These two photographs were snapped 50 years ago and 100 miles high from aboard the cramped, 20-foot capsules of the Gemini 5 and 11 missions. Gemini consisted of ten flights, all launched in rapid succession in 1965 and 1966, sandwiched between the Mercury and Apollo programs, which bookended the decade. Like Mercury, Gemini was a dress rehearsal for the moon landings. Mercury demonstrated that it was indeed possible to strap people onto the top of missiles and fire them into orbit, and Gemini was about perfecting the finer points of spacefaring - staying in space for long enough to get to the moon, working in space suits, docking with other spacecraft, etc. I was interested in the similarities and differences between the Gemini photographs and modern satellite imagery of the same locations, and whipped up a little interface with Neatline and the beautiful Mapbox tiles to compare and contrast the two.
Pete Conrad and Gordon Cooper joked that Gemini 5 was like "eight days in a garbage can." Technical problems early in the August, 1965 flight forced them to power down the capsule and abandon many of the experiments they had trained for, leaving them with little to do other than bide time and wait out the duration of the mission, which dragged out for eight full days (NASA wanted to study the physiological effects of staying in space for long enough to to the moon and back). Stuffed into a tiny compartment about the size of the front seat of a Volkswagon beetle, Conrad and Cooper got a bit stir-crazy, especially after a package of freeze-dried shrimp exploded in the cabin, releasing a pink cloud of shrimp-particulate.
They did, though, manage to snap this spectacular shot of the southern tip of Baja California Sur, among dozens of other pictures - everyting from reconaissance photographs for the Department of Defense to scientific shots of celestial objects and high-atmosphere cloud formations. This picture fascinates me because the shallowness of the angle casts a sense of depth onto the terrain below that's often often missing from flat-on, perpendicular satellite photography. La Paz and San Jose del Cabo spread out a couple hundred miles in front of the camera, and when you zoom in close you can see the tiny gap - actually about a mile high - opening up below the bottom of the cloud layer and its shadow on the ground below, which really puts into perspective just how much vertical space there is between the Gemini capsule and the surface of the earth.
A little over a year later, in September of 1966, the crew of Gemini 11 (Pete Conrad, again, this time with Richard Gordon) took another shot of almost eactly the same location, capturing the same four islands along the eastern coast of the peninsula - Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Jose, Isla Espiritu Santo, and Jaques Coustea Island. This time the camera points straight down towards the Agena Target Vehicle (ATV), which hangs a couple hundred feet below against the backgroup of the Gulf of California. The ATV was an unmanned spacecraft, launched independently of the Gemini capsule, that was used to practice the docking and "station keeping" maneuvers, which keep two spacecraft in a stable orientation while in orbit.
When this picture was taken, Conrad and Gordon were attempting a technique called "gravity-gradient stabilization," which involves connecting two spacecraft with a tether. The earth's gravity tugs a little bit harder on the object closer to the earth, which has the effect of stabilizing the two spacecraft along a perpendicular axis relative to the ground. In this case, it failed - the tether never became tight enough to make it work. The picture, though, is lovely. Three layers depth recede backwards from the lens. The dark outline of the reentry control thrusters at the tip of the Gemini nose cone poke into the view at the top left. About a hundred feet away, the docking port of the ATV faces directly back towards the camera, the 7-foot boom antenna jutting out to the south east. And far off in the distance, 100 nautical miles below, Isla San Jose stretches for 20 miles just off the eastern coast of the peninsula.
Dizzyingly, though, the antenna and the island are almost the exact same length in the photograph. To try to make sense of the massive difference in scale, I sketched in the shape of a 6-foot person, sized the match the scale of the foreground, and an outline of Manhattan, scaled against the terrain below.