Saturday, January 8, 2011

John Glenn: First American to Orbit the Earth

On the morning of February 20, 1962, millions of Americans collectively held their breath as the world's newest pioneer swept across the threshold of one of man's last frontiers. Roughly a hundred miles above their heads, astronaut John Glenn sat comfortably in the weightless environment of a 9 1/2-by-6-foot space capsule he called Friendship 7. Within these close quarters he worked through his flight plan and completed an array of technical and medical tests as he cruised through the heavens.

It offered the leg room of a Volkswagen 'Beetle' and the aesthetics of a garbage can, but the small capsule commanded an extraordinary view of the planet Earth. Through the craft's window, Glenn saw thick, puffy, white clouds blanketing much of southern Africa and the Indian Ocean. The Atlas Mountains of North Africa stood like proud, majestic statues on a planet that seemed as timeless as the stars that twinkled an eternity away. Dust storms blew across the deserts, and smoke from brush fires swirled into the atmosphere.

'Oh, that view is tremendous,' Glenn remarked over the radio to capsule communicator (Capcom) Alan Shepard, his fellow Mercury astronaut stationed back at mission control. As Friendship 7 passed over the Indian Ocean, Glenn witnessed his first sunset from space, a panorama of beautiful, brilliant colors. Before the conclusion of that historic day, he would witness a total of four sunsets–three while in earth orbit, and the fourth from the deck of his recovery ship.

For Glenn, the historic voyage of Friendship 7 remains as vivid today as if it had happened yesterday. People still ask him what it felt like to be the first American to orbit the earth. And often he thinks of his capsule's breathtaking liftoff and those subtle, emotionally empowering sunrises and sunsets.

'Here on earth you see a sunrise, it's golden, it's orange,' Glenn recalled recently. 'When you're in space, and you're coming around on a sunset or sunrise, where the light comes to you refracted through the earth's atmosphere and back out into space, to the space craft that refraction has the same glowing color for all the colors of the spectrum . . . .'

There have been more than ten thousand sunsets since his orbital flight helped launch the United States deeper into a space race with the former Soviet Union. And although Glenn's political career as a Democratic senator from Ohio has kept him in the public eye, he is remembered by many of his countrymen as the first American to circle the planet and as the affable spokesman for the seven Mercury astronauts.

Glenn marvels at how people all over the world still recall the heady days of the Mercury program. 'It's been heartwarming in some respects and it's amazing in others,' he says. 'I don't go around all day, saying 'Don't you want to hear about my space experience?' Quite the opposite. But if the kids come to the office here, or if I run into them on the subway and they want to stop a minute, I don't hesitate to stop and talk. I think it's good; I think that's a duty we [former astronauts] have.'

By the time Glenn and Friendship 7 burst through the earth's atmosphere, the United States was already a distant second in space technology, behind the Soviet Union. The race to begin to explore the universe had unofficially begun on October 4, 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite.

'I think Sputnik sort of forced the hand,' explains Gene Kranz, who served as Project Mercury's assistant flight director and section chief for flight control operations. 'I think we found ourselves an embarrassing second in space and related technologies. We were second best, and Americans generally don't like that kind of a role.'

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, however, was more concerned about the country's security than its self-esteem. With the Soviets having the rocket power to propel a satellite into space, he wondered how long it would be before they were capable of launching a nuclear bomb toward the United States. In response to this perceived Soviet threat, Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into being on July 29, 1958. One of the first assignments given to the new agency was to launch a man into space and return him safely to earth, and that fall, Project Mercury was created to fulfill that daunting task.

On April 9, 1959, NASA formally introduced to the world the seven test pilots who would, it was hoped, carry the U.S. banner to the heavens. Selected were: Lieutenant Commanders Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Walter Marty Schirra, and Alan B. Shepard of the Navy; Air Force captains Leroy Gordon Cooper, Virgil I. 'Gus' Grissom, and Donald 'Deke' Slayton; and Lieutenant Colonel John H. Glenn of the Marine Corps.

Born on July 18, 1921, Glenn was the oldest of the group, arguably the most celebrated, and an obvious candidate for Mercury from the beginning. A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Glenn had flown 149 combat missions and been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross five times. After completing test-pilot school in 1954, Glenn went to work testing the fastest jets America could produce. His rsum sparkled even more in 1957 after he set a transcontinental speed record for the first flight to average supersonic speed (seven hundred miles per hour) from Los Angeles to New York.

From their first public appearance together, the Mercury 7 astronauts, as they came to be known, were celebrities and heroes. 'We were at first extremely surprised when we were announced to the whole world, and how crazy everybody went over the whole thing,' laughs Cooper.

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