Jan. 27: Not a day to fly

John Glenn enters Friendship 7. Sixty years ago on January 27, his first launch attempt was scrubbed

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Delays — the delays in the launch of John Glenn and Mercury Atlas (MA)-6 might at last be over.   The 65-ft.-tall Atlas booster is fueled and ready for a launch this morning, January 27, 1962, to place the first American in orbit.   Delayed from December, the flight officially had been scheduled for January 16, but was delayed until January 23 due to problems with the booster’s fuel tanks.  More delays ensued, day-by-day{  a gyro problem with the Atlas, then a servo problem.  Then an oxygen leak in the capsule traced to o-rings installed backwards in Glenn’s suit gloves.   

This morning, the hardware appears ready, everyone on station, including 24 Navy ships in various recovery zones.  The count is proceeding smoothly toward a launch at 7:30 a.m. (EST) — except for one worry.  The weather. 

We’re awakened in the astronaut quarters in Hangar S at 2 a.m.  And leave the hanger at 4:30 for Pad 14 and our capsule, Friendship 7, the name splashed across the side in jaunty script.  At the pad, we shake hands with a few technicians and head up the elevator with Deke Slayton.  He must be thinking ahead a couple months when he is scheduled to make this same journey as pilot for the second orbital mission.   We start wiggling through the tiny hatch feet first at 5:12 a.m.   It takes time.  Finally, at 6:24 a.m., we shake hands with Deke.  Twice.  And the hatch is bolted in place.

It’s 7 a.m. and . . .  A hold.  The count is holding for one of those minor glitches that always seem to crop up at the last minute.  And while we’re holding, a heavy bank of gray clouds moves in.

At 8:24 a.m., the count resumes, hoping for a hole in the cloud cover.  Alas, those clouds are quilted solid.  The count is halted at T minus 20 min.   . . . And at 9:09 a.m., Operations Director Walter C. Williams calls a scrub for the day.

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It takes an hour-and-a-half to secure the pad, unbolt the hatch.  A weary John Glenn emerged after more than five hours in the tiny capsule.  He says, “Well, there will be another day.”

He has no way of knowing the string of days and delays ahead before that day arrives.   Still, perhaps it’s best he didn’t launch on January 27, which seems a cursed day for the space program.  Five years later, the crew of Apollo 1 will enter the their spacecraft for a launch simulation.  And never emerge — on that day of the fire.   And in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger will attempt to launch, liftoff also delayed by mechanical errors until weather nips the attempt, a cold front moving in, bringing freezing temperatures overnight that will help doom it the next morning.   And further yet in time, in 2003, the crew of Columbia will pay tribute to the lost astronauts of Apollo 1 and Challenger just days before their own demise in a fiery reentry on Feb. 1.

Yes, it’s best to stay clear of January 27.

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