Air and Space Photos from Alternate Worlds.

Wunderwaffen tome 2
Wunderwaffen tome 6
Also tome 6
 
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The first manned Deep Space Apollo Command and Service Module: Grissom, White & Chaffee (CSM-403), photographed from cameras within the C-IVB Instrument Unit on March 24, 1983, ahead of its return to Earth.

 
I don't really have a story for this other than it's the result of adding the -100QF Tays to a QC airframe, adding the Super 27 winglets, and then having the entire thing be run by the postal service....
 
Wunderwaffen tome 9
Wunderwaffen tome 12

(posted today! by Comrade Harps)

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Douglas R4D-6A
Lil Meaties Meat Chopper, #20, VMA-133 Dragons, US Marine Corps
Oki, Dogo Island, Allied-occupied Japan
April 1946

The idea of engaging surface targets using side-firing machine guns on aircraft flying pylons turns wasn’t new. It had been tested and proven in 1927, when US Army 1st Lt. Fred Nelson shot up a ground target with a single .30 cal machine gun mounted on a DH-4 biplane. Rejected as being too radical, the concept was all but forgotten until 1942, when a proposal to arm patrol bombers with side-firing .50 cal Brownings to attack surfaced submarines was made. While rejected, the promoter of the concept, First Lieutenant Chester Allen of the US Navy, persisted and submitted a revised proposal to the USMC for use against ground troops after reading about the Japanese night assaults against Marines on Guadalcanal. A series of tests using a single and later two .30 cal Brownings firing through the open rear door of a Douglas R2D against simulated infantry targets demonstrated the concept’s value.

VMA-133 was established in May 1943 to operate the USMC’s first operational gunship, the Douglas R4D-5A. These aircraft featured four .50 cal Brownings, all firing through portside windows. In combat from September, the unit maintained a training flight in America while deploying detachments to Marine Corps combat zones throughout the Pacific. Initially specialising in defending perimeters against Japanese night infantry assaults, more offensive nocturnal missions were gradually added to the squadron’s duties, such as firing on active enemy artillery positions and conducting interdiction sorties against tactical logistic centres.

Wherever the Marines went, a detachment from VMA-133 was sure to go. This pattern earned the unit a widespread and well-deserved reputation of ubiquity with the grunts. Playing on this, VMA-133 adopted flight callsigns inspired by the nursery rhyme Mary Had A Little Lamb, but on the other side, their night fires earned them the nickname Ryūjin, who in Japanese mythology was a sea dragon god. After Tokyo Rose dedicated a song to the “American night dragons” in July 1944, VMA-133 switched to dragon-inspired callsigns and adopted Dragons as the unit’s official nickname.

VMA-133’s gunships were camouflaged differently to the USMC’s R4D transports. During night firing trails, ground observers noted not just the visibility of the machine gun flash and their tracer rounds, but of the aircraft itself when maneuvering at low altitude, even with all of its lights out. Finished in the standard tri-colour camouflage of Ensign White, Intermediate Blue and Sea Blue, the paler paints were too reflective for night operations over the battlefield and subsequently replaced with Dark Gull Grey, a color normally associated with the Atlantic ASW schemes (ironically, as a top surface paint over the white side- and under-surfaces). This unique camouflage would be retained on the USMC’s R4D gunships until the end of the war.

During 1945, the USMC was preparing for the anticipated invasion of Japan. For VMA-133, this meant mentoring the establishment of VMAT-202 as a gunship training squadron and supporting the creation of second gunship combat squadron, VMA-543. The latter unit was to maintain the Corps’ gunship capabilities on the many partially-occupied islands scattered through the Pacific while VMA-133 concentrated on operations close to Japan. This saw VMA-133 in action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, while passing on its R4D-5As to VMAT-202 and VMA-543 as it re-equipped with the new R4D-6A. Based on the C-47B Skytrain, the R4D-6A featured a ventrally-mounted AN/APS-6 radar, which was deemed necessary for operations over the mountainous Japanese Home Islands.

VMA-133’s #20, Lil Meaties Meat Chopper, was named after the plane’s crew chief, Master Technical Sergeant Joseph Burger, who, as the short, beefy son of a small-town butcher, was known as Lil’ Meaty. The aircraft saw combat from September 1945 over southern Korea and was subsequently deployed to Dogoshima (Dogo Island) and, during Operation Downfall, Oshima and finally Haneda Airfield, near Tokyo. It is seen here with 33 mission markings while deployed to Dogoshima.
 
Someone should have stopped me, but nobody did... I warn you: read the (very) long backstory at your own risk.
PS: I barely know anything about rocket, I know that they go up with fire, but many details might be wrong in said backstory



In 1972, McDonnell-Douglas was looking toward its future, the Delta upper stage had shown to be a great complement to their Thor first stage. Obviously that led to some wanting to capitalize on that heritage and make a new, larger engine based on Delta. But some engineers were wary of going toward a brand new cryogenic engine while Rocketdyne were already paid by the government to work on the RS-25 for the brand new Space Shuttle; it meant long and expensive research and work on company money. So they proposed a shrewd scheme: to combine five Thor missile under one fuselage and two Delta engine strapped together as a second stage to make a medium range private launcher. Since it was mostly off-the-shelves technology, so much more safe and cheap, McDonnel-Douglas approved the "Odin" project.

