Cape Canaveral, Florida
Launch Complex 14
February 20, 1962
It took Glenn a second or two to compose him self and refocus on the task at hand. He had not expected to be able to talk to his family and it had made him a little emotional. He continued to listen to the chatter in his headset.
“Primary fuel pump status is nominal.”
“Fuel system pressure is in the green.”
“Copy that. Commence LOX tank top off.”
At those words, Glenn perked up a little. No previous launch attempt had gotten this far before and he began to recheck all his instruments one last time.
At T-00:22:00 there was another hold while the technicians repaired a stuck LOX valve and a second hold at T-00:06:00 while the Bermuda tracking station sorted out an electrical problem. The clock ticked backward from minuets to seconds. At T-00:00:18 the count down switched over to computer control.
Far below him a rumbling roar could be heard and the rocket began to shake as scarlet flames poured from its engine bells. At T+00:00:03 the lockdown clamps released. For an additional second or two, nothing seemed to happen as the Atlas rocket’s three first stage rocket motors throttled up to full power. Then, slowly, the Atlas rocket lurched upward off the launch pad. As the rocket lifted off the pad, the umbilical plug connecting the rocket to the ground pulled from and Glenn’s on-board mission timer ticked into motion, counting upward from zero. Glenn keyed his mike. “Tower clear. The clock is running. We’re on our way.”
“Roger” that, Friendship 7,” said Carpenter. In the excitement of lift-off, Glenn didn’t hear him say, “Godspeed, John Glenn. May the good Lord ride with you all the way.”
As the spacecraft roared off the pad and into the azure-coloured Florida sky, Glenn felt the Gs begin to build. First 2 Gs, then 3, then 4. At T+00:00:13 the view out of Glenn’s window corkscrewed as the rocket angled it self north and east. “Confirm roll program.”
“Copy that,” said Carpenter.
As the Atlas rocket arced higher and higher into the sky, it burned fuel, over a ton a minute allowing it to fly higher and faster. At T+00:00:48 the spacecraft the spacecraft began to buffet wildly. Glenn was approach Max Q, the point of heaviest aerodynamic resistance on the body of the spacecraft. In the few tens of seconds that had elapsed from engine start to this point the sky outside had changed dramatically. No longer was it that beautiful turquoise blue, but now it was an inky blue-black. It was a bit like looking into the open ocean, a thousand feet down. The violent buffeting suddenly stopped. Almost immediately afterward, Glenn felt a tremendous THUD! It threw him violently forward against his restraints and for second he felt as though he were about to be thrown into the instrument panel. Then the second stage boosters kicked and he was hurled back into his seat.
“Confirm stage I separation,” he said.
“Copy that, Friendship 7.” Glenn heard Shepard’s voice speaking in his ear now. “Staging confirmed. Your altitude is holding steady at 45 miles and you are 40 miles down range. You are go for orbit.”
“Roger that,” said Glenn. He reached out to the instrument panel and flipped a switch. The escape tower went zooming away with a loud WHOOSH! “Confirm tower jettison,” radioed Glenn.
“Tower separation confirmed,” responded Shepard. “Stand by for SECO.”
The muted roar of the rocket motors cut off and Glenn glided into orbit. The second stage cut off was followed a few seconds later by another jarring thud, but this one was gentler than the last. Glenn felt the staccato reports of the thrusters firing and he was briefly pressed into his seat again. “Confirm capsule separation,” he called out.
“Capsule separation acknowledged,” said Shepard.
On Glenn’s instrument panel, a light marked CAP SEP clicked on and glowed green. Glenn rattled off a string of instrument readings.
“Copy that, Friendship 7.”
“Roger, Zero G and I feel fine,” said Glenn exuberantly. “Pitch over has started.” Outside the window, the world spun slowly as the spacecraft rotated 180 degrees on its longitudinal axis. Now flying backwards, even though backwards and forwards had no meaning in space, Glenn was able to see the Earth for the first time. The sight of it was breathtaking. In the far distance, Glenn as the gentle curve of the Earth and a slender, pale blue ribbon of atmosphere. Below him, he saw delicate traceries of clouds. The land was a patch work of green and grey and brown. The water was a dozen shades of blue.
Wow! thought Glenn, in awe. Out loud he said, “this view is tremendous.”
Shepard’s voice suddenly crackled in Glenn’s ear. “Roger that, Friendship 7. You are go for seven orbits.”
That brought Glenn back to reality and he returned to the task at hand. “Copy that,” he replied. Inside Glenn was jubilant. He had worked hard, as hard as anyone else in the program. Because of his principled stand two years before, he had missed his chance to be the first American to fly in space, but this more than compensated for that disappointment.
