Americans in Orbit: The Flight of John Glenn (Part 1)

Blurred and somewhat lacking in detail, this image of John Glenn in orbit aboard Friendship 7 represents one of the United States' greatest advances in space technology in the 20th century: the effort to achieve piloted orbital flight. Photo Credit: NASA
Blurred and somewhat lacking in detail, this image of John Glenn in orbit aboard Friendship 7 represents one of the United States’ greatest advances in space technology in the 20th century: the effort to achieve piloted orbital flight. Photo Credit: NASA

More than half a century has passed since the United States launched its first man into orbit around the Earth. By the beginning of February 1962, only two Americans—Al Shepard and Gus Grissom—had entered space, lofted atop converted Redstone missiles, for 15-minute “up-and-down” suborbital flights from Cape Canaveral and into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite this lack of real time in space, an ambitious young president had already committed the nation to planting bootprints on the Moon before the end of the decade … an audacious goal which posed several significant milestones: the creation of new spacecraft, new rockets, new techniques of rendezvous and docking, new propulsion and life-support hardware, new navigation and tracking systems, and hundreds of others. But before all of that, the basic premise of achieving Earth orbit had to be achieved. That was the task of John Glenn, his spacecraft, “Friendship 7,” and the unpredictable Atlas rocket. 

Original plans called for as many as four manned Redstone launches, but in August 1961 it was realized that little more information could be gained from yet another suborbital flight. Moreover, that same month, Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov spent more than a day—and a mammoth 17 orbits—in space, thus intensifying the urgency to get America orbital as quickly as possible. On 18 August 1961, NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., announced the end of Mercury-Redstone and the decision that the Mercury-Atlas manned series would commence with a five-hour mission to circle the globe at least three times. However, although John Glenn’s Mercury capsule was ready to go, his Atlas booster had a very bad habit of exploding either on the pad or very soon after liftoff.

The Atlas was an Air Force project, initiated after World War II to develop the United States’ first intercontinental ballistic missile. By the mid-1950s, its final form had taken shape: its airframe was nicknamed “the gas bag” because it utilized steel sections, thinner than paper, which were rigidized by helium pressurization. This led to a huge reduction in the ratio between its structure and total weight, and yet the airframe remained capable of withstanding heavy aerodynamic loads. There was another benefit, too. The Atlas was of a three-engine design, employing two boosters and one sustainer, together with small vernier thrusters, making it somewhat “fatter” than the Redstone.

Flight Director Chris Kraft (facing camera) in discussion with John Glenn (right) and Gus Grissom (left). Photo Credit: NASA
Flight Director Chris Kraft (facing camera) in discussion with John Glenn (right) and Gus Grissom (left). Photo Credit: NASA

Its impressive appearance did not prevent a number of catastrophic—and embarrassing—accidents in its early genesis. In July 1960, it launched an unmanned Mercury capsule and quickly disappeared into thick cloud … and all contact was lost. Subsequent investigation found that its walls had ruptured due to vibrations caused by mechanical resonance between the capsule and the rocket, causing it to plunge into the Atlantic. Seven months later, a second test worked near-perfectly, but in April 1961 a fault with the Atlas caused it to be remotely destroyed … and yet the escape tower saved the Mercury capsule and it splashed down in such good condition that it was refurbished and used again in September. And after that flight, in late November 1961, the chimpanzee Enos rode into orbit for three hours. The overall success of his mission cleared the road for a man to fly atop the Atlas.

As the year drew to a close, public attention was riveted on the next mission, tentatively scheduled for 19 December. Some members of the press speculated that Glenn and Al Shepard and Scott Carpenter had been selected as candidates, although in reality Glenn had already been picked by the Space Task Group. Minor technical troubles pushed the mission into January 1962, but Glenn and his backup, Scott Carpenter, were primed and ready to go. In Carpenter’s eyes, Glenn was the archetype of the All-American. “He wore old clothes, old cowboy hats and lived next to his dearest friend, Tom Miller, his roommate and wingman from World War II,” Carpenter wrote in his autobiography, For Spacious Skies. Glenn’s purchase, at the height of the sports-car craze, of a tiny $1,400 Prinz, barely big enough for two passengers, looked somewhat comical parked alongside Al Shepard’s brand-new Corvette. Yet Glenn turned the humour around, one day writing on a classroom blackboard a quote that he had seen in the Reader’s Digest: “Definition of a sports car: a hedge against male menopause!”

On 20 February 1962, John Glenn became the first of four Americans to ride a Mercury capsule atop the Atlas booster. Photo Credit: NASA
On 20 February 1962, John Glenn became the first of four Americans to ride a Mercury capsule atop the Atlas booster. Photo Credit: NASA

Glenn named his Mercury-Atlas-6 (MA-6) spacecraft “Friendship 7,” drawing the inspiration from his children, Dave and Lyn. “They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook,” he wrote in John Glenn: A Memoir. “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 privately asked NASA artist Cecelia 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 Shepard and 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 said, “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, Glenn felt that men had such poor handwriting and 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 at Cape Canaveral and was even told by the disgruntled pad leader, Guenter Wendt, that she did not belong there. So pleased was Glenn with the design that Gus Grissom dared Bibby to secretly paint naked women on the spacecraft as well. …

She rose to the challenge and drew a naked woman on the inside of a cap used to cover Friendship 7’s 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. Emblazoned with the legend “It’s just you and me against the world, John Baby,” the drawing was placed there 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 the practical joke, although both Grissom and Glenn intervened on her behalf. 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?”