In 1975, the first Odin stage is tested separately from the Delta-heavy second stage and the modifications to improve on the engine control. Its success allowed a first "all-up" test in 1976 with the Odin PLV-1 (Penta-engine Launch Vehicle). The increased stress on the structure caused a small puncture in the gas tanks which leaked until the accumulated fuel ignites, destroying the rocket mid-flight. Modifications on the Odin first stage to strengthen it forced another Odin PLV-1 test in 1977, which is a complete success, the ballistic cap being tracked during re-entry, confirming the perfect trajectory powered by the second stage.

In 1978, enough tests had been realized with the Odin to officially present it to the market as the new medium-sized launcher as the Odin PLV Cargo. With the Shuttle still in infancy, the Odin PLV found itself as one of the only launcher capable of putting 8600 Kg (19000 lbs)into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 3700 Kg (8160 lbs) into Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO). Only the Titan III family are capable of matching these specs and they were reserved to the Department of Defense for their own military communications and early warning satellites. Slowly filling their agenda with telecommunication and weather satellites, McDonnell-Douglas were pleased with their launcher but still commissioned a paper on a possible upgrade to inter-planetary trajectory.One of the solution was to simply put an Agena rocket as a third stage but it was discovered that unless they made a cluster like with the Thor and Delta, the payload would be tiny. Furthermore, this area was usually a niche with very few contracts, and they were flown by rockets made and designed by Space Agencies.

But an interesting proposition was made: instead of using the Agena as a third stage, why not use it as a Space Tug ? The idea had been flown around before by NASA, but with their focus on Apollo, nothing was made of it. The idea slowly germinate and ways to make money with it began to appears, satellites orbit naturally degrade due to LEO still being in the atmosphere, air molecules slowing down the spacecraft until it felt down, one way to fight it was to design a bus with independent propulsion but due to weight concerns, it was never really enough to cover its full lifetime. Another way was quite to the opposite: to voluntarily de-orbit a damaged or non-working satellite instead of just putting it in a higher orbit until it fell down. Already in space, the Agena fuel reserves would be quite enough to do multiple missions before being dry and sending itself to burn in the atmosphere. The study was not sure how profitable it would be, however, as an Odin launch usually costed around 32 million $ for LEO (and 44 M$ for GEO), while quite low compared to competitors (thanks to it using pre-existing technology with already established production line), it was quite a cost to recoup. However, an other idea would prove much more feasible; instead of single-use payment, the Agena service would be sold as part of a launch package. This would not only help to secure more money par usual payload launch, it would also secure the Odin as a commercial launcher. With the possibility to have a satellite life extended and its orbit secured after the launch, it drastically reduced the risk for any company investing in a satellite, making it more interesting to go with the Odin then a competitor. Work on the Agena Space Tug started, thankfully the McDonnell previous work on the Augmented Target Docking Adapter for the Agena Target Vehicle tremendously helped in that task.

In 1982, after the first successful Challenger Shuttle launch, the first Agena Space Tug was launched for testing. After deploying its communication, detection array and small solar panel, they directed it toward its first quarry: a Delta upper stage from a previous Geosynchronous satellite launch loitering around 1000 km above Earth. Taking advantage of every tricks allowed by orbital mechanic to save fuel, they joined the target after five days. The "Grappling Collar" secured the Agena with the Delta stage and after careful maneuvers, decelerated until the Delta trajectory would safely re-enter Earth after a few months. They decoupled the Agena and put it on a LEO on stand-by, the success of the first "third party" re-entry gave more confidence on the more expensive launch package with Agena service. In 1984, the maiden voyage of the Atlas G proved to be a disaster as the Centaur second stage broke off during insertion of the Intelsat V F-9. In rotation in a useless orbit, the satellite had just 4 months before falling down to Earth. With the Agena Space Tug still operational, McDonnell-Douglas proposed to try salvage the satellite and with nothing to loose, Intelsat agreed. Having to match the rotational speed of the spacecraft, the Agena secured itself on the wreckage of the Centaur before stabilizing the rotation. Once stable, it inserted it into its planned Geostationary Orbit to try separating the two crafts as if it failed, the satellite would at least be in a functioning orbit . There, the satellite successfully deployed and severed itself from the wreckage thanks to its Apogee motors, fine tuning its trajectory while the Agena tugged the Centaur back into a re-entry trajectory. This high-profile success greatly served to highlight the Odin and the Agena service, gaining contracts to the Atlas misfortune.

The only change during that period not related to the Agena Space Tug would be the addition of 4 GEM-60 solid motors to increase the lift capacity, 9500 kg (21000 lbs) to LEO and 4000 kg (8800 lbs) to GEO of the Odin. Optional, these boosters increased the launch capacity but also risks as additional fault points, not only that but the Odin first stage had to be modified which greatly increased the price (35 M$ LEO/50 M$ GEO).

