Fifteen years ago, the 45th Space Wing, based at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, began the laborious process of restoring one of the most important landmarks in America’s early space programme. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Dennis Hilley, then-commander of the wing’s Operations Support Squadron, the work involved countless military and civilian volunteers from NASA, the Department of Defense and various aerospace contractors, including Boeing. Within months, the original ‘blockhouse’ of Pad 14 – the site from which America launched its first four men into orbit around the Earth – had been revitalised and in the early summer of 1998 two former astronauts came here for its official dedication.
It was a poignant moment at a place whose glorious and dynamic past was now sharply juxtaposed with its silent lifelessness in more modern times. Scott Carpenter and Gordon Cooper had ridden their Atlas boosters into space from this very launch pad; a pad which had last reverberated to the roar of rocket engines more than three decades earlier. As other astronauts reached for the Moon, Pad 14 was allowed to rust and corrode, as the salty Atlantic air steadily reclaimed its own. As with the Bumper pad, discussed in last week’s History article, there can be few other places in the world in which the intrinsic relationship between nature and technology is more visibly acute than at Cape Canaveral, whose relics of our species’ first steps into the cosmos – for all the technological genius which made them possible – eventually counted for little against the remorseless march of time.
Today, the Pad 14 entrance road is marked by several memorials to commemorate those first steps into space; none more dramatic, arguably, than a large titanium sculpture of the Project Mercury symbol, beneath whose bulk is buried a time capsule which will remain unopened until the year 2464 – the 500th anniversary of the official conclusion of the programme. Within the time capsule are documents pertaining to one of the most remarkable adventures ever undertaken in human history; an adventure which sent four men – Carpenter and Cooper, together with Wally Schirra and John Glenn – beyond the atmosphere to view the Earth from a perspective previously available only to God himself. As we look back on Project Mercury and the launch pad which made those pioneering orbital journeys possible, it is impossible not to take a step back, awestruck, at its sheer audacity.
Yet Pad 14’s involvement in the space programme encompassed more than just Project Mercury…and more than just men, for on 29 November 1961 it ferried the chimpanzee Enos aloft, ahead of the first American in orbit. NASA Administrator Jim Webb’s office had questioned the need for the mission and, indeed, Washington newspapers suggested that it would invite ridicule from the Soviet Union. However, the decision was taken for a “necessary preliminary checkout” of the hardware before committing a human pilot. Enos, one of four chimps shortlisted for the flight, owed his name to the Hebrew word for ‘man’, hopefully indicative that the next Mercury-Atlas would be flown by a somewhat less hairy hominid. President John F. Kennedy drew laughs from the Senate when he announced that the just-launched Enos “reports that everything is perfect and working well”.
Three months later, a somewhat less hairy hominid was bound for Pad 14. John Glenn’s flight, Friendship 7, was eagerly awaited by the United States, although it proved a long time coming. The choice of name, Glenn recalled in his 1999 memoir, had been made by his children, Dave and Lyn. “They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook,” he wrote. “Then they worked them down to several possibilities, names and words, including Columbia, Endeavour, America, Magellan, We, Hope, Harmony and Kindness. At the top of their list was their first choice: Friendship.” Although the name would be kept quiet until the morning of launch, Glenn had privately asked artist Cecelia ‘Cece’ Bibby to inscribe the name on his capsule in script-like characters, adding more individuality than the block lettering employed to stencil Freedom and Liberty Bell onto Al Shepard and Gus Grissom’s spacecraft.
“From what John Glenn told me later, [he] had decided that he wanted the name of his spacecraft applied in script and applied by hand,” Bibby once recalled, “because Al Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s names had been applied by some mechanic who went into town, got a can of spray paint, a stencil-cut of the names and then spray-painted them onto the capsule.” Apparently, added Bibby, Glenn felt that men had such poor handwriting that a female artist would be preferable. When she painted the name on the capsule, Bibby, clad in white clean-room garb, became the only woman to ascend the gantry to Pad 14 and was even told by the pad leader, Guenter Wendt, that she did not belong there. So pleased was Glenn with the design, though, that Gus Grissom dared Bibby to paint naked women on the outside of the spacecraft instead.
