A saga of delays

NASA was understandably eager to launch Glenn into orbit before the end of 1961, but a series of snags conspired against them. Problems with the hardware during testing at Cape Canaveral pushed the launch back, and a provisional date of 16 January was finally set. Problems with the Atlas fuel tanks held that up until 23 January, and poor weather then caused a further week of delays. While fuelling

29 November 1961

John Glenn is selected as pilot for the first orbital Mercury flight, with Scott Carpenter as his backup.

23 January 1962

The first in a series of postponements hits the scheduled launch of Friendship 7. A series of hitches, caused by bad weather but also by a fuel leak, eventually delays the launch for almost a month.

20 February 1962

An Atlas rocket finally launches Glenn and Friendship 7 into orbit. The flight lasts a little less than five hours and mostly goes smoothly, although re-entry is a more traumatic experience than Glenn had expected.

1 March 1962

Four million people line the streets of New York for a tickertape parade to honour Glenn.


The first American in orbit enjoys the view from high above the Earth (note the reflection in his visor). Throughout the flight, an automatic camera recorded his every action.


Each astronaut got to choose the name of his own craft. Here, Glenn poses with Chrysler employee Cecelia Bibby, the pointer responsible for each of the emblems.


An ebullient Glenn finally boarded his spacecraft at 6:03am. He hod already been awake for four hours, and hod to wait almost four more before launch.


Once Glenn hod clambered into position, 70 bolts secured the hatch in place. Halfway through the process, a broken bolt was found, so the whole process had to be restarted.

Ohio-born John H. Glenn (b.1921) was militarily the senior member of the Mercury seven, a highly decorated captain in the Marine Corps with experience in the Second World War and the Korean War. His charismatic personality made him a particular media favourite among the seven, and after his return to Earth he retired from NASA to follow a career in business and politics, eventually as Democratic Senator for Ohio (1975-1999). In 1998 he finally returned to orbit at the age of 77, becoming the oldest person to travel in space during a nine-day mission aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (see p.207).


As Glenn flew over the Indian Ocean, he described the "beautiful" sunset. It lasted longer than he had expected, and even over the night side of the Earth an arc of blue daylight lingered on the horizon.


As Glenn flew over the Indian Ocean, he described the "beautiful" sunset. It lasted longer than he had expected, and even over the night side of the Earth an arc of blue daylight lingered on the horizon.

the rocket in preparation for a 1 February launch, engineers discovered a serious fuel leak, and repairs took a further fortnight, by which point the weather had closed in again. It was not until 19 February that it began to clear, and preparations could be made for a launch the next day.

The flight of Friendship 7

At 09:47am local time on 20 February, Glenn's spacecraft finally soared into the clear blue skies above Cape Canaveral. The launch went perfectly, and Friendship 7 was soon in an orbit between 159 and 265km (99 and 165 miles) above the Earth.

The capsule's flight path took it east across the Atlantic, over tracking stations in the Canary Isles and Nigeria, then out above the Indian Ocean and across the night side of Earth. As it left Australia behind and flew into sunrise over the Pacific, Glenn reported seeing tiny glowing specks dancing outside the capsule. The mystery of these "fireflies" would eventually be solved by Scott Carpenter (see over).

Glenn had successfully used the capsule's thrusters to turn his spacecraft around over the Atlantic so he was facing forwards, but a problem began to develop with the automatic control of the yaw thrusters as shield and landing cushion were no longer securely in place. In fact, it seemed that they were held on only by the retro-rocket pack strapped across the shield. After some analysis, Flight Director Chris Kraft decided that the pack should be kept in place, rather than jettisoned as planned, during re-entry.

As Friendship 7 flew back across the Pacific on its final orbit, Glenn adjusted its attitude before firing the retro-rockets to drop out of orbit over California. Re-entry with the rocket pack


Glenn was awarded a special medal by the US Marine Corps to mark his successful orbital flight.

he approached the west coast of the USA, and he now had to maintain the capsule's attitude manually. During the second 89-minute orbit, a number of further problems developed. The need for manual control had drained the capsule's fuel supply quite rapidly, and Glenn was told to let it drift to preserve fuel for later. More seriously, during the first pass over Cape Canaveral, a capsule sensor indicated that the heat


