Orbital Rendezvous

The science of two crafts docking in space
.Flying a spacecraft is very different than flying a plane. There is no true up or down and the dynamics of orbital flight make maneuvering to dock, or rendezvous, two spaceships very complex. I focused my research on solving the problems of speed and centrifugal energy which lead to an ‘orbital paradox’ – a situation in which a pilot who speeds up to catch another craft in a higher orbit will end up in an even higher orbit, traveling at a slower speed and watching the second craft fly off into the distance.
The solution to this paradox is counter intuitive, and required new orbital mechanics and procedures. Later, after joining the NASA astronaut corps, I spent time translating complex orbital mechanics into relatively simple flight plans for my colleagues – they thanked me (with a mixture of respect and sarcasm) with the nickname Dr. Rendezvous..

Buzz Aldrin – Waterkeeper, Fall 2005

In 1957 the space age began when Russia launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite into Earth orbit.
Two years later in 1959 Buzz completed his tour of duty as an Air Force fighter pilot in Germany. Upon his return to the US he considered two paths that could lead him toward the newly started US space program underway: experimental test pilot school (a prerequisite for NASA’s astronaut corps) or earning a graduate degree in astronautics. He opted for the latter and entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) master’s program. He soon extended his study and in 1963 earned his Doctorate of Science in Astronautics. In his thesis on “Manned Orbital Rendezvous” he developed the technique for piloted rendezvous of two spacecraft in orbit. Its dedication reads:

.In the hopes that this work may in some way contribute to their exploration of space, this is dedicated to the crew members of this country’s present and future manned space programs. If only I could join them in their exciting endeavors!.

Initially rejected when he applied for NASA’s second group of astronauts on the basis that he was not a test pilot, he applied again. Fortunately, NASA changed its test pilot school requirement when he applied the second time, and Buzz was accepted into the third group of NASA’s pioneer astronauts in October, 1963.
Three years later, during the Gemini 12 mission, Buzz was able to test his orbital rendezvous theories when a broken radar connection threatened Gemini’s docking maneuvers with Agena, the vehicle it was scheduled to rendezvous with in orbit. Using the strategies he’d outlined at MIT, Buzz programmed the computer to complete the docking successfully.
The orbital rendezvous techniques Buzz devised continue to be used on many of NASA’s space rendezvous and docking flights.


  • Thesis: Line-Of-Sight Guidance Techniques For Manned Orbital Rendezvous Submitted for the degree of Doctor of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edwin Eugene Aldrin Jr. January, 1963. 311 pages