February 20, 1962 - Mercury - History

February 20, 1962 - Mercury - History

February 20, 1962 - Mercury 4

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to enter orbit. Flying aboard Friendship 7, Glenn orbited the earth three times. During the flight, Glenn controlled the attitude system. The drama heightened when, on the way down, there was fear that Glenn's heat shield was going to come off. The sheild held and, four hours and 55 minutes after blastoff, Glenn's capsule splashed down.

MA-6 (23)

The mercury countdown began on 1/27/62 and was performed in two parts. Precount checks out the primary spacecraft systems, followed by a 17.5 hour hold for pyrotechnic checks, electrical connections and peroxide system servicing. Then the countdown began. The launch countdown proceeded to the T-13 minute mark and then was canceled due to adverse weather conditions. After cancellation, the mission team decided to replace the carbon dioxide absorber unit and the peroxide system had to be drained and flushed to prevent corrosion. Launch vehicle systems were then revalidated and a leak was discovered in the inner bulkhead of the fuel tank that required 4-6 days to repair. The launch was rescheduled to 2/13/62 and then to 2/14/62 to all the bulkhead work to complete. The precount picked up again on 2/13/62, 2/15/62 and 2/16/62 but was canceled each time due to adverse weather. The launch was then rescheduled for 2/20/62.

During the launch countdown on 2/20/62, all systems were energized and final overall checks were made. the count started at T-390 minutes by installing and connecting the escape-rocket igniter. The service structure was then cleared and the spacecraft was powered to verify no inadvertent pyrotechnic ignition. The personnel then returned to the service structure to prepare for static firing of the reaction control system at T-250 minutes. The spacecraft was then prepared for boarding at T-120 minutes. The hatch was put into place at T-90 minutes. During installation a bolt was broken, and the hatch had to be removed to replace the bolt causing a 40 minute hold. From T-90 to T-55 final mechanical work and spacecraft checks were made and the servicewas evacuated and moved away from the launch vehicle. At T-45 minutes, a 15 minute hold was required to add fuel to the launch vehicle and at T-22 minutes and additional 25 minutes was required for filling the liquid-oxygen tanks as a result of a minor malfunction in the ground support equipment used to pump liquid oxygen into the launch vehicle. At approximately T-35 minutes, filling of the liquid-oxygen tanks began and final spacecraft and launch vehicle systems checks were started.

At T-10 minutes the spacecraft went on internal power. At T-6min 30 seconds, a 2 minute hold was required to make a quick check of the network computer at Bermuda. The launch vehicle went on internal power at T-3 minutes. At T-35 seconds the spacecraft umbilical was ejected and at T-0 the main engines started. Liftoff occured at T+4 seconds at 9:47:39am EST.



Recovered by the destroyer USS Noa. Lookouts on the destroyer sighted the main parachute at an altitude of 5,000 ft from a range of 5nm. The Noa had the spacecraft aboard 21 minutes after landing and astronaut John Glenn remained in the spacecraft during pickup. Original plans had called for egress through the top hatch but Glenn was becoming uncomfortably warm and it was decided to exit by the easier egress path.


Project Mercury was officially approved on October 7, 1958 and publicly announced on December 17. [5] [6] Originally called Project Astronaut, President Dwight Eisenhower felt that gave too much attention to the pilot. [7] Instead, the name Mercury was chosen from classical mythology, which had already lent names to rockets like the Greek Atlas and Roman Jupiter for the SM-65 and PGM-19 missiles. [6] It absorbed military projects with the same aim, such as the Air Force Man in Space Soonest. [8] [n 3]

Background Edit

Following the end of World War II, a nuclear arms race evolved between the US and the Soviet Union (USSR). Since the USSR did not have bases in the western hemisphere from which to deploy bomber planes, Joseph Stalin decided to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, which drove a missile race. [10] The rocket technology in turn enabled both sides to develop Earth-orbiting satellites for communications, and gathering weather data and intelligence. [11] Americans were shocked when the Soviet Union placed the first satellite into orbit in October 1957, leading to a growing fear that the US was falling into a "missile gap". [12] [11] A month later, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, carrying a dog into orbit. Though the animal was not recovered alive, it was obvious their goal was human spaceflight. [13] Unable to disclose details of military space projects, President Eisenhower ordered the creation of a civilian space agency in charge of civilian and scientific space exploration. Based on the federal research agency National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), it was named the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). [14] It achieved its first goal, an American satellite in space, in 1958. The next goal was to put a man there. [15]

The limit of space (also known as the Kármán line) was defined at the time as a minimum altitude of 62 mi (100 km), and the only way to reach it was by using rocket-powered boosters. [16] [17] This created risks for the pilot, including explosion, high g-forces and vibrations during lift off through a dense atmosphere, [18] and temperatures of more than 10,000 °F (5,500 °C) from air compression during reentry. [19]

In space, pilots would require pressurized chambers or space suits to supply fresh air. [20] While there, they would experience weightlessness, which could potentially cause disorientation. [21] Further potential risks included radiation and micrometeoroid strikes, both of which would normally be absorbed in the atmosphere. [22] All seemed possible to overcome: experience from satellites suggested micrometeoroid risk was negligible, [23] and experiments in the early 1950s with simulated weightlessness, high g-forces on humans, and sending animals to the limit of space, all suggested potential problems could be overcome by known technologies. [24] Finally, reentry was studied using the nuclear warheads of ballistic missiles, [25] which demonstrated a blunt, forward-facing heat shield could solve the problem of heating. [25]

Organization Edit

T. Keith Glennan had been appointed the first Administrator of NASA, with Hugh L. Dryden (last Director of NACA) as his Deputy, at the creation of the agency on October 1, 1958. [26] Glennan would report to the president through the National Aeronautics and Space Council. [27] The group responsible for Project Mercury was NASA's Space Task Group, and the goals of the program were to orbit a crewed spacecraft around Earth, investigate the pilot's ability to function in space, and to recover both pilot and spacecraft safely. [28] Existing technology and off-the-shelf equipment would be used wherever practical, the simplest and most reliable approach to system design would be followed, and an existing launch vehicle would be employed, together with a progressive test program. [29] Spacecraft requirements included: a launch escape system to separate the spacecraft and its occupant from the launch vehicle in case of impending failure attitude control for orientation of the spacecraft in orbit a retrorocket system to bring the spacecraft out of orbit drag braking blunt body for atmospheric reentry and landing on water. [29] To communicate with the spacecraft during an orbital mission, an extensive communications network had to be built. [30] In keeping with his desire to keep from giving the US space program an overtly military flavor, President Eisenhower at first hesitated to give the project top national priority (DX rating under the Defense Production Act), which meant that Mercury had to wait in line behind military projects for materials however, this rating was granted in May 1959, a little more than a year and a half after Sputnik was launched. [31]

Contractors and facilities Edit

Twelve companies bid to build the Mercury spacecraft on a $20 million ($178 million adjusted for inflation) contract. [32] In January 1959, McDonnell Aircraft Corporation was chosen to be prime contractor for the spacecraft. [33] Two weeks earlier, North American Aviation, based in Los Angeles, was awarded a contract for Little Joe, a small rocket to be used for development of the launch escape system. [34] [n 4] The World Wide Tracking Network for communication between the ground and spacecraft during a flight was awarded to the Western Electric Company. [35] Redstone rockets for suborbital launches were manufactured in Huntsville, Alabama, by the Chrysler Corporation [36] and Atlas rockets by Convair in San Diego, California. [37] For crewed launches, the Atlantic Missile Range at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida was made available by the USAF. [38] This was also the site of the Mercury Control Center while the computing center of the communication network was in Goddard Space Center, Maryland. [39] Little Joe rockets were launched from Wallops Island, Virginia. [40] Astronaut training took place at Langley Research Center in Virginia, Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, and Naval Air Development Center Johnsville in Warminster, PA. [41] Langley wind tunnels [42] together with a rocket sled track at Holloman Air Force Base at Alamogordo, New Mexico were used for aerodynamic studies. [43] Both Navy and Air Force aircraft were made available for the development of the spacecraft's landing system, [44] and Navy ships and Navy and Marine Corps helicopters were made available for recovery. [n 5] South of Cape Canaveral the town of Cocoa Beach boomed. [46] From here, 75,000 people watched the first American orbital flight being launched in 1962. [46]

Location of production and operational facilities of Project Mercury

The Mercury spacecraft's principal designer was Maxime Faget, who started research for human spaceflight during the time of the NACA. [47] It was 10.8 feet (3.3 m) long and 6.0 feet (1.8 m) wide with the launch escape system added, the overall length was 25.9 feet (7.9 m). [48] With 100 cubic feet (2.8 m 3 ) of habitable volume, the capsule was just large enough for a single crew member. [49] Inside were 120 controls: 55 electrical switches, 30 fuses and 35 mechanical levers. [50] The heaviest spacecraft, Mercury-Atlas 9, weighed 3,000 pounds (1,400 kg) fully loaded. [51] Its outer skin was made of René 41, a nickel alloy able to withstand high temperatures. [52]

The spacecraft was cone shaped, with a neck at the narrow end. [48] It had a convex base, which carried a heat shield (Item 2 in the diagram below) [53] consisting of an aluminum honeycomb covered with multiple layers of fiberglass. [54] Strapped to it was a retropack (1) [55] consisting of three rockets deployed to brake the spacecraft during reentry. [56] Between these were three minor rockets for separating the spacecraft from the launch vehicle at orbital insertion. [57] The straps that held the package could be severed when it was no longer needed. [58] Next to the heat shield was the pressurized crew compartment (3). [59] Inside, an astronaut would be strapped to a form-fitting seat with instruments in front of him and with his back to the heat shield. [60] Underneath the seat was the environmental control system supplying oxygen and heat, [61] scrubbing the air of CO2, vapor and odors, and (on orbital flights) collecting urine. [62] [n 6] The recovery compartment (4) [64] at the narrow end of the spacecraft contained three parachutes: a drogue to stabilize free fall and two main chutes, a primary and reserve. [65] Between the heat shield and inner wall of the crew compartment was a landing skirt, deployed by letting down the heat shield before landing. [66] On top of the recovery compartment was the antenna section (5) [67] containing both antennas for communication and scanners for guiding spacecraft orientation. [68] Attached was a flap used to ensure the spacecraft was faced heat shield first during reentry. [69] A launch escape system (6) was mounted to the narrow end of the spacecraft [70] containing three small solid-fueled rockets which could be fired briefly in a launch failure to separate the capsule safely from its booster. It would deploy the capsule's parachute for a landing nearby at sea. [71] (See also Mission profile for details.)