In 1986, after the Challenger disaster, a nation was in mourning and doubt began to form about the Space Shuttle viability. While the inquiry was happening, McDonnell-Douglas revived their plans for the Big Gemini. While all early signs seemed to indicate that NASA would stick to its "Space Truck", having a alternative personnel-hauler meant that if the Shuttles were to be grounded, McDonnell-Douglas would be the only alternative for the USA, meaning an entry in the governmental contract world. Both as a publicity stunt and to gather data, a restored Gemini boilerplate was launched the 11 November 1986 to commemorate Gemini 12, the last Gemini mission. McDonnell, now part of McDonnell-Douglas, was the ones who made the Gemini capsule so they provided both the boilerplate and data for the launch. After lobbing the unmanned capsule above the atmosphere, it re-entered atmosphere and landed roughly 500 nautical miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

With the data of the Odin flight, work started to redesigned the 1969 Big Gemini project with modern technology. There was a plan, however, to make a new, fully functional, Gemini capsule to practice manned launch. This was quite controversial as every production lines related to the old project were closed a long time ago, but nonetheless, a small team was assembled to study the viability of such plan.

In 1989, the new Big Gemini was formally designed: it would follow an enlarged Gemini capsule with enough room for eight astronauts (a pilot, a copilot and six passengers), a service module with enough room for cargo and a docking module located inside an enlarged Gemini neck, the parachute being moved on the sides and the altitude control equipment on the side of the capsule itself. The enlarged neck notably helped to install a large apollo-like ejection tower. When ignited, a signal would de-couple the capsule from the service module to cut down on the weight and allow better chance of survival. With the beginning of the work on a first prototype and boilerplate for Big Gemini, the similarity of the upper part with the venerable Gemini capsule made McDonnell-Douglas authorize two new Gemini capsule to be made, both to test manufacturing process and part of its new components in space. Indeed, while the capsule frame would be identical to the classical Gemini, most of the internal electronics and system would be modern equivalent that would also be integrated in the Big Gemini.

It would not be before mid 1993 that the first brand new Gemini capsule be produced, its boilerplate-equivalent having launched at the beginning of the year. The boilerplate had given precious information about the structure, new heat-shield and reentry stress, but only a functional Gemini would give McDonnell-Douglas confirmation about the internal systems. A first ground test was made to test the launch escape system, designed around the one made for mercury, and shown its success. This notably confirmed that removing the ejection seat was a good decision, saving weight and space. In November 22nd, an automated, un-manned Gemini was launched atop a Odin rocket. John Young, who had been invited as guest of honor, is notably cited to have quipped: "So it took them thirty years to make it work ?", jokingly referring to the launch escape system, which was absent in the original Gemini.
The launch was smooth and even with a "fully dressed" Gemini capsule, the launcher was capable of putting it in orbit without breaking a sweat. After separating from the second stage, the capsule orbited while computers and sensors seated instead of the astronauts were registering every parameters. After three days, the capsule started re-entry procedures, ditching the service module and igniting its engines. After burning in the atmosphere while carefully following its path, the parachutes opened and let the Gemini capsule fall on the ground in New-Mexico near Kirtland Air Force Base.

Despite the success, no manned launch would be done, after all, McDonnell-Douglas had no astronauts corps and the risks were clearly larger then the rewards. All the data wanted to finalize Big Gemini had been collected and the large cost spent by the company had been "recoup" as a publicity stunt to promote the "man-rating" of the Odin launcher. The second capsule was thus kept as a company model, traveled around the globe to aerospace show as a publicity.

Already in 1989, it was known that the Big Gemini would be, at launch, in the 15 000 to 16 000 Kg (33 000 to 35 250 lbs) ballpark and that meant that even the Odin PLV-GEM60 would not be able to lift it. The cheap and easy way to lift that beast would be to strap 2 other Odin first stage to the normal rocket and it was what the engineers recommended, both as a way to save money, save time and reduce risks. But that didn't meant that it was easy. In fact even higher ups were unsure about this whole, costly, idea but the sunk cost fallacy made the investors green-light the new Odin PLV-3. To not pay money for a one-shot launcher, a Heavy-Cargo variant was designed in parallel to propose heavy launch capability to potential clients. Separation clamps and attachments had to be designed and any ways to both do it securely and without re-designing the whole Odin internal structure was studied. Quickly the engineers and designers of the Odin PLV-3 blessed the choice to re-strength the structure in 1976, as it offered them attachment points for minimal modifications. A first prototype was launched in 1994 but a separation issue forced the security officer to send the self-destruct signal. Sad but determined, the engineers went back to the drawing board with the information and data to find what went wrong. It was found that it was simply a pyrotechnical failure of a explosive bolt, better screening and quality control was all what was needed. In 1995 another prototype flew and this time it was near perfect, the ballistic cap was sent in a elliptical orbit around 100 000 km over Earth before burning down in the atmosphere and plunging in the Indian Ocean.

In 1997, McDonnell-Douglas would win a big contract. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was stuck with a lot of obsolete and useless satellites. A lot of older Kosmos and GLONASS were in orbit and non-functional, worst, unlike many commercial satellite, had not been put in a safe orbit. With many of them powered by decaying radioactive elements, many nations wanted to avoid the risk of collision with active spacecraft that could litter dangerous elements over inhabited regions. So in 1997, after negotiations between Russia, the USA and the European Union, a few of these decayed satellites were targeted to be safely de-orbited. As the only company with experience and hardware for the job, McDonnell-Douglas easily won the contract. To make sure that they could still service their paying customers with a Agena package, a brand new Agena Space Tug was launched for this mission. No less then seven satellites would be de-orbited, with help from Roscosmos to locate which ones, with the payment being cashed in when the quarry was tracked burning into the atmosphere (as part of the deal to avoid a nation stealing one of the old Soviet spacecraft). This would prove to be quite a needed influx of money and prestige for the company and its launcher, as three nations pitched together the money.

