Grissom's flight on MR-4, the United States had launched two men into
space, but they had not yet orbited even one. The Redstone rocket did
not have the capacity to put a Mercury spacecraft into orbit.
The R-7 Soviet launch vehicle was much more powerful than the Redstone.
On August 6, 1961, Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Titov became the second
person to orbit the Earth. America was still far behind in the race.
The Atlas ballistic missile was chosen as the launch vehicle to put a
Mercury spacecraft into orbit. The Atlas was much more powerful and
advanced than the Redstone, but it was also notoriously unreliable.
John H. Glenn, Jr. was selected as the man to pilot the first Mercury
orbital mission. The mission was designated Mercury Atlas 6.
named his Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7.
On February 20, 1962 an anxious nation watched as Glenn lifted off
the dangerous Atlas rocket. The Capsule Communicator counted down
the launch sequence and radioed that to Glenn, "3, 2, 1, 0."
After ignition, Glenn reported, "Roger. The
clock is operating. We're underway." A short while
later Glenn described the ride, "Little bumpy along
As the vehicle approached the phase of launch where the maximum
aerodynamic pressure was exerted upon the vehicle (max Q) Glenn
some vibration coming up here now." CapCom acknowledged, "Roger. Reading you
loud and clear." Glenn added, "Roger. Coming
into high Q a little bit; and a little contrail went by the window or
At 1 minute
and 12 seconds into the flight, Glenn reported, "We're smoothing out
now, getting out of the vibration area." CapCom informed
You're through max Q. You're flight path is ..."
Glenn acknowledged, "Roger. Feels
good through max Q and smoothing out real fine."
At 1 minute and 56 seconds Glenn reported, "Roger. Have
had some oscillations, but they seem to be damping out now.
Coming up on two minutes and the fuel is 102-101 [percent],
oxygen 78-102 [percent]. The g's are building up to 6."
now time for staging and booster engine cutoff (BECO). At
2 minutes and 12 seconds, Glenn reported, "Roger. BECO back to
1 and 1/4 g's. The tower fired; could not see the tower go, I saw
smoke go by the window." Actually the tower had not yet fired
at that point and Glenn would see it fire shortly.
CapCom reported, "Roger. We confirm
staging on TM [the mark]." At 2 minutes and 36 seconds,
Glenn reported, "The
tower went right then. Have the tower in sight way out.
Could see the tower go. Jettison tower is green."
At 4 minutes and 25 seconds into the flight Glenn reported his flight
Cape is GO and I am GO. Capsule is in good shape. Fuel
103-102 [percent], oxygen 78-100 [percent], cabin pressure holding
steady at 5.8 [psi], amps is 26. All systems are GO."
The time approached for sustainer engine cutoff (SECO). At 4
minutes and 44 seconds, CapCom informed Glenn, "Roger. 20 seconds
to SECO." Glenn acknowledged, "Roger. Indicating 6
g's." At 5
minutes and 4 seconds, Glenn reported, "SECO, posigrades
The Atlas performed nominally and
Friendship 7 was inserted into orbit. The capsule separated from
the spent booster. Astronaut Glenn radioed, "Roger. Zero-G and I
fine. The capsule is turning around." The
first American was in orbit! Glenn then added, "Oh,
the view is tremendous."
was relieved when the dangerous boost phase with
launcher was over.
CapCom radioed Glenn, "Roger Seven. You
have a GO, at least 7 orbits." Glenn acknowledged, "Roger.
Understand GO for at least 7 orbits."
During the first orbit Astronaut Glenn took several blood pressure
readings and made some medical observations about himself. At 55
minutes and 49 seconds into the flight Glenn reported, "This is Friendship
Seven. I have had no ill effects at all as yet from any
zero-g. It's very pleasant in fact. Visual acuity is
excellent. No astigmatic effects. Head movements caused no
nausea or discomfort what so ever."
Since Glenn was the first American to experience
weightlessness for an
extended duration there were many medical and physiological
questions to be answered.
