The U.S. Leaps Ahead
The Americans had calculated that a mission to the moon would take at least 8 days. The question then arose: would astronauts be able to withstand zero gravity conditions for so long?
Gemini 5, launched on August 21, 1965 provided the answer. Manned by L. Gordon Cooper and Charles Conrad, the spacecraft made 120 orbits of Earth, keeping its occupants in space for 7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes and 14 seconds. It splashed down in the Atlantic on 29 August.
Previously, the longest that a manned spacecraft had stayed in space was 5 days (Vostok 5 piloted by Valery Bykovsky in June 1963). Gemini 5’s success put the Americans ahead of the Soviets in the space race, and though Vostok 5’s flight remained the longest solo spaceflight, L. Gordon Cooper who two years earlier had orbited Earth 22 times in a Mercury spacecraft now became the world’s most experienced space traveller.
Gemini 5 was the first manned spacecraft equipped with fuel cells, portable generators of electrical power that made it possible for flights to last longer than a few days.
Gemini 7 followed Gemini 5 on December 4, 1965. Gemini 6 blasted off on 15 December and performed a series of manoeuvres in orbit with Gemini 7. At their closest the two capsules came within a metre of each other. After a day of flying in formation with its sister craft, Gemini 6 returned to Earth leaving Gemini 7 to complete a marathon 14-day, 206 - orbit flight.
The moon didn’t look too far after that!