We might be familiar with the quote “Houston, we have a problem” from the Apollo 13 flight to the moon in 1970 (actually a slight misquote) but not as familiar with a similar phrase: “We have a serious problem here,” uttered by astronaut David Scott, to Houston Control just four years earlier.
Scott as his fellow Gemini 8 astronaut, Neil Armstrong, had just performed the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, when the mission went terribly wrong. If that incident, on March 16, 1966, had not eventually had a happy ending, the whole United States space race would have had a serious setback, with the possibility of it being complete scrapped. Here is my recent York Sunday News column with the story of the open sea rescue of the astronauts and of the York County native that played a big part in it.
York County native helped save astronauts
March marked the 52nd anniversary of the manned space mission of Gemini 8, whose crew, Neil Armstrong and David Scott, successfully performed the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit. The docking came on March 16, 1966, ten hours after Gemini 8 blasted off from Cape Canaveral in pursuit of the Agena target rocket. After the initial success, however, the mission quickly went awry.
When Gemini came out of a dead communication spot, NASA Houston Control heard Scott’s voice “We have a serious problem here.” Locked together, both Gemini and Agena were spinning wildly. At the controls, Armstrong detached the Gemini capsule, but it continued to spin. As it reached one revolution per second the astronauts vision blurred with loss of consciousness imminent. Armstrong fired the reentry thrusters, which stabilized Gemini 8 in orbit, but that action used up 75 percent of those rockets’ fuel. The only move possible, as commanded by Houston, was to renter the atmosphere immediately and splash down where there was a chance of rescue. If they did not survive, besides the tragic loss of life, it could very well mean the end of the United States space program. There would have been no walk on the moon, no space stations, no Mars rovers, at least not by the United States.
We know now that the episode had a happy ending, but we may have forgotten that a York County native played a significant role in the rescue and recovery of Armstrong, Scott and the Gemini 8 capsule. United States Air Force Staff Sergeant Larry D. Huyett (1937-2011) headed the pararescue team that parachuted into the vast Pacific to save the astronauts and secure the space capsule.
Larry D. Huyett grew up in Manchester, graduating from Manchester (Northeastern) High in 1955. He attended Millersville State College for a year and worked at York Container for nearly a year before enlisting in the Air Force in 1957. After completing rigorous training, Huyett became a member of the elite USAF Pararescue Service. These individuals had to be “qualified parachutists, medical technicians, SCUBA divers, mountain climbers, survival experts and firefighters,” according to an Air Force Times article written in 1966, about the time of the Gemini 8 rescue. The article also points out that in 1966, of 2,500 Air Force candidates interviewed for the pararescue training, only 16 were selected and 12 or less were expected to graduate.
After training, Huyett was stationed on Okinawa with the 33rd Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, joined by his wife Fern and young son Scott. As he told the York press two weeks later, on March 16th he was in charge of his three person rescue team; Staff Sergeant Huyett, Seaman /First Class Eldridge Neal and Seamen Second Class Glenn Moore were on a routine mission in their C-54 plane, essentially a Douglas DC-4 retrofitted for transport and rescue. The 170 Air Force flying paramedics were constantly on duty, ready to answer distress calls, civilian and military, on land or sea. When the call came in they thought it might be a Japanese fishing boat in trouble. Their pilot was directed to a remote spot in the Pacific where Gemini 8 should splash down. Huyett, Neal and Moore jumped from 1,000 feet. The pilot then made a lower pass, dropping the flotation collar and rescue raft. Landing extremely close, Huyett and the others floated over to attach the collar, which took about 20 minutes, and secure their inflated survival raft. As soon as they ascertained that Armstrong and Scott were all right, Huyett radioed that information to the plane which passed it on to Houston and the world.
Huyett related that when the space capsule’s hatches were opened, the astronauts said “We’re very glad to see you.” Astronauts and rescuers introduced themselves to each other. With a laugh, Huyett said “I don’t know who else they expected to see out there.”
It took over three hours for the destroyer USS Leonard F. Mason to arrive to pick up the astronauts, pararescue team and Gemini 8 spacecraft. Armstrong and Scott elected to stay in the capsule, while Huyett, Neal and Moore waited in the raft. Huyett said they tried not to bother the astronauts, which was probably just as well, since Armstrong and Scott reportedly suffered seasickness bobbing on the sea for those three hours.
Photos show the astronauts and rescuers jubilantly posing in front of the retrieved Gemini 8 aboard the USS Mason. As the destroyer docked at Okinawa, “…well inside the restricted U.S. military harbor, crowded with ships being loaded for Viet Nam,” they were met with a crowd of servicemen and families, a “Welcome Astronauts to Okinawa” banner, military honor guard and band. Three NASA officials, including astronaut Walter Shira & Dr. Duane Patterson, chief of flight medicine at Houston Space Center, had flown in just before the destroyer arrived to confer with the astronauts. Dr. Patterson ordered an immediate physical exam, and the space capsule was covered with a tarp. All was well with Armstrong and Scott. A short circuit in one of the eight thruster rockets seems to have caused the near-disaster. Before going ashore, the astronauts shook hands with crew members and hugged the pararescue men who had jumped into the ocean to retrieve them. The pilot of the C-54 rescue plane later said: “It looked awful lonesome down there. They were just little dots on the great big ocean.”
Huyett was almost immediately sent on a “whirlwind” United States tour. He was given special recognition at the Air Force Association Convention in Dallas, honored at the Houston Space Center, and appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Today television shows. The York Area Chamber of Commerce honored him with a reception at the Yorktowne Hotel on April 4. The postcard invitations declare “A HERO IS IN OUR MIDST!”
After the home town visit, Huyett went back to the Air Force. He died in 2011 in Englewood, Ohio at age 74. His obituary in the York Daily Record reports that he served 29 years with the Air Force Pararescue and 23 years with Special Services.
In 1969 Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) was the first man to walk on the moon as commander of Apollo 11. Two years later David Scott commanded Apollo 15 and also trod the surface of the moon. Larry Huyett and his crack pararescue team helped make those events and the space stations, Mars rovers and space feats still to come possible by saving the astronauts and, quite possibly, the U.S. space program