She rose to the challenge, not by painting on the exterior of Friendship 7, but by drawing a naked woman on the inside of a cap used to cover the periscope. Although the cap would be jettisoned before launch, it would be seen by Glenn as he boarded the capsule and hopefully might give him a laugh. Reading It’s just you and me against the world, John Baby, the drawing was placed on the periscope by Bibby’s friend, engineer Sam Beddingfield. The launch itself was scrubbed, but Bibby got into work the following morning to find a note from Glenn, “telling me he had gotten a big kick out of the drawing”. Bibby was almost fired for her practical joke, although fortunately both Grissom and Glenn intervened on her behalf and saved her. Later in the launch preparations, she sent Glenn another gift: this time a drawing of a frumpy old woman in a house dress, bearing mop and bucket and the legend You were expecting maybe someone else, John Baby? Not long afterwards, Glenn’s backup, Scott Carpenter, requested a naked woman for his own capsule, Aurora 7, which would fly the second American orbital mission from Pad 14 in May 1962…
Sadly, the news at the beginning of that year was nowhere near as lighthearted: a launch attempt on 16 January was postponed by at least a week, due to technical problems with the Atlas rocket’s fuel tanks. With each successive delay, more criticism was voiced from journalists and congressmen, who questioned whether Project Mercury – already a year behind the Soviets – would ever succeed in placing a man into orbit. Even President Kennedy, at a news conference on 14 February, expressed his disappointment in the delays, although he felt that the final decision on when to launch should be left to the Mercury team. Others, however, commended NASA’s frankness in conveying the reasons for each delay. It was stressed that the orbital mission had been planned for over three years and a few more weeks’ delay was of little consequence, a sentiment shared by Glenn himself, who described being not “particularly shook-up” by the postponements.
Following the 23 January postponement, caused by poor weather, another attempt was scheduled for the cloudy morning of the 27th. Glenn rose early for his low-residue breakfast of filet mignon, scrambled eggs, orange juice and toast with jelly, before undergoing the laborious process of having biosensors glued onto his body and his pressure suit fitted. That day, he lay inside Friendship 7 for more than five hours, hoping for a break in the overcast skies. It never came and, at T-20 minutes, Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. “It was one of those days,” Williams remembered later, “when nothing was wrong, but nothing was just right either.”
After the 27 January postponement, Glenn’s launch was initially targeted for 1 February and this required the emptying, purging and refilling of the Atlas’ propellant tanks. Then, two days before the launch, on the 30th, as the ground support team began the refuelling process, a mechanic discovered, by routinely opening a drain plug, that there was fuel in the cavity between the structural bulkhead and an insulation bulkhead which separated the fuel and oxidiser tanks. Initial estimates suggested at least a ten-day delay to correct the problem and recheck the rocket’s systems. The 600 accredited members of the media at the Cape could do little but groan as John Glenn’s launch was postponed yet again, this time until no earlier than 13 February.
On that day, although weather conditions remained foul, NASA personnel began to move back into position to again attempt a launch. The media’s pessimism was reflected in their turnout: by that evening, only 200 had checked in at the nearby Cocoa Beach motels. Their doubt was well-placed and the launch gradually slipped towards the end of the month. By the 19th, with liftoff rescheduled for the following morning, the Weather Bureau predicted only a 50 percent chance of success: conditions in the recovery zones were fine, but the Cape was poor. A frontal system had been observed moving across central Florida, which, it was surmised, could cause broken cloud over the Cape in the early hours of the next day.
Out at Pad 14, clouds rolled overhead by the time the astronaut arrived outside the capsule at 6:00 am EST. However, forecasters were predicting possible breaks in the cloud by mid-morning, producing a different atmosphere on the gantry, with less casual chatter, as if everyone sensed, said Glenn, “that we were going for real this time”. Weather caused the original launch time to be missed and a broken microphone bracket inside Glenn’s helmet required repair before Friendship 7’s hatch could be finally closed and bolted at 7:10 am. Forty minutes later, the countdown resumed. By the time the launch pad crew moved clear of the Atlas, Glenn – whose pulse varied between 60-80 beats per minute – was granted his first view of blue skies as the realisation that 20 February might be ‘The Day’ took hold.
He was also assailed by the peculiar, eerie sense of being atop the silvery rocket. “I could hear the sound of pipes whining below me as the liquid oxygen flowed into the tanks and heard a vibrant hissing noise,” he said later. “The Atlas is so tall that it sways slightly in heavy gusts of wind and, in fact, I could set the whole structure to rocking a bit by moving back and forth in the couch!” Thirty-five minutes before launch, the rocket’s liquid oxygen supply was topped off and, despite another brief hold caused by a stuck fuel pump outlet valve and a last-minute electrical power failure at the Bermuda tracking station, the clock resumed ticking.
With 18 seconds to go, the countdown reverted to automatic and, four seconds before launch, Glenn “felt, rather than heard” the engines roaring to life far below. At 9:47:39 am, with a thunder that overwhelmed Scott Carpenter’s ‘Godspeed, John Glenn’ sendoff, the Atlas’ hold-down posts separated and the enormous rocket began to climb. America’s first man to orbit the Earth was on its way…and Pad 14 had secured its place in history.
The second part of this History article will appear tomorrow.