John Glenn's Earth Orbit Diary From the Friendship 7 in 1962

February 20, 1962 was a good day for America. In just four hours and 52 minutes, John Glenn made the country a serious player in the space race and he became an instant hero when he orbited the earth—the first American to do so—three times aboard the Friendship 7. Newsweek's March 5, 1962 cover story reported on the journey that millions across the globe listened to as Glenn proved that man can function in space, and that courage, modesty and curiosity hadn't been corrupted in the country. The story, along with quotes and imagse from Glenn's space transmissions, are republished in full below.

02_20_John_Glenn_02Newsweek's March 5, 1962 cover story, "John Glenn: One Machine That Worked Without Flaw" Associated Press/Newsweek Archives

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For days afterward, Americans walked about in a comfortable glow, as if weight­less themselves. 

Following the years of uncertainty, the months of delay, the final moments of foreboding and impending disaster, John H. Glenn's achievement had lifted the self-doubt that had plagued the United States since the first sputnik flashed th1·ough the night skies of October 1957. Gone was the nagging suspicion that the American political and economic system was somehow inadequate to the new challenges which the space age po_ed; gone was the sense that the nation was somehow losing its technological genius; gone was the feeling that America's tra­ditional self-reliance, modesty, and cour­age had been corrupted by the soft, mechanized affiuence of modern life.

In the short span of four hours and 56 minutes, on Feb. 20, 1962, one self­reliant, modest, and courageous Jllan named John H. Glenn Jr. seemed to right it all. He was, in the cliche, as American as apple pie, brought up in places no more exotic than New Concord, Ohio, Muskingum College, and the U.S.

Marine Corps. He was, moreover, a man of 40, almost bald, with two teen-aged children. As Mr. Kennedy said, "Our boosters may not be as large as some others, but the men and women are." 

The three-orbit flight of Friendship 7 will remain etched in memory, not be­cause it was a stunning engineering b·iumph, but pre-eminently for the dra­matic way it caugl1t up the imagination of men and women everywhere. By strict reckoning, Glenn was only The Tltird Man. Soviet cosmonaut Gagarin had gone into space first; cosmonaut Titov had stayed longer. But Glenn's victory had been won openly and as such it became a high human drama. Gagarin's one-orbit flight was underway before it was an­nounced; Titov likewise was already in space when his flight was revealed. For Glenn the largest television audience in history-135 million, according to the net­works-watched the awful seconds when success and failure balanced on an orange tongue of flame. All around the globe, millions listened in on the exultant b·ansntissions from space, encountering tlu-ough the astronaut's eyes a fresh new cosmic mystery, finally sharing with him the fiery ride back to earth. 

The President and Mrs. Kennedy watched as they dressed and break­fasted. In Reno, Nev., gamblers left the dice tables; in New York, matrons under the hair dryers at Elizabeth Arden's closed their eyes and clasped their hands in prayer. Britons let dinners grow cold; in the Soviet Union, Moscow radio and TV provided a running account. In Aus­b·alia, Perth and Rockingham kept lights blazing tl1roughout the night. 

The openness of the shot-what the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano, called "the blaze of public participation" -was perhaps inevitable in a free society. It also raised the stakes. "Colonel Glenn," The New York Herald Tribune stated, "knew that the faihu-e of his flight would mean not only a personal tragedy but a national disaster."

The gamble paid off handsomely. "One of our finest hours," The New York Times declared. "Good Old America," bannered a London paper. Khrushchev sent his congratulations to both the Presi­dent and Glenn and taking up an often repeated American offer, suggested that the U.S. and the Soviet Union pool their efforts for the exploration of space. 

With Glenn safely back on earth, it was the nation's tum to orbit. A wildly enthusiastic crowd of 100,000 lined highway AlA leadini; to Cape Canaveral to greet him upon his return from Grand Turk Island where he had been "de­briefed." In ceremonies against the back­drop of the launching site where Glenn had blasted off some 72 hours before, Mr. Kennedy decorated the astronaut and praised his "unflinching courage." 

After a reasonably secluded family reunion, Glenn faced a hectic, though more mundane, schedule this week. Monday called for a parade in Washing­ton and an address before a joint session of Congress. Thtirsday, there was to be a ticker-tape parade in Iew York. On Fri­day, Glenn's home town wanted him. Still to be answered were invitations from cities at home and abroad. 1/hatever is decided, Glenn's days as a simple astro­naut are over. He is an American hero, a part of the U. S. image overseas, and he may even serve as a negotiator if anything comes of the suggestion to pool space efforts. 

