March 16, 1966. Gemini 8 was successfully in orbit, more vindication for the American space effort after a shaky start and a source of undiluted pride for a nation preoccupied with the growing involvement in Vietnam. Neil Armstrong and Maj. David Scott were aloft, preparing to test the hardware and prove the concepts that would put an American on the moon.
For my ten-member Air Force searescue crew on alert in Okinawa, the flight had special significance. In case of an emergency re-entry, we were ready to dash to rescue the Gemini crew. But with this successful launch, our alert, like several before it, was falling into a familiar pattern: practice rescues, then wait, sweat through the critical launch and re-entry, admire the precision of the splashdown—always close to a waiting aircraft carrier—then quietly return to the real business of rescuing downed pilots from the waters off North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
But this time something happened. While the crew experimented with docking techniques, the spacecraft tumbled inexplicably out of control. Armstrong’s incredible skill averted disaster but at the cost of fuel needed for a normal re-entry.
With fuel low and structural damage probable, Gemini 8 had to resort to an emergency re-entry method. Armstrong would fly the craft manually to a splashdown in the East China Sea, far from the usual carrier, more than four hundred miles from Okinawa and six hours from pickup by the nearest Navy vessel, the USS Mason .
What a transformation from spectator to frontline participant! We had our converted transport airborne in minutes. It was slow—it had been designed in the 1940s—but it had its advantages: just enough speed to get there in time and the endurance to fly overhead for hours, if necessary, until the pickup vessel arrived. Naha Rescue One, as we were called, speaking directly with NASA’s controllers in Houston via an elaborate communications link, exchanged navigation information and received—along with plenty of encouragement—a final calculation of the splashdown point we would be reaching scant minutes before Gemini 8 .
The realization that the world looked to us to save two of its most famous citizens raised the excitement level, but except for the visibility, this mission was like many other rescues this crew had made. We knew that no one in the world was better prepared to do it. Each of us was confident of his part in the carefully thought-out, exhaustively rehearsed plan. The idea was to save the crew, then the capsule. The swimmers would go first with medical and survival packages, by parachute if time permitted, otherwise directly into the water from very low altitude. Then, if the capsule floated as designed, there would be time for the loadmaster to release a string of linked-together packages of equipment and a flotation collar for the swimmers to attach to the capsule like giant water wings.
First we had to find them. Getting to the designated spot was critical, although no special navigational challenge. But if the NASA engineers had miscalculated slightly, or if Armstrong twitched while flying the re-entry, it could mean an error of several miles, and finding a tiny target like a floating Gemini capsule would become incredibly difficult, something like finding a Volkswagen Bug in a snowdrift the size of Connecticut. The surest way to find Gemini 8 would be to use the simple but specialized homing device that pointed to a radio beacon activated as the spacecraft entered the earth’s atmosphere.
Just minutes to splashdown the radio net was silent. We were intent on the homer, the sky, and the ocean. Gemini 8 ’s radios were blanked out during re-entry, and because the spacecraft was being flown manually, Houston’s wizards could only wait helplessly. The whole high-tech endeavor had come down to the skill of a few human beings. Then there it was, a loud, clear signal. Straight ahead. Now right. Now left. Now behind us. Was it working? If it was, we had passed directly under the descending capsule. How incongruous to be concerned one instant with not being close enough and then the next with the prospect of collision. Crazy. Out of a hard turn to reverse course, I saw that the incredible was true. Three huge parachutes, their alternating orange and white gores standing out sharply in brilliant sunlight, slipped below the nose of the aircraft toward the calm, bright blue sea.
“I got it” burst from me—the eavesdropping media called it “the shout heard round the world"—and I began a steep diving turn to get a good look at the capsule as soon as it bobbed to the surface.
Gemini 8 was afloat. Everything looked OK—gentle swells washed over the sloping black sides—but instead of the expected radio call from the crew, silence.
The impulse was to rush, to get everything done at once, but we fell back on a deliberate routine: check the capsule, mark its position, then a short climb to an optimum jump position for the swimmers. It took less than a minute for them to reach the capsule and begin to check the crew. The sound of human voices reminded the astronauts to turn on their radio, switched off since re-entry to conserve power.
“ Gemini 8 here, and are we glad to see you.”
Anxiety abated. Now there was time to get the drop of the multipackage flotation collar just right. Soon the orange water wings were attached, and the astronauts could open the hatches to breathe fresh air again. 1 could see their smiling faces as we exchanged waves and thumbs-up signals.
It’s still vivid in my memory: the world’s most advanced spacecraft, now a helpless bobbing thing afloat in a beautifully blue, trackless sea, shepherded by a flying antique. The incongruity wasn’t lost on Armstrong either. To him it was the “most unusual rendezvous in aviation history.”
For the next several hours the scene changed hardly at all. The tiny colony of astronauts and rescue swimmers simply waited for the USS Mason while Naha Rescue One circled slowly overhead, directing the approaching vessel to the pickup, and watched.
The slim gray destroyer seemed something of an intruder, creating a planned but profound change in the small group whose lives had been so intensely enmeshed for several hours. After many months of rescue missions and dozens of successful rescues, only part of the Naha Rescue One team returned to regular duty at the home base in Guam. With the Gemini crew, the swimmers were swept up by an anxiously waiting American public to be endlessly feted and interviewed about the unusual rescue. The entire group has never been reassembled.
Later, as a NASA guest, I watched the launch of Armstrong’s moon mission from a VIP’s vantage. Through the years we have exchanged letters and even telephone calls, but a hundred or so feet in the open Pacific is as close as I’ve ever been to shaking hands with Neil Armstrong.