The Mercury spacecraft did not have an on-board computer, instead relying on all computation for reentry to be calculated by computers on the ground, with their results (retrofire times and firing attitude) then transmitted to the spacecraft by radio while in flight. [72] [73] All computer systems used in the Mercury space program were housed in NASA facilities on Earth. [72] The computer systems were IBM 701 computers. [74] [75] (See also Ground control for details.)

1. Retropack. 2. Heatshield. 3. Crew compartment. 4. Recovery compartment. 5. Antenna section. 6. Launch escape system.

Retropack: Retrorockets with red posigrade rockets

Landing skirt (or bag) deployment: skirt is inflated on impact the air is pressed out (like an airbag)

Pilot accommodations Edit

The astronaut lay in a sitting position with his back to the heat shield, which was found to be the position that best enabled a human to withstand the high g-forces of launch and reentry. A fiberglass seat was custom-molded from each astronaut's space-suited body for maximum support. Near his left hand was a manual abort handle to activate the launch escape system if necessary prior to or during liftoff, in case the automatic trigger failed. [76]

To supplement the onboard environmental control system, he wore a pressure suit with its own oxygen supply, which would also cool him. [77] A cabin atmosphere of pure oxygen at a low pressure of 5.5 psi or 38 kPa (equivalent to an altitude of 24,800 feet or 7,600 metres) was chosen, rather than one with the same composition as air (nitrogen/oxygen) at sea level. [78] This was easier to control, [79] avoided the risk of decompression sickness ("the bends"), [80] [n 7] and also saved on spacecraft weight. Fires (which never occurred) would have to be extinguished by emptying the cabin of oxygen. [62] In such case, or failure of the cabin pressure for any reason, the astronaut could make an emergency return to Earth, relying on his suit for survival. [81] [62] The astronauts normally flew with their visor up, which meant that the suit was not inflated. [62] With the visor down and the suit inflated, the astronaut could only reach the side and bottom panels, where vital buttons and handles were placed. [82]

The astronaut also wore electrodes on his chest to record his heart rhythm, a cuff that could take his blood pressure, and a rectal thermometer to record his temperature (this was replaced by an oral thermometer on the last flight). [83] Data from these was sent to the ground during the flight. [77] [n 8] The astronaut normally drank water and ate food pellets. [85] [n 9]

Once in orbit, the spacecraft could be rotated in yaw, pitch, and roll: along its longitudinal axis (roll), left to right from the astronaut's point of view (yaw), and up or down (pitch). [86] Movement was created by rocket-propelled thrusters which used hydrogen peroxide as a fuel. [87] [88] For orientation, the pilot could look through the window in front of him or he could look at a screen connected to a periscope with a camera which could be turned 360°. [89]

The Mercury astronauts had taken part in the development of their spacecraft, and insisted that manual control, and a window, be elements of its design. [90] As a result, spacecraft movement and other functions could be controlled three ways: remotely from the ground when passing over a ground station, automatically guided by onboard instruments, or manually by the astronaut, who could replace or override the two other methods. Experience validated the astronauts' insistence on manual controls. Without them, Gordon Cooper's manual reentry during the last flight would not have been possible. [91]

The three axes of rotation for the spacecraft: yaw, pitch and roll

Temperature profile for spacecraft in Fahrenheit

The control panels of Friendship 7. [92] The panels changed between flights, among others the periscope screen that dominates the center of these panels was dropped for the final flight together with the periscope itself.

3-axis handle for attitude control

Development and production Edit

The Mercury spacecraft design was modified three times by NASA between 1958 and 1959. [93] After bidding by potential contractors had been completed, NASA selected the design submitted as "C" in November 1958. [94] After it failed a test flight in July 1959, a final configuration, "D", emerged. [95] The heat shield shape had been developed earlier in the 1950s through experiments with ballistic missiles, which had shown a blunt profile would create a shock wave that would lead most of the heat around the spacecraft. [96] To further protect against heat, either a heat sink, or an ablative material, could be added to the shield. [97] The heat sink would remove heat by the flow of the air inside the shock wave, whereas the ablative heat shield would remove heat by a controlled evaporation of the ablative material. [98] After uncrewed tests, the latter was chosen for crewed flights. [99] Apart from the capsule design, a rocket plane similar to the existing X-15 was considered. [100] This approach was still too far from being able to make a spaceflight, and was consequently dropped. [101] [n 10] The heat shield and the stability of the spacecraft were tested in wind tunnels, [42] and later in flight. [105] The launch escape system was developed through uncrewed flights. [106] During a period of problems with development of the landing parachutes, alternative landing systems such as the Rogallo glider wing were considered, but ultimately scrapped. [107]

The spacecraft were produced at McDonnell Aircraft, St. Louis, Missouri, in clean rooms and tested in vacuum chambers at the McDonnell plant. [108] The spacecraft had close to 600 subcontractors, such as Garrett AiResearch which built the spacecraft's environmental control system. [33] [61] Final quality control and preparations of the spacecraft were made at Hangar S at Cape Canaveral. [109] [n 11] NASA ordered 20 production spacecraft, numbered 1 through 20. [33] Five of the 20, Nos. 10, 12, 15, 17, and 19, were not flown. [112] Spacecraft No. 3 and No. 4 were destroyed during uncrewed test flights. [112] Spacecraft No. 11 sank and was recovered from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean after 38 years. [112] [113] Some spacecraft were modified after initial production (refurbished after launch abort, modified for longer missions, etc.). [n 12] A number of Mercury boilerplate spacecraft (made from non-flight materials or lacking production spacecraft systems) were also made by NASA and McDonnell. [116] They were designed and used to test spacecraft recovery systems and the escape tower. [117] McDonnell also built the spacecraft simulators used by the astronauts during training. [118]

Shadowgraph of the reentry shock wave simulated in a wind tunnel, 1957

Evolution of capsule design, 1958–59

Experiment with boilerplate spacecraft, 1959

Drop of boilerplate spacecraft in training of landing and recovery. 56 such qualification tests were made together with tests of individual steps of the system. [119]

Launch escape system testing Edit

A 55-foot-long (17 m) launch vehicle called Little Joe was used for uncrewed tests of the launch escape system, using a Mercury capsule with an escape tower mounted on it. [120] [121] Its main purpose was to test the system at max q, when aerodynamic forces against the spacecraft peaked, making separation of the launch vehicle and spacecraft most difficult. [122] It was also the point at which the astronaut was subjected to the heaviest vibrations. [123] The Little Joe rocket used solid-fuel propellant and was originally designed in 1958 by NACA for suborbital crewed flights, but was redesigned for Project Mercury to simulate an Atlas-D launch. [106] It was produced by North American Aviation. [120] It was not able to change direction instead its flight depended on the angle from which it was launched. [124] Its maximum altitude was 100 mi (160 km) fully loaded. [125] A Scout launch vehicle was used for a single flight intended to evaluate the tracking network however, it failed and was destroyed from the ground shortly after launch. [126]

Suborbital flight Edit

The Mercury-Redstone Launch Vehicle was an 83-foot-tall (25 m) (with capsule and escape system) single-stage launch vehicle used for suborbital (ballistic) flights. [127] It had a liquid-fueled engine that burned alcohol and liquid oxygen producing about 75,000 pounds-force (330 kN) of thrust, which was not enough for orbital missions. [127] It was a descendant of the German V-2, [36] and developed for the U.S. Army during the early 1950s. It was modified for Project Mercury by removing the warhead and adding a collar for supporting the spacecraft together with material for damping vibrations during launch. [128] Its rocket motor was produced by North American Aviation and its direction could be altered during flight by its fins. They worked in two ways: by directing the air around them, or by directing the thrust by their inner parts (or both at the same time). [36] Both the Atlas-D and Redstone launch vehicles contained an automatic abort sensing system which allowed them to abort a launch by firing the launch escape system if something went wrong. [129] The Jupiter rocket, also developed by Von Braun's team at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, was considered as well for intermediate Mercury suborbital flights at a higher speed and altitude than Redstone, but this plan was dropped when it turned out that man-rating Jupiter for the Mercury program would actually cost more than flying an Atlas due to economics of scale. [130] [131] Jupiter's only use other than as a missile system was for the short-lived Juno II launch vehicle, and keeping a full staff of technical personnel around solely to fly a few Mercury capsules would result in excessively high costs. [ citation needed ]

Orbital flight Edit

Orbital missions required use of the Atlas LV-3B, a man-rated version of the Atlas D which was originally developed as the United States' first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) [132] by Convair for the Air Force during the mid-1950s. [133] The Atlas was a "one-and-one-half-stage" rocket fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX). [132] The rocket by itself stood 67 feet (20 m) high total height of the Atlas-Mercury space vehicle at launch was 95 feet (29 m). [134]

The Atlas first stage was a booster skirt with two engines burning liquid fuel. [135] [n 13] This, together with the larger sustainer second stage, gave it sufficient power to launch a Mercury spacecraft into orbit. [132] Both stages fired from lift-off with the thrust from the second stage sustainer engine passing through an opening in the first stage. After separation from the first stage, the sustainer stage continued alone. The sustainer also steered the rocket by thrusters guided by gyroscopes. [136] Smaller vernier rockets were added on its sides for precise control of maneuvers. [132]

Gallery Edit

Little Joe assembling at Wallops Island

Unloading Atlas at Cape Canaveral

Atlas - with spacecraft mounted - on launch pad at Launch Complex 14

NASA announced the following seven astronauts – known as the Mercury Seven – on April 9, 1959: [137] [138]

Name Rank Unit Born Died
M. Scott Carpenter Lieutenant USN 1925 2013
L. Gordon Cooper Captain USAF 1927 2004
John H. Glenn, Jr. Major USMC 1921 2016
Virgil I. Grissom Captain USAF 1926 1967
Walter M. Schirra, Jr. Lt Commander USN 1923 2007
Alan B. Shepard, Jr. Lt Commander USN 1923 1998
Donald K. Slayton Major USAF 1924 1993

Alan Shepard became the first American in space by making a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961. [139] Mercury-Redstone 3, Shepard's 15 minute and 28 second flight of the Freedom 7 capsule demonstrated the ability to withstand the high g-forces of launch and atmospheric re-entry. Shepard later went on to fly in the Apollo program and became the only Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon on Apollo 14. [140] [141]

Gus Grissom became the second American in space on Mercury-Redstone 4 on July 21, 1961. After the splashdown of Liberty Bell 7, the side hatch opened and caused the capsule to sink although Grissom was able to be safely recovered. His flight also gave NASA the confidence to move onto orbital flights. Grissom went on to participate in the Gemini and Apollo programs, but died in January 1967 during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1. [142] [143]

John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on Mercury-Atlas 6 February 20, 1962. During the flight, the spacecraft Friendship 7 experienced issues with its automatic control system but Glenn was able to manually control the spacecraft's attitude. He quit NASA in 1964, when he came to the conclusion that he likely wouldn't be selected for any Apollo missions and later got elected to the US Senate, serving from 1974 to 1999. During his tenure, he returned to space in 1998 as a Payload Specialist aboard STS-95. [144] [145]

Scott Carpenter was the second astronaut in orbit and flew on Mercury-Atlas 7 on May 24, 1962. The spaceflight was essentially a repeat of Mercury-Atlas 6, but a targeting error during re-entry took Aurora 7 250 miles (400 km) off-course, delaying recovery. Afterwards, he joined the Navy's "Man in the Sea" program and is the only American to be both an astronaut and an aquanaut. [146] [147] Carpenter's Mercury flight was his only trip into space.

