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[GUEST POST] Mike Jenne on the Origins of the Techno-Thriller BLUE GEMINI

Mike mikejenneis a pilot and aerospace aficionado who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. As a child, he heard Saturn V moon rockets as they were tested at nearby Marshall Space Flight Center, and went to school with the children of Von Braun’s rocket scientists. He is a former Special Forces officer who has served across the globe, including deployments to Central America, Haiti, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. As a Special Forces survival instructor, he worked directly with LTC Nick Rowe (RIP) and other Vietnam-era POWs to develop the Army’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) School. Mike and his wife, Adele, make their home in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama.

The Origins of Blue Gemini

by Mike Jenne

Blue Gemini is the first installment of a series that follow characters involved in a secret Air Force manned space program during the Cold War. A techno-thriller which blends fact and fiction, Blue Gemini accurately depicts the culture and technology of that era, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The series also serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls inherent in the militarization of space, a topic just as relevant today as it was fifty years ago.

Few people are aware that there was a dark side to the Space Race. Even though the United States and the Soviet Union were signatories of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty—an international pact intended to limit the militarization of space—both nations had active programs to launch manned military reconnaissance platforms into orbit. Moreover, while the Americans didn’t follow through, the Soviets actually did, launching three Almaz military space stations into orbit, beginning in 1970. The Almaz—Russian for “diamond”—was even armed with a 23-mm automatic cannon, ostensibly to blast those pesky US satellite interceptors.

A magnificently versatile space vehicle, the Gemini was the unsung hero of the Space Race. In the course of ten missions flown over the course of nineteen months—an incredibly short timeframe by today’s risk-averse standards, almost laughably so—sixteen astronauts validated the critical procedures that would eventually be necessary to fly men to the moon, land them there, and return them safely to earth.

The abbreviated history of Gemini missions reads like an engineer’s punch list to prepare for the lunar missions that followed. Space walking (AKA “extra-vehicular activity” or “EVA”)? Check. Rendezvous in orbit? Check. Physically dock two spacecraft? Check. Long duration missions to test the endurance of men and machines? Check. Drastically alter an orbital profile? Check. Besides procedures, critical spacefaring equipment—fuel cells, guidance computers, rendezvous radar systems—were evaluated as well. Flying their trusty “Gusmobile,” the valiant Gemini astronauts did it all. They proved that humans could not only exist in space, but that they could literally work in space, both inside and outside their spacecraft.

But in our nation’s rush to get to the Moon, NASA’s Gemini program was swiftly forgotten. However, the space agency’s planners had envisioned an enlarged version of the Gemini (“Big Gemini”) that could be employed as a ferry to transport larger crews (nine to twelve astronauts) into orbit. Faced with the dark specter of astronauts (or cosmonauts) stranded in space, Big Gemini could have also been dispatched as a rescue vehicle. Proposed as a cheaper and faster alternative to the Apollo program, there was even a Gemini-based concept (the direct ascent “Lunar Gemini”) that might sprint men to the moon in advance of the Soviets. But none of these notions came to fruition. Eager for the moon, NASA officials were swift to divest themselves of Gemini as they moved on to Apollo.

But even if NASA was done with it, Gemini was not entirely dead. Even before NASA’s version left the ground, the Air Force had drawn up plans for an elaborate satellite interceptor based on the Gemini, and also intended to use the two-man spacecraft as the crew return vehicle for their Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program. Preparations for the MOL missions were far from theoretical; seventeen military astronauts were chosen and trained, hardware built, and an unmanned test mission flown in 1967. But alas, all of the schemes were not to be. Arguing that the MOL’s reconnaissance mission could be more effectively executed by unmanned platforms, Pentagon leaders abruptly cancelled the burgeoning effort in June of 1969, just weeks before Apollo 11 departed for the moon.

