These Breathtaking ’60s-Era Photos From NASA Will Take You Back To The Golden Age Of Space Travel

NASA’s Gemini program ran from 1964 to 1966 and the space agency regarded it as a “bridge” between the earlier Mercury project and the subsequent Apollo missions. In particular, Gemini perfected methods of spacewalking and docking spacecraft. Spurred by the Cold War Space Race with the Soviets, President John F. Kennedy had committed the U.S. to putting a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Mercury and Gemini were the build-up to the fulfillment of that promise of the Apollo flights. During its 20 months and 12 missions, the Gemini program generated some superb images — read on to see 40 of them.

40. Practice makes perfect

This extraordinary contraption is the Langley Rendezvous and Docking Simulator. Many of the Gemini missions practiced the art of docking two spacecraft together while in orbit. This was a tricky skill but one that would be essential for a future Moon landing. In order to get the procedure just right, the astronauts repeatedly completed the docking maneuver using this mock-up.

39. Blast-off

The Gemini XI spacecraft launches from the Kennedy Space Center, perched above a Titan II rocket which would blast the two astronauts into orbit. The crew members on this September 1966 mission were Richard Gordon and Charles “Pete” Conrad. The two Gemini astronauts went on to fly to the Moon with Apollo in 1969 with a third crewman, Alan Bean.

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38. Glad to be back

From the point of the view of the astronauts, just as important as the space flight itself was the rescue operation that came at the end of each mission. Here, Wally Schirra, the commander of Gemini VI, pops his head out of the capsule. His smile is evidence enough that he’s glad to be back on the Earth albeit floating in the Atlantic on that December day in 1965.

37. Getting ready

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In this fish-eye lens view we see astronauts James McDivitt and Edward White aboard their Gemini IV spacecraft during an exercise at the Kennedy Space Center. The two men would launch into space for a four-day flight on June 3, 1965 for the second crewed Gemini flight. It’s best remembered for the spacewalk made by White, the first by an American astronaut.

36. The back-room boys

During any NASA mission, the focus tends to be on the astronauts as they hurtle through space. But of course there is an enormous amount of work, often unsung, behind the scenes to put humans into space, and the Gemini missions were no exception. Here we see some of the back-room staff in the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas.

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35. Dangling over the Atlantic

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After the rigors of space travel, perhaps dangling over the Atlantic beneath a helicopter doesn’t seem especially nerve-wracking. The astronaut suspended in the harness is Gordon Cooper. He’s just got back to Earth after flying on the Gemini V mission with Pete Conrad.  The two had been in space for eight days during August 1965, the longest American space flight at the time.

34. Shut the hatches

Upside down in this shot are astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad. In a few minutes, the support staff will shut and secure the hatches of Gemini V, ready for the August 1965 launch. After the mission Hugh Dryden, NASA Deputy Administrator, had optimistic words in a report to President Lyndon Johnson. He wrote, “The adaptability of the human body was indicated by the performance of the astronauts. This has assured us of man’s capability to travel to the moon and return.”

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33. Ocean rescue

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Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad float in the Atlantic as Navy divers ensure that they’re safe after their splashdown at the end of the Gemini V mission. The two astronauts had arrived back on Earth on August 29, 1965. They’d landed some distance from their target landing spot — around 80 miles away. But the U.S. Navy came to the rescue.

32. Going for a swim

A pensive Neil Armstrong is seen here during the Gemini VIII mission. He was accompanied by David Scott on this eighth manned Gemini flight which launched on 16 March 1966. The mission had to be curtailed after a docking exercise went badly wrong and the two astronauts splashed down after a flight of less than 11 hours. Later, Kennedy Space Center director Kurt Debus paid tribute to the astronauts’ “heroism and skill.”

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31. First U.S. spacewalk

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Edward H. White II and Jim McDivitt took off in Gemini IV on June 3, 1965 from Cape Kennedy in Florida. It was the second of the Gemini launches with astronauts aboard but it also chalked up a couple of notable firsts. It was the initial flight controlled from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. More excitingly, during the four-day mission White became the first American to walk in space.

