Chapter Twenty-Five

Mercury Control

Elapsed Mission Time:


           “Flight, Capcom,” said Shepard.

            “Go Capcom,” said Kraft.

            “Glenn reports no unusual sensations and all systems nominal,” said Shepard.

            “Acknowledged, Capcom,” said Kraft.

            Kraft pursed his lips. Shepard was probably right. It was probably a sensor glitch, but it was better to be safe than sorry. “Flight, Procedures.”

            “Go Flight,” said Gene Kranz.

            “Send a teletype to the rest of the network. Let them know we have a possible Section 51.”

            “Copy Flight,” said Kranz.

Friendship 7

Earth Orbit

Elapsed Mission Time:


           In space, Glenn was unaware of the crisis unfolding on the ground. As there was nothing he could do about it, Mercury Control had elected not to tell him of their concerns regarding the status of his heat shield, so he put it out of his mind. He was on the night side of the Earth, tracking over the Indian Ocean, which was mostly obscured by clouds.

          The sunset was something that Glenn knew he would never forget. The sun was an incandescent white ball. It was so bright that Glenn could barely look at it. Its light drowned everything else in the sky. As the spacecraft sped toward the terminator the sun slid swiftly down toward the limb of the Earth. The atmosphere flared blue for a few seconds then the sun was gone, hidden on the day side of the Earth.

           Below him, hidden by the clouds was the United States Navy Ship Ocean Sentry.

          “Friendship 7, this is Ocean Sentry,” said the Capcom, “do you read me?”

          “Roger, Ocean Sentry,” said Glenn, “I read you loud and clear.”

          “Copy, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom. “Report your status.”

           “Roger,” responded Glenn. He began rattle of instrument readings and switch positions. “Cabin pressure is holding at 5.5 PSI. Cabin air temperature in 95 degrees, relative humidity is 20%, suit coolant is a 67%, amps are at 22. Oxygen is at 70-100%”

          “Copy that, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom.

          “Oh, one more thing, Ocean Sentry,” said Glenn. “As I passed out daylight, I seemed to be in a bright cloud of sparkly objects. I don’t know what they were, but they seemed to be keeping with the spacecraft.”

          The cloud had appeared as Glenn had flown from day into night over the Pacific Ocean. Glenn was entranced by the sparkling cloud and spent several minutes rapping his gloved fist on the spacecraft’s interior bulkhead, dislodging more.

          “Copy that, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom. “Confirm LANDING BAG DEPLOY is set to OFF.”

           Glenn’s eyes flitted over his instruments. “Copy that,” Glenn replied. “LANDING BAG DEPLOY is set to OFF.”

           “Roger that, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom.

            That’s the third time I’ve been asked that, thought Glenn. What are they not telling me? He didn’t have time to dwell on it though. He was approaching the Muchea tracking station, and he was slightly behind on his in-flight task list, so he put it aside, yet even as he did so, Glenn couldn’t help be feel a certain amount of unease. This was the third time Glenn had been asked to provide a status on his landing bag. They must know or suspect something that I don’t.

            The Ocean Sentry Capcom interrupted his thoughts. “Friendship 7, Ocean Sentry, are you prepared to copy retrosequence times?”

          “Copy that,” said Glenn, “standing by for retrosequence times.”

            “Roger, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom. “Be advised that we have flare ignition.”

            A sailor on the deck of the Ocean Sentry was to have fired a flare gun as part of a pilot observation experiment.

            “Copy that, Ocean Sentry,” responded Glenn.”No joy, repeat, no joy. I have solid cloud cover over your location.”

             “Acknowledged, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom. “Our telemetry is reading your auto fuel temperature at 95 degrees. Can you confirm?”

            “Copy,” said Glenn, “confirm 95 degrees.”

            “Understood,” said the Capcom. “Stand by for LOS.”

            “Roger, roger” replied Glenn. “Standing by for LOS.”

             Static hissed softly in Glenn’s ear. Friendship 7 soared silently through the night. Glenn continued to take photographs, make observations and conduct experiments. Below him, Glenn could see the southwest coast of Australia. Below him a pair of cities glowed like jewels in the darkness.

            “Friendship 7, Muchea tracking station. How do you read?”

