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‘That was a real fireball’: What happened when John Glenn orbited the Earth in 1962

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John Glenn, who traveled to space in 1962 and then returned decades later as the oldest astronaut in history, died Thursday in Ohio at age 95.

Glenn was a Marine Corps colonel, a U.S. senator, a father and grandfather, but he was best known to millions as the first American to orbit the Earth, a feat he achieved three times on Feb. 20, 1962.

Here, printed in full, is The Washington Post’s account of Glenn’s transatmospheric journey toward the stars. (Another item that might be of interest: The Post’s story on Glenn’s return trip to space, at the age of 77, in 1998.)

Parachute Drops Capsule, Flier Into the Atlantic
By John G. Norris, Staff Reporter
Wednesday, February 21, 1962; Page A1

CAPE CANAVERAL, Feb. 20 — Astronaut John H. Glenn whipped three times around the world today in just under five hours to reestablish America as a strong contender in the space race.

After what Glenn himself called a real “fireball” reentry into the earth’s atmosphere, the astronaut’s capsule descended by parachute into the Atlantic 166 statute miles due east of Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas.

His Friendship 7 capsule was fished out of the ocean by the destroyer Noa within 21 minutes after coming down at 2:43 p.m., with the astronaut reporting that he was in “good condition.”

“It was a 100 percent success,” declared Mercury Operations Director Walter C. Williams.

But it was clear from what Mercury officials said at a post-launching press briefing, that it would not have been so completely successful had not Glenn himself proved such a superb test pilot during the flight.

A succession of troubles with the spacecraft was overcome by the Marine lieutenant colonel’s skilled judgment and control of the spacecraft.

Covers 81,000 Miles

Officials announced that the American space man flew about 81,000 miles during his 4-hour and 56-minute flight. He was weightless about 4¾ hours, and experienced a maximum of 8 “Gs.”

Refining earlier estimates, officials stated that Glenn reached an apogee of 162.5 statute miles and a perigee of 98.9 statute miles. It earlier had been said that the high point was 160 statute miles and the low point about 100 miles.

During his first two orbits, Glenn ate the prepared solid, semisolid and liquid food – malt tablets and meat and fruit preparations. He experienced none of the nausea reported by Russian Maj. Gherman Titov on his 17-orbit flight last August.

Soviet cosmonaut Gagarin had no such trouble in his one-orbit flight last April.

Glenn reported an “unusual thing” in the skies during his flight. He told of sighting “just thousands” of little luminous particles traveling at the same speed he was at sunrise over the Pacific.

Experts here had no immediate explanation of the phenomenon.

After being hauled aboard the Noa by a boom and hoist Glenn at first planned to crawl out through the narrow upper neck of the spacecraft. But then he blew the side hatch, skinning his knuckles in the process.

His first words on leaving the capsule were, “It was hot in there.” He asked for a glass of iced tea, which was promptly furnished.

Takes Medical Check

He changed to a light blue flight suit, then underwent a quick preliminary medical check. Later he was flown to the carrier Randolph by helicopter, and then to Grand Turk Island in the Bahamas for two days of post-flight examination.

Glenn arrived about 9 p.m. EST at Grand Turk. Looking back over his long arduous day that started in darkness shortly after 2 a.m., he said, “It was a long day and a very interesting one.”

“I couldn’t feel better,” he told admirers clustering around him. “I feel just wonderful.”

Hugh Dryden, deputy director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in praising Glenn’s achievement, declared, “It is just the beginning.”

“We’ll look back on this as we do to the Wright brothers’ aircraft,” he said.

The running commentary from Mercury control and comments of officials afterward made it plain that they had some anxious moments during the flight.

The manually operated altitude control failed to work properly, causing a drift in yaw to the right of about 1 degree per second. Much of the conversation between Glenn and the ground control stations was over this problem.

But when Glenn shifted from a mechanical to electronically operated altitude control, the spacecraft performed perfectly.

Coming in for a landing, there was a worry over a faulty signal, which indicated that the heat shield used during reentry had become detached. This could have meant catastrophe, and orders were given to keep the retrorocket packs intact to hold it in place. But it was merely a faulty signal.

And a control pin on the display board in the Mercury center wobbled during the first 150 seconds of flight, giving concern that the Atlas booster was not performing right. But this, too, was a false alarm.

One part of the flight schedule that called for release of a balloon with flares over the Indian Ocean was canceled. Glenn was supposed to take observations, but cloud cover ruled this out. Mercury-Atlas 6 was off the pad at 9:47 a.m. EST, rising slowly, yellow flame spouting from its tail. It rose straight up, then headed toward an orbit over Bermuda.

Glenn gave routine reports from his “space bed” in the bell-shaped capsule, reading his instruments to the men in the control center.

“It is a little bumpy along about here,” came back the Marine’s firm, calm voice as he passed through the maximum dynamic presses about 35,000 feet above the ground.

“Coming into high gear,” he added, “a little contrail went by the window, or something.” Perhaps it was a cloud. And a few seconds later: “Flight very smooth now . . . have had some oscillations but they seem to be damped.”

Meanwhile, the ground control center was passing the word that everything was going along fine, and the launching vehicle was moving on its preplanned trajectory. The booster engine shut off and the sustainer engine built up orbital speed.

“I see the tower go,” said Glenn, as the escape tower was jettisoned. “. . . The flight path looks good.”