Wally Schirra flew aboard Sigma 7 on Mercury-Atlas 8 on October 3, 1962. The mission's main goal was to show development of environmental controls or life-support systems that would allow for safety in space, thus being a flight mainly focused on technical evaluation, rather than scientific experimentation. The mission lasted 9 hours and 13 minutes, setting a new U.S. flight duration record. [148] In December 1965, Schirra flew on Gemini 6A, achieving the first ever space rendezvous with sister spacecraft Gemini 7. Three years later, he commanded the first crewed Apollo mission, Apollo 7, becoming the first astronaut to fly three times and the only person to fly in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

Gordon Cooper made the last flight of Project Mercury with Mercury-Atlas 9 on May 15, 1963. His flight onboard Faith 7 set the another U.S. endurance record with a 34 hour and 19 minute flight duration, and 22 completed orbits. This mission marks the last time an American was launched alone to conduct an entirely solo orbital mission. Cooper later went on to participate in Project Gemini where he once again beat the endurance record during Gemini 5. [149] [150]

Deke Slayton was grounded in 1962 due to a heart condition, but remained with NASA and was appointed senior manager of the Astronaut Office and later additionally assistant director of Flight Crew Operations at the beginning of Project Gemini. On March 13, 1972, after doctors confirmed he no longer had a coronary condition, Slayton returned to flight status and the next year was assigned to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which successfully flew in 1975 with Slayton as the docking module pilot. After the ASTP, he managed the Space Shuttle Program's Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) and Orbital Flight Tests (OFT) before retiring from NASA in 1982.

One of the astronauts' tasks was publicity they gave interviews to the press and visited project manufacturing facilities to speak with those who worked on Project Mercury. [151] The press was especially fond of John Glenn, who was considered the best speaker of the seven. [152] They sold their personal stories to Life magazine which portrayed them as 'patriotic, God-fearing family men.' [153] Life was also allowed to be at home with the families while the astronauts were in space. [153] During the project, Grissom, Carpenter, Cooper, Schirra and Slayton stayed with their families at or near Langley Air Force Base Glenn lived at the base and visited his family in Washington DC on weekends. Shepard lived with his family at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.

Other than Grissom, who was killed in the 1967 Apollo 1 fire, the other six survived past retirement [154] and died between 1993 and 2016.

Mercury 7 astronaut assignments. Schirra had the most flights with three Glenn, though being the first to leave NASA, had the last with a Space Shuttle mission in 1998. [155] Shepard was the only one to walk on the Moon.

Selection and training Edit

Prior to Project Mercury, there was no protocol for selecting astronauts, so NASA would set a far-reaching precedent with both their selection process and initial choices for astronauts. At the end of 1958, various ideas for the selection pool were discussed privately within the national government and the civilian space program, and also among the public at large. Initially, there was the idea to issue a widespread public call to volunteers. Thrill-seekers such as rock climbers and acrobats would have been allowed to apply, but this idea was quickly shot down by NASA officials who understood that an undertaking such as space flight required individuals with professional training and education in flight engineering. By late 1958, NASA officials decided to move forward with test pilots being the heart of their selection pool. [156] On President Eisenhower's insistence, the group was further narrowed down to active duty military test pilots, which set the number of candidates at 508. [157] These candidates were USN or USMC naval aviation pilots (NAPs), or USAF pilots of Senior or Command rating. These aviators had long military records, which would give NASA officials more background information on which to base their decisions. Furthermore, these aviators were skilled in flying the most advanced aircraft to date, giving them the best qualifications for the new position of astronaut. [156] During this time, women were banned from flying in the military and so could not successfully qualify as test pilots. This meant that no female candidates could earn consideration for the title of astronaut. Civilian NASA X-15 pilot Neil Armstrong was also disqualified, though he had been selected by the US Air Force in 1958 for its Man in Space Soonest program, which was replaced by Mercury. [158] Although Armstrong had been a combat-experienced NAP during the Korean War, he left active duty in 1952. [7] [n 14] Armstrong became NASA's first civilian astronaut in 1962 when he was selected for NASA's second group, [160] and became the first man on the Moon in 1969. [161]

It was further stipulated that candidates should be between 25 and 40 years old, no taller than 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m), and hold a college degree in a STEM subject. [7] The college degree requirement excluded the USAF's X-1 pilot, then-Lt Col (later Brig Gen) Chuck Yeager, the first person to exceed the speed of sound. [162] He later became a critic of the project, ridiculing the civilian space program, labeling astronauts as "spam in a can." [163] John Glenn did not have a college degree either, but used influential friends to make the selection committee accept him. [164] USAF Capt. (later Col.) Joseph Kittinger, a USAF fighter pilot and stratosphere balloonist, met all the requirements but preferred to stay in his contemporary project. [162] Other potential candidates declined because they did not believe that human spaceflight had a future beyond Project Mercury. [162] [n 15] From the original 508, 110 candidates were selected for an interview, and from the interviews, 32 were selected for further physical and mental testing. [166] Their health, vision, and hearing were examined, together with their tolerance to noise, vibrations, g-forces, personal isolation, and heat. [167] [168] In a special chamber, they were tested to see if they could perform their tasks under confusing conditions. [167] The candidates had to answer more than 500 questions about themselves and describe what they saw in different images. [167] Navy Lt (later Capt) Jim Lovell, who was later an astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo programs, did not pass the physical tests. [162] After these tests it was intended to narrow the group down to six astronauts, but in the end it was decided to keep seven. [169]

The astronauts went through a training program covering some of the same exercises that were used in their selection. [41] They simulated the g-force profiles of launch and reentry in a centrifuge at the Naval Air Development Center, and were taught special breathing techniques necessary when subjected to more than 6 g. [170] Weightlessness training took place in aircraft, first on the rear seat of a two-seater fighter and later inside converted and padded cargo aircraft. [171] They practiced gaining control of a spinning spacecraft in a machine at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory called the Multi-Axis Spin-Test Inertia Facility (MASTIF), by using an attitude controller handle simulating the one in the spacecraft. [172] [173] A further measure for finding the right attitude in orbit was star and Earth recognition training in planetaria and simulators. [174] Communication and flight procedures were practiced in flight simulators, first together with a single person assisting them and later with the Mission Control Center. [175] Recovery was practiced in pools at Langley, and later at sea with frogmen and helicopter crews. [176]

3. Glenn’s mission was delayed numerous times, leading to concern and anxiety.

Guenter Wendt, the original pad leader for NASA’s manned programs, coaxes a smile from Glenn after a postponement of the mission. (Credit: NASA)

Originally scheduled for December 1961 and then pushed to January 13, problems with the new Atlas rocket that would serve as the space capsule’s launching pad caused a two-week delay. On January 27, with television crews already set up to broadcast from both the launch site and Glenn’s home, where his wife, Annie, and his children were anxiously watching, poor weather conditions forced another postponement. When the mission was scrapped, the reporters, accompanied by none other than Vice President Lyndon Johnson, tried to gain access to Glenn’s home in hopes of interviewing his wife. Annie refused to speak to them, and when John heard about the pressure put on his wife, he backed her up, leading to a clash with government officials. The launch was delayed yet again on January 30 after a fuel leak was discovered, followed by yet another weather delay. Finally, with all mechanical issues solved and fair weather forecasted, Glenn was once again strapped into Friendship 7 early on the morning of February 20, 1962.

A Detailed description of the flight

Quoted from This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury, by Loyd S. Swenson Jr., James M. Grimwood, and Charles C. Alexander, NASA Historical Series, 1966.:

Glenn was awakened once again at 2:20 a.m. on February 20. After showering, he sat down to a breakfast of steak, scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice, and coffee. At 3:05 the astronauts' flight surgeon, William Douglas, gave him a brief physical examination. Douglas, Glenn, and his suit technician, Joe W. Schmitt, were only three of a multitude hard at work on the cloudy February morning. In the Mercury Control Center procedures log, the flight control team noted at 3:40 that they were "up and at it." The team immediately conducted a radar check, and although ionospheric conditions made the results poor the controllers believed the situation would improve soon. So they went on to check booster telemetry and the Control Center's voice intercom system, both of which were in good order. Shortly thereafter they found a faulty communication link that was supposed to be obtaining information about the capsule's oxygen system, but within minutes they had corrected the problem.

At 4:27 a.m. Christopher Kraft, sitting before his flight director's console, received word that the global tracking network had been checked out and was ready. In Hangar S, Douglas placed the biosensors on Glenn, and Joe Schmitt began helping the astronaut don his 20-pound pressure suit. At 5:01 the Mercury Control Center learned that the astronaut was in the van and on his way to the launch pad. The van moved slowly and arrived at 5:17, 20 minutes behind schedule. But the delay was of little consequence, for at 5:25 (T minus 120 minutes) trouble had cropped up in the booster's guidance system. Since this came during the built-in 90-minute hold part of the countdown for the astronaut insertion activity, the delay was not likely to halt the readying procedures for very long. The installation of a spare unit and an additional 45 minutes required for its checkout, however, made a total of 135 minutes lost.

Because of overcast weather and the guidance problem in the Atlas, Glenn relaxed comfortably in the van until 5:58, when the sky began to clear. The capsule and booster validation checks were progressing normally as he emerged from the van, saluted the onlookers, and boarded the gantry elevator. At 6:03, the operations team noted in its procedures log, the astronaut "put a foot into the spacecraft." Once inside Friendship 7, Glenn noticed that the respiration sensor - a thermistor attached to the astronaut's microphone in the air stream of his breath - had shifted from where it had been fixed during the simulated flight. Stanley C. White pointed out to Williams that a correction could only be made by opening the suit, a very tricky operation atop the gantry. So the two officials decided to disregard the slipped thermistor, even though faulty data would result. White advised the range to ignore all respiratory transmissions.

