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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.