            It was Gordo Cooper.

           “Muchea, Friendship 7, reading you 5 by 5,” replied Glenn. “What are those bright lights down there?”

            “Copy Friendship 7,” said Cooper. “The good people of Perth and Rockingham have turned on the lights for you.”

            “Roger that,” Glenn responded. “Thank them for me, will you”

             “Wilco, Friendship 7,” said Cooper.

             “Muchea, stand by for regular update,” said Glenn.

             “Copy, Friendship 7,” said Cooper, “standing by.”

               Glenn began to rattle off his instrument read outs. “Fuel is 65-80%. Amps are 22. Oxygen is 65-100%.”

              “F…end….hip 7…eas…espond.”

              “Muchea, Friendship 7,” said Glenn, “please repeat your last transmission.”

               The transmission from the ground was still coming in garbled, but Glenn thought he heard Cooper say “UHF.”

               “Roger,” Glenn replied. “Switching to UHF” Glenn turned the knob labelled ANTENNA. “Muchea, Friendship 7, how do you read?”

               “Copy that, Friendship 7,” said Cooper. “I read you by 5 by 5. Please repeat your last transmission.”

               “Roger,” answered Glenn. He rattled off his read outs again.

               “Copy that,” said Cooper. “Oh, one more thing, Friendship 7…”

                Glenn already knew what Cooper was going to ask him. “Confirm LANDING BAG DEPLOY set to OFF.”

                There was a second or two of awkward silence over the air to ground loop. “Roger that Friendship 7.”

                Glenn’s momentum carried him on. He flew over the Australian coast and began arcing out into the Pacific, passing over Canton Island, a tiny speck of land, almost literally, in the middle of nowhere.

                The Canton Island Capcom crackled in Glenn’s ear. “Friendship 7, Canton Island, how do you read me?”

                “I read you loud and clear,” said Glenn.

               “Roger,” replied the Capcom. “What is your status?”

               “Roger, Canton Island,” answered Glenn. “I have had problems with my ASCS. My visual orientation does not match my instrument readouts. I have been paying close attention to my orientation and have not been able to identify any stars or constellations.”

               “Copy, Friendship 7, what is your ASCS fuel status?”

               “Canton Island, my ASCS status is 60%. I am flying on manual control.”

                “Roger that, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom. “Have you experienced any noises or vibrations in connection to your rates?” Rates were unwanted spacecraft oscillations.

                 “Negative,” answered Glenn. He paused, wondering whether he should ask the question that had been on his mind for sometime now. “Canton Island, Friendship 7, did Mercury Control request this information?”

                “Roger, Friendship 7,said the Capcom, “they wanted an answer to some questions that they have.”

                The flight continued. The spacecraft continued its trajectory out over the Pacific Ocean before turning into the third orbit of the flight. Glenn continued to work through his to-do list. He reported on the sensations of weightlessness, read his eye chart again and took his blood pressure. In the back of his mind, Glenn was concerned. Mercury Control requested this information, thought Glenn. They want an answer to some questions that they have. What could that mean, Glenn wondered. He pushed these thoughts away. Flying the spacecraft manually was much more demanding than using the autopilot and he needed to concentrate.

               The spacecraft passed from night to day again. One second it was dark and the surface of the Earth was covered with the twinkling lights of ships and cities. The next second it was day and sun was in the sky and sunlight was reflecting off the surface of the ocean like a glowing gold coin.

              Out the cockpit window, Glenn could see the particles that he had seen before. “They’re all over the sky,” he said. “I can see them everywhere.”

               “Roger that, Friendship 7,” the Capcom. “We have no indications that your landing bag is deployed.”

                There was a very pregnant pause that lasted for about five seconds. When Glenn spoke again, he was able, mostly, to keep his sudden unease out of his voice. “Copy that, Canton Island,” he said. “Is Mercury Control concerned that my landing bag may have deployed?” That explains a lot, thought Glenn.

                “Negative, Friendship 7. We received a request to monitor and to ask if you heard any noises during your high rates.” Everything seemed to make sense. Mercury Control must be trying to determine the source of the particles, though Glenn.