02_20_John_Glenn_01Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr., pilot of the Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) spaceflight, poses for a photo with the Mercury "Friendship 7" spacecraft during preflight activities at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. before Glenn piloted the Mercury-Atlas 6 "Friendship 7" spacecraft on the first manned orbital mission of the United States on February 20, 1962. NASA/Reuters

'THE GO FEVER' 

The long, momentous day of John Glenn began at 2:20 a.m. when he was awakened in his monastic quarters at Cape Canaveral's Hangar S by the astro­nauts' physician Dr. William K. Douglas. Glenn had slept a little over seven hours. He shaved, showered, and breakfasted with, among others, astronaut Donald K. (Deke) Slayton, the next American in line for orbital flight. During the now­familiar routine of physical exams, elec­trode taping, and suiting-up, Glenn was i11 a bantering mood ("How about you getting into this suit, Deke?"). Douglas gave Glenn a blood-pressure test and recorded a reading of 120/80-about what Glenn might show sitting in a chair and reading a book. 

Outside, the moon was obscured by cirrus clouds; the weather, responsible for four of the nine postponements in the last three months, looked discouraging. 

At the pad, Glenn beheld an appro­priately other-worldly scene: Search­lights bathed the gleaming stainless-steel Atlas in an electric blue glow; clamped around the rocket and spaceship was the gantry, as tall as a twelve-story build­ing. Shortly after 6 a.m. Glenn eased himself into the bell-shaped Friendship 7 capsule, and strapped himself to the contour couch. Inside, along with his oxygen supply, cameras, radio gear, and the 112 separate dials, switches, toggles, meters, and buttons on his instrument panel was a tiny felt mouse ( a practical­joke gift from Alan Shepard). 

Six times the countdown was delayed by such minor troubles as a malfunction­ing recorder, a broken bolt on the hatch, a stuck valve in the liquid-oxygen fuel­ing system, and an electrical-power fail­ure at the Bermuda tracking station. 

But lying on his back, face upward in the capsule, Glenn said he could see "big blue holes" in the dawn sky. "You get that GO fever," he later reported. 

Finally, the gantry rolled back, the plume of white LOX venting from the Atlas stopped. At 9:47 a.m. EST, Glenn  picked up the final seconds of the count­down and opened UHF voice communi­cation with Shepard, who was serving as CAPCO.M, or capsule communicator, in the control center: 

GLENN: Six, five, four, three, two, one, zero. Lift-off. The clock is operating. We're under way. 

CAPCOM: Reading you loud and clear. GLENN: It is a little bumpy along about here. 

The 130-ton Atlas rocket, its three main engines generating an awesome :360,000 pounds of thrust, rose shudder­ingly off the ground and cleaved the Florida skies. The mission timer was run­ning and communications were good al­though Glenn's voice, because of the rocket vibrations, had a tremulous qual­ity as he read off his dial settings. 

GLENN: Coming into high Q a little bit . . . Fuel 102 101. Oxygen 78 101. We're smootlung out some now. 

At 35,000 feet altitude, 40 seconds after lift-off, the capsule and booster underwent the maximum aerodynamic forces or "Q," and came through with no difficulty. The gravity forces in the ac­celerating ship built up gradualJy lo eight times normal but, Glenn later said. "you're not just lying back relaxed, you work against it." 

02_20_John_Glenn_03Diary of an orbit: At 10:09 a.m. Glenn lifts face plate to eat from squeeze tube... NASA Photos/Newsweek Archives

RACING THE SUN 

In quick succession came the reports that showed Glenn's Friendship 7 was separating from its carrier rocket. Just then, at central conb·ol, a moving pen on a tracking chart jiggled slightly; 

the (ground monitors thought the Atlas·s remaining sustainer engine was veering off course. For a horrifying moment, there was the possibility that the range safety officer might have to destroy the rocket. But the jiggle proved false. At lift-off plus 300 seconds, SECO or sus­tainer engine cut-off took place. The capsule was 100 miles high and moving at 17,545 mph-an altitude and speed insw·ing successful orbit. 

GLENN: Zero G and l feel fine. Cap­sule is turning around. Oh that view is tremendous...

Glenn was undergoing his first prolonged experience of weightlessness. At the same time, the spacecraft turned around so that the blunt, heat-shield end faced forward and Glenn was riding backward. Through his periscope, he took in a 900-mile view of the ocean and the retreating coast of Florida.