In 1999, a boilerplate of Big Gemini capsule was sat atop an Odin PLV-GEM60, the sub-orbital launch served to test Big Gemini reentry ballistic. The success was pretty much anonymous, just like the launch escape system testing the year before, as works on Big Gemini has started to slow down. The Odin PLV-3 Heavy Cargo was not popular as the majority of commercial launches were still the baseline Odin PLV, then the Odin PLV-GEM60, only two commercial launch and both for the Defense department, one in 1998 for the PLV-3 for a Mercury spy satellite and another in 1999 for a Early Detection System Satellite following a string of failure of the Titan IV rocket. Amelioration in miniaturization and electronics made satellite smaller, cheaper and lighter with the years, not bigger, costlier and heavier. Ironically, like the Shuttle, both Agena and Odin PLV-3 would suffer from these unforeseen circumstance, less and less satellite owners saw the point in paying more for extending a few years a satellite life by having a space tug shoving it back to orbit after the planned life or making one large and heavy satellite instead of many smaller ones. The new millennia didn't seemed brighter as work on Big Gemini was "temporarily suspended" in 2000 before briefly resuming in 2001 and being suspended again. A boilerplate launch in 2002 was cancelled in a cost-saving measure by the managers to save the program but with the Shuttle and now the cheap Russian Soyouz, the costly Big Gemini seemed just as out of place then the Odin PLV-3.

It was, by a tragic ironic turn, that the Big Gemini was saved with the Colombia disaster of 2003, with a second catastrophic failure, this time during reentry, all Shuttle flights were suspended for two years. The American government was faced with quite a conundrum: if the Shuttle was found to be irrecoverable, they had no replacement to both resupply and make crew rotation in the ISS. It is without surprise that McDonnell-Douglas had echo of this and proposed a partnership with NASA, if they were willing to foot half the bill, McDonnell-Douglas would deliver the Big Gemini in less then three years. For the congress it was a miracle, a dirt cheap launcher and capsule seemingly coming from heaven but in NASA, many were still clinging to their dear Shuttle. But this time their was too much pressure and they had to sign the partnership contract, if only to secure American space flight capability if the Shuttle proved to be dead. While McDonnell-Douglas investors laughed all the way to the bank, the boilerplate launch planned for 2002 was made in July 2003. The influx of funds and interest accelerated the work and a first "fully dressed" Big Gemini sub-orbital flight was made in late November. With a Big Gemini with black boxes as only passengers, sitting atop the massive Odin PLV-3 at Cap Canaveral, the future of the US space flight was decided. In a massive roar, the fifteen engines of the monstrous craft came to life and sent the beast into the air, after 300 seconds, the side boosters are jolted side-ward before finally quieting and falling down. A few seconds latter, it is the main booster that come silent, before being pushed back by the twin Delta engines, that keep accelerating while following an arched trajectory. 200 seconds latter, it is confirmed, the payload is in orbit, the large second stage then fire its engines one last time to decelerate and join back the other boosters on the ground. But for the Capsule, it is the beginning, igniting its engines to finely adjust the trajectory, it open its side door to extend its photovoltaic wings, allowing power to jolt in its battery. In space, it has nothing to do but keep orbiting while sensors register everyone of its systems. After a few days, the engines fired once again to send the Big Gemini back to Earth, the service module detaching itself after its short life and burning in the atmosphere. The Capsule, however, was shielded from the heat with its shield and the careful trajectory. The parachute slowed the capsule enough to survive its landing in the Ocean, welcomed by the US Navy ships and helicopters sent to retrieve it. While the engineers were still processing the data, the US President George W Bush was already proud to announce the Big Gemini as the Shuttle replacement, causing an aneurysm to much of the NASA officials. While he back-tracked latter, correcting his words as "a possible replacement for the Shuttle", McDonnell-Douglas was proudly announcing that the Big Gemini was "technically" ready for duty.

In 2004, while the bulk of the crew rotation and supply was being handled by the Russian Soyouz, another un-crewed Big Gemini was being prepared but this time for a re-supply mission to the ISS. Clearly over-kill for the task, it was nonetheless filled to maximum cargo capacity and launched in July. The launch was near perfect, with only a slight pitching mistake due to a programing mistake, but the Big Gemini engines could make up for it, it was still within mission parameters. Reaching the ISS at 400 km, the Big Gemini spacecraft was capable to track and lock to the ISS. The service module was filled with trash while the capsule received important test results and samples that were to be sent to Earth. The Capsule was retrieved this time after a hard landing in Arizona, to test the effects of a land versus water landing.

