John Glenn’s 1962 Orbital Flight Put NASA Back In The Space Race

Sixty years hence, it’s hard to appreciate just how much of an impact a human astronaut actually orbiting our Earth had on those below in early 1962. True, the Soviets had already achieved this feat. But the U.S. had yet to send an astronaut into a full orbit around our fragile planet. Thus, astronaut John Glenn’s three orbits of Earth during NASA’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission served as a wake-up call to the soviets that NASA was here to stay and that the U.S. would not go quietly in this new race to conquer space. 

But it also served to inspire a whole generation of space watchers from the remote reaches of Perth, Australia to Hawaii, to the west coast of the U.S. to Florida to central Africa and beyond.

In early February 1962, when people in the northern hemisphere stepped out under a clear night sky and into the kind of bitter cold that can pierce one’s soul, the whole idea that Earth was round and rotating and orbiting its own star was something that many may have understood intellectually. But the reality of travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere was breathtakingly novel. As a result, it’s hard to fully grasp the importance of Glenn’s triumphant, nail-biting flight. 

Twenty-one minutes after liftoff, Glenn passed over the Sahara and took shots of its dust storms. As Jeff Shesol, author of “Mercury Rising: John Glenn, John Kennedy, and the New Battleground of the Cold War,” writes, one of Glenn’s key tasks was to find out how well a human could see from space; in terms of discerning detail and identifying lakes, rivers and mountain ranges; and gauging distances between objects in orbit. As Shesol notes, some of this mattered for science and future space missions but there were also military reconnaissance implications in this unique view from orbit.

What surprised Shesol most about the Mercury Frienship 7 spacecraft’s flight?

The fact that on the eve of his flight, Glenn was seriously at odds with NASA managers about the flight plan, Shesol told me. He believed they were making decisions — without even asking his opinion — that put him in even greater danger, he says.

“Though he never went public with his concerns, and always portrayed himself as completely confident in NASA’s decisions, he began to seriously reckon with the possibility that he would become the first man to die in space,” said Shesol.

One sticking point with all the Mercury 7 astronauts at the time was autonomy in the capsule; the ability of the astronaut pilot to make his own decisions when mission control seemed to prefer autopilot.

As a result, Shesol says that NASA made Glenn’s flight plan “more conservative” as the launch date approached. “That meant less opportunity for the astronaut to make his own decisions; the autopilot was king,” said Shesol.

A prime case in point was the fact that mission control initially kept Glenn out of the loop regarding a potential problem with Friendship 7’s heat shield. 

“As [Glenn] passed over Cape Canaveral at the start of his second orbit, 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,” NASA reports. “According to the signal, the spacecraft heatshield and the compressed landing bag were no longer locked in position.”

Designed to protect the capsule on re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere, the heat shield was in fact supposed to come loose, as NASA notes, but not before it withstood temperatures of more than 3000 degrees F. So, if Friendship 7’s heatshield was loose, it might only be being held in place by straps of the capsule’s retrorocket firing package.

Thus, one can imagine Glenn’s shock when Mercury Control asked him if he heard “any banging noises.” “It was the sort of phrase Glenn might have expected to hear about his family station wagon, not a spacecraft that had cost $160 million to produce and been tested as rigorously as any machine ever made,” Shesol writes in “Mercury Rising.” “Negative,” Glenn replied; he didn’t hear any banging noises. Neither did he see any warning lights.” 

“Glenn knew that any problem with the heat shield was going to reveal itself, at first, as heat along his spine; he also knew that if he felt heat along his spine it would all be over quickly,” Shesol notes in his book. But Friendship 7 successfully splashed down at 2:43 p.m. EST on this day sixty years ago; about 800 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral in the vicinity of Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Glenn’s flight had lasted 4 hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds.  And in the end, the reading that the heat shield might have come loose was deemed to be due to a faulty sensor.

Veteran aerospace journalist and Perth native Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of airlineratings.com, was only 10 years-old at the time of Glenn’s flyover. But Thomas remembers the event vividly.

In the hundreds of thousands, Perth people turned every light on in their homes and even hung white sheets on clotheslines and lit them up with torches to produce as much light as possible, Thomas told me. Perth lit up like a beacon on the darkest night, says Thomas, prompting John Glenn to ask the Carnarvon tracking station what the bright light was below which led to the famous comment “Perth is the City of Lights.”

Within voice radio range of the Muchea, Australia, tracking station, Glenn reported that he could see a very bright light and what appeared to be the outline of a city, NASA notes.

We all stood in the street to watch Friendship 7 go overhead and we were in awe; so proud of what we had done, says Thomas. Being so remote we believe it put us on the map for the first time, he says. It made us so proud that we made a difference to that spaceflight and we, of all the people of the world, Thomas says, laid out a warm welcome hello to John Glenn.

But what if the flight had been a complete failure?

“It would have been a psychic shock almost as great as a political assassination,” said Shesol. “And it would have been a huge setback to the space program. There would have been calls for many more animal flights before anyone would have been willing to put another human being atop an Atlas rocket.”