CAPCOM: Roger seven. You have A GO. At least seven orbits.

Back on earth, computers has digested the velocity and altitude readings, compared them with a model of the upper atmosphere, and calculated that the capsule could remain in orbit for at least seven turns around the earth. Each turn would take 88 minutes and 29 seconds. "Seven orbits," Glenn said, "the best words I ever heard in my life."

At 10:28 a.m. EST over the Indian Ocean, Glenn had outraced the sun and sped into the night side of earth. He saw the first of four sunsets he experienced in one day. The sunsets, he reported, "were the most impressive thing I saw during the flight." The sun went down with a brilliant white light. The horizon became a bright orange, blue, then a darker blue that merged with black. Glenn compared it with the spectrum.

The flight was proceeding smoothly, Over Kano, Nigeria, Glenn had lifted his face plate and eaten a meal of beef­vegetable and applesauce from his tootl1- paste-tube-like squeeze bottles. He had also begun his program of planned head movements, deliberately shaking his head up and down, and right and left, in an attempt to bring on sensations of dizzi­ness or space sickness. He experienced absolutely no discomfort in the weightless state-an encouraging .finding, particu­larly since Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov had complained of some dizziness after his sixth hour in orbit. Glenn also gave himself the reach test-to see if he could coordinate accurately in reaching for switches. "Weightlessness," Glenn re­ported later, "is a wonderful feeling—you can get addicted to it."

STRANGE ENCOUNTER 

bver the Indian Ocean, he saw the full moon reflected off tl1e thick cloud cover below. The stars-the Pleiades, especially-seemed to "jump right out" at him from tl1e serene black sky. Pass­ing over the ground tracking station at Muchea on the western coast of Aus­tralia, Glenn pressed a button which automatically inffated an ingenious blood­pressure cuff inside his suit and tele­metered the readings back-126/90, or about what would be expected if Glenn were reading a gripping book. 

Then he spotted the lights of Perth and Rockingham. 

GLENN: Just to my right I can see a big pattern of light ... thank everybody for tmning them on, will you? 

Halfway around the world, over the Pacific, Glenn witnessed the dawn of his second day. He also encountered the en­during mystery of the flight. 

As the rays of his first sunrise in space played on his Friendship 7 capsule, Glenn looked out his picture window and was startled to see what he thought was a magnificent starscape. For a mo­ment, he believed his capsule had pitched upward. On closer inspection, however, he found that the stars were actually "bright yellowish-green particles about the size and intensity of fireflies on a real dark night."

Further, "there were literally thousands of them" on each side of the capsule. Glenn specu­lated that the small steam jets of the capsule-stabilization system might be ilie source of the luminous particles. At an altitude of 120 miles, the vapor might solidify into ice, and solar radiation, in tum, might cause them to fluoresce. Glenn worked the jets to see if this produced more particles. It did not. To check the possibility that the particles might be capsule-created debris, Glenn turned ilie ship around. The particles, he reported, appeared to be coming from ahead of the capsule. 

NASA astrophysicists, who were handed the problem to puzzle over, knew no more by last weekend tlrnn Glenn did. It seemed reasonably certain that the mystery swarm was not the Air Force's missing "needles " communication experiment, since the copper wires had been aimed at a 2,200-mile-high orbit. The best guess now is tllat Glenn was observing a photochemical reaction sus­tained by the few molecules of gas in near space. This matter-of-fact theory, however, did not stop a swarm of a1lu­sions to chernbims, saucers, and spies. Dr. George Ruff, the psychiatric con­sultant to the Mercury program, asked: "What did they say, John?"

From sunrise on the first orbit on, there was a sharp decrease in the amount of leisurely observations Glenn could make. The all GO condition of the mission be­gan deteriorating. Passing over the West Coast for the first time, Glenn reported trnuble in his ASCS-Automatic Stabiliza­tion and Conb·ol System. As the control center relayed the taped conversations to the press site and over radio and tele­vision, the public, if it was attentive enough, received the .first unsettling hint of difficulties in Glenn's flight. 

CAPCOM: ... give us the difficulty you've been having in yaw in ASCS? 

GLEN : Roger ... It drifts off in yaw to the right at about 1 degree per sec­ond ... when it hits about a 20 degree point it ... comes back to zero. And it was cycling back and forth ... 

