John Glenn’s three world orbits
83,450 miles in 4 hours 55 minutes
The astronaut’s close shave
A radio signal from the space-craft indicated that the landing bag, which would act as a cushion when the capsule hit the water, had been deployed prematurely. If this signal proved valid, it would mean that the heat shield, which is attached to the landing bag, had also come free and would not protect the spacecraft from the fiery heat of re-entry.
For the next three hours, while Glenn rode through two more space days and nights, scientists of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration huddled to determine what action to take. Tension rose sharply as time ran out.
- Retrorockets fire to slow the capsule and push it earthward
- Retropack jettisoned, exposed heat shield faces re-entry friction
- Heat shield glows at 3,000 F, but ablation protects the capsule
- Retrorockets fire; rocket cases leave the capsule as planned
- Retropack’s bindings gone, the heat shield slips out of position
- Heat shield sheared off, the astronaut’s capsule incinerates in seconds
- Rockets fire; pack is kept after false signal that heat shield is loose
- Retropack straps help hold the heat shield in place for re-entry
- Retropack burns away and the intact heat shield saves the capsule
Top photo: Second orbit sunset gilds John Glenn’s face as Friendship 7 soars over the Indian Ocean, nearing mid-point of his 83,450-mile odyssey in space.