Shepard spoke again. “Friendship 7, stand by for loss of signal.”
“Roger,” answered Glenn, “standing by for LOS.”
Out of the window, the east coast of the United States was falling behind. In the far distance, Glenn could just discern the tumbling second booster as it slowly fell into the atmosphere. Below him were the cobalt waters of the Caribbean. The Florida Keys, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and the innumerable islands of the West Indies were sprinkled all over like so many crumbs of land. Glenn turned away from the window and prepared to go to work.
“Bermuda station, this is Friendship 7.”
Gus Grissom’s voice spoke in Glenn’s ear. “Freedom 7, this is Bermuda station. How do you read?”
“Roger, Bermuda station, I read you 5 by 5.”
“Copy that Friendship 7,” said Grissom.
Glenn rattled off some more instrument readings. “This is Friendship 7, I can see clear back. I see a big cloud pattern stretching right across, all the way back to the Cape. What a beautiful sight.”
“Copy that,” said Grisson. “Proceed with orbital checklist.”
“Roger,” said Glenn. He began to rattle instrument readings and switch positions. “Landing bag is off. Emergency retro sequence off. Drouge deploy is off. Batteries read 25.Retromanual is off.”
“Roger that,” said Grisson.
By the time Glenn had finished with his orbital checklist, Bermuda was sliding out of view. “Stand by for LOS,” said Grissom.
“Copy that,” said Glenn. Static hissed in his ear.
“Friendship 7, Canary capcom.”
“Canary capcom,” responded Glenn, “I read you 5 by 5.” Bermuda, the Cape and the United States were out of sight over the horizon. Directly below, Glenn could see the Canary Islands and the coast of West Africa. Glenn did some quick mental arithmetic. From the moment of engine ignition, he had flown from Cape Canaveral to an invisible spot in space over the Canary Islands, a distance of over 4,000 miles, in just twelve minuets. Glenn whistled silently in amazement.
“Copy that. What is your status?”
“I feel very comfortable in zero G,” reported Glenn. “I feel very normal and very good.”
“Roger,” said the capcom. “Proceed with attitude control check.”
“Copy,” said Glenn. He reached out toward instrument panel and turned a knob marked OMS, or Orbital Manoeuvring System, and turned it from AUTO to MANUAL. Glenn took hold of the pistol grip joystick. He began turning it this way and that. With each movement of his wrist, he felt the staccato reports of the reaction control thrusters, as he worked his way through the spacecraft’s roll, pitch and yaw orientations. “Canary capcom,” he called, “confirm OMS functioning normally. Control is functioning excellently, no problems at all.”
“Confirmed, Friendship 7.”
Glenn reached up to a cloth pouch stuck to the inside of the hatch. It was secured in place with a system of plastic hooks through Teflon loops. It was a relatively new invention called Velcro. Glenn pulled open the pouch and a stuffed mouse on a tether drifted out. Glenn chuckled. This was doubtlessly Alan Shepard’s idea of a joke, a backhanded reference to Bill Dana and his popular character, Jose Jimenze, the reluctant astronaut. Glenn pushed the mouse aside. He reached into the pouch and pulled out a camaera. Glenn turned to the window and began taking pictures.
Every frame seemed to capture a new vista.
Click! Sandstorms in the Sahara.
Click! The jungles of the Congo.
Click! The African savanaha.
He had left the ocean behind and was flying over the African interior, when the capcom spoke in his ear again. “Friendship 7, this is Kano Capcon, how do you read me?”
“Roger, Kano,” said Glenn. “I read you loud and clear.”
“Copy that,” said the capcom. “What is your status?”
“My status is AOK,” said Glenn.
“Acknowledged,” said the Capcom. “We monitored your conversation with the Canary Capcom. Can you give us an update?”
“Roger,” responded Glenn. He rattled off some instrument readings. “Fuel, 90-98%. Oxygen 78-100%. Cabin pressure is holding steady at 5.6. There’s also a little bit of dirt floating around. Maybe next time someone should give it an extra go over with the vacuum cleaner.”
“Roger that Friendship 7,” said the Capcom. “What is your exhaust temperature?”
“Stand by, Kano,” said Glenn. “I am taking a xylose.”
“Roger that Friendship 7.”