At last the technicians began to bolt the hatch onto the spacecraft, but at 7:10, with the countdown proceeding and most of the 70 bolts secured, a broken bolt was discovered. Although Grissom had flown in MR—4 with a broken hatch bolt, Williams, taking no chances this time, ordered removal and repair. Taking the hatch off and rebolting would require about 40 minutes, so the operations team took this opportunity to run still another check of the guidance system on Atlas 109-D. Glenn evidently maintained his composure during this hold, with his pulse ranging between 60 and 80 beats per minute. When a little more than half of the bolts had been secured, he peered through the periscope and remarked to Scott Carpenter and Alan Shepard in the Control Center, "Looks like the weather is breaking up."

Minutes later the hatch installation was completed and the cabin purge was started. A check of the cabin oxygen leakage rate indicated 500 cubic centimeters per minute, well within design specifications. At 8:05, T minus 60 minutes, the countdown continued, but after 15 minutes a hold was called to add about 10 gallons of propellant to the booster's tanks. Glenn had been busily going over his capsule systems checklist. As the holds continued, he occupied his time and relieved the pressure at various points on his cramped body by pulling on the bungee-cord exercising device in front of his head in the capsule. The countdown resumed while the liquid oxygen was being pumped aboard the Atlas, but at T minus 22 minutes, 8:58, a fuel pump outlet valve stuck, causing still another hold.

At that point in the countdown, Glenn, the blockhouse and Control Center crews, and workers scurrying around and climbing on the gantry were joined by some 100 million people watching television sets in about 40 million homes throughout the United States. Countless others huddled around radios in their homes or places of business and about 50,000 "bird watchers" stood on the beaches near Cape Canaveral, squinting toward the erect rocket gleaming in the distance. Some of the more hearty and sun-tanned spectators had been at the Cape since mid–January and had organized trailer towns, complete with "mayors." Mission announcer Powers, popularly known as "the voice of Mercury Control," who had been at his post in the Control Center since 5 o'clock that morning, went on the air to advise the waiting public of the status of the countdown and the cause for the present hold.

With the stuck valve cleared, the count picked up at 9:25, but another suspenseful moment came at 6 1/2 minutes before launch time, when the Bermuda tracking station experienced an electrical power failure. Although the breakdown was brief, it took several more minutes to steady the Bermuda computer.

At 9:47, after two hours and 17 minutes of holds and three hours and 44 minutes after Glenn entered his "office," Friendship 7 was launched on its orbital journey. The Atlas, supported by its tail of fire, lifted off its pad, and Powers made the announcement that this country had waited three long years to hear: "Glenn reports all spacecraft systems go! Mercury Control is go!" As Atlas 109-D lunged spaceward, Glenn's pulse rate climbed to 110, as expected. The Atlas and its control systems telemetered signals that they were functioning perfectly.

Half a minute after liftoff the General Electric-Burroughs guidance system locked onto a radio transponder in the booster to guide the vehicle until it was through the orbital insertion "window." The vibration at liftoff hardly bothered Glenn, but a hundred seconds later at max-q he reported, "It's a little bumpy about here." After the rocket plunged through the max-q region, the flight smoothed out then two minutes and 14 seconds after launch, the outboard booster engines cut off and dropped away. Glenn saw a wisp of smoke and fleetingly thought the escape tower had jettisoned early, but that event occurred exactly on time, 20 seconds later.

When the tower separated, the vehicle combination pitched over still further, giving Glenn his first view of the horizon, which he described as "a beautiful sight, looking eastward across the Atlantic." Vibration increased as the fuel supply spewed out the sustainer engine nozzle, and then abruptly stopped when the sustainer shut down. The sustainer had accelerated the capsule to a velocity only seven feet per second below nominal and had put the Atlas into an orbital trajectory only .05 of a degree low. Joyously the operations team noted in the log, "9:52- - -We are through the gates." Glenn received word that he could make at least seven orbits with the orbital conditions MA-6 had achieved. To Goddard's computers in Maryland the orbital insertion conditions appeared good enough for almost 100 orbits.

Although the posigrade rockets kicked the capsule loose from the booster at the correct instant, the five-second rate-damping operation started two and a half seconds late. This brief lapse caused a substantial initial roll error just as the capsule began its turnaround. The attitude control system managed the deviation very well, but it was some 38 seconds before Friendship 7 dropped into its proper orbital attitude. Turnaround spent 5.4 pounds of fuel from a total supply of 60.4 pounds (36 for automatic and 24.4 for manual control). Despite his slow automatic positioning maneuver, Glenn made his control checks with such ease that it seemed, he said, as if he were sitting in the procedures trainer. As Voas had asked him to do, the astronaut peered through the window at the tumbling Atlas tankage. It had come into view exactly as Ben F. McCreary of MSC had predicted it would. He could see the spent vehicle turning end over end, and he called out estimates of distances between the separating vehicles: "One hundred yards, two hundred yards." At one point Glenn's estimate matched the telemetry signal exactly. He visually tracked the sustainer intermittently for about eight minutes.

Glenn, noticing the onset of weightlessness, settled into orbital free flight with an inertial velocity of 17,544 miles per hour and reported that zero g was wholly pleasant. Although he could move well and see much through his trapezoidal window, he wanted to see even more. "I guess I'd like a glass capsule," he later quipped. Weightlessness also helped him as he used the hand-held camera. When his attention was drawn to a panel switch or readout, he simply left the "weightless" camera suspended and reached for the switch. Dutifully carrying out all of the head and body movements requested by Voas, he experienced none of the sensations reported by Gherman Titov. While any Glenn-Titov comparison might be ruled invalid since Titov reportedly became nauseated on his sixth orbit and Glenn flew only three orbits, MA-6 at least was to demonstrate to the American medical community that there were no discernible adverse physiological effects from over four hours of weightlessness.

The first orbit of Friendship 7 began ticking off like clockwork with the Canary Islands reporting all capsule systems in perfect working order. Looking at the African coastline, and later the interior over Kano, Nigeria, Glenn told the tracking station team that he could see a dust storm. Kano flight communicators replied that the winds had been quite heavy for the past week.

Glenn, completing his spacecraft systems checks over the Canaries, had commented that he was getting a little behind in his schedule but that all systems still were "go." Then, over Kano, he had commenced his own first major yaw adjustment, involving a complete turnaround of the capsule until he was facing his flight path. Glenn noted that the attitude indicators disagreed with what he could see were true spacecraft attitudes. Despite the incorrect panel readouts, he was pleased to be facing the direction his spacecraft was going.

Over the Indian Ocean on his first orbit, Glenn became the first American to witness the sunset from above 100 miles. Awed but not poetically inclined, the astronaut described the moment of twilight simply as "beautiful." Space sky was very black, he said, with a thin band of blue along the horizon. He could see the cloud strata below, but the clouds in turn prevented his seeing a mortar flare fired by the Indian Ocean tracking ship. Glenn described the remarkable sunset:  the sun went down fast but not quite as quickly as he had expected for five or six minutes there was a slow but continuous reduction in light intensity and brilliant orange and blue layers spread out 45 to 60 degrees on either side of the sun, tapering gradually toward the horizon.

On the nightside of Earth, nearing the Australian coastline, Glenn made his planned star, weather, and landmark observations. He failed to see the dim light phenomenon of the heavens called the zodiacal light he thought his eyes had not had sufficient time to adapt to the darkness. Within voice radio range of the Muchea, Australia, tracking station, Glenn and Gordon Cooper began a long space-to-Earth conversation. The astronaut reported that he felt fine, that he had no problems, and that he could see a very bright light and what appeared to be the outline of a city. Cooper answered that he probably saw the lights of Perth and Rockingham. Glenn also said that he could see stars as he looked down toward the "real" horizon - as distinguished from the haze layer he estimated to be about seven or eight degrees above the horizon on the nightside - and clouds reflecting the moonlight. "That sure was a short day," he excitedly told Cooper. "That was about the shortest day I've ever run into."

Moving onward above the Pacific over Canton Island, Glenn experienced an even shorter 45-minute night and prepared his periscope for viewing his first sunrise in orbit. As the day dawned over the island, he saw literally thousands of "little specks, brilliant specks, floating around outside the capsule." Glenn's first impression was that the spacecraft was tumbling or that he was looking into a star field, but a quick hard look out of the capsule window corrected this momentary illusion. He definitely thought the luminescent "fireflies," as he dubbed the specks, were streaming past his spacecraft from ahead. They seemed to flow leisurely but not to be originating from any part of the capsule. As Friendship 7 sped over the Pacific expanse into brighter sunlight, the "fireflies" disappeared.

The global circuit was proceeding without any major problems, and Glenn still was enjoying his extended encounter with zero g. He ran into some bothersome interference on his broadband HF radio when he tried to talk with the Hawaiian site at Kauai. An aircraft from the Pacific Missile Range tried unsuccessfully to locate the noise source. Other than the mystery of the "fireflies" and the intermittent HF interference, the mission was going fine, with the capsule attitude control system performing perfectly.

Then the tracking station at Guaymas, Mexico, informed the control center in Florida that a yaw reaction jet was giving Glenn an attitude control problem that, as he later recalled, "was to stick with me for the rest of the flight." This was disheartening news for those in the operations team, who remembered that a sticking fuel valve discovered during the second orbital pass of the chimpanzee Enos had caused the early termination of MA-5. If Glenn could overcome this control problem he would furnish confirmation for Williams' and others' contention that man was an essential element in the loop. If the psychologists' failure task analyses were correct, the flexibility of man should now demonstrate the way to augment the reliability of the machine.

Glenn first noticed the control trouble when the automatic stabilization and control system allowed the spacecraft to drift about a degree and a half per second to the right, much like an automobile with its front wheels well out of alignment. This drift initiated a signal in the system that called for a one-pound yaw-left thrust, but there was no rate response. Glenn immediately switched to his manual-proportional control mode and eased Friendship 7 back to orbital attitude. Then, switching from mode to mode, he sought to determine how to maintain the correct attitude position with the least cost in fuel. He reported that fly-by-wire seemed most effective and economical. Mercury Control Center recommended that he stay with this control system. After about 20 minutes the malfunctioning thruster mysteriously began working again, and with the exception of a few weak responses it seemed to be working well by the time Glenn was over Texas. After only about a minute of automated flight, however, the opposing yaw-right thruster ceased to function. When similar trials and waiting did not restore the yaw-right jet, Glenn realized that he would have to live with the problem and become a full-time pilot responsible for his own well-being.

