Cape Canaveral, Florida,
Launch Complex 14,
February 20, 1962,
Showered and shaved, John Glenn walked into the office of Dr. Bill Douglas.
“Morning Bill,” said Glenn. “How’s the weather?”
“Morning, John,” replied Douglas. “The weather looks good, I’d say 50/50.” He took out a tongue depressor and peered in to the back of Glenn’s throat. Then he put on a stephascope and listened to his heart beat and breathing. He shone a light in Glenn’s eyes and took his pulse. He made few notes on a clipboard. “Ok, John, I’m certifying you as fit to fly.” He shook Glenn’s hand. “Good luck.”
“Thanks, Bill,” said Glenn. He walked out of the examination room and down the hall to the now familiar dressing room, where the technicians were waiting to help him into his spacesuit. Just as Gus Grissom’s had been slightly different than Alan Shepard’s, Glenn’s suit was slightly different than Grissom’s. Each suit was custom fitted to the wearer’s body and contained upgrades based on lessons learned from the previous mission or in anticipation of certain events in the flight plan for the upcoming mission. As a result, Grissom’s spacesuit gloves, as well as John Glenn’s were connected to the suit via a ring lock. Shepard’s gloves had been zippered on to his forearms and he had complained afterward that his dexterity had been severely hampered, as a result. Because Glenn would be spending long stretches of the flight in darkness, flying around the dark side of the Earth, three fingers on each hand were equipped with tiny light bulbs in order to better see the instruments in the darkness. Glenn was just finishing putting on his suit when Walt Williams, Merrit Preston and Deke Slayton entered. All three men shook Glenn’s hand.
“Scott Carpenter is already on the launch pad,” said Williams, the pre-flight operations director.
“How does she look?” Glenn.
“Carpenter reports that all systems checkout AOK,” said Preston.
“Ok,” said Glenn, “lets go then.”
Deke shook Glenn’s hand. “Go blow up, John.”
“Thanks Deke,” said Glenn.
Glenn turned awkwardly toward the door. His rubber, aluminum and mylar spacesuit weighed 20 pounds and made movement difficult. Glenn waddled through the door and into the long hall that led to the outside where the transfer van was waiting. In spite of the early hour, the hall was lined with people. They all began to clap as he walked down the hall. When he reached the end of the hall, Glenn pushed open the door and stepped outside into the pre-dawn darkness. The transfer van stood idling a few feet from the door, its engine rumbling, its headlights casting a pool of light on the pavement. Glenn, Deke, Preston and Williams got in. The door shut with what seemed like an overly loud bang, the engine revved and the van began to move. Inside everything was tense and quiet. The only sound was the quiet whir of Glenn’s portable cooling unit. Glenn looked out the window into the darkness. Overhead the moon was obscured by scudding clouds, but it didn’t matter, Glenn was in a trance, mentally rehearsing all of the checklists and procedures that he had been memorizing for months. He was also hoping and praying. This the eleventh launch attempt, he thought, please don’t let be the eleventh abort as well.
Glenn was startled out of his thoughts and mental preparations when the van came to a stop at the base of the gantry. The door opened and Glenn got out. There were about 200 pad technicians waiting for him. At once they began to applaud. Glenn acknowledged them with a wave and began to walk toward the waiting elevator at the base of the gantry. When he got there, he stopped just for a moment and arched his neck back take in the rocket that was poised to hurl him skyward.
The Atlas rocket was significantly heavier than the slender Redstones flown by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. At 94 feet tall and 10 feet wide, the Mercury-Atlas spacecraft stack weighed 120,000 pounds and would power its way into orbit on two boosters that generated a combined total of 300,000 pounds of thrust.
The launch pad and everything around it was bathed in the harsh glare of floodlights. The bright orange anti-fouling paint of the gantry seemed almost blinding to the eye in the harsh light. The skin of the rocket glowed white. Here and there, Glenn saw the faint shimmer of the thin sheet of ice that covered the exterior of the spacecraft and was formed when -200 degree liquid oxygen met the 80 degree Florida air.
Glenn got into the elevator and rode up to the top. It seemed like forever, but in actuality was no time at all, before the elevator doors opened a Glenn stepped on to the catwalk. In the dim pre-dawn light he heard the distant sound of crashing surf on the nearby beaches. He could see the headlights of cars, the flickering orange flames of bonfires on the beach and the throngs of people waiting for what was sure to be a hell of fireworks show.
Glenn walked the ten feet from the elevator to the white room in a few steps. He pushed open the door and found Scott Carpenter, Gunter Wendt and several technicians swarming over the spacecraft. The name Friendship 7 was painted on the side.
“Morning John,” said Carpenter. “Good luck.”
“Thanks, Scott,” answered Glenn.
