Ground Control to Major Tom

astronaut knife

Space. The final frontier.

I’ve always wanted to type that out. Has an iconic ring to it, and I’m not even that big of a Star Trek fan. (Don’t get me wrong, Picard was a cool guy, and Kirk’s era was kind of fun, but Star Wars is where it’s at for this cat)

It’s only appropriate that at this mysterious, beautiful, and sometimes deadly frontier that man finds comfort in some essentials from back home. Food, water, tools. One tool, perhaps, catching the eye more than others.

March 23rd 1965. The space race between the United States and the Soviets was in full force amid tensions of The Cold War. The best and brightest minds on both sides worked tirelessly to progress space exploration. Though Russians had drawn first blood by being the first object in space with the satellite Sputnik 1 in 1957 and had the first manned space exploration aboard the Vostok 1 with the always-cheerful Yuri Gagarin in 1961, the Americans were hot on their heels. It soon became a race between the Americans and the Russians on who would be the first to physically touch down on foreign, alien soil.

Though, ultimately, America succeeded in winning the Space Race by having the intrepid Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 stepping foot on the moon on July 20th, 1969, people forgot about the steps beforehand, during the middle of the race to the moon.

Enter Project Gemini.  A natural evolution of NASA’s first steps into space with Project Mercury, Gemini served as a moment of change in regards to the Space Race, putting the Americans in the lead to their Russian counterparts by showcasing that Nasa had developed ships that could theoretically make it to the moon and back with their supplies and fuel, teaching many of the techniques of Extravehicular activities (IE, out of shuttle repairs, shuttle-walking, ect) still in-use today, and showcasing the possibilities of in-space docking between two ships. After exhaustive tests of the unmanned space crafts Gemini 1 and Gemini 2, all systems were considered green for the launch of the United States’ first manned flight with the Gemini 3. Traveling alongside “Gus” Grissom and John Young was a special passenger. A fixed blade Case knife.

Now you might be asking why something like that was traveling with them, and the answer is practical: for survival.

Consider what happened that very same month in March, 1965. The Russian operated Voskhod 2’s return flight back into orbit was plagued by problems, one of which forced their reentry time back by a scant 46 seconds.

Those 46 seconds changed everything.

Their landing position was a whopping 385 miles off-course in the dense, inhospitable forests of Upper Kama, where bears and wolves were made aggressive by mating season. Their knives and an emergency pistol were some of the few comforts they had, allowing them at least a small measure of safety as helicopters, unable to land, dropped supplies off into the dense woods and they spent a freezing night inside the spacecraft. With Voskhod 2 happening so closely to Gemini 3, I’d argue, from the point of an amateur armchair historian, that the knife NASA granted them was due to the very real chance they could have been taken off their landing course, much like the Voskhod and, in such a situation, would need something with exceptional function to support them until help could be contacted.

And that support had a name.

Called the M1, the knife was designed and included in the astronaut’s survival gear. The blade itself was razor-sharp and had teeth at the spine of the tool for sawing wood and other material alongside a blunt spot near the handle to be used as a pry in an emergency, not to mention the polypropylene handle, a lightweight plastic that exudes no fumes, an important thing when the astronauts had to consider air purity.

This W.R. Case knife served its duty well, used in operations from Gemini 3 all the way through the Apollo program.

Beginning in 1966, Case released a model to the general public that’s pictured above. 2494 of these knives were produced and in 1983 for the 25th NASA anniversary, they produced a rerelease of the knife with a 25th anniversary blade etch. 1000 of these were produced and included a certificate of authenticity alongside it.

Can I make a lame pun and say that knife was out of this world? No? O-ok then.