60 years ago: ‘A real fireball’

February 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes the first American in orbit, making three circuits of the Earth.

****

The long wait.  It’d started at the end of 1961, extended past the January 27 scrub, and now extended into February 1962.  The wait was, well, weighing on everyone from the public to President Kennedy.

Refueling for another attempt began three days after the January 27th scrub.  Right away, a technician discovered fuel had leaked between the Atlas rocket’s bulkhead and insulation at the fuel/oxidizer tanks.  The leak took ten days to repair.  And as the recovery force of 24 Navy ships could not be in place until February 13th, the launch slipped to that date.  And then slipped to the 14th, again due to the time needed to work the finicky, accident-prone Atlas.  That was the eighth postponement — and counting.  The ninth came the next day, due to gale-force winds in the Atlantic Ocean recovery zone.  And on February 16th, a weather front sweeping through Florida forced yet another delay.  

Everyone was asking, how is The Astronaut holding up?  What toll is the wait taking on him?  You reply, “I’ve been training and waiting for three years, and a few more days won’t matter.”  Yet, yes, you are feeling the tension, feeling it grow.

With the forecast remaining poor, we’re looking for our next attempt on February 20.  A cold front moves through on the 19th, trailing heavy cloud cover that may or may not move out the next morning — but at least the Atlantic storms have eased.  The Weather Bureau gives the odds for acceptable weather on the 20th as 50/50

****

There’s a knock on your door at 2:20 a.m.  It’s February 20.  You’ve been awake for nearly an hour.  The weather still isn’t looking good, the skies still capped by heavy cloud cover.  Still, the launch day rituals are performed — the quick physical, the breakfast of steak and eggs, suiting up.  At 5 a.m., you leave for the pad in the transfer trailer, even as the 7:30 a.m. liftoff is delayed — a radar control unit in the Atlas failed, is being replaced.  Wait is still the word.  You wait in the van until nearly 6 a.m.  It’s time to take the elevator to the white room, to your capsule, named Friendship 7, and wiggle your way into the tight cockpit.   And wait some more.  Wait through a 40-min. delay to replace a broken hatch bolt.  The count resumes at 7:50 a.m.  Miracle of miracles, the clouds are breaking, the sky clearing.  At 8:05 a.m., we’re at T -60 min.   And wait through another hold to top off the propellant tanks — which takes 15 minutes. The plan states the launch can take place no later than 9:30. to allow sufficient daylight for recovery, but we’re willing to fudge that a bit.  At 8:58 a.m., T-minus 22 min. and we hit another hold — this time for a stuck vent valve.  It’s fixed by 9:25. a.m.  We’re counting again.

****

Not until T minus 18 seconds does it feel real, the moment when the countdown switches to the automatic sequencer.  We’re going.  Going for three orbits of the earth in just under five hours.

You hear the engines moan, swiveling into position.  The pipes whine with the cold flush of fuel.  The rocket shakes.   A muffled roar.

Liftoff, slow and heavy, gorged with fuel, liftoff at 9:47 a.m.  ‘The clock is operating.  We’re underway.’  Building into a solid  surge, gaining muscle. 

*

Through Max Q, the maximum air pressure in the thick, lower atmosphere.  Fists pounding the rocket’s skin.  Feel the buffeting.  

We’re beyond it, a minute into the flight, heading for the keyhole in the sky, the path to orbit.  Shedding weight. Two minutes, 40 miles up, BECO.  The two booster engines fall away with a metallic ring as if riding rails. 

The center sustainer engine pushes on.  The Atlas nods down to shake off the no-longer needed escape tower.  The horizon comes into view, a brilliant blue curve.  Looking out over the cloudy Atlantic for a moment.  The red tower fires itself away from the nose, sheets of flame fingering the capsule.  Can trace the red dot disappearing against the clouds.

The Atlas lifts it’s nose once more.  The horizon disappears from view, replaced by the blackness of space.  With fuel depleted, the rocket begins flexing.  Feels like you’re at the end of a springboard.  The bark of the engine echoes through the nearly empty fuel tanks.

SECO, sustainer engine cut-off, five minutes 14 seconds since launch.

We’re in orbit.

*

‘Zero G and I feel fine.  Capsule is turning around.’

Earth sliding back into view, sun glinting off blue ocean and white cloud.   ‘Oh, that view is tremendous!’  

*

Crossing the Atlantic in 12 minutes.  Four miles traveled in the span of a heartbeat.  Africa:  ‘I can see dust storms down there blowing across the desert, a lot of dust.’ 

The world circled in 88 minutes, space and time conquered.  Friendship 7 riding a sine wave dipping below the equator over Africa, rising above it over the Pacific. 

The names of the tracking stations providing a world-reaching road map:  Bermuda and the Canary Islands.  Kano in Nigeria and Zanzibar.  The Indian Ocean tracking ship.  Descending to Muchea and Woomera in Australia.  Canton Island in the mid-Pacific and Hawaii.  Rising to touch Guaymas, Mexico.  Point Arguello in Southern California, and Corpus Christi, Texas.  Finally skimming back over the Cape. 

*

Thirty-five minutes launch, the first of three sunsets.   A void of shadow consumes the earth below.  The sun, as bright as an arc-light, bluish-white rather than yellow, sinks rapidly, 18 times as fast as on Earth.  Squinting into it, you watch the perfect solar disc dissolve and spread across the horizon.  Not just yellows and reds, but full spectrum, orange at the bottom, fading into red, blending into the blues and rich black of space.  The colors wrapping along the entire limb of the earth.  