To the operations team at the Cape and to the crews at the tracking sites, Glenn appeared to be coping with his attitude control problem well, even though he had to omit many of his observational assignments. But a still more serious problem bothered the Cape monitors as Friendship 7 moved over them. An engineer at the telemetry control console, William Saunders, noted that "segment 51," an instrument providing data on the spacecraft landing system, was presenting a strange reading. According to the signal, the spacecraft heatshield and the compressed landing bag were no longer locked in position. If this was really the case, the all-important heatshield was being held on the capsule only by the straps of the retropackage. Almost immediately the Mercury Control Center ordered all tracking sites to monitor the instrumentation segment closely and, in their conversations with the pilot, to mention that the landing-bag deploy switch should be in the "off" position. Although Glenn was not immediately aware of his potential danger, he became suspicious when site after site consecutively asked him to make sure that the deploy switch was off. Meanwhile the operations team had to decide how to get the capsule and the astronaut back through the atmosphere with a loose heatshield. After huddling for several minutes, they decided that after retrofire the spent retropackage should be retained to keep the shield secure during reentry. William M. Bland, Jr., in the control center, hurriedly telephoned Maxime A. Faget, the chief designer of the Mercury spacecraft, in Houston, to ask if there were any special considerations they needed to know or to watch. Faget replied that everything should be all right, providing all the retrorockets fired. If they did not, the retropack would have to be jettisoned, because any unburned solid propellant would ignite during reentry. [430] The operations team concluded that retaining the retropack was the only possible way of holding the shield in place and protecting Glenn during the early portion of his return to the dense atmosphere. The men in Mercury Control realized that the metallic retropack would burn away, but they felt that by the time it did, aerodynamic pressures would be strong enough to keep the shield in place. The decision once made, the members of the operations team fought off a gnawing uneasiness throughout the rest of the flight.42 This uneasiness was transmitted to the TV and radio audience before actual retrofire.

Meanwhile Friendship 7 was vaulting the Atlantic on its second orbital pass, and Glenn was busy keeping his capsule's attitude correct and trying to accomplish as many of the flight plan tasks as possible. He had advised Virgil Grissom at Bermuda that the oculogyric test, involving visually following a light spot, had just been completed. Near the Canary Islands the sun, streaming through his window, made Glenn a little warm, but he refused to adjust the water coolant control on his suit circuit. This time around he observed that evidently the "fireflies" outside the spacecraft had no connection with the gas from the reaction control jets. Glenn skillfully positioned his ship to take some photographs of the cloud masses and Earth spinning past beneath him. As he mused over a small bolt floating around inside the capsule, the Kano and Zanzibar sites monitoring the capsule suddenly noted a 12 percent drop in the secondary oxygen supply.

Meanwhile the Indian Ocean tracking ship was preparing for the second pass observation experiment. Battened down for heavy weather, the Mercury support crew decided that releasing balloons for Glenn to try to see was out of the question and instead they fired star-shell parachute flares. Glenn, however, was able to observe only lightning flashes in the storm clouds below.

Over the Indian Ocean, Glenn finally decided to adjust the water coolant flow in the suit circuit to improve on a condition he described as "comfortably warm." By the time he was over Woomera, Australia, the light signal warning of excess cabin water told him that the humidity level was rising. From then on throughout the rest of the flight he had to balance his suit cooling carefully against the cabin humidity, but the temperature inside his suit was never more than moderately uncomfortable. Another warning light appeared over Australia, indicating that the hydrogen peroxide fuel supply for the automatic system was down to 62 percent. Mercury Control Center recommended letting the capsule drift in orbit to conserve fuel. Glenn also complained that the roll horizon scanner did not seem to be working too well on the nightside of Earth and that it was difficult for him to obtain a visual reference to check the situation. To get a better view of Earth's horizon he pitched the spacecraft slightly downward, which helped some.

For the remainder of the second orbit and while going on into the third pass, Friendship 7 encountered no new troubles. Glenn continued to control his attitude without allowing too much drift, and consequently consumed considerably more fuel than the automatic system would have used had the control system been working normally. He had used six pounds from the automatic tank and 11.8 pounds from the manual on the second orbit, or almost 30 percent of his total supply. While he had to pay close attention to the control system to hold the fuel expenditure as low as possible, he still had opportunities for making observations, photographing the constellation Orion, and executing a third 180-degree yaw maneuver.

On the last orbital circuit of Friendship 7, the Indian Ocean tracking ship gave up on the release of objects for pilot observation cloud coverage was still too thick. There was still time enough for a little joking between Cooper, at Muchea, and Glenn. The pilot quite formally requested the "down under" communicator to tell General David Shoup, Commandant of the Marine Corps, that three orbits should suffice for his minimal monthly requirement of four hours' flying time. Glenn asked that he be certified as eligible for his regular flight pay increment.

Now that Friendship 7 was halfway through its last orbit, Williams and Kraft decided to try once more to find out all they could about the heatshield before Glenn and his ship plunged through the searing reentry zone. At Kraft's order, the Hawaiian tracking site told Glenn to place the landing bag deploy switch in the automatic position. Then, if a light came on, he should enter with the retropack in place. Coupling this with past queries about this switch, Glenn thoroughly deduced his situation. He ran the test, reported that no light appeared, and added that he could hear no loose bumping noises when the spacecraft's attitude changed. The ground crew leaders differed regarding the best possible procedure to follow: Capsule systems monitors in the Control Center thought that the retropack should be jettisoned, while the data reduction crew urged that it be retained. This left the final decision up to Kraft and Williams. They weighed the information they had received and decided it would be safer to keep the retropack. Walter Schirra, the California communicator, passed the order to Glenn to retain the retropack until he was over the Texas tracking station.

Meanwhile Glenn was preparing for reentry. Keeping the retrorocket package on meant that he had to retract the periscope manually and activate the .05-g sequence by pushing the override switch. Then, while nearing the California coastline, a little more than four hours and 33 minutes after launch, the spacecraft assumed its critical retrofire attitude alignment and the first retrorocket fired. "Boy, feels like I'm going halfway back to Hawaii," Glenn reported. Seconds later, in orderly succession, the two remaining rockets executed the braking process. The attitude controls maintained spacecraft position exactly throughout the retrofire sequence about six minutes after the first retrorocket fired, Glenn carefully pitched the conical end of the spacecraft up to the correct, 14-degree negative pitch attitude for its downward plunge through the atmosphere.

Now came one of the most dramatic and critical moments in all of Project Mercury. In the Mercury Control Center, at the tracking stations, and on the recovery ships ringing the globe, engineers, technicians, physicians, recovery personnel, and fellow astronauts stood nervously, stared at their consoles, and listened to the communications circuits. Was the segment 51 reading on the landing bag and heatshield correct? If so, would the straps on the retropack keep the heatshield in place long enough during reentry? And even if they did, was the thermal protection designed and developed into the Mercury spacecraft truly adequate? Would this, America's first manned orbital flight, end in the incineration of the astronaut? The whole Mercury team felt itself on trial and awaited its verdict.

Glenn and Friendship 7 slowed down during their long reentry glide over the continental United States toward the hoped-for splashdown in the Atlantic. The Corpus Christi station told Glenn to retain the retropack until the g meter before him read 1.5. Busily involved with his control problems, Glenn reported over the Cape that he had been handling the capsule manually and would use the fly-by–wire control mode as a backup. Mercury Control then gave him the .05-g mark, and the pilot punched the override button, saying later that he seemed to be in the fringes of the g field before he pushed. Almost immediately Glenn heard noises that sounded like "small things brushing against the capsule." "That's a real fireball outside," he radioed the Cape, with a trace of anxiety perhaps evident in his tone. Then a strap from the retropackage swung around and fluttered over the window, and he saw smoke as the whole apparatus was consumed. Although his control system seemed to be holding well, his manual fuel supply was down to 15 percent, with the deceleration peak still to come. So he switched to fly-by-wire and the automatic tank supply.

Friendship 7 came now to the most fearful and fateful point of its voyage. The terrific frictional heat of reentry enveloped the capsule, and Glenn experienced his worst emotional stress of the flight. "I thought the retropack had jettisoned and saw chunks coming off and flying by the window," he said later. He feared that the chunks were pieces of his ablation protection, that the heatshield might be disintegrating, but he knew there was nothing to gain from stopping work.

Shortly after passing the peak g region, the spacecraft began oscillating so severely that Glenn could not control the ship manually. Friendship 7 swung far past the "tolerable" 10 degrees on both sides of the zero-degree point. "I felt like a falling leaf," Glenn would recall. So he cut in the auxiliary damping system, which helped to stabilize the large yaw and roll rates to a more comfortable level. Fuel in the automatic tanks, however, was getting low. Obviously the heatshield had stayed in place Glenn was still alive. But now he wondered whether his capsule would remain stable down to an altitude at which the drogue parachute could be deployed safely.

The pilot's fears proved real when both fuel supplies ran dry. Automatic fuel gave out at 111 seconds, and manual fuel depleted at 51 seconds, before the drogue deployment. The oscillations rapidly resumed, and at about 35,000 feet Glenn decided he had better try to deploy the drogue manually lest the spacecraft flip over into an antenna-downward instead of a heatshield-downward position. But just as he lifted his hand toward the switch, the drogue automatically shot out at 28,000 feet instead of the nominal 21,000. Suddenly the spacecraft straightened out and, as Glenn reported, "everything was in good shape."

All systems in Friendship 7 worked with precision for the remainder of the flight. At about 17,000 feet the periscope opened again for the pilot's use. Glenn, instead, glanced out the window, but it was coated with so much smoke and film that he could see very little. The spacecraft stabilized in its descent the antenna section jettisoned and Glenn, with immense relief, watched the main chute stream out, reef, and blossom. The Florida control center reminded Glenn to deploy the landing bag. He flipped the switch, saw the green light confirmation, and felt a comforting "clunk" as the shield and impact bag dropped into position four feet below the capsule. Glenn watched the ocean coming up to meet him and braced as the gap closed. Jolted by an impact that was more reassuring than stunning, he bobbed in the water, checked his watertight integrity, and relayed his elation that a successful MA-6 mission seemed assured.

Friendship 7 had splashed into the Atlantic about 40 miles short of the predicted area, as retrofire calculations had not taken into account the spacecraft's weight loss in consumables. The Noa, a destroyer code-named Steelhead, had spotted the spacecraft during its descent. From a distance of about six miles the destroyer radioed Glenn that it could reach him shortly. Seventeen minutes later, the Noa cruised alongside a sailor smartly cleared the spacecraft antenna and Boatswain's Mate David Bell deftly attached a davit line for pickup. During the hoist upward the spacecraft bumped solidly against the side of the destroyer. Once Friendship 7 was lowered to the mattress pallet, Glenn began removing paneling, intending to leave the capsule through the upper hatch. But it was too hot, and the operation was too slow for the already long day. So he told the ship's crew to stand clear, carefully removed the hatch detonator, and hit the plunger with the back of his hand. The plunger recoiled, cutting Glenn's knuckles slightly through his glove and giving him the only injury he received during the whole mission. A loud report indicated that the hatch was off. Eager hands pulled out the smiling astronaut, whose first words were "It was hot in there."

