Our Spaceflight Heritage: The odyssey of Friendship 7
On Feb. 20, 1962, John Glenn became the third American to go into space, and the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth, aboard the tiny Mercury capsule Friendship 7. The flight served as one of the first steps in the nation’s space exploration journey.
Project Mercury was NASA’s answer to the Soviet Union’s space program—which had already wracked up a number of impressive firsts. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union won the first round of the Space Race when it launched Yuri Gagarin on the first manned orbital flight.
On May 5, 1961, NASA launched Alan B. Shepard on a suborbital flight aboard Freedom 7 on a Redstone rocket. Less than two months later, on July 21, Virgil “Gus” Grissom flew Liberty Bell 7 on a nearly identical suborbital flight.
However, the American suborbital flights were dwarfed by Gagarin’s flight, and the Russian lead was expanded on August 6 when Gherman Titov spent a full day in space.
Of the seven Mercury astronauts, three of them—Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn—had been selected as candidates for the first manned space flight. Shepard and Grissom had flown the first two missions, leaving Glenn to fly the first orbital mission.
Unlike Freedom 7 and Liberty Bell 7, which were launched on Redstone rockets, Friendship 7 would be launched by the more-powerful Atlas rocket.
Launch of the rocket was originally scheduled for Jan. 16, but problems with the Atlas fuel tanks pushed the date back to Jan. 20.
Unfavorable weather conditions postponed the launch again to Jan. 27. Glenn was strapped into the capsule and ready to launch, but at T-27 seconds, the launch was canceled due to a low-hanging cloud deck that would make it impossible to film the first 20 seconds of the launch.
It was at this point that Glenn’s wife Annie, embarrassed by a speech impediment, refused to speak on television with Vice President Lyndon Johnson, as famously recounted in the motion picture The Right Stuff. Glenn told her by telephone that he would back her decision.
NASA officials threatened to remove Glenn from the flight. In his memoir, Glenn wrote, “I saw red. I said that if they wanted to do that, they’d have a press conference to announce their decision and I’d have one to announce mine, and if they wanted to talk about it anymore, they’d have to wait until I took a shower. When I came back, they were gone and I never heard any more about it.”
The launch was rescheduled for Feb. 1, but a fuel leak delayed the flight again to Feb. 20.
At that time, there was no satellite link connecting a spacecraft to Houston; in fact, Mission Control, located in Houston, Texas, did not exist yet. The capsule would shift through a dizzying array of ground stations positioned at points across the globe.
The capsule communicators (CapCom), located at Cape Canaveral, were fellow Mercury astronauts Alan Shepard and Scott Carpenter.
Friendship 7 lifted off at 9:47 a.m. EST (14:47 GMT). Once the booster was jettisoned, Shepard informed Glenn, “You have a go for at least seven orbits.”
This has occasionally been misconstrued to mean that Glenn’s flight was intended for seven orbits but was cut short due to later problems with the heat shield. In fact, the flight was always meant for three orbits. Shepard’s comment was merely an assessment of how many orbits Friendship 7’s velocity and trajectory were good for.
Glenn orbited the Earth for five hours, during which time he tested the maneuvering thrusters, measured his position by observing landmarks on Earth, monitored the capsule’s equipment, and provided medical information through the cables attached to his body.
Much has been made of the brilliantly lit particles Glen saw periodically, which he called “fireflies”. However, on the next flight, Aurora 7, Scott Carpenter solved the “mystery” of the “fireflies”—they were particles of ice formed from condensation from the capsule’s air conditioner.
In fact, during the Aurora 7 flight, Carpenter was able to send out showers of “fireflies” at will by banging on the inside hull.
As the flight progressed, ground controllers began to receive data from the spacecraft that the landing bag had deployed. If this was true, the capsule would not survive re-entry, and Glenn would be lost.
Flight director Christopher Kraft made the decision not to tell Glenn about the suspected malfunction but merely ordered him to re-enter with his retropack still attached. The hope was that if the heat shield was loose, the straps of the retropack would hold it in position long enough for the capsule to pass through re-entry.
In the event, there was no problem with the heat shield. The warning light was the result of a faulty indicator. In fact, if the landing bag had deployed, Glenn would most certainly have heard it, since the heat shield was located inches behind his head.
Friendship 7 splashed down safely off the coast of Grand Turk in the Atlantic Ocean. Glenn became a national hero. To this day, his name is one of the most recognized of all astronauts, alongside Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride.
In later years, he became a senator from the state of Ohio, and he even ran for President in 1984. In 1998, he joined the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-95.
Glenn is now the last surviving Mercury astronaut.
The Friendship 7 capsule is now on display at the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Flight Museum in Washington, D.C.
Video courtesy NASA / WDTV Live 42
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.