On today's date, February 20, in 1962, Lieutenant Colonel John Glenn, U.S.M.C. became the first American to orbit the earth, making three revolutions around our planet in the Friendship Seven Mercury spacecraft. Col. Glenn became a national hero for his flight. But this hero status made him too valuable to risk on subsequent space flights, and this inactivity wound up driving him into the political arena as a democratic Senator from his (and my) home state of Ohio.
John Glenn, the Clean Marine
Born in Cambridge, Ohio on July 18, 1921, John Glenn had been a successful Marine pilot, completing over 150 combat missions during World War II and the Korean conflict, and receiving numerous decorations. And he was also a successful test pilot, having made the first the first nonstop supersonic flight across the United States, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes. Dubbed the Clean Marine because of his exemplary private life (he married his wife Annie in 1943 and stayed with her ever after) and because he refused to use curse language, Glenn had been one of the first seven pilot chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959 to be the original astronauts in America's space program.
Glenn's Mission on February 20
In these early days of the U.S. space program, the U.S. was seen by many as falling behind the Russians who had already had a man in space, as well as a man orbiting the planet. so while the U.S. had already put men in space on previous missions, we had a lot by way of national prestige on the line with Col. Glenn's mission this day in 1962. He lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at 9:47 a.m. on with some 100,000 spectators watching in person nearby and millions watching on television. Parted from its launching rocket, the bell-shaped Friendship 7 capsule moved into orbit around Earth at a speed of 17,500 miles per hour. After only five minutes Glenn radioed back: “This is Friendship 7. Can see clear back; a big cloud pattern way back across towards the Cape. Beautiful sight.” During his first orbit, Glenn saw what he described as small, glowing fireflies drifting by the capsule's tiny window. "Get out of here you little gadgets!" he said playfully as they dispersed. Later NASA figured out that the sparks were crystallized water vapor from the capsule's air-conditioning system.
The View from Space and the Heat Shield
At the start of his third orbit, Glenn photographed a truly unique view of Florida from the Georgia border to north Cape Canaveral. “I have the Cape in sight down there,” he radoed to mission controllers. “It looks real fine from up here. I can see the whole state of Florida just laid out like on a map. Beautiful.” The photo is below.
There was some trouble on this flight. As put in the New York Times: "The astronaut's safe return was no less a relief than a thrill to the Project Mercury team, because there had been real concern that the Friendship 7 capsule might disintegrate as it rammed back into the atmosphere." Mission control received a signal from the spacecraft saying that the heat shield on the base of the capsule might be loose. This meant that the capsule could burn up upon re-entry to earth's atmosphere if the heat shield came off, NASA decided to keep the craft's retrorockets, usually jettisoned before reentry, in place to hold the heat shield in position, Less than a minute later, Friendship 7 hit Earth's atmosphere. After four minutes of radio silence. Glenn's voice came sputtering over the speakers at Mission Control. As reported in the Times the next day: "Still in his capsule, he was plucked from the water at 3:01 P. M. with a boom and block and tackle by the destroyer Noa. The capsule was deposited on deck at 3:04. Colonel Glenn's first words as he stepped out onto the Noa's deck were: 'It was hot in there.' He quickly obtained a glass of ice tea."
The Years Following 1962
Thereafter, Colonel Glenn was a national hero, given a ticker-tape parade in New York City, and was praised all around for his feat of circling the globe in the Friendship 7, and to no small degree, for restoring America's national pride in her space program. And while NASA would go on to surpass the Russians, ultimately landing a man on the moon in 1969, John Glenn the hero was seen by NASA as a far too valuable commodity to risk on another space mission. With his naturally active spirit rebelling at this inactivity, Col. Glenn entered the political arena as a democratic candidate for the United States Senate from Ohio. He won election in 1974, and was re-elected three times after that - I am pleased and proud to say that I voted for him myself in those contests from 1980, onward. On October 29, 1998, almost forty years after his orbital flight in Friendship Seven the 77-year-old Glenn was aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery as the oldest human ever to travel in space. Lieutenant Colonel, Senator John Glenn - what a man!!
"The Right Stuff' - dir, by Philip Kaufman, 1983