The Flight of Friendship 7

Launch of Friendship 7, the first American manned orbital space flight. Astronaut John Glenn aboard, the Mercury-Atlas rocket is launched from Pad 14. Image Credit: NASA

There is a place where the wind sighs amongst stunted Palmetto grass, a deserted lighthouse overlooks the Atlantic and concrete blockhouses and contorted steel webwork decays in the sea-air. Stand looking to the east and all you see is the Atlantic Ocean, turn to north or south and you see ranks upon ranks of launch gantries marching to the horizon. Welcome to ICBM Row, the part of Cape Canaveral that the public rarely sees, the hidden face of America’s space effort which is about as far from the glitz of the Kennedy Visitor’s Center (ten miles behind you on the other side of the Banana River) as Beverley Hills is from the Watts District of South-Central LA.

Yet here is the place where America finally equalized the score in the Space Race with the Soviet Union on February 20, 1962 – fifty years ago – at the height of the Cold War. It was here – from Launch Complex 14 – that astronaut John Glenn was launched into Earth orbit.

In those days Launch Complex 14 was about as welcoming as a Minuteman missile silo in South Dakota. There is a reason for this – the very same Atlas missiles that could rain nuclear desolation on Moscow were here – in Florida -pressed into the service of space. The difference was that here, instead of a nuclear warhead, they carried a man.

As John Glenn sat atop his Atlas Launch Vehicle, he knew, as did everyone else involved in space, that this was the astro-playoff to end all astro-playoffs.

Only the year before, on April 12, 1961, a 27-year-old Soviet captain blasted into space from a location in Kazakhstan that was so secret it did not appear on any maps. This place was Tyuratam, later to be known as the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the Soviet Captain was Yuri Gagarin.

Yuri Gagarin had orbited the Earth – a single orbit but enough to further intensify a fever gripping America that was assuming epidemic proportions – this fever had a name: the missile gap.

On April 12, 1961, the era of human spaceflight began when the Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in his Vostock I spacecraft. The flight lasted 108 minutes. Image Credit: NASA

The missile gap fever had infected America in 1957 when the Soviets had been the first to launch an artificial satellite into orbit: Sputnik 1.

The idea of a Soviet-made object orbiting the skies above continental America terrified ordinary Americans, who could immediately see that with this kind of technology, the next thing the Ivans would be doing would be “dropping nuclear bombs on them like rocks from a highway overpass".

Kennedy had made closing the missile gap a priority of his candidacy, a mandate that had led John Glenn to where he was now, sat atop an Atlas missile booster carrying enough kerosene and liquid oxygen (more than fifty tons) to turn him into a ballistic barbecue if something went wrong.

The year before, on May 5, 1961 (just a month after Gagarin’s flight), Glenn’s colleague Alan Shepard had become the first American in space. But there was a big difference between Gagarin’s epic odyssey and Shepherd’s sally into the skies above Florida. Gagarin’s had been a true orbit, where Shepherd’s had been just an orbital lob from Cape Canaveral in the general direction of Bermuda. Shepherd’s Redstone rocket – effectively a redesigned V-2 – was incapable of delivering a capsule to Earth orbit.

Thomas J. O’Malley at LC-14. Image Credit: NASA

The Atlas was the rocket with that power, but it was also – to put it mildly – a rocket with a chequered safety history.

In the last year alone, two Atlas missiles had exploded on launch – on both occasions sending the American press into spasms of national self-loathing. The headline in the New York Times said it all – Kaputnick!

Bob Gillruth, the administrator of NASA, had been forthright with Glenn, telling him that they had "not been able to do all the testing that they would have liked," on the Atlas missile. Glenn had not batted an eyelid. After all, he was a test pilot and hard-wired into him was the fighter-jock’s mantra – you do not refuse a combat assignment.

As the flight launched, a voice came over the communications loop in Launch Complex 14’s blockhouse, ‘God Speed John Glenn.’ It was a quiet blessing from backup pilot Scott Carpenter – who, along with Glenn, is one of the only two Mercury astronauts still living. In the blockhouse however, all was quiet until the count reached zero. At that moment, T. J O’Malley – a veteran of the program – pushed the single black button that initiated lift-off. At the same moment he made the sign of the cross.

Onboard Friendship 7 Glenn heard a distant deep thunder as the silver beast bestirred itself.

