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Avro Engineers:John Hodge

John Hodge


  March 16, 1966, dawned at Cape Kennedy and Houston with an air of expectation as Gemini 8 stood ready to chase an Agena target vehicle poised atop an Atlas rocket at a nearby launch pad.
    The pursuit would start off a planned three-day flight by Gemini 8 that would include the first docking in space, and later, a space walk. The Agena entered orbit without a hitch, and Gemini 8 blasted off right on time, commanded by the first U.S. civilian astronaut, former NASA test pilot Neil Armstrong, and piloted by the first to fly from the third group of astronauts, David Scott.
    For the first time, someone other than Chris Kraft was lead flight director inside the Mission Control room at Houston. John Hodge took the spot when Kraft decided to devote more time to the Apollo program, which was beginning its operational phase.

    Hodge, then 37, stood out amongst the first group of flight directors with his English accent, his already graying hair, and the pipe and tweed jackets he preferred. Born in Leigh-on-Sea, England, in 1929, he studied engineering at the Northampton Engineering College, University of London, graduating in 1949.
    In 1952 he came to Avro Canada, where almost from the beginning he worked on the Avro Arrow. "I did the (jet engine) intake and the ram, all the inlets. Then the guy I was working for left to work for the government, and they needed a guy to take over the airloads group. I was put in that job."
    Later, he did flight testing on the Arrow, and it was this experience that led to him being assigned to operations when he came to NASA in 1959. He was in flight control almost from the beginning, and in late 1963 he became chief of the flight control division as NASA prepared for Gemini. At the time, he and his wife Audrey had a son and two daughters, although a second son was born in 1967.
    As head of the flight control division, Hodge was busy building up the group of flight controllers for Gemini and Apollo, and was hiring people "left, right and centre." Between flights, the flight controllers were busy planning missions, drawing up documentation, flight plans and mission rules; and closely reviewing results from previous flights.
    As well, they worked on simulations of flights, mainly possible flight emergencies, with the astronauts in spacecraft simulators hooked up to the flight control rooms. Although Gemini 8 had started perfectly, Hodge's flight directors would soon get a chance to show how effective this training had been.
    For four orbits, Armstrong and Scott played catch-up with the Agena, and six hours and 34 minutes after leaving earth, Armstrong slid Gemini's nose into Agena's docking collar, achieving the first docking in space. The maneuver took place over a tracking ship in the South Atlantic, and the Gemini-Agena combination moved into an area with little tracking coverage as Armstrong and Scott tested Agena¹s maneuvering system.
   Nearly a half hour after the docking, Gemini and Agena moved into an unexplained bank, which was initially brought under control. Then the craft began to spin. The crew of Gemini 8 first shut off the Agena and finally cut it loose, thinking the Agena was the source of their problem. In spite of the crew's actions, Gemini began to tumble and spin faster, the spin rate rising to nearly 360 degrees a second, a rate that would soon cause the crew to lose consciousness.
    While this drama unfolded, Gemini 8 was out of contact with the ground. When a Capsule Communicator aboard a tracking ship in the Pacific re-established contact, he heard Armstrong say: "We've got serious problems here. We're tumbling end over end up here. We're disengaged from the Agena."
    Hodge called the ship, trying to make out the garbled transmission from Gemini: "Did he say he could not turn the Agena off?"
    "No, he says he has separated from the Agena and he's in a roll and he can't stop it," capcom Jim Fucci replied.
    "Did I hear him say he had a stuck hand controller?" Hodge asked, responding to a statement by Scott.
    The hand controller wasn't at fault, but a short-circuit on one of Gemini's thrusters was. The two astronauts turned off their main maneuvering thrusters and activated the re-entry thrusters to bring Gemini back under control.
    Under mission rules, Gemini had to return to earth as soon as possible. The rules had been bent before, and Hodge asked quickly about fuel use on the re-entry thrusters.
    Hodge was faced with the first life-and-death emergency situation in the U.S. space program. The astronauts, who quickly isolated the balky thruster that had caused the problem, hoped that Gemini 8 could be nursed to a full three-day mission like previous flights.
    But any hope that the rules could be bent this time was dashed because of low levels of thruster fuel in the main system caused by the stuck thruster. And if the activated re-entry thrusters leaked fuel, there would be no way to control Gemini on the way home. Hodge decided that Gemini 8 should return to earth.
    "Neil Armstrong did a wonderful job of getting it under control, but in the process had used up half of the re-entry reaction control fuel. And the decision we had to make - we had about 20 minutes between the [tracking ship] and Hawaii, the last we would see of them for a long, long time, we decided to bring them back in," Hodge explained.
    The next question was when and where Gemini 8 would return. It was in its fifth orbit, and the only remaining landing opportunities that day were on the sixth and seventh orbits. Failing that, Gemini 8 would have to wait until the next day to return.
    Hodge chose to bring Gemini 8 back on the seventh orbit, near a destroyer in the western Pacific south of Japan. "By the time they came over Hawaii, we had all the data ready to give them, the retrofire time and the angle and all that kind of stuff. They disappeared off the network and we waited."
    Hodge's blue team of flight controllers had been on duty for nearly nine hours of flight at that point, so he handed over control for the re-entry to Gene Kranz's white team, which was originally due to handle the scheduled re-entry. Naturally, Hodge and his team remained in the control room until the flight was over.
    Gemini 8 fired its retrorockets over Africa, and it landed near the target point. After three hours of bobbing in the Pacific, Armstrong and Scott were picked up by the destroyer Mason. Gemini had achieved its goal of docking, but just barely, and Dave Scott's space walk was lost with the curtailment of Gemini 8. Most importantly, though, Gemini 8 had been a good test of astronauts and flight controllers under fire. After Gemini 8, Hodge moved on to work on Apollo.
By Chris Gainor




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