30. First U.S. spacecraft docking

This image taken from Gemini VIII shows the Agena Target Vehicle floating over Earth. The main purpose of Gemini was to put NASA in a position to send astronauts to the Moon. One key operation astronauts had to master was the docking of two craft in space. Commander Neil Armstrong and pilot David Scott were the crew on this mission, the first to include a docking. Moments after taking this shot, Armstrong radioed control, “Flight, we are docked. It was a real smoothie.”

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29. Like a million dollars

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Edward White was the first American to leave the safety of his spacecraft — in this case Gemini IV — to float in space. He was attached to the ship by a 23-foot cord which carried communications and oxygen, and his space walk in June 1965 lasted 23 minutes. Jim McDivitt remained inside Gemini IV and peering through the porthole said, “You look beautiful, Ed.” White replied, “I feel like a million dollars.”

28. A beautiful spacecraft

Thomas P. Stafford, seen here, and Eugene Cernan crewed Gemini IX-A in June 1966, originally planned as IX. The mission was overshadowed by tragedy since the nominated crew of mission IX, Charles Bassett and Elliot See, died in a plane crash months before launch date. During the Gemini IX-A mission Cernan became the second American to walk in space, floating outside the ship for more than two hours. He described the experience with evident awe, “Boy, is it beautiful out there, Tom, and what a beautiful spacecraft.”

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27. Floating up high

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Launched in September 1966, Gemini XI was the ninth of the manned spaceships in the series. Aboard the craft for the three-day flight were pilot Dick Gordon and Commander Pete Conrad. They had their work cut out with a schedule including a docking exercise, two spacewalks and 12 science and technology experiments. In this photo, we see an Agena docking target craft floating over the Earth and attached by a cord to the Gemini spaceship.

26. The last mission

The year is 1966, the mission is Gemini XII and the man inside the helmet is Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, later to become the second man to set foot on the surface of the Moon. Mission XII was Project Gemini’s final flight and Commander Aldrin’s fellow astronaut was pilot Jim Lovell. Lovell later flew as commander aboard Apollo 13, the moon flight which had to abort due to a damaging explosion inside the spacecraft.

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25. Coming together

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This image shows Gemini VII and it was taken from Gemini VI. The former had launched on December 4, 1965 with Jim Lovell and Frank Borman on board and Gemini VI took off nine days later carrying Thomas Stafford and Walter Schirra. This joint mission was the first time two crewed NASA ships had met up in space. The crews spent one day orbiting Earth together.

24. Lost camera

Photographed from Gemini X at a distance of 38 feet, Agena Target Docking Vehicle 5005 floats serenely above the Earth. Aboard the Gemini spacecraft, which launched on July 18, 1966, are astronauts Michael Collins and John Young. The main aim of this eighth crewed Gemini flight was to dock with the Agena. Once this was accomplished, Collins left the Gemini craft and space-walked to the Agena, managing to lose his camera on the way.

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23. Waiting for blast-off

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Edward White and James McDivitt wait aboard Gemini IV as the moment of launch approaches, always a tense time for any astronaut. NASA’s aim with this mission was to evaluate the effects on the human body and on equipment of a four-day spaceflight — the longest so far by an American crew. This was also the mission that saw White become the first American to leave the craft to walk in space.

22. Guns in space

Edward White floats above a cloud-covered Pacific as he makes the historic first spacewalk by an American astronaut. White and McDivitt blasted off from Florida on their 98-hour flight on June 3, 1965. In the image White wields a Hand-Held Self-Maneuvering Unit. This gun-like apparatus shoots jets of oxygen to allow the astronaut to propel himself in a controlled way. Unfortunately, the gun was spent after three minutes of use and White had to maneuver by moving his body and pulling on his tethering cord.

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21. An angry alligator

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A key part of the Gemini IX-A mission was to rendezvous and link up with an Augmented Target Docking Adapter. Unfortunately, when astronauts Eugene Cernan and Tom Stafford reached the ATDA they found that its protective skin had failed to jettison after launch as it should have. As they got to within 900 feet of their target, Stafford told mission control, “Would you believe that there’s a nose cone on that rascal. The shroud is half open. It looks like an angry alligator out there rotating around.”

