How John Glenn’s three world orbits in Friendship 7 helped get us ready for the moon (1962)

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John Glenn During the Mercury-Atlas 6 Spaceflight (1962)

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Ad Astra… to the stars! John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, and he did it on the Mercury spacecraft named Friendship 7, on February 20, 1962. Here’s how it went.
John Glenn turns clock backwards in epochal flight around earth

Article by Saul Pett – The Tampa Tribune (Florida) February 21, 1962

CAPE CANAVERAL — We came out to the press site, a mile from the launching pad, not really expecting anything to happen, because it hadn’t so many times before.

Clouds blurred the moon in the early morning darkness and it looked like weather might force still another postponement.

On closed circuit television, we watched casually, almost in boredom, as John Glenn squeezed into his capsule.

We saw him smile, this man whom we had come to know without really knowing, this man who had puzzled us because he refused to share our impatience and projected fears.

Dawn spread in the east and the cloud cover was still heavy. Across the sand and palmetto bushes, we watched the huge bullet-shaped rocket and the bell-shaped capsule with a man aboard. We made cynical wisecracks as delays were announced because of mechanical difficulties.

John Glenn - Astronaut on Friendship 7 / Mercury-Atlas 6 Space flight

The clouds break

And suddenly a big blue hole widened in the sky, and the troubles at the pad were over, and the count moved down again toward an inexorable moment in time.

The minutes slipped away and now there were only seconds left and the tension was cruel.

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If he can’t go now, we thought, couldn’t the whole thing be called off forever, couldn’t the world somehow return to a saner time, to the serenity of clipper ships?

But now it was 9:47 a.m., Feb. 20, 1962, and the rocket was flaming and roaring and rising reluctantly.

We pushed with our bodies and we pushed with our minds, and we wanted in the worst way for John Glenn to go in the best way.

Glenn enters his Friendship 7 capsule with assistance from technicians to begin his historic flight (1962)
Glenn enters his Friendship 7 capsule with assistance from technicians to begin his historic Mercury-Atlas 6 (MA-6), the first American orbital spaceflight

Go, go, go, go up John Glenn, go straight, go true, go safe.

The rocket rose higher, its silver body flashing in bright sunlight and a sky now entirely clear. It gathered speed and climbed straight up with a tail of orange flame and an inhuman delayed roar.

And now it was small, and now it was a speck, and now, suddenly, it was gone completely, and the sky was quiet and still except for a twisted contrail drifting lazily in the wind.

ALSO SEE: That time NASA hired a hat maker to make headgear for astronauts (1965)

The minutes flew by, and now John Glenn was safely in orbit, flying around tie world at more than 17,500 miles an hour, more than 100 miles up.

Over the public address system, we could hear his voice, relayed from Mercury control, calmly reporting over the Canary Islands: “I am very comfortable. The horizon is a brilliant blue. I can see the Canarys. The mainland (of Africa) is also in sight.”

At 10:06 he was over the west coast of Africa and 12 minutes later was pulling away from its east coast.

Twenty-two minutes after that, while it was still only 10:28 in the morning in Florida, John Glenn was flying in darkness over Australia.

Astronaut John Glenn in a State of Weightlessness During Friends
Astronaut John Glenn photographed in space by an automatic sequence motion picture camera during his flight on “Friendship 7.” Glenn was in a state of weightlessness traveling at 17,500 mph as these pictures were taken.

“That sure was a short day,” he reported. “Any vertigo or nausea?” asked the tracking station in Muchea, Australia.

“Negative. I feel fine… I can now see a big pattern of lights below (the city of Perth). Thank everyone for turning them on.”

Now John Glenn passed from dark to light again. At 11:09 he reported seeing thousands of mysterious tiny particles moving with his capsule in the glare of sunrise over mid-Pacific.

While the particles remained unexplained, one staggering fact was clear: Within 82 minutes after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, he had passed from Tuesday morning to Tuesday night, to the early morning darkness of Wednesday, and back again to the morning light of Tuesday, as he approached the west coast of the United States.

And a few minutes later he was near Bermuda. John Herschel Glenn had become the first American to orbit the earth. He had done it in 88.29 minutes, and he was still going.

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., wearing a Mercury pressure suit (1962)

ALSO SEE: One small step: Everything that happened the day man first walked on the moon in 1969


John Glenn’s three world orbits

83,450 miles in 4 hours 55 minutes

John Glenn's three world orbits in Friendship 7 (2)

John Glenn's three world orbits in Friendship 7 (1)

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.

John Glenn's 1962 orbits in Friendship 7 - Space race

Normal

  • 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

Feared

  • 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

ALSO SEE: How the Apollo 1 astronauts tragically died in a flash fire on the launchpad (1967)

Actual

  • 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.

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