The Atlas D launcher used in the later stages of the Mercury programme was a modified version of the US Air Force's Atlas ICBM. More sophisticated variants are still in use today - coupled with a variety of upper stages, they form the backbone of the US space programme. A unique feature of the Atlas is its single-skinned design - the outer hull itself acts as the fuel tank, reducing the rocket's weight and increasing its range. The Atlas D had a distinctive configuration sometimes referred to as "1.5 stage" - three engines at the base of the rocket all drew fuel and oxidant from the same tanks and fired in parallel during launch. The two flanking engines then shut down and fell away.

still in place required more manual control than usual, but Glenn proved himself up to the task and was treated to a spectacular light show as fiery fragments of the pack trailed behind the spacecraft. Splashdown in the Atlantic fell 60km (40 miles) short of predictions, but Glenn's capsule was soon being hoisted aboard the recovery ship USS Noa, safe after 295 minutes in orbit. Later tests showed that the sensor, not the shield itself, had been faulty.


Glenn was awarded a special medal by the US Marine Corps to mark his successful orbital flight.


This 1964 aerial shot of Cape Canaveral shows the view north along the coast and up Missile Row, a range of launch pads used for testing the Redstones and early ICBMs, from which many of the Mercury missions blasted off. NASA's larger Apollo-era pads are under construction in the distance.



Mercury-Atlas 7 blasts into the early morning sky in May 1962. Scott Carpenter's spacecraft, Aurora 7, got its name from the street where Carpenter lived as a child.

Later Mercury missions

Having finally reached orbit almost a year behind the Soviet Union, NASA used the remaining Mercury missions to extend American experience in space and investigate the possibilities of science in orbit.


Mercury-Atlas 7 blasts into the early morning sky in May 1962. Scott Carpenter's spacecraft, Aurora 7, got its name from the street where Carpenter lived as a child.







Cape Canaveral lies along the Florida coast, at the southern end of the US eastern seaboard. This location ensures relatively reliable weather, and the islands to the east are ideal for tracking launches.



When John Glenn was allocated the first Mercury orbital flight in late 1961, Deke Slayton was told he would be the second American into orbit. But by the time Glenn had made his historic flight, fate had intervened - doctors discovered that Slayton had a slightly erratic heartbeat. The unlucky astronaut was grounded, and so it was Scott Carpenter whose Aurora 7 capsule entered orbit on 24 May 1962. This three-orbit flight was essentially a repeat of

Glenn's, but this time the astronaut could concentrate on science rather than the condition of his spacecraft. Carpenter made a brief study of how fluids behaved in the weightless conditions of orbit, ate a meal, and photographed the Earth from above. He also accidentally solved the mystery of Glenn's orbital "fireflies" - approaching his third dawn, Carpenter accidentally knocked his head against the cabin wall, and dislodged a shower of sparkling ice crystals from the exterior. Snags with guidance and alignment systems caused problems during re-entry, and Carpenter splashed down more than 400km (250 miles) off target. By the time the recovery crews reached him, he had escaped through the top of the capsule and was floating on a life raft.

NASA's major launch site grew up at Cape Canaveral in Florida for a variety of reasons. The site, to the north of an established US Air Force base, was first earmarked for ballistic missile tests in 1949, as the range of missiles being tested began to outgrow landlocked ranges such as White Sands. Its location later made it an obvious place to attempt satellite launches - as the Earth rotates, areas close to the equator move more quickly than those near the poles, and a vehicle launched eastwards at relatively low latitudes receives a substantial speed boost to help it into orbit. The launch complex, known as Kennedy Space Center, is actually two separate establishments - NASA's civilian and commercial launch pads are in the northern half, on Merrit Island, while the Air Force operates a military launch facility to the south.

In reality, though, civilian launches often take place from the military pads, and vice versa.



The pilot of Sigma 7, Walter Schirra (b.1923) is the only astronaut to take part in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programmes. Born in New Jersey into a family of fliers (his father had flown acrobatic displays while his mother was a "wing walker" on some of his flights), Schirra started flying in his early teens. A graduate of the US Naval Academy, he saw action in the final months of the Second World War and the Korean War, before becoming a test pilot. After Sigma 7, he flew as Command Pilot aboard Gemini 6, steering his spacecraft to its historic rendezvous with Gemini 7. His final spaceflight was as Commander on Apollo 7, the first manned test of the US lunar spacecraft.

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