In 2005, after the STS-114 was delayed for a week due to fuel sensor anomaly, NASA finally committed and bought a "strategic reserve" of 5 Big Gemini with their Odin PLV-3 launchers. This news allowed McDonnell-Douglas to commit as well to mass produce Big Gemini despite its cost. In 2006, in February the first manned launch of Big Gemini happened with Micheal A. Baker as pilot and Brent W. Jett Jr. as copilot. Trained since 2003, both men were familiar with the Big Gemini and were comfortable while seated atop a 50 meters pillar of fuel and oxidizer, going down the check-up list with control. Once the count-down reached zero, the two men were sent to space. Despite having the capability of being automated, the astronauts insisted on doing the orbital procedure by themselves as well as tracking and mating with the ISS. Once again the Big Gemini delivered and the two men, after delivering cargo to the ISS, landed back on Earth in the Ocean. With the successful and official NASA man-rating, the Big Gemini was officially declared to be the "interim NASA Capsule" before an hypothetical new "more capable" one.

In 2010, the same year that the shuttle officially retired, the Big Gemini, now popularly referred as the "Bee Gemini", was sent with a full crew of eight to complete its first crew rotation mission on the ISS. With this success, NASA announced that they bought 10 more Big Gemini and Odin PLV-3. This not only secured the Big Gemini place but also the Odin and their constructor, McDonnell-Douglas, as the NASA main supplier for the foreseeable future.
 
Someone should have stopped me, but nobody did... I warn you: read the (very) long backstory at your own risk.
PS: I barely know anything about rocket, I know that they go up with fire, but many details might be wrong in said backstory



In 1972, McDonnell-Douglas was looking toward its future, the Delta upper stage had shown to be a great complement to their Thor first stage. Obviously that led to some wanting to capitalize on that heritage and make a new, larger engine based on Delta. But some engineers were wary of going toward a brand new cryogenic engine while Rocketdyne were already paid by the government to work on the RS-25 for the brand new Space Shuttle; it meant long and expensive research and work on company money. So they proposed a shrewd scheme: to combine five Thor missile under one fuselage and two Delta engine strapped together as a second stage to make a medium range private launcher. Since it was mostly off-the-shelves technology, so much more safe and cheap, McDonnel-Douglas approved the "Odin" project.

In 1975, the first Odin stage is tested separately from the Delta-heavy second stage and the modifications to improve on the engine control. Its success allowed a first "all-up" test in 1976 with the Odin PLV-1 (Penta-engine Launch Vehicle). The increased stress on the structure caused a small puncture in the gas tanks which leaked until the accumulated fuel ignites, destroying the rocket mid-flight. Modifications on the Odin first stage to strengthen it forced another Odin PLV-1 test in 1977, which is a complete success, the ballistic cap being tracked during re-entry, confirming the perfect trajectory powered by the second stage.

In 1978, enough tests had been realized with the Odin to officially present it to the market as the new medium-sized launcher as the Odin PLV Cargo. With the Shuttle still in infancy, the Odin PLV found itself as one of the only launcher capable of putting 8600 Kg (19000 lbs)into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 3700 Kg (8160 lbs) into Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO). Only the Titan III family are capable of matching these specs and they were reserved to the Department of Defense for their own military communications and early warning satellites. Slowly filling their agenda with telecommunication and weather satellites, McDonnell-Douglas were pleased with their launcher but still commissioned a paper on a possible upgrade to inter-planetary trajectory.One of the solution was to simply put an Agena rocket as a third stage but it was discovered that unless they made a cluster like with the Thor and Delta, the payload would be tiny. Furthermore, this area was usually a niche with very few contracts, and they were flown by rockets made and designed by Space Agencies.

But an interesting proposition was made: instead of using the Agena as a third stage, why not use it as a Space Tug ? The idea had been flown around before by NASA, but with their focus on Apollo, nothing was made of it. The idea slowly germinate and ways to make money with it began to appears, satellites orbit naturally degrade due to LEO still being in the atmosphere, air molecules slowing down the spacecraft until it felt down, one way to fight it was to design a bus with independent propulsion but due to weight concerns, it was never really enough to cover its full lifetime. Another way was quite to the opposite: to voluntarily de-orbit a damaged or non-working satellite instead of just putting it in a higher orbit until it fell down. Already in space, the Agena fuel reserves would be quite enough to do multiple missions before being dry and sending itself to burn in the atmosphere. The study was not sure how profitable it would be, however, as an Odin launch usually costed around 32 million $ for LEO (and 44 M$ for GEO), while quite low compared to competitors (thanks to it using pre-existing technology with already established production line), it was quite a cost to recoup. However, an other idea would prove much more feasible; instead of single-use payment, the Agena service would be sold as part of a launch package. This would not only help to secure more money par usual payload launch, it would also secure the Odin as a commercial launcher. With the possibility to have a satellite life extended and its orbit secured after the launch, it drastically reduced the risk for any company investing in a satellite, making it more interesting to go with the Odin then a competitor. Work on the Agena Space Tug started, thankfully the McDonnell previous work on the Augmented Target Docking Adapter for the Agena Target Vehicle tremendously helped in that task.

