This Day in History: The 1966 NASA T-38 crash
On this day in 1966, two astronauts are tragically killed as they travel from Houston to St. Louis. Elliot See and Charles Bassett were scheduled for two weeks of simulator training at a McDonnell Aircraft facility. They were the prime crew assigned to Gemini 9, slated to launch later that spring.
See and Bassett weren’t the only ones traveling that day. Gemini 9’s back-up crew, Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, were also on their way to St. Louis. See and Bassett were leading in a T-38 trainer jet, with Stafford and Cernan flying wing position.
The weather deteriorated badly while the astronauts were in flight. Dense fog, rain, and snow caused See to miscalculate his approach: The two planes came in high, fast, and too far along the runway.
Stafford immediately pulled his plane up, following standard procedure: He would pull above the clouds, then circle back for another attempt at an instrument landing. See made a different decision. He took a hard left, with the apparent intention of staying below the clouds and keeping the field in view.
“[See and Bassett] were immediately lost to us,” Cernan later said. “We saw only soupy clouds and twisting curtains of snow blowing by our canopy.” It was the last time they saw their friends.
One eyewitness described what happened next: “I first saw the plane as it came from behind the cupola on top of [McDonnell Aircraft] Building 101. It seemed to be coming in level but with a positive angle of attack . . . . At impact it pitched down, slid across the roof of Building 101 and fell into the parking lot . . . . The plane exploded into flames . . . .”
The Gemini 9 spacecraft was in Building 101. Fourteen factory workers were hurt, but the spacecraft itself was undamaged. See and Bassett were ejected from the plane; they were killed on impact.
“Weather appeared to have been the major contributing cause,” a NASA summary later concluded, “and pilot error prompted by a desire not to lose sight of the field had carried them too low.”
Meanwhile, air traffic control wasn’t sure which pilots were down. When Stafford and Cernan landed, they were immediately asked to identify themselves. “In that obtuse way, Charlie and Elliot were identified,” Cernan wrote.
The two men were obviously shaken. All four astronauts had been good friends—as were their wives. Indeed, many astronauts’ wives were close.
Astronaut Jim Lovell’s wife, Marilyn, got a call from NASA: Could she go to Marilyn See’s house? NASA officials were on their way with bad news. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin called his wife, Joan, ensuring that a friend would also be at Jeannie Bassett’s house.
“In one of the tragic truths of the program, [Jeannie] would no longer be a member of that tight group of astronaut wives,” Cernan said. “Jeannie was now alone, with kids to raise, and there was no role in the space program for widows and orphans. It was simply unfair and terrible.”
A few hours later, Cernan and Stafford were notified that they’d been bumped to the prime crew of Gemini 9. “All the backups changed,” chief astronaut Deke Slayton explained, “and Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin wound up being pointed at GT-12 [Gemini 12]. Without flying GT-12, it was very unlikely that Buzz would have been in any position to be lunar module pilot on the first lunar landing attempt.”
In other words, someone other than Aldrin could have been the second man to step on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
It had been a tragic day, but the space program wouldn’t—couldn’t—stop. We were racing Russians to the moon. But it’s what See and Bassett had been working towards, too.
Barton C. Hacker & James M. Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini (1977)
Ben Evans, Escaping the Bonds of Earth: The Fifties and the Sixties (2009)
Colin Burgess et al., Fallen Astronauts: Heroes who Died Reaching for the Moon (2016)
Donald K. Slayton & Michael Cassutt, Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury To the Shuttle (1994)
Eugene Cernan & Donald A. Davis, The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space (1999)