Godspeed, John Glenn: July 18th, 1921 - December 8th, 2016
After the successful suborbital Project Mercury flights of Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, the United States was still coming in second during the early days of the Space Race. At that time, the Soviet Union was excelling at every important milestone compared to their American counterparts, and political tensions were at an all-time high between the two nations. Launching a man into orbit was the primary goal of Project Mercury, and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule would finally prove to the medical community that human beings could function in a Zero G environment.
Unlike the previous flights undertaken by Shepard and Grissom using Redstone rockets, sending Friendship 7 into orbit would require the powerful Atlas rocket, capable of reaching speeds of 17,000 mph. After countess delays due to issues ranging from malfunctioning fuel tanks to inclement weather, February 20th, 1962 was the date chosen for John Glenn to become a hero – as 100 million people watched live.
Once John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule separated from the Atlas rocket after launch, NASA put the astronaut through a series of medical tests to monitor how Glenn performed in the Zero G environment. During an interview conducted for the groundbreaking miniseries, When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, John Glenn stated the following regarding what he experienced once he entered orbit:
“After all of the dire predictions of what might happen and what you might feel in space and in Zero G…there wasn’t any problem at all. I was elated being in Zero G. Seeing how things worked…seeing if you could swallow. Nothing prepares you for the view as you look outside. You could see the curvature of the Earth’s surface and whole nations just at a glance.”
Back at Mission Control, however, there were grave concerns about Friendship 7’s heat shield. An active “Segment 51” signal – indicating that the heat shield had come loose – greatly worried NASA personnel about Glenn’s chances of surviving the re-entry procedure. It was determined by flight controllers that retaining the retro pack during re-entry, rather than jettisoning it as normal, would provide greater assurance that the heat shield would stay in place and prevent the capsule from burning up. Because of the radio blackout during Friendship 7’s re-entry, NASA – and the entire world for that matter – awaited John Glenn’s confirmation that he was still indeed alive. After three minutes of static, an elated Glenn proved that the “Segment 51” alert was a glitch when Friendship 7 finally responded to NASA’s calls for response:
“I can hear you loud and clear, but that was a real fireball outside.”
4 hours and 55 minutes may seem like a short mission by today’s standards, but Friendship 7 proved that human beings could function in a Zero G environment, which was vastly important if NASA was ever going to accomplish President Kennedy’s goal of sending human beings to the Moon. Be sure to remind your elected officials of how space flight once invigorated 100 million people during a time in our history when NASA was appropriately funded.http://www.penny4nasa.org/take-action/