John Glenn

The Man and the Mission

John Glenn – A short biography
John Glenn was named as one of the seven Mercury astronauts in 1959. This followed a career as a fighter pilot, which had seen him serve in the Second World War and the Korean War, and as a test pilot setting the record for coast-to-coast flight in the USA of 3 hours 23 minutes in 1957. Glenn became an advocate for the American Space program, hiding his disappointment at not being allowed a chance to go to the moon: it is claimed Kennedy would not risk the life of America’s first space hero. Glenn left the space program in 1964 and retired from the Marine Corps a year later.

In 1974 John Glenn was elected U.S. Senator from Ohio in a landslide victory. His political aspirations saw him run for President in the1984 primaries, but he failed and was re elected to the senate in 1986. As a senator he served on the Senate Special Committee on Aging and it was this interest that saw him return to space at the age of 77 aboard the space shuttle Discovery in October 1998. This was a fitting circle: from trying to find out what the effects on zero gravity would be to the human body in 1962 to finding out the effects on aging in 1998. In fact Scott Carpenter, as he did in 1962, addressed John Glenn (and the Discovery crew) just before lift off in 1998.

For some reason the charismatic Glenn seems to have been taken to the heart of most Americans: Launch Commentator hailed the 1998 lift off of Discovery was “with a crew of 6 astronaut heroes and one American legend”. But we must remember that he was neither the first man in space or the first to orbit the earth, the Russian Yuri Gagarin was in 1961, nor was he the first American in space, Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom had achieved that with their 15 minute sub-orbital flights. Yet many see John Glenn as the embodiment of the USA Space Race and as a national hero.

John Glenn’s Details – Third flight in Mercury program
Capsule name – Friendship 7
August 27 1961 – Capsule arrived at Cape Canaveral
January 27 1962 – Countdown starts – Launch cancelled due to adverse weather
February 15 1962 – Flight Safety Review
February 20 1962 – 2.20 a.m. Glenn woken and told mission is a “go”
February 20 1962 – Launch at 9:47:39 am EST
February 20 1962 – Lands at 14:43:02 pm EST

Flight Details
Orbits – 3
Altitude – between 99 and 162 miles
Total flight time – 4 hours 56 minutes
Total time weightless – 4 hours 38 minutes
Total miles flown – 81 000
Acceleration force – Launch, 8 G. Re entry, over 8 G

During John Glenn’s mission the recovery area was nicknamed “Area Hotel” and during his second orbit Glenn reported “This is Friendship 7, checking down in Area Hotel on the weather, and it looks good down that way. Looks like we’ll have no problem on recovery” to which Grissom in Bermuda responded “Very good. We’ll see you in Grand Turk”.

Broadcast between John Glenn and the Bermuda Tracking Station
(Flight time on left)
03 12 32 – Glenn This is Friendship Seven, checking down in Area Hotel on the weather and it looks good down that way. Looks like we’ll have no problem on recovery.
03 12 32 – Bermuda Station Very good. We’ll see you in Grand Turk
03 12 43 – Glenn Yes sir.
03 12 48 – Glenn In fact I can see clear down, see all the islands clear down the whole chain from up here, can see way beyond them and Area Hotel looks excellent for recovery.

Prior to re entry ground instruments indicated that the heat shield had become loose. As a precaution mission controllers did not jettison the retrorocket package, which was attached just below the heat shield. Even with this problem Friendship 7 landed a few miles short of the planned target, 800 miles southeast of Bermuda.

After landing and being brought to Grand Turk there were various press releases and in one Robert Voas, Mercury Training Officer, recalled Glenn’s account of returning in “a shooting star”.

Lookouts on the destroyer USS Noa sighted the main parachute at an altitude of 5,000 ft from a range of 5 nautical miles. The USS Noa had the spacecraft aboard 21 minutes after landing and astronaut John Glenn remained in the spacecraft during pickup. Original plans had called for Glenn to exit through the top hatch but he was becoming uncomfortably warm and it was decided to exit by the easier side hatch. Glenn was transferred by helicopter from the USS Noa to the USS Randolph, and then flown to Grand Turk for his debriefing and medical as planned. The capsule joined him later when it was delivered to Grand Turk by ship.

On Grand Turk
On February 21st Colonel Glenn attended a party given in his honour at the clubhouse of the USAF Missile tracking Station. Most of this time was taken up with signing autographs and going through the details of his flight. He went to bed at midnight, and woke at 6 am to continue with the debriefing process.

The Return to America
When the US Vice President arrived at 4am to take John Glenn home, a large part of the population was waiting for him at the airport and greeted him with great enthusiasm in spite of the early hour. The records state “Of all the receptions which the Vice-President and the astronaut were later to receive, perhaps none would be smaller but certainly none would be warmer or more sincere that that given by the people of Grand Turk on their departure in the early morning of 23 Feb”.

On 26th February 1962, John Glenn, with wife Annie were greeted by thousands who lined Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue. In the car with them was Vice President Lyndon B Johnson, Chairman of the Nautical Aeronautics and Space Council.