March 17, 1966 – Gemini 8, First Docking in space; first splashdown in the wrong ocean
I’ve collected several envelopes that commemorate the splash-down of the historic Gemini 8 mission. Collectors of space memorabilia call them “Recovery Covers” because they were canceled on-board a Navy ship that was part of the force sent out to recover the crew after splash-down. There were dozens of Navy ships involved in the recovery effort, spread out in case the capsule came down in an unexpected area. Recovery covers come in two flavors: Prime Recover Covers are those envelopes canceled on-board the actual ship that picked up the crew, and Secondary Recovery covers are similar, but they were canceled on ships that were part of the overall Naval recovery force but not “prime” – they did not actually pick up the crew. Typically, a single ship was expected to become the prime recovery vessel, but it did not always work out that way.
Gemini 8 was supposed to splash down in the Atlantic and get picked up by the carrier USS Boxer. But the Gemini 8 Prime Recovery covers were canceled aboard the destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason, which was the closest vessel to the actual splashdown – east of Okinawa. Even being the closest vessel, the USS Leonard F Mason had to travel over three hours to pick up the crew. Yes, Gemini 8 splashed down in the wrong ocean. What happened? My recovery cover helps to tell the story.
Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott (who both later walked on the moon) had just become the first astronauts to successfully dock in space. Soon after the docking with the Agena target vehicle, their capsule and the Agena started spinning in space, end over end. Thinking that perhaps the trouble was a stuck thruster on the Agena, the astronauts decided to undock – but they soon discovered the problem was a stuck thruster on their Gemini capsule. Their capsule began spinning faster and faster – nearly one revolution per second. They were finally able to bring the capsule back under control by using the capsule’s reentry control thrusters, which by mission rules meant that Armstrong and Scott had to make an immediate return to Earth a mere ten hours after launch. Unexpectedly, and in the wrong ocean.
When I look at those Gemini 8 recover covers, I think about how dangerous that situation was and admire how they were able to think past their circumstances to come up with a solution and save their own lives. I can only imagine what the hours were like as they were stranded alone in high seas waiting to be picked up – seasick and throwing up. But they made it, and later they both walked on the moon.
The recovery covers were on-board the prime recovery vessel USS Leonard F. Mason when its crew found out that they would be the ship to recover the Gemini 8 crew. The covers were there when the astronauts were picked up from those high seas and brought home safely after a hair-raising mission that barely spared their lives. And they help to tell the story of the first docking in space – and the first splashdown in the wrong ocean. <Excerpt taken from Abandon in Place – the Seven Forgotten Leadership Lessons of the Space Race).