At 1 hour and 12 minutes Glenn would become the first American to
attempt eat food in zero-g. Glenn informed the ground, "This is Friendship
Seven. Opening visor, going to eat. Over." CapCom acknowledged,
"Roger, Friendship Seven." Glenn continued, "This is Friendship
Seven. Have no trouble at all eating, very good. In the
periscope, I can see the brilliant blue horizon coming up after me;
approaching sun rise. Over."
CapCom responded, "Roger, Friendship
Seven. You are very lucky." Glenn finished off his tube of
food and reported, "This is Friendship
Seven. Have eaten one tube of food, shutting the visor.
I've had no problem at all eating. Oh the sun is coming up behind
me in the periscope, a brilliant brilliant red. Over."
Glenn then made an unexpected observation outside of his
spacecraft. He reported, "This is Friendship
Seven. I'll try to describe what I'm in here. I am in a big
mass of some very small particles, that are brilliantly lit up like
they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it. They
round a little; they're coming by the capsule and they look like tiny
stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around
the capsule and go in front of the window and they're all brilliantly
lighted. They probably average maybe 7 or 8 feet apart, but I can
see them all down below me also."
CapCom listened to Glenn's report and
Seven. Can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over."
Glenn answered, "Negative,
negative. They're very slow; they're not going away from me more
than maybe 3 or 4 miles per hour. They are going at the same
speed I am approximately. They're only very slightly under my
speed. Over. They do, they do have a different motion, though,
from me because they swirl around the capsule and then depart back the
way I am looking."
The discussion about the particles continued on for some
time. CapCom instructed Glenn, "Cape asks you to
correlate the actions of the particles surrounding the vehicle with the
reaction of one of your control jets. Do you understand?
Seven. I do not think they were from my control jets, negative.
An apparent problem began showing up in the telemetry from the
spacecraft during the second orbit. At 2 hours, 19 minutes, and
12 seconds into the flight, CapCom instructed Glenn, "We have a message
from MCC to keep your landing bag switch in the off position.
Over." Glenn acknowledged the call, "Roger. This
is Friendship Seven." The landing bag was a cushion that
was supposed to be deployed after the heatshield separated from the
spacecraft just before splashdown to soften the impact with the water.
At 2 hours, 26 minutes, and 40 seconds CapCom again asked Glenn about
his landing bag switch, "Will you confirm
the landing bag switch is in the off position? Over."
Glenn answered, "That
is affirmative. The landing bag switch is in the off
position." CapCom then asked Glenn, "You haven't heard
any banging noises or anything of this type during the higher rates?"
"Negative." CapCom replied, "They wanted this
Ground control had not informed Astronaut Glenn yet, but they had an
indication that his heatshield had come loose and the landing bag
deployed. The heat shield was essential for
the spacecraft and the astronaut to be able to survive reentry.
If it had come loose the results during reentry would be catastrophic.
At 2 hours, 47
minutes, and 14 seconds, CapCom radioed to Glenn, "Friendship Seven,
this is Canton. We also have no indication that your landing bag
might be deployed. Over." A concerned Glenn asked, "Roger. Did
someone report that the landing bag could be down? Over."
CapCom answered, "Negative, we had a
request to monitor this and to ask you if you heard any flapping when
you had high capsule rates..." Glenn replied, "Negative."
During Glenn's 3rd orbit of the Earth, at 4 hours, 22
minutes, and 38
seconds into the flight, CapCom relayed a message to Glenn about the
landing bag. CapCom informed Glenn, "Friendship Seven,
we have been reading an indication on the ground of segment 51, which
is Landing Bag Deploy. We suspect this is an erroneous
signal. However, Cape would like you to check this by putting the
landing bag switch in auto position, and see if you get a light.
Do you concur with this? Over." Glenn replied, "Okay. If
that's what they recommend, we'll go ahead and try it. Are you
ready for it now?" CapCom gave Glenn the go ahead, "Yes, when you're
Glenn flipped the switch and reported, "Roger.
Negative in automatic position, did not get a light and I'm back in the
off position now. Over." CapCom acknowledged Glenn's
that's fine. In this case we'll go ahead, and the reentry
sequence will be normal."