Q  twilight band lingers – four, five minutes.  ‘The redness of the sunset I can still see through some of the clouds way over to the left of my course.’ 

*

‘That was about the shortest day I’ve ever run into.’  Into the equally short night, the clouds very visible in the light of a full moon.

*

Over Australia, less than hour since launch.  ‘Just to my right I can see a big pattern of lights apparently right on the coast .’

The city of Perth has left its lights burning through the night as a beacon.  ‘The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on.’ 

*

Totally adjusted to weightlessness.  Using your small drugstore camera, brought along as an afterthought.   You find it natural to hang it in the air while you attend to the capsules systems.

Once, changing film, you let go of a fresh roll.  It floats out of reach, drifting behind the instrument panel.  Never see it again.  

*

Sunrise while in contact with the Canton Island station in the Pacific, 1 hr. 15 minutes since launch.  ‘Oh, the sun is coming up behind me in the periscope, a brilliant, brilliant red…  It’s blinding through the scope…’

With sunrise, a mysterious apparition.  Like a field of stars…but coming from below.  ‘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 swirl around the capsule,  a light yellowish-green in color,  appear to scatter out into the distance.  They don’t appear to be coming from the capsule.  They drift by slowly, looking like fireflies on a summer evening.

Once into the full sunlight, they wink off.  A few linger a moment in the sun…and then are gone.  Yet they reappear at each sunrise. 

*

Landfall over Baja California, on automatic ASCS control.  

As contact fades with Guaymas, the capsule’s position slips a bit to the right.  ‘Yaw is drifting out of orbit attitude and will bring it back in.’  Engaging manual control.

For a moment it seems to hold, then the drift sets in, the capsule’s nose, yo-yoing side to side.  A thruster has failed.

You must take over manual control.  ‘I am having no trouble at all holding attitudes.’   You exude in showing the value of man over machine. 

*

You’re controlling Friendship 7 perfectly.  Yet something is wrong.  Something else worrying Mercury Control Center at the Cape.  The first hint reaches you over the Indian Ocean on the second orbit.  The Capcom radios, MCC reminds you to keep your landing bag switch in the off position. 

Muchea repeats the request, a bit more emphatically, asking, ‘Will you confirm the landing Bag switch is in the center off position.’

‘That is affirmative.  Landing Bag switch is in the center, off position.’

The Canton Island Capcom’s reassurances puzzle you.  ‘We also have no indication that your landing bag might be deployed.’

‘Did someone report landing bag could be down?’  

If the bag — which is is suppose to inflate between the capsule and heat shield before splashdown to lessen the impact — is deployed, then the heat shield is loose.  The only thing holding everything together would be the three titanium straps snugging the retropack against the shield.  Once the pack is jettisoned, the shield would flap loose and fail on re-entry.  You’d burn up.  

*

Only 10 minutes to retrofire, the Hawaii station finally says it.  ‘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.’

You’re too busy alining the capsule into retro position to make much of it.  The capsules attitude must be precise, or the status of the shield won’t matter – you won’t be coming home.  

*

Moving to retro attitude, the automatic system still acting up.  Holding position, on the money.

The California Capcom chants the countdown.  ‘Five, 4, 3, 2, 1, fire.’  

‘Roger, retros are firing.’  Can hear the roar as each retro kicks in. And feel it, the sudden surge.  ‘It feels like I’m going back toward Hawaii.’

 ‘Don’t do that, you want to go to the East Coast.’

*

Over the Cape two minutes later, the Capcom gives a reminder to retract the periscope, and casually continues chatting, ‘While you’re doing that, we are not sure whether or not your landing bag has deployed.  We feel it is possible to reenter with the retropackage on.  We see no difficulty at this time in that type of reentry.  Over.’

There it is.  They think the heat shield could be loose and are hoping the straps that synch down the retropack will hold the shield in place.  The pack is normally discarded to expose the face of the shield. 

*

Two minutes later, communications fade as Friendship 7 digs into the atmosphere, the building sheath of energized air molecules blocking radio signals.  The beating atmosphere announces itself with a hissing, a scratching.  Claws digging against the capsule walls.  

‘A real fireball outside.’  A glow of orange wraps itself around the window at his head and trails off behind the capsule.  Just four feet behind your back, the bow shock is building toward temperatures equaling the sun’s surface.  Something goes bump – the retropack breaking off?  A metal strap flaps in front of the window and burns away like a strip of bacon.

Flaming pieces begin flying by the window.  The heat shield breaking apart?  The nerves along your spine heightened, tensed like the hair on the back of a cat, feeling for the first pulse of heat as the capsule begins to burn.  The glow intensifies.  G forces build. 

*

Finally you hear the voice of the Cape asking, ‘How are you doing?’

‘Oh, pretty good.’  Speaking with a road-weary nonchalance.  Forces easing, you’re through it.   

*

Splashdown, at 2:43 EST, with the destroyer Noa nearby.  Taking no chances with the ocean.  Let the destroyer come along side and hoist the capsule aboard.  By 3:04 p.m., you’re on deck.

Sit by yourself on deck, recording impressions while they are fresh.  As the sun dips for the horizon, your first words into the tape recorder: ‘What can you say about a day in which you get to see four sunsets?’

You grin, that John Glenn smile.

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