As the story opens in 1967, we learn that the US Air Force has been secretly developing a satellite interceptor version of the Gemini. Beefed up in some areas—an enhanced acquisition radar system—and stripped down in others—the ejection seats are removed to save weight—the Gemini-I is like a fighter plane that can be flown in space. Initially, there are no plans to immediately fly it, but to build a small reserve fleet that can be salted away for contingencies. Things change swiftly when US intelligence agencies learn that the Soviets are aggressively pursuing a plan to station nuclear weapons in orbit. Soviet nukes in space? Unrealistic? No, Nikita Khrushchev had threatened to do just that in 1961. The Soviet program gathers steam, and Blue Gemini transitions from a contingency measure to a more active program. A slate of military astronauts are selected for the program, and a clandestine launch facility prepared on a remote island in the Pacific. In 1969, a new President takes up residence in the White House, and the project accelerates exponentially.

I’ve long been a fan of techno-thrillers, so when I first began outlining Blue Gemini, my primary focus was on the technology. But in time, as the story gradually took shape, I came to realize that a much more interesting story could be told about the people involved in the project.

Although Blue Gemini follows a cast of characters on both sides of the Iron Curtain, the story centers on Scott Ourecky and Drew Carson. Carson is a headstrong but talented Air Force test pilot. As his contemporaries earn their spurs in Southeast Asia, Carson is aware that his tenure in Blue Gemini will most likely appear as an inexplicable void on his personnel records. Eager to earn the reputation and combat awards that will be essential—in his opinion—for later advancement, he begs for a short-term temporary assignment in Vietnam.

Carson is aggravated that he will never be able to wear Air Force astronaut wings, because the Air Force has dictated that Blue Gemini will always remain highly classified. To add insult to injury, the MOL project—even though its true purpose was secret—did exist in the public eye, so the MOL astronauts—Carson’s contemporaries—could eventually be awarded their astronaut wings after their missions.

Ourecky is an engineer brought into the project to resolve some pressing technical issues. When Carson’s co-pilot falls out of the training program, Ourecky is asked to temporarily fill in so that Carson’s training can proceed with minimal delay.

As time passes, Ourecky is gradually drawn deeper into the clandestine world of Blue Gemini, almost like a wayward hiker being sucked into quicksand. To complicate matters, he falls in love with a Delta Airlines stewardess (yes, all ye stalwarts of political correctness, I did say stewardess—Delta did not transition to “flight attendants” until a few years later) named Bea Harper. Bea’s father—a fighter pilot—died in Korea. Fearful that she might lose Ourecky in the same manner, she makes him promise never to go to flight school to earn his wings. It is a promise he strives to keep, but as his participation in the program intensifies, Ourecky is constantly compelled to justify his odd schedule and travels to Bea. To complicate matters, the equipment and training regimen leave strange physical markings on his body, which are even more difficult to explain.

In time, Ourecky permanently matriculates into the Gemini-I’s cockpit, essentially becoming the guidance system for the spacecraft. He and Carson evolve into such an extremely effective team, almost a component of the machine itself, that they cannot readily be replaced.

As the pair eventually fly into orbit, they experience the inverse of celebrity. They watch as public adulation is heaped upon the NASA astronauts, the shiny heroes of the era, whose faces are constantly plastered on magazine covers and television,. In contrast, Carson and Ourecky endure the same—and sometimes greater risks—in sheer anonymity. They may as well be invisible, but their perspectives could not be any more opposed. Carson hopes that Blue Gemini will eventually be made public. He longs for the limelight and wants to wear the vaunted astronaut wings. On the other hand, with every mission flown, Ourecky’s greatest fear is that Bea will inadvertently discover his secret life, and their relationship will be over as abruptly as it began. Intensely frustrated, he aches to tell her about Blue Gemini, not to brag or impress her, but merely to dislodge the growing barrier between them.

Although Ourecky’s dilemma is certainly extreme if not bizarre, it serves as a parable for our times. His experience is not overly different than the thousands of men and women who serve our nation in the military and intelligence services, who can rarely share any aspect of their work lives with their spouses and families. This has always been true, but it is now greatly exacerbated in this time when the war on terrorism rages on battlefields—both real and virtual—far removed from the public consciousness. I wrote Blue Gemini not just as a techno-thriller, but also to speak about the nature of duty and service. If there is a core theme to the series, it is that we—as a nation—must remember the unique sacrifices of those charged with keeping momentous secrets to protect us, and that we appreciate the heavy toll that they pay for that service.

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