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Mission Monday: The first crewed rendezvous between two spacecraft

55 years ago, two crewed Gemini flights completed a historic first-of-their-kind rendezvous in orbit, propelling NASA ahead of the Soviets in the Space Race, and inching America one step closer to a lunar landing.

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Not everything went according to plan with the first rendezvous. The original plan had been for Gemini VI to rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle in Oct. 1965. However, when the Agena target vehicle was destroyed at launch, plans had to shift.

Enter Gemini VII, which replaced the Agena target vehicle to complete the rendezvous with Gemini VI (renamed the Gemini VI-A flight). Onboard the Gemini VII capsule were NASA astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell, who launched on Dec. 4, 1965.

Although Borman and Lovell were tasked with conducting the first rendezvous, their mission’s primary objective was to evaluate the effects of a two week spaceflight on the crew, which would amount to the longest stretch of time spent in space by a crew until 1970, when Soyuz 9 broke the record.

Eleven days after Gemini VII lifted off, the Gemini VI-A flight launched, carrying NASA astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford. The primary objective of Schirra and Stafford’s flight was the planned rendezvous with Gemini VII.

It took just three orbits following the launch of Gemini VI-A until the pivotal moment had come. On Dec. 15, Gemini VI-A maneuvered within six inches of the other capsule, completing the first rendezvous between two spacecraft, a historic moment that paved the way for the future lunar missions.

The Gemini VI-A flight completed just 16 orbits and landed only one day after it launched, on Dec. 16, 1965.

In addition to successfully completing their primary objective, the Gemini VII crew also conducted 20 experiments while in space! The Gemini VII flight came to an end after completing 206 orbits, landing on Dec. 18, 1965.

Click here to learn more about NASA’s Gemini Program and don’t forget to stop by our Starship Gallery to see the actual flown Gemini V spacecraft, on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, during your next visit!

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