20. In a spin

On the Gemini VIII mission David Scott and Neil Armstrong successfully accomplished NASA’s first docking in orbit, joining up with an Agena vehicle. However, that was when their problems started. The two spacecraft went into an uncontrolled spin so the astronauts undocked only to find that the problem was with the Gemini ship. Armstrong managed to correct the threatening situation by using his ship’s re-entry thrusters. So it was two relieved astronauts who splashed down 620 miles south of Japan.

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19. The world is round

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Dick Gordon and Charles “Pete” Conrad took off aboard Gemini XI in September 1966. They successfully docked with an Agena target spacecraft and Gordon undertook two sessions of extravehicular activity, more commonly known as spacewalks. Gemini XI went up to 850 miles above Earth, the highest a spacecraft had ever gone. Looking down on his home planet, Conrad declared, “I tell ya from up here the world is round. It is spectacular. It’s fantastic.”

18. Velcro problems

Eugene Cernan took this shot of his own spacecraft, Gemini IX-A, as he circled the ship on a spacewalk, the second by an American. Not quite visible, his crewmate Tom Stafford looks on from the ship’s porthole. The first U.S. space walk, from Gemini IV, had been the year before and improvements had been suggested, including hand grips on the spaceship. Velcro pads were added, although not with notable success. Cernan explained, “I started using one of those Velcro pads and I lost it. It came right off my hand. The Velcro’s not strong enough.”

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17. Ground control

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One of the Gemini VII crew captured this stunning bird’s-eye view of Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on December 6, 1965 as the ship orbited Earth for the 30th time. The spaceship and its crew, Jim Lovell and Frank Bormann, had launched a couple of days earlier from Kennedy on their 14-day mission. The mission highlight was a space rendezvous with Gemini VI-A which was successfully accomplished.

16. Right over Houston

Ed White and Jim McDivitt launched into space aboard Gemini Iv on a four-day mission in June 1965. This was to be a very special flight, the first U.S. launch to feature a space walk. White clambered out of the capsule into the airless atmosphere of space and even found time to admire his spectacular surroundings. Radioing Gus Grissom back in Houston mission control, White told him, “Hey, Gus, we’re right over Houston. We’re looking right down on Galveston Bay.”

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15. Just 360 feet apart

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This photo was taken by one of the astronauts in Gemini VI-A; the spacecraft in the shot is Gemini VII. The two ships had launched at different times from Kennedy and were now meeting up while they were both in orbit 160 miles above Earth. Jim Lovell and Frank Borman were in VII while Walter Schirra and Tom Stafford were in VI-A. The two spaceships flew together for three-and-a-half orbits, just 360 feet apart.

14. Contraband corned beef

John Young and Virgil “Gus” Grissom are suited up in a simulator preparing for the first crewed Gemini flight which launched on March 23, 1965. Gemini III’s flight tested the spacecraft’s systems over three orbits and was considered a success despite some minor technical problems. The biggest hiccup the flight faced, NASA reported, was an unauthorized corned beef sandwich which somehow found its way on board.

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13. Over the Andes

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Gemini VII launched from the Kennedy Space Center on December 4, 1965 with Jim Lovell and Frank Borman at the controls. This gorgeous shot taken from the spacecraft’s porthole shows the eastern edges of the Andes Mountains gloriously illuminated by a sun low in the sky to the west. Borman and Lovell, along with William Anders, would go on to fly on Apollo 8 in 1968, the first manned flight to orbit the Moon.

12. Close-up

This impressive shot of Gemini VII was taken from Gemini VI-A on December 15, 1965 after the two ships had made their successful orbital rendezvous. At this point as they hurtled through space the two spacecraft were just nine feet apart, NASA reported. Tom Stafford and Walter Schirra crewed VI-A and Jim Lovell and Frank Borman piloted VII. All four astronauts went on to take part in the Apollo program.