In 1982, after the first successful Challenger Shuttle launch, the first Agena Space Tug was launched for testing. After deploying its communication, detection array and small solar panel, they directed it toward its first quarry: a Delta upper stage from a previous Geosynchronous satellite launch loitering around 1000 km above Earth. Taking advantage of every tricks allowed by orbital mechanic to save fuel, they joined the target after five days. The "Grappling Collar" secured the Agena with the Delta stage and after careful maneuvers, decelerated until the Delta trajectory would safely re-enter Earth after a few months. They decoupled the Agena and put it on a LEO on stand-by, the success of the first "third party" re-entry gave more confidence on the more expensive launch package with Agena service. In 1984, the maiden voyage of the Atlas G proved to be a disaster as the Centaur second stage broke off during insertion of the Intelsat V F-9. In rotation in a useless orbit, the satellite had just 4 months before falling down to Earth. With the Agena Space Tug still operational, McDonnell-Douglas proposed to try salvage the satellite and with nothing to loose, Intelsat agreed. Having to match the rotational speed of the spacecraft, the Agena secured itself on the wreckage of the Centaur before stabilizing the rotation. Once stable, it inserted it into its planned Geostationary Orbit to try separating the two crafts as if it failed, the satellite would at least be in a functioning orbit . There, the satellite successfully deployed and severed itself from the wreckage thanks to its Apogee motors, fine tuning its trajectory while the Agena tugged the Centaur back into a re-entry trajectory. This high-profile success greatly served to highlight the Odin and the Agena service, gaining contracts to the Atlas misfortune.

The only change during that period not related to the Agena Space Tug would be the addition of 4 GEM-60 solid motors to increase the lift capacity, 9500 kg (21000 lbs) to LEO and 4000 kg (8800 lbs) to GEO of the Odin. Optional, these boosters increased the launch capacity but also risks as additional fault points, not only that but the Odin first stage had to be modified which greatly increased the price (35 M$ LEO/50 M$ GEO).

In 1986, after the Challenger disaster, a nation was in mourning and doubt began to form about the Space Shuttle viability. While the inquiry was happening, McDonnell-Douglas revived their plans for the Big Gemini. While all early signs seemed to indicate that NASA would stick to its "Space Truck", having a alternative personnel-hauler meant that if the Shuttles were to be grounded, McDonnell-Douglas would be the only alternative for the USA, meaning an entry in the governmental contract world. Both as a publicity stunt and to gather data, a restored Gemini boilerplate was launched the 11 November 1986 to commemorate Gemini 12, the last Gemini mission. McDonnell, now part of McDonnell-Douglas, was the ones who made the Gemini capsule so they provided both the boilerplate and data for the launch. After lobbing the unmanned capsule above the atmosphere, it re-entered atmosphere and landed roughly 500 nautical miles from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

With the data of the Odin flight, work started to redesigned the 1969 Big Gemini project with modern technology. There was a plan, however, to make a new, fully functional, Gemini capsule to practice manned launch. This was quite controversial as every production lines related to the old project were closed a long time ago, but nonetheless, a small team was assembled to study the viability of such plan.

In 1989, the new Big Gemini was formally designed: it would follow an enlarged Gemini capsule with enough room for eight astronauts (a pilot, a copilot and six passengers), a service module with enough room for cargo and a docking module located inside an enlarged Gemini neck, the parachute being moved on the sides and the altitude control equipment on the side of the capsule itself. The enlarged neck notably helped to install a large apollo-like ejection tower. When ignited, a signal would de-couple the capsule from the service module to cut down on the weight and allow better chance of survival. With the beginning of the work on a first prototype and boilerplate for Big Gemini, the similarity of the upper part with the venerable Gemini capsule made McDonnell-Douglas authorize two new Gemini capsule to be made, both to test manufacturing process and part of its new components in space. Indeed, while the capsule frame would be identical to the classical Gemini, most of the internal electronics and system would be modern equivalent that would also be integrated in the Big Gemini.

It would not be before mid 1993 that the first brand new Gemini capsule be produced, its boilerplate-equivalent having launched at the beginning of the year. The boilerplate had given precious information about the structure, new heat-shield and reentry stress, but only a functional Gemini would give McDonnell-Douglas confirmation about the internal systems. A first ground test was made to test the launch escape system, designed around the one made for mercury, and shown its success. This notably confirmed that removing the ejection seat was a good decision, saving weight and space. In November 22nd, an automated, un-manned Gemini was launched atop a Odin rocket. John Young, who had been invited as guest of honor, is notably cited to have quipped: "So it took them thirty years to make it work ?", jokingly referring to the launch escape system, which was absent in the original Gemini.
The launch was smooth and even with a "fully dressed" Gemini capsule, the launcher was capable of putting it in orbit without breaking a sweat. After separating from the second stage, the capsule orbited while computers and sensors seated instead of the astronauts were registering every parameters. After three days, the capsule started re-entry procedures, ditching the service module and igniting its engines. After burning in the atmosphere while carefully following its path, the parachutes opened and let the Gemini capsule fall on the ground in New-Mexico near Kirtland Air Force Base.

Despite the success, no manned launch would be done, after all, McDonnell-Douglas had no astronauts corps and the risks were clearly larger then the rewards. All the data wanted to finalize Big Gemini had been collected and the large cost spent by the company had been "recoup" as a publicity stunt to promote the "man-rating" of the Odin launcher. The second capsule was thus kept as a company model, traveled around the globe to aerospace show as a publicity.

