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On this day (Feb. 28) in 1966, the Gemini 9 prime crew was in a T-38 airplane making a final approach to a McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis, Missouri. Amid deteriorating weather conditions, Elliot See tried to make a landing. His airplane collided with the factory building in which his spacecraft was under construction. The plane crashed, killing both See and his crewmate Charlie Bassett.
The accident sent shockwaves through the small astronaut corps, and also necessitated some hasty reassignments. The Gemini 9 backup crew of Tom Stafford and Eugene Cernan immediately became the prime crew and launched into space on May 17, 1966 on a mission that included a challenging spacewalk for Cernan.
But according to Deke Slayton, who was responsible for crew selections at the time, the deaths of See and Bassett even affected the Moon missions of Apollo.
“I … had a lot of plans for Charlie Bassett — after GT-9 [Gemini 9] he would have moved on to command module pilot for Frank Borman’s Apollo crew. Elliott was going to be backup commander for GT-12,” wrote Slayton in his memoir Deke!, which he created with help from Twilight Zone writer (and multiple book author) Michael Cassutt.
In Slayton’s mind, the loss of this one crew affected assignments all the way to the first crew who landed on the Moon: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11. (Michael Collins was also on the mission, but remained in orbit in the command module.)
“All the backups were changed, and Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin wound up being pointed at GT-12,” Slayton wrote. “Without flying GT-12, it was very unlikely that Buzz would have been in any position to be lunar module pilot on the first landing attempt.”
It’s possible this crash could even have affected Apollo 13, which happened four years later.
Jim Lovell flew on Apollo 8 as the command module pilot. While Slayton didn’t state it, Lovell’s experience on that mission likely led to his appointment as commander for Apollo 14. Fate then shifted him forward a flight to the ill-fated Apollo 13, which was crippled by an oxygen tank explosion, after the original commander of that flight, Al Shepard, required a little more time for training.
As for See and Bassett, their remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which is also home to many other fallen crews. Several crew members from Apollo 1, the Challenger disaster and the Columbia disaster have been laid to rest there.