The Air Force celebrated the 50th anniversary Thursday of the launch of the Gemini Capsule, which led to sending a man into space.

Two retired airmen who participated in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program reminisced about their service during the celebration at the Air Force Space & Missile Museum in Cape Canaveral. Retired Air Force Col. Albert “Al” Crews, was a member of the first astronaut group in 1965 and retired Air Force Maj. Norvin “Bud” Evans designed the interior of the capsule and helped develop astronaut training.

Crews, 87, said he remembers watching the launch with excitement, eagerly awaiting his turn to fly. That dream never came true for the Satellite Beach resident after he was deemed too old to fly at 40 when the MOL program ended in 1969.

“I never got the chance to fly into space but was honored to be a part of the program,” Crews said.

The test launch missions were initially classified as top secret and broadcast to the public as launching a surveillance satellite into orbit, according to the National Reconnaissance Office. Evans, 92, said he couldn’t even tell his neighbors about the project he worked on for five years.

The Gemini capsule is the only unmanned capsule flown on two different missions. NASA launched the first test flight from Launch Complex 19 as Gemini-Titan 2 atop a Titan II booster Jan. 19, 1965. It was unmanned, but filled with weight and test equipment to simulate occupancy by two astronauts. The Air Force launched the Gemini’s second flight Nov. 3, 1966, from Launch Complex 40 atop a Titan IIIC. This second flight was also unmanned and designed to test a hatch in the heat shield.

Astronauts, once in orbit, had to move from the front of the capsule to the laboratory in the back so engineers installed a round hatch that required cutting a hole in the heat shield. The test launch confirmed that hot gasses would not burn through the heat shield and the capsule would be safe for manned flights.

Portions of “U.S. AIR FORCE” and the military star insignia that survived the heat of re-entry are still visible on the outside of the capsule, which is on loan to the Air Force museum from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D. C.

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