Already in 1989, it was known that the Big Gemini would be, at launch, in the 15 000 to 16 000 Kg (33 000 to 35 250 lbs) ballpark and that meant that even the Odin PLV-GEM60 would not be able to lift it. The cheap and easy way to lift that beast would be to strap 2 other Odin first stage to the normal rocket and it was what the engineers recommended, both as a way to save money, save time and reduce risks. But that didn't meant that it was easy. In fact even higher ups were unsure about this whole, costly, idea but the sunk cost fallacy made the investors green-light the new Odin PLV-3. To not pay money for a one-shot launcher, a Heavy-Cargo variant was designed in parallel to propose heavy launch capability to potential clients. Separation clamps and attachments had to be designed and any ways to both do it securely and without re-designing the whole Odin internal structure was studied. Quickly the engineers and designers of the Odin PLV-3 blessed the choice to re-strength the structure in 1976, as it offered them attachment points for minimal modifications. A first prototype was launched in 1994 but a separation issue forced the security officer to send the self-destruct signal. Sad but determined, the engineers went back to the drawing board with the information and data to find what went wrong. It was found that it was simply a pyrotechnical failure of a explosive bolt, better screening and quality control was all what was needed. In 1995 another prototype flew and this time it was near perfect, the ballistic cap was sent in a elliptical orbit around 100 000 km over Earth before burning down in the atmosphere and plunging in the Indian Ocean.

In 1997, McDonnell-Douglas would win a big contract. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was stuck with a lot of obsolete and useless satellites. A lot of older Kosmos and GLONASS were in orbit and non-functional, worst, unlike many commercial satellite, had not been put in a safe orbit. With many of them powered by decaying radioactive elements, many nations wanted to avoid the risk of collision with active spacecraft that could litter dangerous elements over inhabited regions. So in 1997, after negotiations between Russia, the USA and the European Union, a few of these decayed satellites were targeted to be safely de-orbited. As the only company with experience and hardware for the job, McDonnell-Douglas easily won the contract. To make sure that they could still service their paying customers with a Agena package, a brand new Agena Space Tug was launched for this mission. No less then seven satellites would be de-orbited, with help from Roscosmos to locate which ones, with the payment being cashed in when the quarry was tracked burning into the atmosphere (as part of the deal to avoid a nation stealing one of the old Soviet spacecraft). This would prove to be quite a needed influx of money and prestige for the company and its launcher, as three nations pitched together the money.

In 1999, a boilerplate of Big Gemini capsule was sat atop an Odin PLV-GEM60, the sub-orbital launch served to test Big Gemini reentry ballistic. The success was pretty much anonymous, just like the launch escape system testing the year before, as works on Big Gemini has started to slow down. The Odin PLV-3 Heavy Cargo was not popular as the majority of commercial launches were still the baseline Odin PLV, then the Odin PLV-GEM60, only two commercial launch and both for the Defense department, one in 1998 for the PLV-3 for a Mercury spy satellite and another in 1999 for a Early Detection System Satellite following a string of failure of the Titan IV rocket. Amelioration in miniaturization and electronics made satellite smaller, cheaper and lighter with the years, not bigger, costlier and heavier. Ironically, like the Shuttle, both Agena and Odin PLV-3 would suffer from these unforeseen circumstance, less and less satellite owners saw the point in paying more for extending a few years a satellite life by having a space tug shoving it back to orbit after the planned life or making one large and heavy satellite instead of many smaller ones. The new millennia didn't seemed brighter as work on Big Gemini was "temporarily suspended" in 2000 before briefly resuming in 2001 and being suspended again. A boilerplate launch in 2002 was cancelled in a cost-saving measure by the managers to save the program but with the Shuttle and now the cheap Russian Soyouz, the costly Big Gemini seemed just as out of place then the Odin PLV-3.

It was, by a tragic ironic turn, that the Big Gemini was saved with the Colombia disaster of 2003, with a second catastrophic failure, this time during reentry, all Shuttle flights were suspended for two years. The American government was faced with quite a conundrum: if the Shuttle was found to be irrecoverable, they had no replacement to both resupply and make crew rotation in the ISS. It is without surprise that McDonnell-Douglas had echo of this and proposed a partnership with NASA, if they were willing to foot half the bill, McDonnell-Douglas would deliver the Big Gemini in less then three years. For the congress it was a miracle, a dirt cheap launcher and capsule seemingly coming from heaven but in NASA, many were still clinging to their dear Shuttle. But this time their was too much pressure and they had to sign the partnership contract, if only to secure American space flight capability if the Shuttle proved to be dead. While McDonnell-Douglas investors laughed all the way to the bank, the boilerplate launch planned for 2002 was made in July 2003. The influx of funds and interest accelerated the work and a first "fully dressed" Big Gemini sub-orbital flight was made in late November. With a Big Gemini with black boxes as only passengers, sitting atop the massive Odin PLV-3 at Cap Canaveral, the future of the US space flight was decided. In a massive roar, the fifteen engines of the monstrous craft came to life and sent the beast into the air, after 300 seconds, the side boosters are jolted side-ward before finally quieting and falling down. A few seconds latter, it is the main booster that come silent, before being pushed back by the twin Delta engines, that keep accelerating while following an arched trajectory. 200 seconds latter, it is confirmed, the payload is in orbit, the large second stage then fire its engines one last time to decelerate and join back the other boosters on the ground. But for the Capsule, it is the beginning, igniting its engines to finely adjust the trajectory, it open its side door to extend its photovoltaic wings, allowing power to jolt in its battery. In space, it has nothing to do but keep orbiting while sensors register everyone of its systems. After a few days, the engines fired once again to send the Big Gemini back to Earth, the service module detaching itself after its short life and burning in the atmosphere. The Capsule, however, was shielded from the heat with its shield and the careful trajectory. The parachute slowed the capsule enough to survive its landing in the Ocean, welcomed by the US Navy ships and helicopters sent to retrieve it. While the engineers were still processing the data, the US President George W Bush was already proud to announce the Big Gemini as the Shuttle replacement, causing an aneurysm to much of the NASA officials. While he back-tracked latter, correcting his words as "a possible replacement for the Shuttle", McDonnell-Douglas was proudly announcing that the Big Gemini was "technically" ready for duty.