Glenn turned to Gunter Wendt. He pretended to click his heels together and gave a mock salute. “Good morning mine Fuhrer,” he said in a false German accent. Wendt chuckled at Glenn’s joke. Over the course of the program, the Berlin-born engineer had earned a reputation for his meticulous attention to detail and his refusal to tolerate fools or mistakes. As a result, Glenn had jokingly nicknamed him the Pad Fuhrer.
“Have a safe flight, John.”
Glenn shook Wendt’s hand. He turned and paused for a moment while two of the technicians removed the rubber anti-spark coverings from the soles of his boots. He then hoisted himself up onto the lip of the spacecraft hatch opening and wormed his way feet first into the cramped confines of the spacecraft.
No sooner had Glenn settled into his formfitting acceleration couch, than a profusion of hands began reaching into the spacecraft, connecting him to the life support and communication systems, strapping him in and making final adjustments this or than piece of equipment. Fintally he heard Gunter Wendt’s voice crackle in his ear.
“Mercury Control, this is Pad Leader. We are go for hatch closure.”
“Copy that, Pad Leader. Confirm go for hatch closure.”
Above and behind him, Glenn watched as the heavy square hatch was lowered into place. Outside in the white room, the close out crew began to torque down the 72 bolts that held the hatch in place.
Glenn keyed his mike. “Mercury Control, this Friendship 7 com check. How do you read?”
Alan Shepard’s voice crackled in Glenn’s ear. “Friendship 7 com check I read you 5 by 5.”
“Copy that Mercury Control.”
Inside the cramped cockpit, Glenn began to run through his pre-flight checklist. Having been here ten times before, it didn’t take very long. All he could was watch the waves crashing on the beach and the throng of humanity waiting for lift-off and listen to the chatter in his ear.
“Report Bus A power status.”
“Bus A power status is 100%”
“Back-up guidance computer is nominal.”
“Confirm first stage LOX temperature.”
“First stage LOX temperature is in the green.”
There were a number of holds on the countdown. Some were routine, and Glenn could feel the Atlas rocket shudder as the engine bells of the three first stage rocket were gimballed off axis and then returned them to their centre positions. The count was also held for 45 minutes to allow the weather to clear. Then Glenn’s helmet mike broke and the hatch had to be un-bolted so it could be fixed. While the hatch was being re bolted into position, one of the bolts sheared in half and had to be replaced. By the time all these technical delays were sorted out, Glenn had completely missed scheduled launch window.
A voice spoke in Glenn’s ear. “Friendship 7, this Mercury Control, please respond, over.” It was Scott Carpenter’s voice.
“Mercury Control, this is Friendship 7 standing by.”
“Copy that, Friendship 7,” said Carpenter. “John, I’ve got Annie and the kids on the line from Arlington.”
“That’s great Scott,” said Glenn. “Put them on.”
There were a few seconds of static, then Glenn heard Annie speak. “J-J-John? How are y-y-you.”
“Annie, I’m fine.” Glenn suddenly felt the beginnings of a lump in his throat. “I’m strapped in and the gantry has been pulled back.” He paused for a moment. “If there are no more holds in the count down, it looks like we might finally go.” Glenn paused again. “How are the kids?”
“F-F-Fine,” said Annie. “They’re right here.”
“That’s great,” said Glenn. “Why don’t you put them on.”
There was another second or two of static. “Daddy?” It was Lyn. “Are you there, Daddy?”
“Yes, sweetie, I’m here.” The lump in Glenn’s throat seemed to get a little bigger and he had to work the emotion out of his voice.
“Is everything all right, Daddy?” ask Lyn.
Glenn tried to put on a confident air. “Oh, yes, Lyn, everything’s fine. I’m strapped very tightly.” He paused momentarily, casting around for something, anything, to say. “What network are you and David and Mommy watching?”
“All of them,” replied Lyn.
Glenn wasn’t surprised in the slightest. Any time the astronauts did anything at all, it was almost always front page news. With the mass of humanity crowding the Cape for the launch, it wasn’t hard for Glenn to imagine that all three networks would be out in force. “Can you put your brother on?”
“Ok,” she said. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetie,” said Glenn.
“Hi, Dad!” said David, “isn’t this exciting?”
Glenn laughed in spite of himself. The lump in his throat loosened slightly, “yes, David, it’s very exciting.” He paused again, casting around for something to say. “You be a good boy, and listen to your mother and look after your sister.”
“Good boy,” said Glenn again, “now please put your mother back on.”
“J-J-John, I love you,” said Annie tremulously.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” said Glenn. “I’m only going down the street for some gum.”
“I love you,” said Annie again.
“I love you very much, Annie,” said Glenn. As he said it Glenn suddenly noticed that his eyes were blinking rapidly.