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Gemini 5

August 23, 2015

A few carmakers are starting to build automobiles that are powered by fuel cells. The cells use a chemical reaction to combine hydrogen and oxygen, producing electricity and water.

Some of the first fuel cells were built to power the two-seat Gemini spacecraft. In fact, the first test model was orbiting Earth 50 years ago today, aboard Gemini 5.

Gemini was designed to develop and test the equipment and techniques needed to get astronauts to the Moon. Gemini 5 was scheduled to last eight days — the minimum time expected for a trip to the Moon and back. Gemini couldn’t carry enough batteries for such a long flight, though, so engineers developed fuel cells to keep its lights burning.

Gemini 5 launched on August 21st, 1965.

AUDIO: 3, 2, 1, 0, ignition. Liftoff! We’re off on the hour...

When they reached orbit, astronauts Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad were trying to rendezvous with a small pod they’d ejected into space. After the flight, Cooper explained what happened next:

COOPER: About this period of time, we had a small problem that started occurring.... The fuel cell oxygen was decreasing rather rapidly in pressure. I made the decision that we should go through a power down.

The problem threatened to scuttle the mission. But the system eventually settled down, allowing Gemini 5 to spend the full eight days in orbit.

Fuel cells later powered the Apollo flights to the Moon and the space shuttle. And someday, they may even power many of the cars cruising on American highways.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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