In 2004, while the bulk of the crew rotation and supply was being handled by the Russian Soyouz, another un-crewed Big Gemini was being prepared but this time for a re-supply mission to the ISS. Clearly over-kill for the task, it was nonetheless filled to maximum cargo capacity and launched in July. The launch was near perfect, with only a slight pitching mistake due to a programing mistake, but the Big Gemini engines could make up for it, it was still within mission parameters. Reaching the ISS at 400 km, the Big Gemini spacecraft was capable to track and lock to the ISS. The service module was filled with trash while the capsule received important test results and samples that were to be sent to Earth. The Capsule was retrieved this time after a hard landing in Arizona, to test the effects of a land versus water landing.

In 2005, after the STS-114 was delayed for a week due to fuel sensor anomaly, NASA finally committed and bought a "strategic reserve" of 5 Big Gemini with their Odin PLV-3 launchers. This news allowed McDonnell-Douglas to commit as well to mass produce Big Gemini despite its cost. In 2006, in February the first manned launch of Big Gemini happened with Micheal A. Baker as pilot and Brent W. Jett Jr. as copilot. Trained since 2003, both men were familiar with the Big Gemini and were comfortable while seated atop a 50 meters pillar of fuel and oxidizer, going down the check-up list with control. Once the count-down reached zero, the two men were sent to space. Despite having the capability of being automated, the astronauts insisted on doing the orbital procedure by themselves as well as tracking and mating with the ISS. Once again the Big Gemini delivered and the two men, after delivering cargo to the ISS, landed back on Earth in the Ocean. With the successful and official NASA man-rating, the Big Gemini was officially declared to be the "interim NASA Capsule" before an hypothetical new "more capable" one.

In 2010, the same year that the shuttle officially retired, the Big Gemini, now popularly referred as the "Bee Gemini", was sent with a full crew of eight to complete its first crew rotation mission on the ISS. With this success, NASA announced that they bought 10 more Big Gemini and Odin PLV-3. This not only secured the Big Gemini place but also the Odin and their constructor, McDonnell-Douglas, as the NASA main supplier for the foreseeable future.
I saw that first variant and was like “so that’s what was on the top of the Thor during those failed test launches in ‘58”
 
Someone should have stopped me, but nobody did... I warn you: read the (very) long backstory at your own risk.
PS: I barely know anything about rocket, I know that they go up with fire, but many details might be wrong in said backstory


SNIP

Cool designs! Not so sure on Gemini surviving to the 1980s but why not!
 
The original Soyuz is only 6 years (more or less) younger than Gemini I, and yet the latest models keep going and going. I don't honestly see any real problem in seeing constant upgrades for that model. It could serve as a basic crew taxi.
 
These are really cool pics! Love them...and part of a great TL! Is that thrust termination ports on top of the SRBs? I know Shuttle SRBs didn't have them - but they look similar to the markings on the Titan UA SRBs that did....
The SRBs are exactly as per OTL in 1989, based on information from this website. So whatever they are, they were there IOTL :)
 
The original Soyuz is only 6 years (more or less) younger than Gemini I, and yet the latest models keep going and going. I don't honestly see any real problem in seeing constant upgrades for that model. It could serve as a basic crew taxi.
Yes - but to be fair that is a long 6 years during the Space Race! That said, I'm writing a AH about a continuing Apollo programme so perhaps I am being a bit churlish!

Discussions aside it's really cool artwork @Undeadmuffin ....and are they windows in the side of the Big G?
 
Yes, as it was planned
I'm pretty sure those windows were only in the mockup for visibility (more like access holes and "visible man" cutaways). I'd have to check some of the drawings, but in general you just don't get windows that big in a re-entry vehicle, especially where they don't serve a direct purpose (e.g. those aren't pointed right for docking or entry control).
 
Okay, so I'm actually wrong, they do represent something from the proposed final vehicle, it's just they're hatch placeholders, not windows. No clue why they think basically everyone in the capsule needs their own blasted hatch, but...there it is.


 
Okay, so I'm actually wrong, they do represent something from the proposed final vehicle, it's just they're hatch placeholders, not windows. No clue why they think basically everyone in the capsule needs their own blasted hatch, but...there it is.


I kept them mostly for visual reasons
 
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