting before NASA turned its sights on the moon. Gemini was the project to bridge the gap, to test and unravel the tasks required for interplanetary travel.
In the photograph on the left, the Atlas Agena target vehicle for the Gemini VIII mission lifts off from Launch Pad 14 at Cape Kennedy at 10 a.m. on March 16, 1966. One hour and 41 minutes later, Gemini VIII astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott are launched atop a Titan II rocket from the Cape’s Launch Pad 19. (Image Credit: NASA)
Gemini 8 was the sixth crewed Earth-orbiting spacecraft of the Gemini series. The primary mission objectives for the mission were to perform rendezvous and four docking tests with the Agena target vehicle and to execute an Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) experiment. Other objectives included parking the Agena in a 410 km circular orbit, performing a rendezvous with the Agena, conduct systems evaluation, evaluating the auxiliary tape memory unit, and demonstration of controlled reentry. Ten technological, medical, and scientific experiments were carried on board.[iii]
With two launches scheduled to occur on the same day, the Atlas Agena target vehicle for the Gemini VIII mission lifted off from Launch Pad 14 at Cape Kennedy at 10 a.m. One hour and 41 minutes later, Gemini VIII with astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott onboard rocketed after the Agena atop a Titan II rocket from the Cape’s Launch Complex 19.[iv]
Initially, all performance indicators of the mission were proceeding as NASA expected. After rendezvousing with the unmanned Agena vehicle launched earlier the same day, Astronaut Neil Armstrong maneuvered the capsule to effect the docking with Agena. Things were about to take a turn for the worse. Shortly after docking, one of the Gemini’s attitude control thrusters malfunctioned and the combined vehicles began to buck. Scott reported to Houston “We’ve got a serious problem here. We’re…we’re tumbling end over end here.” The crew immediately undocked from the Agena, but the spacecraft began to roll wildly, eventually reaching one revolution per second.[v] Armstrong and Scott were in serious trouble of blacking out as the spacecraft spun wildly out of control. Quick thinking on the part of Armstrong and Scott prevented disaster. Testing the very limits of human endurance, Armstrong maintained his situational awareness and used the Reentry Control System to fire a thruster, countering the spin. This action stopped the roll and Armstrong and Scott were able to regain positive control of the spacecraft. The docking with Agena had almost cost Armstrong and Scott their lives…Because of the narrowly averted tragedy, NASA mission rules dictated the crew to make an emergency landing less than twelve hours into the three-day mission.[vi]
Gemini VIII maneuvering to dock with the unmanned Agena (Image Credit: NASA)
Recovery of the astronauts and the spacecraft had been a key NASA planning consideration for the mission. For Project Gemini, landing areas were generally divided into both planned landing areas and contingency landing areas. The planned landing areas were further divided into the launch site landing areas around the vicinity of Cape Canaveral, the launch abort (powered flight) landing areas as the spacecraft ascended toward space, secondary landing areas, and the primary or nominal “end-of-mission” landing areas in the ocean. Depending on the mission success or the lack thereof, would dictate which type of landing area was utilized. A landing outside of these planned landing areas was considered to be a “contingency” landing and it was NASA’s least probable but most complicated course of action in the event of an emergency recovery.[vii]
For NASA, the recovery of Gemini VIII rested with the Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD Manned Space Flight Support Office (DDMS) was the organization that coordinated all Department of Defense (DoD) support to manned space flight programs. DoD recovery support for the Gemini missions centered primarily on Navy and Air Force recovery teams. In most instances, Naval and Air Force assets were designated to recover the Gemini spacecraft and astronauts in those areas around the launch site in the event of a launch abort immediately after takeoff and in the “end of mission” landing areas at sea. However, in the event of a contingency landing, specially trained assets were pre-deployed to locations where an emergency landing might be affected. Contingency aircraft and personnel were deployed to staging bases around the world so that they could reach any point along the spacecraft’s ground track within 18 hours of notification of an emergency spacecraft landing.[viii]
Gemini VIII launch abort areas and recovery ship and aircraft deployment. (Image Credit: NASA Gemini 8 Mission Report)
A Special Mission for Special Forces
While many U.S. Army Special Forces units were focused on missions in Southeast Asia, one unit, the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) was given the responsibility to support Project Gemini in the event of just such a contingency landing. Should the Gemini VIII crew execute what was referred to as a Transoceanic Abort Landing (TLA) in the Africa region, 3rd Group had the charge to recover the crew and spacecraft. Given the diversity of the terrain and the hostility of the environment in the various climes and climates, Special Forces personnel had the operational capabilities needed for just such a mission.
The 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) was first activated on Dec. 5, 1963, at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a Special Action Force (SAF) with a Middle East and Africa orientation. The function of the SAF was to provide assistance to developing countries in the form of counterinsurgency training for host nation armed forces and assistance in improving the quality of life for rural inhabitants.[ix] The Special Forces Group formed the basic unit around which the area-oriented SAF’s were built. Additional units capable of providing military training and civil assistance were added to the Groups as required and the organization of the SAF’s varied due to the requirements of their assigned area of responsibility. These attachments could include Psychological Operations, Civil Affairs, Engineer, Military Police, and Medical detachments. As a SAF, 3rd Special Forces Group trained the armed forces of Mali, Iraq, Ethiopia, the Congo, and Jordan. Because 3rd Special Forces Group had experience working in Africa, a contingency landing that fell within its geographical area of responsibility made the 3rd Special Forces Group the logical force of choice to support the mission.[x]
An A-team from 3rd Special Forces Group on a training mission 1966 (Image Credit: U.S. Army)
“Team Aden” is formed
As NASA was completing groundwork for the Gemini VIII launch, 3rd Special Forces Group was also making preparations. As part of DoD’s contingency landing support, a joint team was being assembled with the mission to rescue and recover Gemini VIII. On the 10th of March 1964, almost a year before the launch, the 81st Military Police (MP) Detachment was attached to the 3d Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces. Military Police units were not normally an organic organization within a Special Forces Group but because 3rd Group was the SAF for Africa, MPs were attached based on its specific mission requirements. As the planning for the recovery mission progressed, it was decided that men from the 81st MP detachment would form the basis for the recovery team.