Glenn kept giving observations on his cabin pressure, oxygen and other readings from his instruments, and the Mercury Control Center confirmed them.

“Tremendous” View

“I am go, I am in good shape, Roger,” reported the astronaut and then: “Zero Gs and I feel fine. Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.”

Glenn reported the Atlas booster separating and “doing turnarounds just a couple of hundred yards behind.”

Glen reported the “horizon is a brilliant blue” as he passed over the Canary Islands, and that he had the mainland of Africa in his periscope.

Each of the tracking stations picked him up in turn and relayed tapes of their conversations back here, along with their own reports.

Talks With Cooper

The 40-year-old Marine talked with astronaut Gordon Cooper in Muchea as he passed over Australia. It was after midnight local time, and Glenn reported he could see a very brilliant light, which Cooper told him was the city of Perth.

“That sure was a short day,” Glenn remarked. He said he was picking up star patterns better than when he crossed Africa.

Glenn asked his fellow astronaut to “thank everyone there for keeping their lights on.” He said he couldn’t see Woomera, Australia, the next station, because it was banked by clouds.

Woomera reported that all data received by telemetering and other reports gave every indication that Glenn’s heart, respiration and blood pressure were completely normal.

As Glenn came over the Guaymas, Mexico, station, now in daylight, cabin temperatures were reported up to 106 degrees. For a time there was worry that the capsule was heating up abnormally, but then Glenn explained the sun was very bright inside.

Time for the first orbit was reported as 88:29 minutes.

As he came around the second time, the decision was made to shoot for a third orbit.

Astronaut Walter Schirra at Point Arguello told Glenn “good show, see you next time around.” Comdr. Alan Shepard, the first astronaut [in space], whose space flight was not in orbit, talked to Glenn as he passed over here.

Shepard said the Marine lieutenant colonel said he could see the whole of Florida and westward clear to the Mississippi Delta. They discussed procedures for firing the retrorockets over the Pacific to bring him down in the Atlantic.

A Real Fireball!

He came around again. All three rockets were fired over the California coast and it started arcing down the Eastern Seaboard. At 2:32 p.m. he was reported entering the earth’s atmosphere, slowed down by his rocket brakes.

Main Mercury control lost contact as he came down, but Grand Bahama Island picked up the capsule’s beacons. His parachutes opened. Voice contact was re-established and Glenn was heard to say of his flight: “Boy that was a real fireball.”

His capsule landed at 2:43 p.m. in the sea within sight of the USS Noa. The destroyer and helicopters of the aircraft carrier Randolph, about 800 miles southeast of here, raced to pick him up.

The Noa got to the Friendship 7 and picked it up at 3:01 and hoisted it to the deck at 3:04. Glenn remained in the capsule, helping technicians open its hatch by voice communications from within for about 20 minutes.

“My condition is excellent” he told crewmen.

Within a little over 13 hours since he had arisen this morning John Glenn had been around the world three times. His trip took just four minutes less than five hours.

Glenn was awakened at 2:20 a.m. He had gone to bed at 7 Monday night after talking to his wife Anne and his two children in Arlington, Va.

The Marine lieutenant colonel shaved and showered and then had breakfast with the astronauts’ doctor, Lt. Col. William K. Douglas, USAF, and Air Force Maj. Donald K. Slayton, the astronaut who is due to make the next orbital flight.

Breakfast was orange juice, scrambled eggs, filet mignon, toast, jelly and Postum.

Glenn took his final physical examination between 3 and 4, during which biosensors were attached to his body to radio back his physical reactions during flight. Tattoo marks assure the sensors are in the right spot.

Space Suit Checked

At 4:30 he finished donning the 20-pound space suit, and it was checked for pressure. He left Hangar S in the glare of television lights, smiling through his open helmet visor and waving to newsmen.
Lt. Col. John A. Powers, the astronauts’ press spokesman, reported Glenn was “feeling great.” He arrived at the floodlighted Atlas pad at 5:17 but waited inside for a half-hour, as Douglas and Slayton ran checks on his space suit.

There was some bantering and Glenn jocularly suggested to Slayton that he “suit up” and go with him.

To Restore Fuel

At 8:20 came another hold, to top off with kerosene that had evaporated since the Atlas was fueled Sunday. This took 15 minutes.

The gantry was rolled away from “Mercury-Atlas 6” at 8:25, and some minutes later newsmen could see that technicians had started “loxing the bird.” They were filling the Atlas booster with liquid oxygen – one of the last steps in the countdown – and as some of the lox evaporates it appears to be smoking.

An announcement from Mercury control at 8:35 said the count had been resumed at T-minus 45 minutes, assuring that Glenn would not get off until sometime after 9. The hoped-for-launch had been 7:30.

But then came another hold. Difficulties were encountered with a ground support lox loading valve. The count was resumed at 9:23 at T-minus 22 minutes.

At T-minus 6½ minutes, the clock stopped again. An electrical power failure at the Bermuda tracking station stopped a computer, but it was fixed quickly.

And Then Away

Tension mounted as the count passed T-minus one minute and Glenn reported he was ready to go. The umbilical cord furnishing ground power was detached, and then came the final 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 countdown. There was a burst of flame on the pad, and the bird started slowly up.

“Go baby, go,” someone shouted, and there was a lift in everyone’s heart as the long delayed liftoff started. The time was 9:47 EST.