National Geographic : 1965 Jan
"Starting docking maneuver," Wally calls as he nudges the propulsion handle. A low hiss issues from the simu lated thrusters. But rather than the Gemini moving, as it would in actual flight, the Agena moves. With gathering momentum, Agena rushes silently toward the Gemini cabin on cushioned slippers of air. "Oops, a little too much," Wally says, and pulls back on the control handle. Gingerly he maneuvers the target, a silver tube with flickering rendezvous light. There is a slight bump as the vehicles come together. "It always reminds me of inflight refueling," Wally remarks as he nudges the blunt nose of Gemini into the basketlike adapter ring on the Agena. "Daddy Longlegs" Teaches Lunar Landings After mastering the moving-base trainers, the astro naut takes the final examination: simulators that actu ally fly. In NASA's Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California, the astronauts practice landings in the LLRV-Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. This jet-powered "daddy longlegs" performs here on earth as the LEM will on the moon. A powerful jet engine, almost hidden in the center of its aluminum skeleton, points constantly downward. With its push, the bizarre craft takes off vertically and ascends to more than 1,000 feet. There the astronaut throws a switch that throttles the engine back to com pensate for precisely five-sixths the weight of the vehicle. The remaining weight makes the vehicle fall at just the speed with which it would approach the lunar surface under influence of the moon's weaker gravity. From this point down, the pilot brakes and maneuvers his craft with small rocket motors like those planned for the LEM. A practice landing on the desert is as close as you can come to the real thing. A mistake could mean ending up in a pile of scrap metal on the desert floor. With the many simulators in NASA's inventory, the astronauts agree that there is still no substitute for 20 to 30 hours of actual jet flying each month. Lt. Comdr. Charles Conrad, Jr., sums it up well: "It's easy to sit back in a training device and know that if you do something wrong the instructor will push the reset button and you can try again. But in an airplane you're on your own." But the astronaut must know more than how to fly a spacecraft. He must also learn to handle his own body in drastically changed environments. The BETA trainer (for Balanced Extra-vehicular Training Aircraft) accustoms him to moving about in frictionless space. This metal saucer floats above a steel floor, as if by magic, on cushions of compressed air. A doughnut-shape tank between saucer and floor emits the sustaining air through tiny jets. The astronaut must bal ance, surfboard style, on the saucer, and with short bursts of air from a multibarreled pistol, he skims across the floor like an Arabian prince on a flying carpet. A forward-firing burst from the pistol sends the saucer 138 Project's pulse, the 170-million dollar Manned Spacecraft Center spreads over 1,620 acres, 30 miles south of downtown Houston, Texas. Nine-story Project Management Building, one of 60 facilities planned, looms above the campuslike center. Gemini simulator trains flight and ground personnel in all phases of an actual mission except docking. Astro naut Mike Collins (foreground) and NASA engineer John Sargent share the controls. Hal Parker of Flight Crew Support Division watches through a hatch that would close in flight. Tech nicians monitor the mission at the control console in background.