Engineers, on the ground, studied the problem as Astronaut Glenn's
the Earth. It was decided after much consultation that the retrorocket
pack strapped onto the back of the Mercury spacecraft would not be
jettisoned after the deorbit burn. It was hoped that these straps
might retain the heat shield just long enough for Glenn to survive
Shortly before the retro fire sequence was to begin, CapCom Wally
Schirra, who was stationed in California, informed Glenn, "John, leave your
retropack on through your pass over Texas. Do you read?"
Glenn acknowledged, "Roger."
At 4 hours, 32 minutes, and 32 seconds, CapCom Schirra counted down
the time until Glenn's retrorocket ignition. Schirra radioed
Glenn, "5, 4,
3, 2, 1, fire." Glenn activated the retrorocket
sequence and reported, "Roger, retros are
firing." CapCom Schirra answered, "Sure they be."
The noticeable deceleration caused Glenn to remark, "Are they
ever. It feels like I'm going back toward Hawaii."
After the retro
fire sequence completed, CapCom Schirra again
instructed Glenn, "Keep your retro
pack on until you pass Texas." Glenn acknowledged, "That's affirmative."
Glenn asked Schirra, "Do you have a time
for jettison retro? Over." Schirra answered, "Texas will give you
that message. Over."
At 4 hours, 38 minutes, and 23 seconds, Glenn was in communication
range with Texas and the CapCom stationed in Texas instructed Glenn, "This is Texas
CapCom, Friendship Seven. We are recommending that you leave the
retropackage on through the entire reentry. This means that you
will have to override the 0.5 g switch which is expected to occur at 04
43 53. Also this means that you will have to manually retract the
scope. Do you read?"
The change in plan without an explanation worried Glenn. Glenn
is Friendship Seven. What is the reason for this? Do you
have any reason? Over." CapCom answered Glenn, "Not at this time;
this is the judgment of Cape Flight." A short while later
the Texas CapCom told Glenn, "Friendship Seven,
Cape Flight will give you the reasons for this action when you are in
At 4 hours, 40 minutes, and 34 seconds, Glenn was in communications
range with the CapCom stationed at the Cape. That CapCom was
America's first man in space Alan Shepard. CapCom Shepard
informed Glenn, "While
you're doing that, we are not sure whether or not your Landing Bag has
deployed. We feel that it is possible to reenter with your
retropackage on. We see no difficulty at this time with that type
of reentry. Over." Glenn now had the answer for the change
in plans but it did little to reassure him.
The g forces began to build up and the capsule was subject to
significant heating due to the friction from reentry. Radio
contact with the astronaut is normally lost during reentry.
This loss of communication occurs because a sheath of ionized atoms
envelopes the spacecraft during reentry. There was no way to know
during the inferno whether the first American to orbit the Earth had
survived or perished.
At 4 hours, 43 minutes, and 14 seconds Glenn called, "This is Friendship
Seven. I think the pack just let go." He then
followed that call with, "This is Friendship
Seven. A real fireball outside."
mission control re-established radio contact with Astronaut
the ionization cloud dissipated. The heat shield was not loose and had
not failed! A malfunctioning
sensor had caused the false indication.
repeated calls to the Cape, "Hello Cape.
Friendship Seven. Do you receive? Over." Finally the
CapCom responded, "How do you read?
Over." Glenn answered, "Loud and clear; how
me? Over." CapCom answered, "Roger, reading you
loud and clear. How are you doing?" Glenn calmly
Glenn then reported, "Okay, we're through
the peak g now." CapCom asked Glenn, "Seven, this is
Cape. What's your general condition? Are you feeling pretty
well?" Glenn's answer was, "My condition is
good, but that was a real fireball boy! I had great chunks of
retropack breaking off all the way through."
A short while after the drogue parachute had deployed, the main
recovery parachute followed. At 4 hours, 50 minutes and 10
seconds, Glenn reported, "Main chute is on
green. Chute is out in reef condition at 10,800 feet and
beautiful chute. Chute looks good. On O2 emergency
and the chute looks very good. Rate of descent has gone to about
42 feet per second. The chute looks very good."
Friendship 7 safely splashed
down in the Atlantic Ocean 4
hours, 55 minutes, and 23 seconds after it was launched. The
primary recovery ship was the USS Noa.