3rd Special Forces Group Military Police Team with Army and Air Force Aviators in Aden supporting Gemini VIII (Image Credit: U.S. Army)
Weeks before the Gemini VIII mission, six men were selected for the mission, five enlisted men and one warrant officer. They linked up with an Army aviation crew with a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter which would provide rotary wing support to the recovery team. Transportation into theater would come via U.S. Air Force C-130 which would position along with the team at an intermediate staging base in Aden. The team coordinated with an Air Force control element and was assigned a geographic area should Gemini VIII abort. As the contingency recovery team, they would be responsible should anything go wrong and the spacecraft landed outside its designated area of recovery near Aden.[xi]
Located in what is present-day Yemen, Aden was a British colony from 1937 to 1963 and had long been a strategically important location to Great Britain. Located in vital strategic shipping routes between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, the port of Aden was a key communications link and bunkering facility between the Suez Canal and India. Even after the independence of India, Aden continued to be regarded as a vital asset in Britain’s worldwide defense network.[xii]
Aden Protectorate (Image Credit: https://alchetron.com/Aden-Protectorate)
In 1963, bowing to growing internal political pressure Britain reconstituted the colony into the State of Aden as part of the new Federation of South Arabia. This move was aimed at stymieing the growing discontent toward British rule, but in fact, Britain remained in control. Many of the problems that Aden had suffered in its time as a colony did not improve on federation. Internal disturbances continued and intensified, leading to the Aden Emergency and the final departure of British troops and personnel in 1967.[xiii]
Preparations for the team began well in advance of the launch. Arrangements were made with the U.S. State Department to receive official passports and international shot records.[xiv] Department of State involvement with the U.S. manned space program is little known and perhaps even less recognized. Much of that involvement dealt with negotiating basing rights for tracking stations and other ground facilities needed in foreign countries.[xv]
The State Department also had a more substantial role to play in the recovery efforts. Once launched, rockets flew over the territory of other countries. This aspect of the Department’s involvement would come into play if debris landed in another nation causing damage, injury, or loss of life. In the event of a mission-related disaster that forced an aborted landing on the land or territorial waters of another nation, the State Department was responsible for assisting in the emergency by arranging for the staging of the recovery team and obtaining emergency overflight and landing clearances.[xvi]
The team conducted Area studies to gain a greater understanding of geographic considerations and other factors that might impact a recovery in the area. The soldiers prepared for any possible contingency and brought parachutes and rappelling gear, as an airborne insertion or rappelling from the team helicopter might be required to get to the downed crew and capsule. The training was not out of the ordinary for these troops. Since much of the designated area consisted of forest and jungle, chain saw training was also given in order to clear a landing pad for the team helicopter.[xvii] Yemen’s geography is predominantly mountainous deserts and the country has been the victim of considerable deforestation, but there are still thousands of square miles of tropical forests there to this day.
“Since much of the area was jungle, chain saw training was given in order to clear a landing pad for the team helicopter.”
Briefings were conducted covering intelligence information and medical aspects of the area. Each team member was given an extensive physical examination. As the launch date drew closer, the team packed its equipment, prepared the aircraft for deployment, and was placed on standby status.
On 9 March, the team assembled their equipment and gear and boarded a C-130 at Pope Air Force base, adjacent to Fort Bragg. With a UH-1 helicopter and the team on board, the C-130 took off. Even with external fuel tanks on the C-130, the long transatlantic flight would require at least an overnight refueling stop, so the team landed at Lajes Field in the Azores off the coast of Portugal. There the team took the opportunity to coordinate with the Air Force Security Forces and to acquaint themselves with the base. After that brief stop at Lajes Field, the team departed for the continent.
The following day the team arrived at Wheelus Air Base in Libya. Captured by the Allies from the Italians during World War Two, Wheelus Air Base was a United States Air Force base located in British-occupied Libya and the Kingdom of Libya from 1943 to 1970. At one time it was the largest U.S. military facility outside the U.S. occupying a 20 square mile area on the coast of Tripoli. The base had a beach club, the largest military hospital outside the U.S., a multiplex cinema, a bowling alley as well as a high school for 500 students. Wheelus was a major air force installation during the Cold War, serving as a base of operations for strategic bombers, airlift units, rescue, and fighter squadrons.
While at Wheelus, the team met with their sub-section commander and received additional area briefings in preparation for the mission.[xviii] The team was also introduced to medical and communications personnel designated to assist in supporting the recovery mission should they be called upon to execute it. To ensure the team was familiar with the configuration of the spacecraft, the team members made their final preparations and rehearsed recovery procedures with a full-scale mock-up of the Gemini capsule.
Wheelus Airbase, Libya circa 1960s (Image Credit: U.S. Air Force)
“The team members made their final preparations and rehearsed recovery procedures with a full-scale mockup of the Gemini capsule.”
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