The Mission Objectives
were fairly simple by today standards: Place a man into
earth orbit, observe his reactions to the space
environment and safely return him to earth to a point
where he could be readily found. However, back in 1962
they were anything but simple. The U.S.A. had been taking
a backseat to the U.S.S.R. and it was time for America to
send a man into orbit. So on February 20, 1962 at 9:47:39
am EST, John Glenn rode Friendship 7 from Cape Canaveral's
Launch Complex 14 to become an American hero.
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, he described "this moment of twilight
is simply beautiful. The sky in space is very black, with
a thin band of blue along the horizon." On the night-side
of Earth, nearing the Australian coastline, Glenn made his
planned star, weather, and landmark observations.
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 night-side - 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.
At Mercury Control
Centre 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 heat-shield and the compressed landing bag were
no longer locked in position. If this was really the case,
the all-important heat-shield was being held on the
capsule only by the straps of the retro-package.
Almost immediately the
Mercury Control Centre 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
heat-shield. Flight director Christopher Kraft and Mercury
operations boss, Walt Williams, weighed the information
they had received and decided it would be safer to keep
the retro-pack. Walter Schirra, the California
communicator, passed the order to Glenn to retain the
retro-pack until he was over the Texas tracking station.
Now came one of the most
dramatic and critical moments in all of Project Mercury.
In the Mercury Control Centre, 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. Glenn and
Friendship 7 slowed down during their long re-entry glide
over the continental United States toward the hoped-for
splashdown in the Atlantic.
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 retro-package swung
around and fluttered over the window, and he saw smoke as
the whole apparatus was consumed.
Friendship 7 came now to
the most fearful and fateful point of its voyage. The
terrific frictional heat of re-entry enveloped the
capsule, and Glenn experienced his worst emotional stress
of the flight. "I thought the retro-pack 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 heat-shield might be
disintegrating, but he knew there was nothing to gain from
heat-shield had stayed in place and at 28,000 feet the
drogue automatically shot out. Glenn, with immense relief,
watched the main chute stream out, reef, and blossom at
less than 17,000 feet. Friendship 7 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, shortly picked up Glenn.