John Glenn looks approvingly at Cecelia Bibby's hand-crafted script for his Mercury capsule. Photo Credit: NASA
John Glenn looks approvingly at Cecelia Bibby’s hand-crafted script for his Mercury capsule. Photo Credit: NASA

Sadly, the news at the beginning of 1962 was nowhere near as light-hearted: a launch attempt on 16 January was postponed due to technical problems. With each successive delay, more criticism was voiced from journalists and congressmen, who questioned whether Project Mercury—already a year behind the Soviet Union—would ever succeed in placing a man into orbit. Even President John F. Kennedy, at a news conference on 14 February, expressed disappointment, although he felt that the final decision on when to launch should be left to the Mercury team. Others 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 said he was not “particularly shook-up” by the postponements.

Following another postponement on 23 January, caused by poor weather, another attempt was scheduled for the cloudy morning of the 27th. Glenn rose early for a 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, Mercury Operations Director Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. “It was one of those days,” Williams remembered later, “when nothing was wrong, but nothing was just right either.”

Glenn’s mission was rescheduled for 1 February. Then, two days before launch, as the ground support team began refuelling, 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 propellant 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. Most of the journalists quickly dispersed, together with Glenn himself, who spent a few days with his family at home in Arlington, before travelling to the White House for a brief visit with President Kennedy.

Suit technician Al Rochford assists John Glenn with his silver ensemble, as America's first orbital mission draws closer. Photo Credit: NASA
Suit technician Al Rochford assists John Glenn with his silver ensemble, as America’s first orbital mission draws closer. Photo Credit: NASA

For the astronaut, it was time of peaks and troughs. “I think people normally build up to a peak when they are getting ready for an event as complicated as this,” he said later, “and here we had a situation where we kept building up psychologically and nothing happened. It was like crying ‘wolf’ over and over again. But I needn’t have worried at all. These people kept working and preparing and lost none of their sharpness.” Some psychologists were concerned that he would suffer emotionally under the strain. In Glenn’s mind, the delays simply gave him extra time to run each day, to study, to read and respond to mail (one of which told him that it was God’s way of letting him know that he shouldn’t tamper with the heavens), and to work in the simulators.

On 13 February, although weather conditions remained foul, NASA personnel began to move back into position to attempt a launch. The media’s pessimism was reflected in their turnout: by that evening, only 200 had checked in at 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 a launch: 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.

Glenn rose early on the morning of 20 February, to be greeted by physician Bill Douglas at 2:00 a.m. EST, who told him that the weather still offered little more than a 50-50 chance of a successful launch. After breakfast, he underwent the now-customary pre-flight examination and was outfitted with biosensors and helped into his silver pressure suit. Technician Joe Schmitt tested the suit and Bill Douglas ran a hose into a fish tank to check the purity of the air supply—dead fish meaning bad air—which offered Glenn the chance for some humour. “Bill, did you know a couple of those fish are floating belly-up?” Douglas’ shocked reaction as he rushed over to the tank was soon arrested by a broad grin on Glenn’s face.

Its unpredictability and unpleasant reputation for exploding had yielded the unenviable nickname of 'Gas Bag' to the Atlas. John Glenn's heroism for riding atop this beast cannot be underestimated. Photo Credit: NASA
Its unpredictability and unpleasant reputation for exploding had yielded the unenviable nickname of “Gas Bag” to the Atlas. John Glenn’s heroism for riding atop this beast cannot be underestimated. Photo Credit: NASA

Out at Pad 14, clouds rolled overhead by the time the astronaut arrived outside the capsule at 6:00 a.m. However, forecasters were predicting possible breaks 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 a.m. One of the bolts sheared, necessitating the removal of the hatch while it was replaced.

Forty minutes later, the countdown resumed. By the time the pad crew moved clear of the Atlas, Glenn—whose pulse varied from 60-80 beats per minute—was granted his first view of blue skies. 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, at four seconds, Glenn “felt, rather than heard” the engines roaring to life far below. At 9:47:39 a.m., with a thunder that overwhelmed Scott Carpenter’s “Godspeed, John Glenn” send-off, the Atlas’ hold-down posts separated and the enormous rocket began to climb. The “gas bag” was on its way … and for John Glenn the mission would bring euphoria and drama in equal measure.


The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.


  1. Very interesting article and I look forward to the next article. John Glenn has two distinctions: (1) oldest (in years) of any astronaut/cosmonaut and, (2) lived to see the 50th anniversary of his spaceflight. Scott Carpenter also saw the 50th anniversary of his flight. Two cosmonauts, Valery Bykovsky and Valentina Tereshkova will also note the 50th anniversary of their flights this year. The oldest Soviet cosmonaut (in years) is Georgi Katys – but he never flew a mission.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Tom. John Glenn is an amazing man. He stands as a shining example of the best and brightest that America can produce. I thoroughly enjoyed his story in “JOHN GLENN A Memoir” of how he met his beloved, life-long wife Annie – placed together in a “playpen” by their parents who were playing cards. He kindly and generously autographed a photo to my son years ago, and he is one of the few individuals I speak of when I tell my son of my personal heroes. I would die a happy and fulfilled man should my son follow in the footsteps of John Glenn. I wish this “amazing man” many more happy years. When that sorrowful day comes to him that will someday come to us all, I will grieve.

  3. Karol: You are quite correct. He is one of the great pioneers of spaceflight. I had the privilege of meeting and having lunch with Charlie Duke in 1985. I’ll cherish that memory as long as I live.

  4. I wrote to John Glenn’s Washington, D.C., office back in the early 1990s and he sent me a fabulous black-and-white signed photograph of himself in his Mercury suit. Of all the astronaut autographs in my collection, I will always treasure it. An amazing man, with nerves of steel.

One Ping

  1. Pingback:

JPL to Lead US Science Team for Dark Energy Mission

NASA Announces New Booster Contract for Space Launch System and Orion