The Unsinkable Molly Brown: Fifty-Five Years since Gemini 3
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Fifty-five years ago today, astronauts Gus Grissom and John Young took to the skies in the first manned Gemini flight, Gemini 3. It was the seventh manned US spaceflight and the fifteenth crewed spaceflight overall. It was also the last time a crewed flight was controlled from Cape Canaveral (which by now had been renamed Cape Kennedy) before Mission Control moved to Houston, Texas.
The mission was commanded by Mercury veteran Gus Grissom, the second American in space. His pilot was John Young, the first of NASA's second class of astronauts to fly. Young would go on to not only command a Gemini mission of his own, but fly to the moon twice, walk on it, and command two Space Shuttle missions including the very first. The original crew consisted of command pilot Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and pilot Tom Stafford, who would later fly with Young on Apollo 10. This crew, along with the crews of Gemini's 5-7, were changed after Shepard was diagnosed with Meniere's disease, an inner ear disorder, in 1964. The backup crew was command pilot Mercury veteran Wally Schirra with Stafford as pilot again. They would fly Gemini 6 at the end of the year.
Grissom (left) and Young (right) in their official crew portrait (NASA)
Their spacecraft was the last to have an official name until Apollo 9's Gumdrop and Spider in 1969. When Grissom splashed down after his Mercury-Redstone 4 suborbital flight in 1961, his capsule, Liberty Bell 7, had a faulty sensor, blew its hatch, flooded, and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Vowing to never lose another ship, Grissom named his next craft Molly Brown after the popular Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown. However, NASA wasn't too fond of the name and told him to change it. His second choice: Titanic. Needless to say Molly Brown stayed. As mentioned earlier, this incident caused NASA to stop allowing their astronauts to name their capsules, though unofficially Gemini 4's was American Eagle. Apollo 7 commander Wally Schirra, wanting to honor the memories of Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, who perished in the Apollo 1 capsule fire in January 1967, christened his spacecraft Phoenix, as it was to rise from the ashes of Apollo 1.
The mission insignia designed by Grissom and Young but not worn (NASA)
Gemini 3 was launched from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex-19 on March 23, 1965 at 9:24 a.m. EST. The mission was to test the maneuverability and overall function of the new two-manned Gemini spacecraft, particularly the orbital altitude and maneuver system and the control of reentry flight path and landing point. After the first orbit, the crew fired thrusters to change the shape of their orbit from a elliptical orbit to a nearly circular orbit, which is accomplished by lowering the orbital altitude. This was done to practice techniques that would be performed during rendezvous and docking missions. It was actually the first orbital maneuver ever made by any manned spacecraft. An experiment testing the effects of microgravity on sea urchin eggs was supposed to be performed but a lever essential to the experiment broke off when it was pulled.
Gemini 3 launching from LC-19 (NASA)
Perhaps the most memorable portion of the mission was the sudden appearance and partial consumption of a contraband corned beef sandwich. While this is not the full story, which actually begins a few days prior to launch, Young brought a corned beef sandwich onboard, which he hid in a pocket of his spacesuit, and gave it to a confused Grissom in the middle of the flight. Gus found the whole ordeal rather amusing, particularly John's deadpan presentation of the food, and even took a bite of it. However, small crumbs began to float around the capsule, fortunately not getting into the controls. The pair's superiors at NASA found out about this as it was happening, as all missions broadcasted live from space, and were pretty unhappy about it. Despite this, it remains one of the best-known stories about the early astronauts.
The third burn (the second was performed about an hour earlier) lowered the perigee, or the point in the orbit at which the spacecraft is nearest to Earth, so that if the retrorockets on the service module failed, the capsule could still reenter the atmosphere. Splashdown occurred at 2:16 p.m. in the Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of Grand Turk Island. Unlike Mercury spacecraft, which landed upright, Gemini spacecraft splashed down on its side. The force of the impact caused Grissom's faceplate to crack. Since spacecraft lift was less than expected during reentry, the capsule landed 69 miles (111 kilometers) short of the target point. Both astronauts apparently became seasick and shortly after removed their suits. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter picked up the spacecraft and the crew at about 3:00 p.m. and the crew arrived at the USS Intrepid almost half an hour later.
Young waiting to be picked up by the recovery helicopter (NASA)
According to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the Molly Brown was used for testing in the Air Force's Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program in the late 60s (see Hidden Histories: Manned Orbiting Laboratory). I had actually never heard that but I know the Gemini 2 capsule was used for MOL testing as well. It is now on display at the Grissom Memorial of Spring Mill State Park near Mitchell, Indiana, Grissom's hometown.
Grissom and Young with the Molly Brown aboard the USS Intrepid (NASA)
Command Pilot: Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom
Pilot: John W. Young
Backup Command Pilot: Walter M. "Wally' Schirra Jr.
Backup Pilot: Thomas P. Stafford
Callsign: Molly Brown
Launch Vehicle: Gemini-Titan II
Launch Date: 23 March 1965
Launch Site: Launch Complex-19, CCAFS
Landing Date: 23 March 1965
Recovery Carrier: USS Intrepid
Two-manned American spaceflight
Manned Gemini flight
Man to fly in space twice
Orbital maneuver made by a manned spacecraft
(And last) corned beef sandwich in space
Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed learning about my second favorite Gemini mission. Please like and share this post and thanks for reading!
“Capsule, Gemini 3.” National Air and Space Museum, airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/capsule-gemini-3/nasm_A19710063000.
“Gemini 3.” NASA Space Science Data Coordinated Archive, nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/nmc/spacecraft/display.action?id=1965-024A.
Reichl, Eugen. Project Gemini: America in Space Series. Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2016.