Friendship 7

Earth Orbit

Elapsed Mission Time:


            Over Hawaii, Glenn reset the spacecraft’s gyroscopes, to no avail. They still indicated that he was in a 20 degree roll, even though he was lined up with the horizon. “Hawaii, Friendship 7, no joy on gyro reset procedure.”

            “Roger, Friendship 7,” said the Hawaii Capcom. “Are you still go for the next orbit?”

            Glenn had no doubt of that. He could continue fly the spacecraft manually if necessary. “Affirmative,” he said. “I am go for the next orbit.”

            Glenn continued on, arcing high over North America and into the Atlantic Ocean. As he soared over the Cape, his faulty gyroscopes suddenly corrected themselves. Glenn allowed himself a moment to look out the cockpit window He could see the whole state of Florida, from the Cape all the way to New Orleans. “I have the Cape in sight. It looks just fine from where I sit.”

            “Roger,” crackled Gus Grissom’s voice from the Bermuda tracking station.

            From his vantage point, Glenn could also see the recovery area. “Looks like we’ll have no problems with splashdown.”

            “Copy,” said Grissom. “We’ll see you at Grand Turk.”

            Glenn flew out of comm range Bermuda and the Cape. He let the spacecraft drift, to conserve fuel, and eventually wound up flying in a forward facing orientation, or at least that’s how it felt to Glenn. He knew that up/down, left/right and forward/backwards were all relative and therefore totally meaningless in space, but it felt like flying.

            Over Zanzibar, Glenn turned the spacecraft around in the opposite direction. As soon as he did so, the gyro problem returned.

            “Friendship 7,” asked the Zanzibar Capcom, “can you give any indication as the cause of the problem?”

            “Negative, Zanzibar,” replied Glenn. “I have not been able to ascertain the cause of the malfunction.”

            Not long after that, Glenn crossed over the Indian Ocean again. He was on his third orbit of the flight and below him, storm clouds swirled sullenly in the darkness, lit by flickers of lightening like the popping of flashbulbs.

            “Hey, Gordo,” joked Glenn, over Australia again, “Send a message to Washington DC for me, care of the Commandant, United States Marine Corp. I have my requisite minimum monthly four hours of stick time and I would like a flight chit to be established for me. Do you copy?”

            Glenn heard Cooper laughing uproariously, “Roger Friendship 7. Will do. Do you think they’ll pay it?”

            “I guess we’ll find out.”

            In what seemed like no time, Glenn was back over Hawaii and heading into daylight again.

            “Friendship 7, Hawaii,” said the Capcom, “we have been monitoring a possible erroneous Section 51 signal. Mercury Control would like you to reset the landing bag switch to AUTO and see if you get a light.”

            Everything suddenly clicked into to place. The ground technicians weren’t interested in the particles at all. Glenn suddenly felt uneasy and thought of Shorty Powers and his $100,000 check. If his landing bag was loose, he was, for all intents and purposes, a dead man. Glenn had to work to keep his unease out of his voice. “Roger, resetting LANDING BAG DEPLOY to AUTO.” Glenn reached out toward his instrument panel. If the LANDING BAG DEPLOY light came on, then that meant that heat shield was loose. Glenn flipped the switch with what seemed like an overly loud click! The indicator light stayed dark. “Negative on the light,” said Glenn. He reset the switch to MANUAL.

            “Roger,” said the Capcom. “Prepare for de-orbit burn.”

            For a second, Glenn thought he had misheard. “Confirm last transmission,” he said. “You said ‘de-orbit burn’?”

            “Copy that Friendship 7.”

            “I thought I was go for seven orbits,” responded Glenn.

            “That’s a negative on that,” said the Capcom. “These are Cape’s instructions.”

            “Copy that,” said Glenn. He was slightly disappointed that he wouldn’t get to fly the full seven orbits, but it was clear that the mission controllers thought that there was a problem with spacecraft, then the mission rules were clear. Abort. Glenn tightened his grip on the joystick. With a twitch of his wrist and a puff of thruster gas, he reoriented the spacecraft so that the wide, ablative heat shield was properly positioned for re-entry. The static in his ear began to grow louder. He would soon be out of range of the Hawaii tracking station.

            “Stand by for LOS, Friendship 7,” said the Capcom.

            “Copy, standing by for LOS.”

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