Lieutenant Commander Robert Mulin of the Navy and Captain Gene McIver of the Army, physicians assigned to the Mercury recovery team, described Glenn as being hot, sweating profusely, and fatigued. He was lucid but not loquacious, thirsty but not hungry. After drinking a glass of water and showering, he became more talkative. Asked if he felt any "stomach uneasiness" either during the flight or while he lolled the 17 minutes in the floating spacecraft waiting for pickup, Glenn admitted only to some "stomach awareness," beginning after he was down on the water. But there was no nausea, and the examining physicians assured themselves that Glenn's condition was caused by heat, humidity, and some dehydration. He had lost five pounds, five ounces from his preflight weight of 171 pounds, seven ounces. He had consumed the equivalent of only 94 cubic centimeters of water, in the form of applesauce puree, during the flight, while his urine output was 800 cubic centimeters. He also had perspired profusely while awaiting pickup.

Glenn's temperature an hour after landing was 99.2 degrees, or only a degree higher than his preflight reading, and by midnight he recorded a normal temperature. His blood pressure registered only a fraction higher than the preflight readings. The condition of his heart and lungs was normal before and after the mission, and there was nothing unusual about his skin except the superficial abrasions on the knuckles, caused by opening the hatch. By the time President Kennedy called his personal congratulations by radio telephone to Glenn aboard the Noa, the "wonderful trip–almost unbelievable" was over, Glenn was safe and sound, and 100 million American television viewers had happily ceased their vigil.

After recording on tape a "self-debriefing" aboard the Noa, Glenn was transferred to the carrier Randolph, where his chest was x-rayed, an electrocardiogram was made, and the initial phase of the technical debriefing was started. From there the astronaut was transported to Grand Turk Island, where a much more thorough physical began about 9:30 p.m., under the direction of Carmault B. Jackson, assistant to Flight Surgeon Douglas. February 20, 1962, proved to be "a long day at the office" for Glenn. After exhaustive tests and observations the attending physicians could find no adverse effects from Glenn's threefold circumnavigation in space. Technical debriefings continued for two days on the island and then moved to the Cape for another day's session.

The postflight analysis of Glenn's use of the three-axis handcontroller during reentry showed that about half of the thrust pulses he initiated opposed the direction of spacecraft motion, as they were supposed to. But the other half of the handcontroller movements either reinforced oscillating motions or had no net damping effect. The issue of "pilot-induced error" was picked up by some newsmen and reported as a controversy rather than a problem.

Now that the primary objectives of Project Mercury had been achieved at last in grand style, the drive for perfection in performance, so indispensable to manned space flight, still did not slow down.

Timeline and parameters [ edit | edit source ]

Launch [ edit | edit source ]

Attempt Planned (UTC) Result Turnaround Reason Decision point Notes
1 27 Jan 1962, 12:00:00 am scrubbed weather T-minus 29 minutes Weather conditions Γ]
2 30 Jan 1962, 12:00:00 am scrubbed 3 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes technical Fuel tank leak in Atlas launch vehicle discovered during fueling Γ]
3 14 Feb 1962, 12:00:00 am scrubbed 15 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes weather "Unfavorable weather conditions" Γ]
4 20 Feb 1962, 2:47:39 pm success 6 days, 14 hours, 48 minutes Countdown began at 2:45 am local time

Flight [ edit | edit source ]

Time (hh:mm:ss) Event Description
00:00:00 Liftoff Mercury-Atlas lifts off, onboard clock starts.
00:00:02 Roll Program Mercury-Atlas rotates along its axis 2.5 deg/s from 30 to 0 deg.
00:00:16 Pitch Program Mercury-Atlas begins a 0.5 deg/s pitch from 90 to 0 deg.
00:00:30 Radio Guidance Lock General Electric-Burroughs guidance system locks onto radio transponder in Atlas booster to guide the vehicle until orbit insertion.
00:01:24 Max Q Maximum dynamic pressure 980 lbf/ft² (6.75 MPa)
00:02:10 BECO Atlas Booster Engine Cutoff. Booster engines drop away.
00:02:33 Tower Jettison Escape Tower Jettison, no longer needed.
00:02:25 Atlas Pitchover After tower separation, vehicle pitches over further.
00:05:20 SECO Atlas Sustainer Engine Cutoff, capsule reaches orbit, velocity 17,547 mph (7,844 m/s)
00:05:24 Capsule Separation Posigrade rockets fire for 1 s giving 15 ft/s (4.57 m/s) separation.
00:05:25 5 second Rate Damping ASCS damps capsule rates for 5 seconds in preparation for turnaround maneuver.
00:05:25 Turnaround Maneuver Capsule (ASCS) system rotates capsule 180 degrees, to heat shield forward attitude. Nose is pitched down 34 degrees to retro fire position.
00:05:30 - 04:30:00 Orbital Operations Orbital operations and experiments for 3 orbits.
04:30:00 Retro Sequence Start Retrofire in 30 s. (ASCS) checks for proper retro attitude -34 deg pitch, 0 deg yaw, 0 deg roll.
04:30:30 Retrofire Three retro rockets fire for 10 seconds each. They are started at 5 second intervals, firing overlaps for a total of 20 s. Delta V of 550 ft/s (168 m/s) is taken off forward velocity.
04:35:45 Retract Periscope Periscope is retracted in preparation for reentry.
04:36:15 Retro Pack Jettison One minute after retrofire retro pack is jettisoned, leaving heatshield clear. (Was overridden in the mission.)
04:36:20 Retro Attitude Maneuver (ASCS) orients capsule in 34 degrees nose down pitch, 0 degrees roll, 0 degrees yaw.
04:42:15 .05 G Maneuver (ASCS) detects beginning of reentry and rolls capsule at 10 deg/s to stabilize capsule during reentry.
04:49:38 Drogue Parachute Deploy Drogue parachute deployed at 22,000 ft (6.7 km) slowing descent to 365 ft/s (111 m/s) and stabilizing capsule.
04:49:45 Snorkel Deploy Fresh air snorkel deploys at 20,000 ft (6 km) ECS switches to emergency oxygen rate to cool cabin.
04:50:15 Main Parachute Deploy Main parachute deploys at 10,000 ft (3 km). Descent rate slows to 30 ft/s (9 m/s)
04:50:20 Landing Bag Deploy Landing Bag Deploys, dropping heat shield down 4 ft (1.2 m).
04:50:20 Fuel Dump Remaining hydrogen peroxide fuel automatically dumped.
04:55:30 Splashdown Capsule lands in water about 500 mi (800 km) downrange from launch site.
04:55:30 Rescue Aids Deploy Rescue aid package deployed. The package includes green dye marker, recovery radio beacon and whip antenna.

Parameters [ edit | edit source ]

Play media

NASA documentary with Glenn about Friendship 7, 2012

Astronaut John Glenn and the Friendship 7 Mission

John Glenn blasted into orbit on February 20, 1962, part of a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union in which the Americans were lagging. The successful completion of Glenn's mission (he orbited the Earth three times) did much to restore American prestige worldwide.

February 20, 1962

Encased in a bulky, pressurized suit, strapped into a seat, and crammed into a tiny capsule, Glenn put his life at risk as he traveled at 17,500 miles per hour 160 miles above Earth. With great skill, courage, and grace, Glenn piloted the spacecraft manually as the autopilot function failed, and Mission Control wondered whether the capsule's life-saving heat shield would hold while reentering the atmosphere. Glenn returned to Earth after 5 hours, suffering no injury more severe than scraped knuckles, sustained as he prepared to exit the capsule after a safe splashdown.

After Glenn began his second orbit, Mission Control received a signal that the heat shield, designed to prevent the capsule from burning up during reentry, was loose. Although it could have been a faulty signal, Mission Control took no chances. Normally, the retropacket package would be jettisoned after the rockets were fired to slow the capsule for reentry. In this case, however, Glenn was ordered to retain the retropack to hold the heat shield in place.

These pages of the official flight transcript of Glenn's 1962 spaceflight document the reentry. While struggling to maintain control of the spacecraft, Glenn watched as huge chunks flew past the window and wondered whether it was the retropack or heat shield breaking up. The heat shield held. If it hadn't, Glenn and his capsule would have been incinerated.

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Astronaut John Glenn photographed in space traveling at 17,500 mph, February 20, 1962 National Archives and Records Administration Records of the U.S. Information Agency (NARA Still Pictures Reference 306-PSD-67-1647)

U.S. Astronaut John H. Glenn. December, 1961 (Detail) NARA Still Pictures Reference 306-PSD-61-12951

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February 20, 1962 - Mercury - History

by Lucas Joel Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Left: Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in his Mercury flight suit. Right: Astronaut Bruce McCandless pilots the Manned Maneuvering Unit during the first untethered spacewalk on Feb. 7, 1984. Credit: both: NASA.

On the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, John H. Glenn sat inside the Mercury Friendship 7 space capsule, perched atop a rocket that had initially been designed to deliver nuclear warheads to the far ends of the world. That rocket would propel Glenn into space, and into the history books, as the first American to orbit Earth.

A far cry from earlier visions of futuristic space planes that would ferry humans into space, the Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was the quick and dirty way for a newly formed U.S. government agency called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to get an American into orbit. It was a feat that the Soviet Union — the U.S.&rsquos Cold War and space-race rivals — had achieved the year before in April when Yuri Gagarin became both the first human in space and the first to orbit Earth.

Although not the first American to reach space (that distinction went to Alan B. Shepard on May 5, 1961), Glenn was the first American to match Gagarin&rsquos achievement, which immediately lofted him into the national spotlight.

Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union helped spark the space age, which, in the decades after Glenn&rsquos orbit, saw many more astronaut achievements. One of those milestones occurred 32 years ago when Bruce McCandless — an astronaut and electrical engineer — was orbiting the planet as part of a mission on the space shuttle Challenger. On Feb. 7, 1984, McCandless exited the shuttle&rsquos payload bay strapped to a large backpack-sized vehicle called a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), which propelled him into space completely unconnected to the shuttle. It was the world&rsquos first untethered spacewalk.

NASA&rsquos Launch

Glenn poses for a photo with the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft during preflight preparations. Credit: NASA.

