[February 20, 1962] American Made (John Glen and the flight of Friendship 7)


by Gideon Marcus

And the Free World exhales.  At long last, an American has orbited the Earth.  This morning, Astronaut John Glenn ascended to the heavens on the back of an Atlas nuclear missile.  He circled the globe three times before splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is impossible to understate what this means for us.  The Soviets have been ahead of us in the Space Race since it started in 1957: First satellite, first lunar probe, first space traveler.  Last year, the best we could muster was a pair of 15 minute cannonball shots into the edges of space.  For two months, Glenn has gone again and again into his little capsule and lain on his back only to emerge some time later, disappointed by technical failure or bad weather.  Each time, the clock ticked; would the Soviets trump us with yet another spectacular display of technological prowess?

But this morning, everything was fine – the weather, the booster, the spacecraft, and the astronaut.  As I went to sleep last night, Glenn woke up.  He had the traditional low residue breakfast of orange juice, toast, eggs over-easy, fillet mignon, and Postum, before suiting up and entering the capsule.  That was at 5 AM his time (2 AM mine).  For five hours, the patient Colonel waited as his Atlas rocket, only recently tamed sufficiently for human use, was prepared and tested for flight.

At 9:47 AM his time, at last we saw the fire shoot out from beneath the missile, saw the Atlas and its black-painted cargo lift off, leaving its support gantry shrouded in white smoke.  For several minutes, the flight of mission Mercury-Atlas #6 was a strictly aural affair, the TV cameras’ only subject being the now-empty launchpad.  But we heard the confident communication between Alan Shepard on the ground and Glenn hurtling skyward, America’s first and American’s latest spacemen, and we knew everything was still going well.

The sky went quickly from blue to black as Glenn struggled against six times his normal weight.  First, the Atlas’ two side engines exhausted their fuel and detached.  A few minutes later, the central sustainer engine’s job was complete, and the Mercury capsule, dubbed Friendship 7 by Glenn, flung itself from its empty booster.  Glenn was now in orbit, weightless, and cleared for his full three-orbit, five-hour mission.

For the first time, an American flight was long enough for the public to contemplate, to be worthy of news flashes.  And even though the last Soviet flight had spanned a full day, it was shrouded in secrecy until after its completion.  Glenn’s mission was, on the other hand, entirely open.  Cockpit chatter was broadcast in the clear; each success and potential failure was presented for the world to hear.  Space travel had become a spectator sport.

The world participated.  Indeed, it had to.  An orbital mission requires global tracking.  Glenn’s flight was monitored as he passed over exotic locales like Zanzibar, Woomera, Hawaii.  The citizens of the west Australian city of Perth turned their lights on for the astronaut’s passage, providing a virtual streetlamp as he whizzed overhead at 18,000 miles per hour. 

Three sunsets and three sunrises greeted Colonel Glenn, though he was given precious little time to appreciate them, so crowded was his schedule with experiments and ship operations.  As the Mercury spacecraft’s functions began to degrade in its third orbit, the value of an experienced human pilot became evident.  Glenn manually configured and trimmed the vessel to make the most of the journey and ensure the mission could be completed. 

Glenn’s biggest challenge came at the end of the mission.  Sailing backwards over the Earth, the astronaut prepared to fire the ship’s retrorockets, a blast of fire that would slow the craft such that it could break out of orbit and back toward ground.  But an indicator suggested that the Mercury’s heat shield was loose.  If that were true, then there could be no returning for the astronaut – he would burn up on reentry. 

Was there anything the astronaut could do about the situation?  Well, the retrorocket package was held tight against the bottom of the bell-shaped craft (and thus, its heat shield) by a series of straps.  Normally, the retrorockets would be discarded before reentry.  This time, on the advisement of ground control, Glenn left the retrorockets strapped in.  The hope was that the straps would keep the shield attached, if it was indeed loose.