In plain words, Glenn's spacecraft was swinging from side to side as it hurtled along its orbital path. This movement did not affect the line of flight, which is a ballistic one determined by the trajectory at the time of rocket cut­off. When the time comes for re-entry into the atmosphere, however, such movements are extremely critical. The capsule must be tilted at the precise angle of 34 degrees above the horizon when the braking rockets are fired. Oth­erwise the ship might be kicked into a higher and irretrievable orbit. This, in fact, happened with the unmanned Rus­sian spaceship of May 1960. 

02_20_John_Glenn_05Astronaut John Glenn relaxes aboard the USS Noa after being recovered from the Atlantic near Grand Turk Island following Glenn's first orbit around the Earth on February, 20, 1962. NASA/Reuters

The capsule angle is also critical dur­ing the final plunge into the earth's at­mosphere. At this time the capsule must enter straight on at an angle of 1.5 de­grees below the horizontal so that the blunt heat shield takes all the blow torch effect of re-entry rather than the titanium sides. To give these fine atti­tude positions, the ASCS uses horizon­seeking sensors that orient gyros which in turn operate the steam jets. 

When the automatic system failed­the sensors may have been thrown off by heat differences between the dark and light sides of the earth, the gyro "logic" may have failed, or the jets may have clogged-the control center was under­standably worried. The only other means available to line the ship at the proper angles were the hands, eyes, and brain of Glenn. And, on the first orbit, Glenn was the X-the unknown factor-as far as the engineers were concerned. 

For his part, Glenn was buoyantly confident of his own ability to control the position of his ship. 

GLENN: Controlling manually on fly-­by-wire. Having no trouble controlling. Very smooth and easy. 

Glenn was now in charge of his ship's attitude, his gloved right hand gripping the lever which sent signals to the con­trol jets by electric wire-hence, fly-by­wire. As Friendship 7 completed its first trip around the world, the control center attempted a telephone patch with Presi­dent Kennedy. The space end of the hookup came through fine; but someone pulled the wrong plug down on ea1th. 

Passing through his second sunset and the night side of the earth again, Glenn had to report that he was switching to manual, directly controlling the jets through mechanical valves. One reason was to conserve fuel-the manual con­trols were supplied by a different tank. A second compelling reason was that the fly-by-wire system began to mal­function. Finally, the ASCS was by now completely erratic on all three axes of pitch, yaw, and roll; when Glenn lined up his instruments on the panel, his own eyes-natural horizon seekers-told him the capsule was "considerably off." 

Glenn began skipping some of his planned duties and he missed his "calisthenics" —exercises that were to be per­formed with the aid of a thick rubber band attached to the instrument panel. 

With the difficulties piling up, there was some doubt whether Glenn would be permitted to make the third orbit. Since the only control "system" function­ing properly at the time was Glenn him­self, Walt Williams and flight director Christopher Columbus Kraft decided to ask him how he felt. Hawaii relayed their question. "The pilot is in a GO con­dition," Glenn radioed. The CAPCOM reply was relayed back: "We are GO and will continue the mission." 

02_20_John_Glenn_04Newsweek Archives

Glenn was later asked to explain his decision in the light of' his acknowledged difficulties. "If you are going to have to make a manual retro fire," he answered, "you might as well stay up awhile and get more practice." At the same time, the control center had good reason to welcome another cushion of 88 minutes. Early in the first orbit, a radio signal in tl1e center had indicated that an un­imaginably terrible disaster was in the making. The indication was that the vital heat-shield clamps had been prema­turely released and that the shield was being held to tl1e capsule solely by thin metal straps (photo above). All along the eighteen-station tracking network the same signal showed up. Yet it was un­verifiable: There was the chance tl1at it might have been caused by a faulty switch or piece of wiring. There was no danger of the shield falling off in orbit­like everything else it was weightless. But when the capsule rammed back into the atmosphere, it would not take much air pressure to tem· it free. Witl1in sec­onds, the heat would burn through the bulkhead and incinerate Glenn. of the condition was withheld from the pilot for most of the m1ss10n while control searched for a solution. 

Nor was the vast radio and television audience given any idea of the secret drama unfolding in the control center. All it heard were samplings of Glenn's triumphant exchanges and dogged ef­fmts at the controls as he circled earth a third time. 

As Glenn passed over the Cape once again at 12:56 p.m., EST, Shepard light­heartedly radioed him: "Good afternoon, Seven." Then CAPCOM gave Glenn the latest orbital corrections so that he could set his retrorocket clock for the final descent. It also went over the control problem and suggested Glenn "cage" and "uncage" his gyros-try to realign them with the horizon while in daylight. 

