“Liftoff; the clock is operating; we’re under way.”
On February 20, 1962, at 9:47 a.m., an Atlas booster rocket lifted off its pad at Cape Canaveral with NASA’s Project Mercury Program Friendship 7 spacecraft mounted on top. Inside Friendship 7, pilot and astronaut John Glenn lay flat on his back, strapped to a custom-fit chair, and calmly reported, “Liftoff; the clock is operating; we’re under way.”
Thus began Glenn’s nearly five-hour flight into outer space where he orbited the earth three times, between 160 and 256 kilometers above the surface and at a speed of more than 28,000 kilometers per hour. When the spacecraft splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas, Glenn’s successful flight helped bring the U.S. space program on par with the Soviet Union’s during the height of the Cold War.
Poor weather conditions and various mechanical failures had postponed the flight of Friendship 7 on 10 occasions prior to Glenn’s actual liftoff on the 11th try. Though the skies had cleared, mechanical problems resurfaced toward the end of the spacecraft’s first orbit when the automatic control system malfunctioned, throwing the capsule’s yaw attitude some 20 degrees to the right. Glenn was forced to control Friendship 7 manually for much of the remaining two orbits.
Even while maintaining manual control, Glenn was able to perform a series of experiments to test human ability to function in the weightlessness of space. He calculated his breathing strength with a specially made device, completed a variety of physical tests, and ate food through tubes without reporting any symptoms of nausea.
Toward the end of the flight, a warning light indicated the heat shield on the spacecraft was loose, which could result in disintegration of the capsule and pilot during the heat of reentry into the earth’s atmosphere. The warning was later determined to be a false reading, but, without this knowledge, flight controllers on the ground experienced anxious moments as Glenn and his spacecraft approached reentry.
To help secure the heat shield, technicians decided to keep the capsule’s retro-rocket pack attached instead of releasing it after it helped slow down Friendship 7 for reentry. This resulted in “a real fireball,” as Glenn put it, when the pack burned away during his travel through the atmosphere.
Despite mechanical concerns, Glenn’s successful orbiting of the earth was a triumph for the young U.S. space program. In recognition, NASA presented the Friendship 7 capsule to the Smithsonian Institution on the first anniversary of its historic flight, February 20, 1963. Today, it sits in the hall of the National Air and Space Museum along with aircraft piloted by the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and other pioneer aviators.
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