It was a relatively pleasant day at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, February 20, 1962. Temperatures held steady around 20 degrees centigrade, and despite the thin nearshore haze, a 15 kilometer visibility prevailed. The horizon remained free of significant cloud cover, the hue of the sky a cerulean blue tinged with lead. It seemed as if the firmament itself was beckoning yet another daredevil to come up in one of those strange thundering machines that took off from this Florida headland every now and again.
And in those very moments, one of the daredevils was actually getting ready to blast off, not only into the blue vault above, but also into the textbooks of American history. John Glenn was supposed to be the first American to circumnavigate the Earth in orbit. Unlike his two predecessors who executed mere ballistic jumps, he was to experience the orbital alternating of day and night, as well as to spend several hours in a microgravity environment. He waited a long time for this opportunity, having been the backup for both Al Shepard and Gus Grissom, and even now, when space was finally within his reach, fortune was not particularly inclined his way. Originally his launch was planned for mid-January, but constant postponements kept shifting the date more and more to the right. In the end there were so many delays that some had begun to doubt whether Glenn’s nerves were capable of withstanding such an emotional load. As for Glenn himself, tense moments like these and long-term stress were nothing new, of course…
John Herschel Glenn Jr. was born on July 18, 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio, but he considers New Concord, where he spent a substantial portion of his childhood, to be his home town. He was technically inclined from his youth and so it came as no surprise that after high school graduation he headed for Muskingum University to study engineering. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Glenn volunteered to join the US Army Air Corps (the precursor to the USAF of today). As the Air Corps showed no interest, Glenn tried his luck with the Naval Air Force instead, which accepted the youth. After completing the basic flight training he was eventually lassoed into the US Marine Corps.
It was during his Marine Corps service that John Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the South Pacific. Just a few years later, by then flying the jet-propelled F9F Panther, John Glenn headed into war again, this time in Korea. He later exchanged the Panther for the more modern F-86 Sabre, and managed to down three MiG-15s with the Sabre shortly before the armistice. During his 90 combat missions he had earned the mildly mocking nickname of “Magnet Ass” from his buddies, for his unwelcome ability to attract enemy anti-aircraft fire.
After his return from Korea, Glenn submitted an application to the US Naval Test Pilot School, where he successfully graduated in 1954. Four years later he entered public consciousness when, at the controls of an F8U Crusader, he completed the first supersonic overflight of the United States. The journey from the west to the east coast took him less than three and a half hours. He reached even wider acclaim as one of the participants in an episode of the then highly popular TV game show Name That Tune. By an interesting coincidence, this segment was broadcast live on October 4, 1957, the day the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite. Glenn had no idea at the time how inextricably linked with space his fate was about to become.
At the beginning of 1959, a newly established government agency, NASA, had begun conducting the secret selection of suitable candidates for the first astronaut corps. That April, after successful completion of rigorous testing, background checks, and interviews, the agency introduced seven new American heroes who would lead America beyond the threshold of space. John Glenn was among those seven men…
With his dimpled smile, blue eyes, and an exemplary lifestyle (he was married to Annie, nee Castor, with whom he had two children, and even after seven decades they remained a model married couple), Glenn was a perfect prototype of a “genuine American boy.” Hidden under this poster-boy façade remained his rigorous discipline, incisive intellect, sharp elbows and, also, political ambitions. Glenn had made many influential acquaintances and thus, when the nominations for the first space mission were to be announced in January 1951, in a deep recess of his soul, he expected to be the first one. In the end, the no less ambitious Alan Shepard got the nod.
His role as a backup for the first two missions spurred Glenn to an activity as yet unseen: The very next day he wrote letters to his superiors as well as to his connections in political circles. He gained few friends with the tactic, and his superiors promptly put a stop to his campaign. Glenn therefore had to watch from afar as Alan Shepard launched on the first sub-orbital flight and Gus Grissom on the second. But a new nomination served as the perfect salve for his wounded ego: He was chosen to be the first American to carry out a full orbital flight.
Now it was February 20, 1962. With Glenn aboard the Mercury capsule named Friendship 7, the Atlas 109D rocket booster finally rose toward the blue sky. Life in the US nearly came to a halt as the entire country followed the live TV broadcast. After being guided into orbit, the new American hero announced: “Zero G and I feel fine!” Three orbits around the Earth and a splash landing in the Atlantic Ocean were planned, but already during the second orbit a crisis began to develop, threating to turn into a catastrophe. On one of the mission control consoles an indicator lit up, announcing that the cabin heat shield came loose. The mission leadership decided to keep this news from Glenn as there was no way he could have influenced the situation. With inconspicuous queries, mission control was trying to make sure that a switch on Glenn’s control panel locking the heat shield down was in the correct position. Glenn replied in the affirmative, and when further questioning followed, he realized that something very serious was going on. The situation was critical: Should the heat shield come loose, the capsule and John Glenn would burn up in the atmosphere during the re-entry.
In the end, mission control recommended a not entirely standard procedure. Normally, the retro rockets, which were ignited to aim the capsule back into the atmosphere, were jettisoned after serving their purpose. This time, Glenn would not discard them because, as all were hoping, the spent retro rockets would hold the heat shield in position until aerodynamic forces took over, fixing the heat shield in its place. Despite Glenn’s repeated questions about the reason for this procedure, mission control refused to provide him with an answer.
Four and a half hours after launch, Friendship 7 with John Glenn aboard re-entered the dense layers of the atmosphere. An inferno of several thousand degrees centigrade unleashed its fury outside the capsule’s porthole, while Glenn could only look on and hope to survive it all in one piece. Radio communication with mission control was lost as expected, disrupted by the cloud of super-heated plasma surrounding the capsule.
At mission control, the tension became nearly unbearable. No one knew in those moments whether Glenn was still alive, or becoming the first casualty of the astronaut profession. After endless waiting and calling in vain into the empty ether, suddenly a crackle came in over the radio and, after a while, the voice that all were hoping to hear: “Hello, Cape. Friendship Seven. Do you receive? Over.” Glenn’s colleague Alan Shepard, serving as the mission’s Capcom (the officer solely responsible for communication with the capsule), replied with relief: “Seven, this is Cape. What’s your general condition? Are you feeling pretty well?” Glenn answered: “My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy!”
The flight of Friendship 7 ended happily with a splash in the Atlantic’s waves, less than five hours after launch. As it later became clear, the entire crisis was precipitated by one tiny, malfunctioning component which had caused a false signal in mission control. In reality the heat shield was in perfect order and Glenn was never in any danger. Regardless, the way he kept his cool during a potentially catastrophic situation made an impression on all those directly involved as well as upon the general public.
As the first American in orbit, Glenn became too valuable to ever again be nominated for a space mission. He decided to try his luck in politics instead, and in 1974 was elected a Democratic US Senator representing the state of Ohio. His Senate career lasted through 1999. Even so, he never turned his back on space.
When the space shuttle Discovery lifted off the launch pad for its STS-95 mission on October 29, 1998, John Glenn was aboard. After thirty six years, he was returning to orbit to become the subject of geriatrics studies and experiments. At the age of 77 he became the oldest human ever to catch a glimpse beyond the gates of the atmosphere. He holds this distinction to this day. Even though he may be surpassed as the oldest flying astronaut at some point in the future, John Glenn will remain forever a hero in the true sense of the word, together with all the other men and women who helped us to blaze the trail into space.
Author : Ondrej Samarek
Translation from Czech : Borek Busta