Without out really thinking about, or even intending to do it, Glenn let go of the camera. He reached up and slid back his face plate. Then he stopped. The camera was floating serenely in mid-air, hovering in place, as though kept there by magic. He chuckled as he reached into the cloth pouch attached to the inside of the hatch and pulled out little packet of pills. He opened the packet and popped one of the pills into his mouth. The xylose pills were part of an on-going experiment that had been conducted on the previous two flights. The goal was to see if the micro-gravity environment affected the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
“Friendship 7,” asked the Capcom again, “what is your exhaust temperature?”
“Roger, Kano,” replied Glenn. His eye flicked to a particular gauge on the instrument panel in front of him. “Steam temperature is 59 degrees.”
“Confirmed,” said the Capcom.
Glenn was beginning to move away from the tracking station and the transmissions from the ground were becoming garbled. Glenn reached out to a knob on the instrument panel labelled UHF ANT and turned it from HIGH to LOW. “Kano, this is Friendship 7, please respond.” Static hissed in Glenn’s ear. He tried again. “Kano, Friendship 7. Do you read me?”
“Friendship 7,”called the Capcom, “I read you 5 by 5. We are reading a temperature of 189 degrees on your 150 volt inverter and a temperature of 150 degrees on your 250 volt inverter. Can you confirm?”
Glenn’s eyes flicked quickly across the instrument panel. “Confirmed,” he said. “I read 189 degrees and 150 degrees.”
“Roger that,” said the Capcom. “Proceed to yaw manuever.”
“Roger,” said Glenn. He took hold of the pistol grip controller and twisted. The horizon spun slowly. “Kano, Friendship 7, I have no trouble controlling the spacecraft. Drift is coming around at 1 degree per second. I am holding attitude on all other axis.”
“Roger,” said the Capcom. “Check drift at 1 degree per second and holding attitude OK all axes. I have your retro sequence time for Area 1 Charlie.”
“Copy,” answered Glenn. “Please stand by. I will get to it later. I am in the middle of my yaw manoeuvre.”
“Copy, Friendship 7, standing by.”
Elapsed Mission Time:
The flight continued like this for some time, with Glenn rattling off instrument readings at regular intervals, taking photographs and performing experiments. Over Zanzibar, he did thirty reps on a bungee cord. As predicted, his heart rate went up, but there were no other obvious side effects. On the second orbit, he squeezed some applesauce out of a tube into his mouth, proving that the micro-gravity environment did not inhibit the ability to chew and swallow. Unbeknownst to Glenn, a crisis was brewing on the ground that was conspiring to bring the mission to a screeching halt.
During the second orbit, Glenn’s yaw thrusters had begun to malfunction.
“OK, shut ‘em off,” said Flight Director Chris Kraft.
Alan Shepard, sitting at the Capcom console, relayed Kraft’s instructions to Glenn.
“Copy that,” said Glenn.
No sooner had that had been dealt with, than the Systems controller was speaking in Kraft’s ear.
“Go Systems,” said Kraft.
“We have a Section 51, Flight.”
Kraft felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “Enlighten me,” he said. “What’s a Section 51.” It was not a question.
“It’s a live switch on the heat shield collar, Flight,” said the Systems controller. “It controls the landing bag deploy mechanism.”
Now Kraft had a sinking feeling. Sandwiched between the ablative surface of the heat shield and the bottom of the inner pressure vessel was a tightly packed accordian airbag that was intended to cushion the impact of the landing following re-entry. If the landing bag had deployed in space, then it meant that the heat shield was loose and they had a very serious problem.
“Stand by Systems,” said Kraft.
“Copy Flight, standing by.”
“Go Flight,” said Shepard.
Kraft quickly explained the problem.
“Confirm, Flight,” said Shepard, slightly incredulous, “you said ‘lose heat shield.’”
“Roger,” said Kraft.
Shepard thought for a second. “Flight, could this be ratty data? Or a sensor glitch?”
Those possibilities had occurred to Kraft as well. He queried the Systems controller. The answer he got back was not helpful. “No way to tell from here, Capcom.”
Shepard sighed. That would have been too easy. “Copy that, Flight,” he said. A thought occurred to him, “Flight, Capcom. If he has a lose heat shield, should he hear something, or at least feel something?”
That was a good point, Kraft mused. “Ask him.”
Elapsed Mission Time:
“Friendship 7, Capcom, please respond” Shepard’s voice spoke in Glenn’s ear.
“Capcom, Friendship 7,” answered Glenn, “I read you loud and clear.”
“Copy, Friendship 7,” said Shepard. “report any unusual noises or strange sensation.”
The request threw Glenn off guard for a second or two. Why could they possibly asking that? “Roger, Capcom,” he said. “No unusual noises or sensations. Everything is AOK.”
“Copy that,” replied Shepard.
What the hell was that about? Glenn wondered.