“The clock is operating,” said Glenn, his pulse rate drifting up to a modest 110 beats a minute, “we are underway.”

A camera aboard the "Friendship 7" Mercury spacecraft photographs Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during the Mercury-Atlas 6 spaceflight. Image Credit: NASA

It was classic fighter jock stuff, imperturbability in the face of extreme danger: What Tom Wolfe would one day name ‘The Right Stuff’.

Slowly but inexorably MA-6 – the official designation of the Friendship 7–Atlas combination – lifted away from the launch pad.

Glenn was surprised to feel that the ride was considerably smoother than the ones that he had been subjected to in the Johnsville Centrifuge where he and the other astronauts has trained for the stresses of space flight. But still the G-forces built up gradually until his weight was five times normal. Thirteen seconds into the flight the Atlas entered the transonic zone, a region of terrible buffeting that had claimed the lives of many a plucky test pilot over the years. Vibrations started – the so-called Max-Q or maximum aerodynamic stress – but the Atlas sailed on through them with aplomb.

On the panel in front of him – and reflected in the mirrors he wore on his cuffs so that he could see the instruments behind him – every aspect of the huge, speeding rocket registered normal. Through the cockpit window he could see the sky turning black and still he rode onward and upward. The little cabin whirred and ticked with the functioning of the instruments — the loudest sound he could hear.

Photo of the Earth taken by John Glenn during Mercury Atlas 6 (Friendship 7) orbital flight (Feb. 20, 1962). Image Credit: NASA

Now that he was beyond the sound barrier the Atlas’ engines were nothing more than a muffled roar, less intrusive than an airliner’s jets with headphones on. Then the rocket pitched down and he could see the horizon and at the same moment the two booster engines shut down and were jettisoned. With the decrease in acceleration he was pitched forward. Instantly the g-forces dropped to 1.5 G; it was like an emergency stop in an automobile. But he was still going up – the central sustainer engine and the two smaller onboard engines were still flinging him onward. There was a bang and the escape tower jettisoned.

At forty miles up he felt the capsule begin whipping up and down like a can tied to the end of a springboard. All at once he knew what it was. At launch the Atlas had weighed 26,000 pounds – most of that propellant. Since then the rocket had been burning fuel at such a phenomenal rate – about a ton a second – that now it was now only a fraction of its launch rate and was flexing like a hurled javelin. The G-forces built up again to 6 and then, without any warning, the engines shut down and Glenn was suddenly weightless. For a second he felt as though he had fallen over a cliff, but it was only the sudden release of the G-forces. At the same moment there was a loud bang and the posigrade rockets fired, separating the Mercury capsule from the Atlas rocket. The capsule began turning automatically and then John Glenn was sitting above the Earth riding the most costly arm-chair in the history of humanity. At that moment his was a Emperor’s solitude, unique, inviolate and intoxicating. For those few minutes John Glenn was king of the world.

He was riding backward. He could see the Cape lying like a green and silver jewel against the brilliant azure of the Atlantic ocean when the welcome news came in.

The Friendship 7 capsule is on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Credit: Raul654, Wikipedia

“… Friendship 7 – you are go for seven orbits.”

And so John Glenn had played the equalizer – the USA was now even with the Russians in the race to space.

If ever there was the right man in the right place at the right time it was Glenn. Chris Riley, space flight expert and director of a film of Gagarin’s flight, ‘First Orbit’, told me, “Because of his jet plane flying prowess John Glenn was a national hero even before he became the first American to orbit the Earth. [But] at that moment – February 20, 1962 – he was the man who made the Moon possible for the Americans. The Apollo project was a direct legacy of his demonstration of what an American in space could do. Fifty years on he still ranks as one of the greatest living Americans… witness the fact that John Glenn returned to space on the Space Shuttle Flight STS-95 in 1998 when he was seventy-seven – the oldest person, American or otherwise, ever to travel into space.”

In the end the Cape brought the MA-6 capsule down early, concerns over the pitch and yaw thrusters and a landing bag problem forcing the Cape to play it safe.

Re-entry was bumpy and Glenn had to stabilize the Mercury spacecraft using the on-board thrusters – it was a powerful demonstration of the need to have a pilot rather than a computer on board. It was a lesson that American space science never forgot.

John Glenn splashed down near Bermuda some three hundred mile where he had started his epic journey: Launch Complex 14 – the place where America got back in the Space Race.