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Nation, John Glenn to Mark 50th Anniversary of First U. S. Human Orbital Mission


Mercury astronaut John Glenn examines the insignia for his Friendship capsule weeks before his historic orbital flight. Photo Credit/NASA photo

Mercury astronaut John Glenn, an accomplished Marine Corps aviator with deep Midwestern roots and a winning smile, became the first American to circle the Earth on Feb. 20, 1962.

Now 90, Glenn plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic flight in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which served then as the control center as well as the launch site for all six Mercury flights.

His drama-filled, five hour flight instantly vaulted Glenn to super hero status, while narrowing a daunting gap in a Cold War space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

 Later elected a U. S. senator from his native Ohio, Glenn would go on to make an unsuccessful bid for president before ending a successful political career with a second spaceflight.

 Designated a “payload specialist,” Glenn joined six others aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1998 for nine days in orbit. The world again watched as Glenn championed the values of space research from the shuttle, while at 77 earning the distinction of being the oldest human to travel in space.

At 77, John Glenn returned to space in 1998 as a shuttle astronaut. Glenn urged Discovery's crew to call him "John." Photo Credit/NASA photo


But the real drama of Glenn’s contributions to human spaceflight and those of his Mercury colleagues unfolded long before.

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, following an unannounced launch that took him around the Earth for a single orbit.

On Aug. 6, 1961,  cosmonaut Gherman Titov followed in Gagarin’s footsteps, circling the Earth for an entire day. In the U. S., it appeared the Soviets were building an insurmountable lead in the opening of an important new frontier.

Glenn’s mission, the third by a Mercury astronaut was to close the gap. His orbital launch would require the use of an Atlas ballistic missile, a rocket that was proving tough to tame.

Glenn witnessed at least two of explosions of the Atlas as he trained.

“They’ll go back to the drawing board and get it fixed,” Glenn promised wife Annie, son David and daugher Lyn, after witnessing a July 29, 1961 Atlas explosion at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“I know that didn’t satisfy them, or me either, for that matter,”  Glenn confided in his 1999 autobiography, John Glenn: A Memoir. “I didn’t know what to think.”

As it turned out, the fearsome missile would prove the least of Glenn’s concerns, as he lifted off nearly seven months later on his 11th scheduled launch date.

Soon after his Friendship 7 capsule achieved orbit, NASA’s Mercury Control cleared Glenn for seven trips around the Earth.

“Zero-g and I feel fine,” Glenn radioed a flight control team very relieved to know their astronaut had not succombed to a whole range of physical ailments.

 ”Oh, that view is tremendous,” he waxed as the capsule’s viewing port was filled by the majesty of the Earth turning below.

Ultimately, Glenn orbited just hree times. The tiny capsule’s auto pilot failed, forcing Glenn to steer his spacecraft manually for most of two circuits around the Earth.  More alarming though, were signals transmitted to Mission Control that indicated the capsule’s heat shield was loose.

The thin shielding was the only thing standing between Glenn’s safe descent to Earth and a fiery death from frictional heating as he plunged back into the atmosphere.

The control team chose not to disclose their concerns to Glenn in the clear terms. Instead, controllers quickly devised a strategy to hold the heat shield in place. The plan required Glenn to refrain from jettisoning the retro rocket assembly that would maneuver him back into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Perhaps leaning on his cool reserve as a Marine fighter pilot, Glenn executed the strategy.

Friendship 7 descended safely into Atlantic Ocean, suspended beneath a parachute. The capsule landed an impressive half-dozen miles from the USS Noa, the astronaut’s recovery ship.

It was difficult to imagine that an astronaut of that era could garner more fame. But New York City welcomed Glenn with a ticker tape parade. He was invited to address a joint session of Congress and a make an extensive publicity tour.

Glenn was born on May July 18, 1921, to a school teacher mother and a father just returned from the World War I  battlefields of France. His upbringing was tempered by the Great Depression.

His aspirations were not.

After forging a triumphant resume as a Marine Corps fighter pilot in Korea, Glenn established a  well-publicized 1957 transcontinental air speed record in a military jet. Glenn charmed a national audience as he guest starred on Name That Tune, a  popular mid-1950s television game show.

With his combat experience and confidence while in the public spotlight, Glenn became a force as America scrambled to forge a winning strategy in space.

On April 9, 1959, the young National Aeronautics and Space Administration hosted a Washington press conference to unveil the names of the nation’s first astronauts.

The Mercury 7 were chosen from just over 500 candidates — each eager to risk their lives, if necessary, to fly in space.

Glenn, Al Shepard, Gus Grissom, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton quickly achieved fame, gracing popular magazine covers, the front pages of the newspapers and adding a new dimension to television. Behind the scenes, their competition to achieve each new milestone in space was fierce.

The first to launch were Shepard and Grissom. Their suborbital Mercury missions exposed the two astronauts to 15-minutes of spaceflight on May 5 and July 21, 1961. Until Glenn launched, however, the Soviet held a clear lead.

By mid-1969, American astronauts had stepped onto the moon. The Soviets were no where in sight.




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