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US Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of John Glenn's Historic Mission

02/15/2012 06:27PM

US Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of John Glenn's Historic Mission
Fifty years ago, astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. became the first American to orbit the Earth. At exactly 9:47 a.m. EST on February 20, 1962, about 45 million Americans sat tensely in front of their black and white television sets and watched an Atlas booster rocket with a small and cramped Mercury spacecraft named Friendship 7 manned by John Glenn, lift off its pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida and go roaring upward through the clear blue sky. With six manned flights from 1961 to 1963, Project Mercury opened the door for Projects Gemini and Apollo and led to a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

Glenn's Mercury mission established the US as a strong contender in the space race with the Soviet Union, which had launched the world's first spacecraft, Sputnik, in October 1957 and had also sent the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into space in April 1961. With Glenn's orbital mission, NASA was at last seen as being on par with the Soviet program.

Glenn was born in 1921 in Cambridge, Ohio. As a Marine aviator, he flew combat missions during WW II and the Korean War.

In 1958, John Glenn participated in a series of tests designed to select the first group of astronauts for the newly formed NASA Manned Space Program. Each astronaut candidate, from an original pool of 508, had to meet seven criteria.

They had to be test pilot school graduates in excellent physical shape, less than 40 years old, shorter than 5 feet 11 inches, qualified jet pilots, and they had to have at least 1,500 hours flying time and bachelors degrees in engineering. Glenn met all the requirements.

He also had a reputation as one of the best test pilots in the country. In July 1957, he had set a transcontinental speed record by flying from Los Angeles to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes. It was the first transcontinental flight to average supersonic speed.

In April of 1959, John Glenn was selected as a member of the first group of astronauts, the 'Mercury Seven.' He was joined by Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton.

After three years of training, John Glenn rocketed into space aboard the Mercury capsule Friendship 7. He became the third American in space and the first to orbit the Earth. The historical flight was no easy feat.

While Glenn's flight on Friendship 7 was a glorious national triumph, problems arose that could have spelled disaster. The first was a failure of the automatic control system.

A scheduled 30-minute test to determine whether Glenn could fly the capsule manually became a matter of life and death when the automatic system went out at the end of the first orbit.

"I went to manual control and continued in that mode during the second and third orbits, and during re-entry," Glenn recalled later. "The malfunction just forced me to prove very rapidly what had been planned over a longer period of time."

Another problem seemed even more serious -- telemetry indicated the spacecraft's heat shield was loose. It was feared that Glenn and the spacecraft would be incinerated on re-entry.

Glenn left the retrorocket pack in place to steady the heat shield during re-entry. "It made for a very spectacular re-entry from where I was sitting," he said. Big chunks of the burning material came flying by the window.

He wasn't sure whether the flaming debris was the rocket pack or the heat shield breaking up. "Fortunately," he told an interviewer, "it was the rocket pack -- or I wouldn't be answering these questions."

In 4 hours and 56 minutes, John Glenn circled the globe three times, reaching speeds of more than 17,000 miles per hour. The successful mission concluded with a splashdown and recovery in the Atlantic Ocean, 800 miles southeast of Bermuda.

John Glenn instantly became a hero. President John F. Kennedy awarded him the Space Congressional Medal of Honor. Schools and streets across the country were named after him. And a ticker tape parade in New York City celebrated his mission.

At the age of 77 in his fourth and final term as a US Senator, Glenn again made history by becoming the oldest human to fly in space as a crewmember of the Space Shuttle Discovery. During this 1998 shuttle mission, Glenn conducted a series of investigations into the physiology of the human aging process.

But despite his long Senate service and historic shuttle flight, Glenn will always be remembered as the first American to orbit the Earth during those tentative, challenging, daring days when humans were just beginning to venture beyond the atmosphere that had nurtured them since the species began.

Glenn left the astronaut program in 1965, three years after he piloted the first US orbital mission. He was elected to the Senate in November 1974, where he served four terms until his retirement in January 1999.


For more information:

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/mercury_mission.html

http://www.nasa.gov/vision/space/features/glenn_ambassador_of_exploration.html

http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/portal/flash/JohnGlennBio/glenn.html

http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/about/bios/glennbio.html

http://www.astromart.com/news/news.asp?news_id=1174

http://www.astromart.com/news/news.asp?news_id=875

http://www.astromart.com/news/news.asp?news_id=830


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