How an American first flew into orbit

(ORDO NEWS) — On February 20, 1962, the first manned orbital flight took place in the United States. The daredevil who risked his life for the sake of the future turned out to be John Glenn. Let’s see how it happened.

Speaking of Americans in space, most will remember (if they remember) Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space. But the fact is that Shepard made a suborbital flight – today it would be called a “jump”.

The next American manned flight, made on July 21, 1961 by the infamous Virgil Grissom, was also suborbital. And already on August 8, 1961, German Titov went into orbit, becoming the second person in orbit after Yuri Gagarin.

The United States had no intention of falling behind, and on February 20, 1962, they sent their third astronaut into space, who became the third person in orbit – John Glenn.

First American in Earth Orbit

imHow an American first flew into orbitageJohn Glenn sits next to his ship, whose name is painted on the hull by artist Cecilia Bibby / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson

Prior to John Glenn’s flight, Mercury spacecraft were launched on relatively weak Redstone rockets. They could not accelerate the spacecraft to the first space velocity, which was the reason why the first two American flights above the Karman line were suborbital.

For the orbital flight, a more powerful rocket of the Atlas family was used. Before the first manned flight of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, there were, of course, several unmanned missions. Mercury-Atlas 5 already had a passenger on board, a chimpanzee named Enos.

Before the launch of the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission, Alan Shepard gave the name of his ship, which was used as a call sign – Freedom 7.

The number “7” at the end was a kind of solidarity with the NASA First Astronaut Force (which included Shepard, Glenn and others), which there were seven. John Glenn named his spacecraft Friendship 7.

How an American first flew into orbit 2John Glenn at the spacecraft “Mercury” with the personal name Friendship 7 / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson

It was originally planned to launch Friendship 7 before the end of 1961, but this plan did not work out – the launch was postponed to January 16, 1962.

But due to problems with the booster and bad weather, the launch date moved “to the right.” Finally, on February 20, 1962, the weather cleared up, and all the technical problems with the Atlas were corrected.

How an American first flew into orbit 3                      Astronaut of the “first seven” John Glenn climbs into the spacecraft / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson

How an American first flew into orbit 4Launch of the Atlas launch vehicle with John Glenn aboard the Mercury spacecraft / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson

The launch of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission was delayed by 42 minutes due to the fact that a defect was found in one of the 70 bolts that closed the ship’s hatch. In other words, it broke. Therefore, I had to unwind all the others to check if they had lost their integrity.

  • 3 hours and 44 minutes after John Glenn boarded the spacecraft, at 14:47 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the launch of the Atlas rocket took place, which sent the first American into orbit.
  • After 2 minutes 9 seconds after the launch, the booster outboards went out and disconnected.
  • After 2 minutes 32 seconds after the launch, the emergency rescue system (SAP) was fired.
  • The sustainer engine of the launch vehicle worked for 5 minutes 1 second and ensured the launch of the Mercury spacecraft into a near-Earth orbit with parameters of 261 by 161 kilometers and an inclination of 32.54 degrees. The maximum load during flight is 7g.
  • 5 minutes 3 seconds after launch, the Friendship 7 spacecraft disengaged from the launch vehicle. Mercury’s speed was about 28,234 kilometers per hour (7.8 kilometers per second). Glenn’s apparatus made one revolution around the planet in 88 minutes 29 seconds.

How an American first flew into orbit 5                             View from the cockpit of the John Glenn spacecraft / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson

A well-known fact is that America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, somewhat tarnished his reputation, because he went to the toilet right in his pants.

The fact is that the engineers then did not think about such a banal thing, because it was expected that the flight would not last so long. It did not last long, but the wait inside the ship for the start was much longer.

During the flight of John Glenn, there were no such errors: the astronaut had with him a “decent” urine collection device. It was developed by James McBarron and looked like a condom, to one end of which a special bag was hooked.

McBarron tested several brands of condoms “before he found one he was happy with.” Today, John Glenn’s urinal can be seen at the National Air and Space Museum, where it has been located since 1976.

How an American first flew into orbit 6                                                                John Glenn’s urinal / Photo by Space Safety Magazine

  • It was interesting how the ship Friendship 7 flew over Australia: Glenn said that he sees something that looks like a city. It was probably Perth, whose residents turned on the lights in their houses at night so that the astronaut could see them.
  • After the “Mercury” flew over Australia and was again on the day side of the planet, Glenn saw the “fireflies”. Subsequently, this phenomenon was observed by other astronauts. These “fireflies” were probably frozen droplets of water that had broken off from the hull and were moving at the same speed as the ship.
  • By the end of the first orbit around the planet, problems with the orientation system appeared. Therefore, the astronaut had to manually control the systems. Later, some other non-critical problems with the ship also appeared.

After 4 hours 55 minutes and 23 seconds after launch (three orbits around the Earth), Mercury made a successful landing in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean north of the island of Haiti. The spacecraft detected the destroyer Noa 17 minutes after registration.

How an American first flew into orbit 7                              Spaceship Friendship 7 is being lifted aboard the destroyer / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson

The story of John Glenn, of course, does not end there. Another stage begins – the political one:

  • In 1962, John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert suggested that Glenn run for the Senate.
  • In 1964, John put forward his candidacy for the Senate from Ohio. But he loses in the intra-party primaries.
  • In the same 1964, Glenn left NASA, probably realizing that due to his age he would not get into the Apollo program.
  • In 1970, John again loses in the intra-party primaries of the Democratic Party and cannot run for the Senate.
  • Finally, in 1974, the victory in the primaries was won.
  • After that, Glenn defeats the Republicans in the 1974 general election and becomes a senator from Ohio. Later, John wins elections several more times and will even try to run in the 1984 presidential election.
  • In 1998, 77-year-old John Glenn flew into space on the shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-95 mission. Thanks to this, he became the oldest person to have been in space. This kind of record was broken only in 2021.
  • John Glenn passed away on December 8, 2016 at the age of 95. Until that moment, he was the last living member of the “first seven”, NASA’s First Astronaut Force, although he was the oldest of all seven men.

How an American first flew into orbit 8On February 23, 1962, US President John F. Kennedy personally awarded Glenn by presenting him with the NASA Distinguished Service Medal / Photo by NASA Flickr Johnson


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