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Gemini 3: The launch of Molly Brown

50 years ago, on March 23, 1965, the first crewed mission of the Gemini program launched from LC-19 in Cape Canaveral, just five short days after the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov completed the first space walk.

The Gemini program was intended to be a bridge between the completed Mercury and future Apollo programs. The ten Gemini missions (1965-1966) wouldflight test equipment and mission procedures (EVA, rendezvous, docking and long duration) in Earth orbit for the upcoming Apollo lunar missions.

The Gemini spacecraft launched on a two-stage Titan II rocket, originally designed as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Titan II would place the Gemini spacecraft into Earth-orbit in five minutes and 54 seconds, very quickly compared to the eight and a half minutes it took for the Space Shuttle. Gemini was the first spacecraft to have an onboard computer.

Alan Shepard was slated to fly as part of the first two-person crew, but was sidelined due to an inner ear disorder. Instead, Gus Grissom was selected to fly along with John Young. As such Grissom became the first person to fly in space twice.

Gemini 3 was the only Gemini mission to be named, Grissom called it Molly Brown in a playful reference to his Mercury Liberty Bell 7 capsule, which sank in the Atlantic Ocean when the hatch inadvertently blew open after splashdown. Molly Brown was the title character of a popular Broadway musical – The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Gemini 3 was the first crewed US launch since the completion of Project Mercury on May 16, 1963. The mission’s primary objective was to test the maneuverability of the new spacecraft. Grissom and Young fired thrusters to change the shape of their orbit, shift the orbital plane, and drop to a lower altitude; all of these maneuvers were critical firsts in the race to the Moon with the Soviets. The mission successfully ended after 3 Earth orbits and lasted 4 hour and 52 minutes.

About two hours into the flight, Young surprised Grissom by pulling a corned beef sandwich out of the pocket of his spacesuit. Although it was meant as a joke, not every one at NASA found it amusing. Grissom soon discovered that the sandwich crumbled in the zero gravity environment and understood the reason why gelatin was added to the astronaut food they were testing during the mission. The gelatin prevented food from crumbling and interfering with instrument panels while in space.

Gemini 3 was the last manned flight controlled from Cape Canaveral, Florida. All subsequent missions would be controlled from the new Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. The following year, NASA announced that Grissom had been assigned as commander for the first Apollo Earth-orbit mission, with Ed White as Senior Pilot and Roger Chaffee as Pilot. Ten months later the trio would tragically perish when a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 command module during a pre-launch pad test.

Today the Molly Brown is on display at the Grissom Memorial of Spring Mill State Park, two miles east of Grissom’s hometown of Mitchell, Indiana.