Winged Gemini

Back in the late 1970s, my first job after graduation was with McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis. I worked in their space vehicle division, sitting amongst folks who worked on Mercury, Gemini, and Skylab just years earlier. As time went by, folks cleaned out files on old and obsolete programs. During those purges, I did a lot of dumpster diving and found a number of gems. Some of the old-timers also knew I was interested in the classic programs, and they gave me stuff they no longer wanted.

Through this process I got my hands on Gemini press reference books, Mercury and Gemini photos, and various presentations (paper copies, often in comb binders) on all sorts of topics. I have a nice booklet on Big G, and some excerpts (single sheets) from a presentation on potential future Gemini utilization. In that were three illustrations of a winged Gemini. There were two full-page diagrams with a top and rear view, and a third showed a small sketch of a side view.

Winged Gemini plan

Winged Gemini aft

The detail in the rear view suggested that some serious thought had been given as to how to implement a winged Gemini. My first question was, what would be the purpose of such a vehicle? One thought is that it would be a way to get more cross range on reentry. This vehicle would enter the atmosphere nose-first so the wing would replace the heat shield. Still, the net result would be a heavier vehicle. This may explain the five (rather than four) retro rockets seen in the rear view. There is also no large adaptor section, suggesting a short mission duration. With a heat shield nose, there is no place for a rendezvous radar or docking system, so this would make intercept and inspection missions unlikely. There is no aft tunnel so it’s not an option for MOL missions. The lack of docking capability suggests relatively short duration flights (what would you do for several days if you can’t dock or rendezvous?). The nose RCS is not needed (and not seen in the sketches) as that is for reentry steering which is replaced by the rudders and elevators (flaps?). 

But you still need the nose section with the parachute, whether you are landing in water or using a paraglider. The rear view has a call-out for “wing release mechanism”, which suggests to me that the entire wing is dropped prior to landing. You need to drop the nose as well so the parachutes can release.

Stepping back a bit, one can look at another old McDonnell program to understand where this winged Gemini concept came from in the first place. That would be the ASSET program. ASSET stands for Aero Structural Systems Environmental Test and was a suborbital hypersonic research vehicle. Six such vehicles were launched from Florida on Thor rockets between 1963 and 1965. If you look at the ASSET shape, plop in a Gemini capsule, you are pretty close to a winged Gemini. 


Another thought I had was perhaps this configuration was to offer the USAF (or NASA) a means to gain manned hypersonic flight experience. It could serve as a partial replacement for the (by then) cancelled X-20 DynaSoar program. For a while I thought this concept might even be for suborbital missions, but the retro motors suggest otherwise. 

In the summer of 2019 my colleague, Mike Eastman, finally found a paper on this design while digging through pdf files from NTRS. It was labelled McDonnell Douglas Report E-045 on the Winged Gemini. It was not listed under Gemini, rather he found it under internal correspondence listed with reports associated with ASSET. I have attached the report at this link: Winged Gemini Report

The report is dated 10 September 1965 and confirms my guess that this design was intended to be a hypersonic research vehicle. The first bullet under Objectives says “Early experimental demonstration of manned full scale capability of winged spacecraft.” Note that the X-20 DynaSoar program was cancelled two years earlier. Key features revealed in this report are a three-orbit mission, a 660 nautical mile cross range capability, and a standard water landing.

Photos of my model are below.