Two minutes later, Glenn radioed Ber­muda: "I can see the whole state of Florida, just laid out like a map. It's beautiful I can see clear back to the Mississippi delta. I can see down the Atlantic Ocean [in the recovery area] on the weather and it looks very good ... " 

The exultant mood increased during the final pass over Australia and the dawn of Glenn's third "day'' in space. 

"Hey, Gordon," he radioed astronaut Gordon Cooper at the Muchea station, "send a message to the commandant of the United States Marine Corps that rea1(s: 'Have four hours' required flight time. Request flight chit be prepared .. .' " 

Thus Glenn sought to qualify for his monthly $245 flight pay, which, added to his base pay and allowances, brings his salary to $13,796 a year, the same any lieutenant colonel with eighteen years' service and current flying status earns. 

THE MOMENT OF DOUBT 

The critical moment to begin re-entry was now at hand. Glenn received a hint of the heat-shield problem when the Hawaii tracking station asked him to check a ce1tain indicator light. 

GLENN: I do not get a light ... I am putting it back to off position and going over the retro-firing checklist ... 

HAWAII: [Several voices, including Cape Canaveral by relay, show up on Newsweek's own transcript:] We're not reading ... Let's talk to him about ASCS. 

GLENN: ... It appears to be correcting itself. I'm in automatic mode now. 

Things had begun to look up again for Glenn. First, the indicator light in the capsule showed nothing unusual about the heat shield, but of course it could be wrong. Second, the automatic controls were working once more. Glenn decided to use them. Point Arguello in California gave a time mark to begin the retro sequence; CAPCOM in the meantime had decided that the metal straps holding the retro pack could be used to keep the heat shield in place during re-entry. But the straps and rack in turn would be a potential hazard when they began breaking up. Between the sure disaster of a torn heat shield and the possible danger of the flying fragments, the engineers chose the latter. 

AnCUELLO: We'll give you countdown [for retro sequence]. 40-second mark. Leave your retro pack on through Texas. 

GLENN: Retros are firing . . . It feels like I'm going back to Hawaii. 

The time was 2:20 p.m., EST. Glenn was 100 miles high. The three braking rockets had shaved some 300 mph from orbital velocity-the right amount to in­itiate the descent to earth. A nagging suspicion troubled him across the U.S. 

GLENN: When do I jettison the retro?

ARGUELLO: Inform you over Texas.

CORPUS CHRISTI [Texas]: We decided to re-enter with the retro-pack on ... 

GLENN: What reason?

CORPUS CHRISTI: This is judgment of Cape Flight...

Ten minutes after retro firing, Glenn was over Florida, about 25 miles high, and the capsule hit temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The ionizing action as the capsule ripped through air molecules short-circuited communica­tions for three minutes. While CAPCOM and the rest of the world held a dead wire, the capsule glowed a bright orange. Then, the metal retro pack broke into incandescent pieces and flew past his window. Glenn thought the shield was breaking up. "A real fireball," Glenn messaged when his radio was working. "There were some moments of doubt," he allowed later. 

Twelve minutes later, the capsule splashed down with a sizzle 6 miles from the ship Noa. "It's hot in there," Glenn said as he was helped out. 

What had the flight of the Friendship 7 proved? On the scientific level it had demonstrated that: 

1— Man can function in space in such areas as weather observation, astronomy, and photography. The fireflies were a tantalizing suggestion of the experiences awaiting man. 

2— A trained and attentive pilot can be superior to the best-made robot mechanisms in the world. The machine faltered, never Glenn. Reflecting his pi­lot's background, Glenn thought his flight had shown that "considerably less auto­mation and less complexity" would be necessary on future flights. If the play­back of the flight tapes and other data upholds him, then the capsule designers might be able to add more oxygen and other supporting equipment and increase the duration of the missions. 

3— The effects of weightlessness are not serious. But the Aight still left un­answered the enigma of Titov. Was his reported dizziness an idiosyncratic reac­tion or was it an inevitable product of his longer flight? When Slayton dupli­cates Glenn's 81,000-mile journey some­time this spring, the medics will know whether Glenn was a unique individual. Later this year, when the U.S. is able to match Titov's day and night in space, a fuller answer may be available. 

But the greatest lesson came on a more subjective level. The drama of the human spirit—solitary, vulnerable, curious—facing the unknown elements of the universe is as old as mankind. Glenn has demonstrated that there are Americans cast in the heroic mold to play in this ageless drama.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers

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