With the exception of Apollo flights, manned spaceflight has operated exclusively in low Earth orbit, the area in space that extends up to about 1,300 vertical miles. In 1966, the Gemini XI crew set an as-of-yet unbroken altitude record within low Earth orbital flights. Using the Agena’s engine, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon reached an apogee (peak distance from the Earth) of 850 miles; most Gemini missions, and missions since, have operated under the 200 mile altitude. (Left, Dick Gordon during an EVA. 1966.)
So why did Gemini XI get to fly higher than any other mission? In short, because Conrad wanted to.
As early as 1961, NASA was tentatively considering going to the moon with a Gemini spacecraft. Proposed missions varied from circumlunar flight and flybys, to stays in orbit, to Gemini lunar landings with modified spacecraft.
Conrad was so interested in pushing the limits of Gemini towards the moon that he went to Congress to seek support for a lunar Gemini mission. He lost; as was typical during the space race, Apollo took priority over just about everything. By the time Conrad was named commander of Gemini XI, there was no chance to take Gemini out of Earth orbit. (Above, Gordon and Conrad, the prime crew for Gemini XI.)
But there was still a chance to push Gemini. Conrad proposed that he and Gordon use their Agena docking vehicle to increase the heigh of their orbit. It wouldn’t be the moon, but it would be something new. He also proposed they dock with the Agena on their first orbit to simulate the timeframe of a lunar orbit rendezvous; previous missions had established their own orbits before chasing down the Agena.
With the help of fellow astronaut and nuclear engineer Bill Anders, Conrad proved a high orbital Gemini mission would pose no greater risk from radiation than any other mission. He was given a ‘go’ for a record altitude flight. Conrad and Gordon achieved their ambitious goals; the Gemini XI patch points to their ambitious mission. (Left, another shot of Gordon during an EVA.)
As for the plan to take Gemini to the moon, it was a proposal that appeared sporadically and in different forms throughout the Gemini spacecraft’s lifetime. It’s also something deserving of its own, longer treatment. Look for an article about one proposal over the next few days.