Dreams of human space travel began to materialize in the mid-20th century after key advances in rocket science came about during World War II. With the efforts of Wernher von Braun and other scientists and engineers, Germany developed the V2 rocket, the first long-range ballistic missile.

<&ldquoiv>&rdquo &ldquoRocketry was pretty amateurish up until the 1930s, but thanks to defense developments during the war, traveling into space began to seem less and less nutty over time,&rdquo says Michael Neufeld, senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian&rsquos National Air and Space Museum. &ldquoAnd with the end of World War II, the V2 opened the door to the launch of the ICBM and, in that way, the space launch vehicle.&rdquo It was not until the early 1960s, though, that rockets large enough to carry a warhead anywhere on the planet — or launch a spacecraft into space — were developed.

Prior to Glenn&rsquos 1962 launch, the Soviet Union had outpaced the U.S. in the space race. After the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower committed government funds to accelerate the nation&rsquos fledgling space program. At first, the responsibility of reaching space fell to two branches of the military: the Army and the Air Force, both of which were, for defense purposes, interested in developing a presence in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. &ldquoIt would&rsquove been a perfectly reasonable outcome of the Cold War situation that the U.S. space program would have been military-based,&rdquo Neufeld says. However, conflicts between military branches — and the fact that each wanted to have the strongest foothold in space — helped drive Eisenhower to establish a separate, civilian space agency: NASA. The creation of a civilian-run space program was also meant as a statement, Neufeld says, in the Cold War propaganda battle: &ldquoNASA was a good image for the United States because it represented a supposedly peaceful space program, rather than it being some kind of military-run missile initiative as with the USSR&rsquos space program.&rdquo

After NASA came into being in 1958, it soon created Project Mercury, the goal of which was to put an American into orbit. Seven military test pilots were chosen to be part of NASA&rsquos first astronaut corps. One of these pilots was John Glenn, who had flown combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. Glenn, before his flight, named his space capsule Friendship 7: Like Alan Shepard&rsquos Freedom 7 capsule, the name was a nod to his fellow Mercury astronauts.

Orbiting Earth

Glenn&rsquos launch day — Feb. 20 — arrived, and by 6 a.m. Eastern time he had donned his spacesuit and climbed inside the cramped quarters of Friendship 7, about which he joked: &ldquoYou don&rsquot get into [it], you put [it] on.&rdquo At 9:47 a.m., the engines were lit, and five minutes later Glenn rocketed into orbit.

Outside his window, Glenn passed over the coast of West Africa, and then over the Indian Ocean, which is where he saw his first sunset from orbit: &ldquoA beautiful display of vivid colors … As the sun gets lower and lower, a black shadow moves across the Earth until the entire surface that you can see is dark except for the bright band of light on the horizon. At the beginning, this band is almost white in color. But as the sun sinks deeper the bottom layer of light turns to bright orange. The next layers are red, then purple, then light blue, then darker blue and finally the blackness of space. They are all brilliant colors, more brilliant than in a rainbow.&rdquo

After three orbits over 4 hours and 55 minutes, Glenn returned to Earth and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. Shepard may have been the first American in space, but he had not orbited the planet like Gagarin had. &ldquoThe Soviets orbited Gagarin on the first try, while Shepard made a 15-minute flight up into and then immediately back down from space,&rdquo Neufeld says. To Americans at the time, this &ldquoseemed like an inferior accomplishment.&rdquo Glenn&rsquos orbit thus eclipsed Shepard&rsquos flight and for that, New York City and Washington, D.C., held parades in his honor. The flight came to signify the country&rsquos first major step into the space age.

Untethered Spacewalk

McCandless floats about 100 meters from the space shuttle Challenger during the first untethered spacewalk in 1984. Credit: NASA.

In the years following Glenn&rsquos flight, American space exploration expanded: Astronauts first orbited and then landed on the moon in 1968 and 1969, respectively, and, from 1981 to 2011, NASA&rsquos space shuttles ferried astronauts into space on numerous exploratory and scientific missions. In 1984, on one of these shuttle missions — STS-41B — astronaut Bruce McCandless performed the first untethered spacewalk from the space shuttle Challenger. (During a subsequent mission on Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger exploded just after launch, killing all seven astronauts aboard.)

For the spacewalk, McCandless used an MMU that was designed to enable him to roam free of the space shuttle. Departing from the payload bay, McCandless ranged about 100 meters from the shuttle, becoming the &ldquofirst human satellite,&rdquo says Valerie Neal, curator and chair of the Smithsonian&rsquos Space History Department. While adrift, fellow astronaut Robert Gibson, from inside Challenger, snapped a photo that went on to become an iconic image of human space travel. In the photo, a solitary McCandless, visor down to protect his eyes from the sun, appears suspended in space far above Earth&rsquos horizon.

The MMU that McCandless flew, which is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum, was designed so that astronauts could perform tasks at a distance from the spacecraft, such as retrieving a damaged satellite. This would keep the shuttle itself from having to get close to other bodies floating in space. &ldquoMcCandless himself invested a great deal of his career into developing the MMU capacity,&rdquo Neal says. &ldquoHe, more than any other astronaut, is associated with the MMU, both for the fact that he flew it first and because he had put in years of effort developing it and perfecting it to be an astronaut aid.&rdquo

Including McCandless' flight, the MMU was used on just three shuttle missions. Following the 1986 Challenger explosion, NASA &ldquobecame a lot more conservative regarding astronaut safety,&rdquo Neal says. It was decided that most of the tasks the MMU was designed to help accomplish could be done just as well with the space shuttle&rsquos robotic arm.

&ldquoHad the Challenger tragedy not happened, I think it&rsquos likely that the MMU would have continued to be used,&rdquo Neal says. &ldquoIt probably would&rsquove evolved into a smaller, more compact version [of the] one McCandless used,&rdquo and perhaps would have been used to help build the International Space Station, she says. Unfortunately, its &ldquopotential for making astronauts even more capable workers in space&rdquo was never realized.

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February 20, 1962 - Mercury - History

On February 20, 1962, John H. Glenn, Jr., became the first American to orbit Earth. An Atlas launch vehicle propelled a Mercury spacecraft into Earth orbit and enabled Glenn to circle Earth three times. The flight lasted a total of 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds before the Friendship 7 spacecraft splashed down in the ocean. Most major systems worked smoothly, and the flight was a great success as an engineering feat.

This Mercury-Atlas (MA) 6 mission also reestablished NASA and the U.S. as a strong contender in the space race with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had launched the world’s first spacecraft, Sputnik, in October 1957 and had also sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space on April 1961. NASA responded by sending the first American, Alan Shepard, into space in May 1961, but Shepard’s flight was only a suborbital lob, whereas Gagarin had orbited Earth. With Glenn’s orbital mission, NASA was finally able to pull back even with the Soviets.

The flight was the culmination of a tremendous amount of work in a relatively short time. On October 7, 1958, the newly formed NASA had announced Project

Mercury, its first major undertaking. The objectives were threefold: to place a piloted spacecraft into orbital flight around Earth, observe human performance in such conditions, and recover the human and the spacecraft safely. Despite Shepard’s successful first flight, many questions had still remained about how Americans could survive and function in space.

The success of the Friendship 7 mission enabled NASA to accelerate further its efforts with Project Mercury. During less than five years, from Mercury’s start to finish, more than two million people from government and industry pooled their skills and experience to produce and manage the Nation’s first six piloted spaceflights. Mercury flights demonstrated that people could survive in microgravity for over a day without deterioration of normal physiological functions.

Mercury also set the stage for Projects Gemini and Apollo during the 1960s and all later U.S. human spaceflight activities. Thus, the MA-6 mission of Friendship 7 was both a capstone event and the beginning of many more achievements in human spaceflight for NASA.

Updated February 22, 2010
Steve Garber, NASA History Web Curator
Chris Gamble, Web Links Author
For further information, e-mail [email protected]

Designed by Douglas Ortiz and
edited by Lisa Jirousek
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Mercury 7: The First American Astronauts to Orbit Earth

On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced its first astronaut class, the Mercury 7. Front row, left to right: Walter M. Schirra, Jr., Deke Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and M. Scott Carpenter back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.

Bryan Ethier
October 1997

In February 1962—just nine months after President John F. Kennedy called for the U.S. to put a man on the moon before 1970—Mercury astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.

O n the morning of February 20, 1962, millions of Americans collectively held their breath as the world’s newest pioneer swept across the threshold of one of man’s last frontiers. Roughly a hundred miles above their heads, astronaut John Glenn sat comfortably in the weightless environment of a 9 1/2-by-6-foot space capsule he called Friendship 7. Within these close quarters, he worked through his flight plan and completed an array of technical and medical tests as he cruised through the heavens.

It offered the legroom of a Volkswagen Beetle and the aesthetics of a garbage can, but the small capsule commanded an extraordinary view of the planet Earth. Through the craft’s window, Glenn saw thick, puffy, white clouds blanketing much of southern Africa and the Indian Ocean. The Atlas Mountains of North Africa stood like proud, majestic statues on a planet that seemed as timeless as the stars that twinkled an eternity away. Dust storms blew across the deserts, and smoke from brush fires swirled into the atmosphere.

“Oh, that view is tremendous,” Glenn remarked over the radio to capsule communicator (Capcom) Alan Shepard, his fellow Mercury astronaut stationed back at mission control. As Friendship 7 passed over the Indian Ocean, Glenn witnessed his first sunset from space, a panorama of beautiful, brilliant colors. Before the conclusion of that historic day, he would witness a total of four sunsets—three while in earth orbit, and the fourth from the deck of his recovery ship.

For Glenn, the historic voyage of Friendship 7 remains as vivid today as if it had happened yesterday. People still ask him what it felt like to be the first American to orbit the earth. And often he thinks of his capsule’s breathtaking liftoff and those subtle, emotionally empowering sunrises and sunsets.

“Here on earth you see a sunrise, it’s golden, it’s orange,” Glenn recalled recently. “When you’re in space, and you’re coming around on a sunset or sunrise, where the light comes to you refracted through the earth’s atmosphere and back out into space, to the spacecraft that refraction has the same glowing color for all the colors of the spectrum . . . .”

There have been more than ten thousand sunsets since his orbital flight helped launch the United States deeper into a space race with the former Soviet Union. And although Glenn’s political career as a Democratic senator from Ohio has kept him in the public eye, he is remembered by many of his countrymen as the first American to circle the planet and as the affable spokesman for the seven Mercury astronauts.

Glenn marvels at how people all over the world still recall the heady days of the Mercury program. “It’s been heartwarming in some respects and it’s amazing in others,” he says. “I don’t go around all day, saying ‘Don’t you want to hear about my space experience?’ Quite the opposite. But if the kids come to the office here, or if I run into them on the subway and they want to stop a minute, I don’t hesitate to stop and talk. I think it’s good I think that’s a duty we [former astronauts] have.”

