Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Forty-six years ago today: Friendship 7, Fireballs and Fireflies

Do you remember when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth on this date in 1962? Were you even born?

I remember it well. I was thirteen. Back then I thought the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was the absolute greatest thing since Hostess Twinkies. I would regularly write to NASA for information on projects and would receive boxes (yes boxes) of pamphlets and books (yes books) on topics ranging from "Space Biology" to "Magnetohydrodynamics". I didn't understand most of it, but it was quite a rush to have the postman deliver packages to me with that neat NASA logo on them.

Four years earlier when I was nine years old the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first successful unmanned satellite to be placed in orbit. I was upset that the Russians beat us into space. It was a very different time. Spaceflight was new, exciting, even cool. President John F. Kennedy challenged the U.S. to land an American on the moon by the end of the decade. I was totally caught up in the euphoria.

I was downright distraught when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in April 1961 and took the undisputed lead in the"Space Race" between the Soviets and U.S.

So I was filled with pride when John Glenn boarded Friendship Seven and helped launch the U.S. into history. I wrote to President Kennedy urging him to declare the day a national holiday. OK, full disclosure: it was also my thirteenth birthday. (GW)

First American in orbit

The Ultimate Space Place
February 20, 2004

The Mission Objectives were fairly simple by today standards: Place a man into earth orbit, observe his reactions to the space environment and safely return him to earth to a point where he could be readily found. However, back in 1962 they were anything but simple. The U.S.A. had been taking a backseat to the U.S.S.R. and it was time for America to send a man into orbit. So on February 20, 1962 at 9:47:39 am EST, John Glenn rode Friendship 7 from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 14 to become an American hero.

Over the Indian Ocean on his first orbit, Glenn became the first American to witness the sunset from above 100 miles. Awed but not poetically inclined, he described "this moment of twilight is simply beautiful. The sky in space is very black, with a thin band of blue along the horizon." On the nightside of Earth, nearing the Australian coastline, Glenn made his planned star, weather, and landmark observations.

Within voice radio range of the Muchea, Australia, tracking station, Glenn and Gordon Cooper began a long space-to-Earth conversation. The astronaut reported that he felt fine, that he had no problems, and that he could see a very bright light and what appeared to be the outline of a city. Cooper answered that he probably saw the lights of Perth and Rockingham. Glenn also said that he could see stars as he looked down toward the "real" horizon - as distinguished from the haze layer he estimated to be about seven or eight degrees above the horizon on the nightside - and clouds reflecting the moonlight. "That sure was a short day," he excitedly told Cooper. "That was about the shortest day I've ever run into."

Moving onward above the Pacific over Canton Island, Glenn experienced an even shorter 45-minute night and prepared his periscope for viewing his first sunrise in orbit. As the day dawned over the island, he saw literally thousands of "little specks, brilliant specks, floating around outside the capsule." Glenn's first impression was that the spacecraft was tumbling or that he was looking into a star field, but a quick hard look out of the capsule window corrected this momentary illusion. He definitely thought the luminescent "fireflies," as he dubbed the specks, were streaming past his spacecraft from ahead. They seemed to flow leisurely but not to be originating from any part of the capsule. As Friendship 7 sped over the Pacific expanse into brighter sunlight, the "fireflies" disappeared.

At Mercury Control Center an engineer at the telemetry control console, William Saunders, noted that "segment 51," an instrument providing data on the spacecraft landing system, was presenting a strange reading. According to the signal, the spacecraft heatshield and the compressed landing bag were no longer locked in position. If this was really the case, the all-important heatshield was being held on the capsule only by the straps of the retropackage.

Almost immediately the Mercury Control Center ordered all tracking sites to monitor the instrumentation segment closely and, in their conversations with the pilot, to mention that the landing-bag deploy switch should be in the "off" position. Although Glenn was not immediately aware of his potential danger, he became suspicious when site after site consecutively asked him to make sure that the deploy switch was off.

Meanwhile the operations team had to decide how to get the capsule and the astronaut back through the atmosphere with a loose heatshield. Flight director Christopher Kraft and Mercury operations boss, Walt Williams, weighed the information they had received and decided it would be safer to keep the retropack. Walter Schirra, the California communicator, passed the order to Glenn to retain the retropack until he was over the Texas tracking station.

Now came one of the most dramatic and critical moments in all of Project Mercury. In the Mercury Control Center, at the tracking stations, and on the recovery ships ringing the globe, engineers, technicians, physicians, recovery personnel, and fellow astronauts stood nervously, stared at their consoles, and listened to the communications circuits. Glenn and Friendship 7 slowed down during their long reentry glide over the continental United States toward the hoped-for splashdown in the Atlantic.

Almost immediately Glenn heard noises that sounded like "small things brushing against the capsule." "That's a real fireball outside," he radioed the Cape, with a trace of anxiety perhaps evident in his tone. Then a strap from the retropackage swung around and fluttered over the window, and he saw smoke as the whole apparatus was consumed.

Friendship 7 came now to the most fearful and fateful point of its voyage. The terrific frictional heat of reentry enveloped the capsule, and Glenn experienced his worst emotional stress of the flight. "I thought the retropack had jettisoned and saw chunks coming off and flying by the window," he said later. He feared that the chunks were pieces of his ablation protection, that the heatshield might be disintegrating, but he knew there was nothing to gain from stopping work.

Obviously the heatshield had stayed in place and at 28,000 feet the drogue automatically shot out. Glenn, with immense relief, watched the main chute stream out, reef, and blossom at less than 17,000 feet. Friendship 7 splashed into the Atlantic about 40 miles short of the predicted area, as retrofire calculations had not taken into account the spacecraft's weight loss in consumables. The Noa, a destroyer code-named Steelhead, shortly picked up Glenn.

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