U.S. Troops Once Stood Ready to Scoop Crashed Astronauts From the Middle East
Luckily, Gemini VIII ended up in the ocean instead
At a time when many American troops were headed to fight in Vietnam, the Pentagon sent a small team to Aden, now part of present-day Yemen.
Their mission — prepare to rescue two astronauts and help them evade rebel groups if their spaceflight, Gemini VIII, ended abruptly over the Arabian Desert.
On March 16, 1966, Neil Armstrong and David Scott blasted into space from Launch Complex 19 at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Halfway around the world, U.S. Army military police and U.S. Air Force crews waited for any word of trouble.
“The team packed their equipment and moved to the plane site, where they remained on a stand-by basis,” Army Sgt. Paul Woodring wrote in an article about the mission in Military Police Journal.
The plan was for Gemini VIII to end in the Atlantic. But after only five years of sending Americans in space, Washington wanted to be prepared for any complications.
A year earlier, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had successfully completed the first Gemini mission with an actual crew. NASA had launched two unmanned test capsules to make sure the spacecraft were safe and working as designed.
But Washington was behind the Soviets in the space race, and was desperately trying to blitz ahead. The American space program was beset by technical challenges, production delays and the ever unreliable “human factor” from the very beginning.
Even the weather in Florida was often uncooperative.
Before the test of the second test craft, the program’s “bright outlook darkened … before a series of natural disasters,” Barton Hacker and James Grimwood wrote in On the Shoulders of Titans, an official NASA history of the project. “First lightning, then hurricanes, conspired to abuse the second Gemini launch vehicle.”
The Gemini program was intended to be a proof of concept for a much more ambitious plan to land on the moon. So even while engineers had worked out most of the kinks in the capsule by Gemini VIII — the sixth manned launch — there were new hurdles to overcome.
As part of the planned three-day mission, Amstrong and Scott would link up with another spacecraft called Agena. With this unmanned pod, the two astronauts could practice linking up with another object, breaking off and then coming back to do it all over again — a procedure envisioned for the future Apollo missions.
With national pride on the line, any mistakes held the potential to be devastating on many levels.
Enter the team in Aden.
Well before the launch date, six men from the 81st Military Police Detachment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina trained for their unique mission. The soldiers practiced jumping out of planes and rappelling from helicopters.
“Since much of the area was jungle, chain saw training was given in order to clear a landing pad for the team helicopter,” Woodring wrote. Yemen’s geography is predominantly mountainous deserts and the country has been the victim of considerable deforestation, but there are still thousands of square miles of tropical forests there to this day.
The training was not out of the ordinary for these troops. At the time, the detachment was paired up with the Green Berets of the 3rd Special Forces Group.
A week before the launch, the military policemen flew on an Air Force C-130 transport plane to Wheelus Air Base in Libya to link up with other troops. The full team practiced how they might go about rescuing the stranded astronauts with a full-size replica of the Gemini capsule.
Then the group made the final trip to Aden. While the Americans stayed in a hotel, their C-130 and an unspecified helicopter moved to the Royal Air Force’s airfield at Khormaksar. The base eventually became Aden International Airport.
Three years earlier, Aden had joined the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South to form the Federation of South Arabia. Former colonies of the United Kingdom, Britain maintained a heavy military presence in the country and considered the state a protectorate and member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
“Excellent liaison was maintained with the British, and it was discovered that the military police of both countries have similar police activities,” Woodring noted.
If Armstrong and Scott did come crashing down nearby, the two astronauts would have had more than just the harsh terrain and climate to deal with. The Marxist Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen was waging an active insurgency against British authorities.
As fate would have it, Gemini VIII did run into an emergency. While the astronauts successfully linked up with the Agenda pod, a problem with the capsule’s thrusters put them in a dangerous spot.
“After backing away from the Agena, the spacecraft had started to whirl at a dizzying rate of one revolution per second,” Hacker and Grimwood wrote. “[Armstrong and Scott] were dizzy, and their vision was blurred. Something had to be done.”
The astronauts eventually regained control. At NASA’s flight control facility in Houston, officials tried to get their bosses on the line to figure out what to do next.
“Most of NASA’s leaders at Headquarters had, in fact, already headed for the [rocket pioneer Robert] Goddard dinner — the prestigious social event of the year for the space community,” Hacker and Grimwood explained. “At the opening reception, Deputy Administrator [Robert] Seamans was called to the telephone to learn of Gemini VIII’s plight.”
With the capsule’s fuel reserves drained, NASA aborted the mission. Armstrong and Scott brought their spaceship down in the Pacific Ocean on the same day they had taken off. After three hours in the water, the destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason arrived on the scene and retrieved the astronauts.
After depositing members of the team back at Wheelus, the men of the 81st finally returned home to North Carolina six days later. Fortunately, the team never got to put their Arabian crash course to the test.