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11. Around Earth 62 times

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Gemini IV, the second manned Gemini mission, blasted off on June 3, 1965 and is remembered as the first flight to see an American walk in space. The photo shows Ed White deploying his oxygen jet-gun, a device to aid maneuvers in space. Along with fellow astronaut Jim McDivitt, White circled the Earth 62 times before re-entering the atmosphere and splashing down.

10. Last-minute butterflies

Astronaut Tom Stafford is snapped in a moment what looks like of high tension aboard Gemini VI-A as the launch countdown gets under way. The spaceship blasted off on 15 December, 1965 at the second attempt. Three days earlier, one second after the engine ignited, the launch had been aborted thanks to a last-minute technical failure. So if Stafford and fellow astronaut Wally Schirra had a few butterflies in their stomachs, it’s hardly surprising. In the event, the launch and the mission were successful.

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9. Buck Rogers-style jet backpack

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Hunched up in what looks like a remarkably uncomfortable position, Buzz Aldrin tries out a new piece of equipment prior to his Gemini XII flight. The bulky equipment he’s testing is an Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, intended to operate during space walks. Ultimately, this piece of kit never made it on the mission. Writing in Popular Mechanics in 2009, Aldrin described the unit as a “Buck Rogers-style jet backpack.”

8. Getting wet

What goes up must come down and in the case of an astronaut that means a watery landing in the ocean. In this case the astronauts are Virgil “Gus” Grissom and John Young, training in a simulator for their return from the upcoming Gemini III mission. Young is the one performing the bucking bronco maneuver atop the capsule as Grissom hangs on to the flimsy looking inflatable.

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7. More than just a pretty picture

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Spectral clouds float above the Grand Bahama Bank and the Florida Straits in this sublime shot taken from Gemini IV on its nineteenth orbit around the Earth. The spaceship, crewed by Jim McDivitt and Ed White, had launched into space the day before this image was captured. It’s a pretty photograph, no doubt, but it also had a scientific purpose. The two astronauts were conducting a weather and terrain recording experiment for NASA, not just snapping holiday pics.

6. Catch that spacecraft!

This beautifully crisp shot of an Agena target vehicle was taken from Gemini VIII. Blasting off on March 6, 1966, the purpose of the mission was for the Gemini spacecraft to dock with the target vehicle. The two spacecraft were launched at the same time and then Neil Armstrong and David Scott in the Gemini ship were in for a chase to catch the Agena in orbit. The pursuit ended successfully after almost four hours.

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5. Splashdown

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This dramatic shot shows Tom Stafford and Eugene Cernan plunging into the sea aboard their Gemini IX-A capsule beneath a billowing parachute. Their spaceship had re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on June 6, 1966 after a three-day mission. The spacecraft came down just a mile from the rescue vessel USS Wasp. The splashdown was shown live on TV — a broadcasting first.

4. Happy to be home

Jim Lovell (right) and Buzz Aldrin look like they’re more than happy to be back on the surface of their home planet. As well they might after their arduous four-day mission which started on November 11, 1966. This was to be the final Gemini mission. Henceforth, all of NASA’s resources would be directed towards the Apollo project.

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3. Longest-serving astronaut

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In this image we see a contemplative John Young as he makes ready for the launch of Gemini III. He had the distinction of being a NASA astronaut for longer than anyone else. On top of that, he was the only man to fly into space with the Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle projects. His first launch was aboard Gemini III in March 1965. Young passed away at the age of 87 in 1918. 

2. Meeting in space

Here we see Gemini VII moving through space just over six feet from Gemini VI when the shot was taken. Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford were in VI while Frank Borman and Jim Lovell were piloting VII. The two spacecraft rendezvoused on December 15, 1965 and they flew in orbit together for just over five hours.

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1. Happy to be home

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The river on the right of this image is the mighty Nile, meandering through the desert of north-east Africa. On the left is the expanse of the Red Sea. The photo was taken by the crew on the Gemini XII flight, Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin would go on to land on the Moon in 1969 on the Apollo 11 mission. Lovell flew on the ill-starred Apollo 13 mission in which the astronauts survived by the skin of their teeth after a catastrophic explosion.

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