Monday, February 27, 2012

Friendship 7: Confidence and adventure

John Glenn
(Courtesy of NASA)

On February 20, 1962, our fourth-grade classroom was abuzz with excitement. At 8:45 Central Time that morning, astronaut John Glenn had been launched into space aboard Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, destined to be the first American to orbit the earth.

How much more fun it would have been to stay home that cold winter day in central Illinois and watch the flight on TV. There were no TVs at school, and our classroom had only a radio to broadcast updates on Friendship 7’s more than four-hour adventure.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Wendley pulled down the world map above the chalkboard, and we took turns marking John Glenn’s journey, once, twice, three times around the globe. A team of boys—clearly unfair to us girls!—took turns huddling around the radio, reporting the progress of the mission as the day’s regular classroom lessons and activities proceeded.

Friendship 7's three orbits (Courtesy of NASA)

Sunset from space (Courtesy of NASA)
The first orbit was the most exciting. Enthralled, we listened as Glenn described the beautiful sunset from orbit over the Indian Ocean. In the black, black sky, a thin blue band hugged the earth’s horizon.

Travelling 17,544 miles per hour, Glenn was in for a short night—45 minutes—before describing the brilliant sunrise:

“I am in a big mass of some very small particles. They're brilliantly lit up like they're luminescent. I never saw anything like it . . . They're coming by the capsule and they look like little stars. A whole shower of them coming by. They swirl around the capsule and go in front of the window and they're all brilliantly lighted.”

For a few minutes, the sun had lit up ice crystals flowing off the spacecraft’s surface, a magical phenomenon we could only imagine.

How proud we were to be Americans! Our nation was meeting President Kennedy’s challenge to land on the moon by the end of the decade. At that moment, each of us shared in the possibilities that seemed endless—at least in that insular, bucolic world.

But the mission’s success was not guaranteed, as problems emerged:
  • A bolt was broken during installation of the capsule hatch, delaying the launch.
  • The capsule’s yaw attitude control jet jammed in the first orbit, and Glenn had to use manual controls to keep the craft on the proper trajectory.
  • And especially nerve-racking, indicators showed that the heat shield may have been compromised, which could mean a fiery reentry and the end to Freedom 7, and Glenn. 
But always the safe guards worked, the indicators proved false, or difficulties were overcome. Glenn emerged triumphant from the capsule after it plunged into the sea, 800 miles off of Bermuda.

The power and expertise of American engineering seemed to us unstoppable. Despite the Cold War, Kruschev’s ragings, and the arms race, and even as discord was growing in the land, the space program lent feelings of well-being, efficacy, and power. We had the know-how to make things right. We would be safe.

(What do you remember about the space program and its effect on you or the wider political and social attitudes?)

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