What a terrifying display that must have been for the pilot, watching flaming chunks of the retrorockets fly past his window as he tore through the white-hot outer layers of the atmosphere.  Glenn had plenty of other things to worry about.  The “G” forces spiked as the craft decelerated, and the ionization of the air cut off radio contact.  We all waited, white-knuckled, for some sign that the astronaut had survived the journey…or had been vaporized.

Then his voice crackled over the air again, the Mercury’s striped parachutes were deployed, and we began breathing again.  A ship of the recovery fleet, the little destroyer called the U.S.S. Noa, was already close at hand when Friendship 7 touched down in the waves.  Once the capsule was hoisted aboard, the astronaut popped the side hatch, the one that had exploded prematurely for second astronaut Grissom.  An overheated but grinning Glenn stepped out of the Mercury, and into history.

Mercury’s primary mission, to orbit and safely return a human, has been completed.  Nevertheless, there is obviously much life left in the bird.  Three more three-orbit flights are planned to shake out the bugs that plagued the latter portion of Glenn’s flight.  Then 12, 24 hour, and perhaps multi-day flights are slated. 

Of course, the Soviets may soon respond with a flight that trumps ours, perhaps even a two-person mission.  But for now, the hour rightfully belongs to the West.  The democracies of the world at last have their emissary to the stars. 

Godspeed, John Glenn!

4 thoughts on “[February 20, 1962] American Made (John Glen and the flight of Friendship 7)”

  1. Now we’ve made the first real step to building that space station von Braun has been pushing for the last ten years.

    This is where the USAF’s Dyna-Soar reuseable spaceplane would be handy.  I don’t know enough about Beltway politics to know if they’ll share it with NASA or if NASA will have to come up with their own civilian version.

    The Dyna-Soar was designed to supply the USAF’s orbital weapons platforms, but something similar would be very handy to get the station built.  And then the big step to building the station around the Moon, for an eventual manned landing there.

    “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”

    The Air Force’s program comes from their own appropriations at the expense of other weapons systems, but once things start rolling I don’t see funding being an issue.  NASA it putting more money into space exploration at the moment, but I expect the Air Force will become the dominant space exploration organization.  I don’t really see much point to NASA other than civilian communications satellites and that sort of thing.

    1. You may be right, but a perhaps not in the short term.  Here are the recent developments I’ve read about in the paper:

      1) Dynasoar’s budget is in trouble — they’ve cut suborbital testing

      2) Kennedy’s asked for double the 1962 NASA budget for 1963

      3) Von Braun always gets what he wants…

      1. NASA’s budget is $1.2 billion this year.

        I haven’t found a single definitive number for the USAF’s budget, but one source reports it as 40% of $400 billion, which would be somewhere around $160 billion.  Another source said the expected tax revenue should be somewhere around $550 billion this year, with the DoD getting about 45%, and the USAF getting the largest slice… the numbers don’t agree very much, but NASA’s budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the kind of money the USAF deals with.

        The more time I spend in the library looking it up, the more confused I get. I had no idea how vague that sort of thing is…

        Anyway, the Dyna-Soar’s budgetary problems are internal USAF politicking; you have to remember it’s competing with the Lunex program they announced a few years ago, to establish a 21-man moon base by 1968, and with the orbital weapons platforms.  I personally think Lunex is overly ambitious, but NASA certainly doesn’t have the kind of budget to build a moon base.  We haven’t heard much about Lunex in the last couple of years, but the USAF doesn’t operate under public scrutiny like NASA does.

        von Braun has written some magazine articles, but I don’t think there are any official plans for a NASA Moon mission, at least not the kind where money actually gets allocated to do it.

        1. Congress will be looking at a 1963 budget of $3.7 Billion (!!)

          All of SAC’s budget for this year (SAC includes missiles and, presumably, Dynasoar) is $2 Billion.  Of course, that’s just operating expenses and equipment procurement.  It wouldn’t be R&D, and it may not include the physical assets ($17 Billion in hardware exists right now)

          My point is that, sure, the Air Force has got more bucks overall, but their space division probably isn’t bigger than NASA.  Also, NASA’s got DX priority on their projects — I don’t know if the Air Force does.

          I guess we’ll see!

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