By the time Glenn and Friendship 7 burst through the earth’s atmosphere, the United States was already a distant second in space technology, behind the Soviet Union. The race to begin to explore the universe had unofficially begun on October 4, 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite.

“I think Sputnik sort of forced the hand,” explains Gene Kranz, who served as Project Mercury’s assistant flight director and section chief for flight control operations. “I think we found ourselves an embarrassing second in space and related technologies. We were second best, and Americans generally don’t like that kind of a role.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, was more concerned about the country’s security than its self-esteem. With the Soviets having the rocket power to propel a satellite into space, he wondered how long it would be before they were capable of launching a nuclear bomb toward the United States. In response to this perceived Soviet threat, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into being on July 29, 1958. One of the first assignments given to the new agency was to launch a man into space and return him safely to earth, and that fall, Project Mercury was created to fulfill that daunting task.

On April 9, 1959, NASA formally introduced to the world the seven test pilots who would, it was hoped, carry the U.S. banner to the heavens. Selected were: Lieutenant Commanders Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Walter Marty Schirra, and Alan B. Shepard of the Navy Air Force captains Leroy Gordon Cooper, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and Donald “Deke” Slayton and Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn of the Marine Corps.

Born on July 18, 1921, Glenn was the oldest of the group, arguably the most celebrated, and an obvious candidate for Mercury from the beginning. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Glenn had flown 149 combat missions and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross five times. After completing test-pilot school in 1954, Glenn went to work testing the fastest jets America could produce. His career sparkled even more in 1957 after he set a transcontinental speed record for the first flight to average supersonic speed (700 miles per hour) from Los Angeles to New York.

From their first public appearance together, the Mercury 7 astronauts, as they came to be known, were celebrities and heroes. “We were at first extremely surprised when we were announced to the whole world, and how crazy everybody went over the whole thing,” laughs Cooper.

But enthusiasm for the project was one thing making it a success was more difficult. There were countless variables and unknowns to conquer: weightlessness, a new capsule, an inconsistent booster in the Atlas rocket, and of course, the awesome specter of space. “To put it bluntly, we didn’t know what we were doing in many areas of the Mercury program and we were fortunate our country understood there was no achievement without risk,” admits Kranz.

As the Mercury project evolved and moved into the next decade, NASA found a crucial supporter in President John F. Kennedy. Just weeks into his term, however, the Soviets scored another technological coup. On April 2, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to fly in space, orbiting the earth once during his one hour, 48-minute flight, which came just three months after a U.S. Redstone rocket had carried a chimp named Ham into space and brought him safely back.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard made America’s first, manned suborbital voyage, flying for 15 minutes and reaching an altitude of 116 miles. Compared to Gagarin’s flight around the world, Shepard’s 302-mile mission was a mere stopover between ports of call. It was, however, a major boost to America’s pride. While Gagarin flew under a cloak of secrecy, Shepard’s flight was broadcast live on television.

The early success of the Mercury Program spurred President Kennedy to inspire NASA to reach for new heights. On May 25, he grabbed the world’s attention when he told Congress that the nation’s new goal was to complete a manned trip to the moon before the end of the decade. For the first time in its space duel with the Soviet Union, the United States, which had so far amassed just 15 minutes of manned space-flight time, had set the stakes. Gene Kranz recalls with a laugh that “. . . we thought he was crazy,” but the astronauts also felt energized to meet the new challenge.

NASA turned its efforts up a notch that summer. In July, Gus Grissom replicated Shepard’s short suborbital flight, and by the fall, NASA was ready to attempt putting a spacecraft in orbit. As a final test in preparation for a manned trip, a chimpanzee named Enos was launched into space in late November. The craft carrying Enos completed two orbits before landing safely back on earth, after which NASA announced that on December 20 of that year, John Glenn would make the first American orbital flight.

Before taking this next giant leap toward the moon, however, NASA had to ensure that an astronaut could function in a weightless environment for an extended period of time. Some scientists feared that without proper equipment and technology, a space traveler’s eyeballs would bulge out of their sockets and change shape. This, in turn, would distort his vision and preclude his flying the craft should any of the automatic controls fail. Also, scientists feared that fluid in the inner ear might float freely into the air and that Glenn would become so nauseated and disoriented that he would be unable to perform his tasks.

In addition to its concerns about Glenn’s adaptability to weightlessness, NASA worried about the inconsistent Atlas booster, the huge rocket designed to push Glenn’s ship into orbit. Two of the five unmanned test firings conducted on the 93-foot Atlas prior to Glenn’s mission had failed. The memory of one of those failures has remained vivid for Glenn. It was a night test, he remembers, “and it was very dramatic–searchlights and a beautiful starlit night. Not a cloud in the sky. They light this thing, and up she goes . . . . At about 27,000 feet it blew up right over our heads. It looked like an atom bomb went off right there.”

To add to the mounting tension, poor weather and mechanical problems with the rocket forced NASA to “scrub” Glenn’s scheduled mission nine times. Finally, on February 20, 1962, seven months after America’s last manned flight, John Glenn would don his bulky pressure suit for what would be the final time.

Rising out of bed in his “ready room” at NASA’s spacecraft center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 2:20 a.m., he checked the weather report, which indicated a fifty percent chance of rain. Glenn showered and shaved and had the customary astronaut’s breakfast of steak and eggs, before taking a pre-flight physical. If the many weeks of anticipation weighed on Glenn’s mind, his body did not reflect it.

Four hours later, Glenn made the short ride to the rocket’s launch site. When he emerged from the transfer van, Launch Pad 14 resembled a movie set as giant floodlights waved streams of milky white upon the rocket and the surrounding area. The huge Atlas was a glowing silver sword in the coal-black night. “My flight was–it was like you staged it,” recalls Glenn. “It was Hollywoodesque.”

Two hours before his scheduled liftoff, Glenn squeezed into the cramped cabin of Friendship 7, perched atop the Atlas rocket. The sky was clearing, and just before 8:00 a.m. technicians began the laborious task of bolting on the entry hatch of the craft. Sealed inside the capsule, Glenn felt truly alone. The minutes ticked by slowly as he calmly and methodically worked through his preflight checklist. Finally, Glenn heard the flight team give his mission an “A-OK” over the radio. With all systems functioning normally, Glenn acknowledged his preparedness with a firm “ready.” As the final countdown to liftoff began, backup pilot Scott Carpenter’s voice crackled over Glenn’s radio: “Godspeed, John Glenn.”

At 9:47 a.m. the rocket’s three engines ignited. Friendship 7 began to vibrate as the mighty Atlas built up 350,000 pounds of thrust, the force needed to lift Glenn and his craft into orbit. For a few interminable seconds, the massive rocket held steady. Finally, its hold-down clamps released, and the Atlas slowly, agonizingly clutched and pulled at the bright blue sky. “We are underway,” Glenn reported to Mercury Control.

Minutes later, Glenn was a hundred miles above the earth and traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour. With all systems running smoothly during his initial orbit, Control advised him that he “had a go” for at least seven turns around the earth. Unlike Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who had experienced nausea and dizziness during his recent 16-orbit flight, Glenn worked and ate without difficulty. As he gazed earthward through the capsule’s window, he noted how fragile the planet appeared, shielded from the unforgiving vacuum of space by a film of atmosphere that seemed no more dense than an eggshell.

Back at Mercury Control, the flight team, headed by Chris Kraft and Kranz, kept their focus on more practical considerations. After Glenn’s first orbit, Control had received a telemetry signal indicating that his capsule’s heat shield might be loose. If that signal was correct, Glenn and the spacecraft would disintegrate in the three-thousand-degree heat generated by reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. There seemed to be only one solution to this potentially tragic problem. If Glenn refrained from jettisoning the ship’s retro-rocket package, a normal procedure just before reentry, its titanium straps might hold the shield in place. Control advised Glenn of their decision to end his flight and ordered him to plan for reentry after his third orbit.

Unwilling to burden Glenn with concern over the possible heat-shield malfunction, Control offered no explanation for their decision until he was safely home. Glenn was suspicious, but all parts of Friendship 7 seemed to him to be working properly so he concerned himself only with what was within his control. Before long, the capsule splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean.

“When I started back in through the atmosphere, when the straps that held the retropack on burned off, one of them popped up in front of the window,” Glenn remembers. “I thought the retropack or the heat shield was breaking up. It was a real fireball. But the heat shield worked fine.”

Glenn’s flight was a public relations boon for the U.S. space program. He returned to a hero’s welcome and a wildly emotional New York City ticker-tape parade. The United States had made a significant step forward in its competition with the Soviet Union and its quest for the moon. Few people knew, however, that the nation’s most famous pilot would never again fly in space.

As Glenn recalls, “President Kennedy had passed word to NASA, and I didn’t know this for some years, that I was not to be used again on a flight, at least for a while. You can’t believe being the focal point of that kind of attention when we came back. I don’t know if he was concerned about political fallout, or what.” Glenn was disappointed that he never again traveled into space, but declares, “I don’t feel cheated because I had such a tremendous flight.”

Three years after the confetti and streamers had blown away, John Glenn left NASA and, relegating space flight to a vivid memory, moved into another public arena. Politics is a high-profile world in which Glenn’s clean-cut image and amiable personality easily endeared him to his constituents and to the public in general. In 1974, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by his home state of Ohio, an office he has held through three more terms.

Despite the passage of more than a quarter-century, Glenn easily recalls the innocent joy he found in those wondrous space sunsets. He has never lost the ability to draw inspiration from his experiences and to channel it into a positive outlook. “I think its an attitude,” he says, of maintaining his inner youth. “I think kids have an expectation of what’s going to happen tomorrow. I think some people are able to maintain that whole thing, this expectation about what they’re looking forward to.”

Not surprisingly, Senator Glenn can easily find his time consumed by the business of Capitol Hill. But when a red-headed, freckle-faced teenager with blue eyes ablaze asks Glenn to describe a launch or splashdown, the senator from Ohio again becomes one of America’s first astronauts, as he relives that historic day in 1962 when time stood still and three space sunsets blazed like campfires of a thousand sparkling colors.

Bryan Ethier is a freelance writer from Connecticut. After Mercury, his retrospective book on the effect the Mercury Space Program has had on the world, will be published in the spring by McGregor Hill.

This story was originally published in the October 1997 issue of American History Magazine. For more content, subscribehere.

Watch the video: FIRST. MAN TO ORBIT EARTH - FEBRUARY 20, 1962 (December 2021).