Monday, February 20, 2012

Today is the 50th Anniversary of John Glenn's Friendship 7 flight

John Glenn in 1962.

It has been 50 years since John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in his
Friendship 7 space capsule. In making his nearly 5-hour flight, and history, in the process, Glenn showed the world that the United States was indeed on-par with the Soviet Union, which had already launched 2 orbital flights as compared to 2 non-orbital launches for the United States.

In the late 1950s, the whole goal was to see if a human could merely survive in space, a quest that was undertaken by both the United States and Soviet Union, two superpowers locked in a “Cold War” as well as a blooming space race. The implication: whichever country could launch a vehicle into space thus had better missiles, and thus a strategic edge in the event of war. The Soviets won the first leg of the race in 1957 by launching Sputnik into orbit.

Sputnik, the next milestone was launching a human into orbit. In the years following Sputnik
, both the USA and USSR launched animals into orbit, thus proving that it was possible to survive in space with the proper life support systems. The race to launch a man into space was now in high gear.

Unfortunately, the Russians would win this leg, too, launching Yuri Gagarin into orbit on April 12, 1961. At the time, NASA was prepping Alan Shepard for flight, but safety concerns over the rocket spurred NASA to do further testing (better safe than sorry, which new evidence suggests was not the motto for the Russians at the time). In his flight, Gagarin completed one orbit before parachuting to Earth on the return. For anyone wanting to split hairs, this was not a complete flight as Gagarin did not land in his vehicle.

A month after Gagarin, NASA finally launched Alan Shepard into space. Unlike Gagarin's orbital flight, Shepard never made obit, launching in a high parabola instead, spending about 15 minutes in space. Yes, Americans were now in space, but Shepard's flight paled to Gagarin's in technical accomplishment. After Shepard, the Russians would put another cosmonaut into orbit while NASA's second attempt at getting into orbit nearly ended in disaster when the door on astronaut Gus Grissom's space capsule came off in the ocean. Only quick thinking under intense pressure saved Grissom from a watery grave.

John Glenn enters Friendship 7.  

Come February, 1962, it was time for NASA to try again. 

John Glenn makes history. The morning dawned clear at Cape Canaveral, boding well for a launch. The mission had originally been scheduled to fly in mid January, but technical and weather issues delayed the launch a month. Even as Glen sat in the rocket, there was another delay as one of the bolts holding the door top the space capsule was found to be broken. Finally, at 2:47pm, Glenn launched into space on what would become, at that time, the longest-duration spaceflight, lasting for nearly 5 hours. Upon splashdown, Glenn was a national hero as America had now shown that it was on equal footing with the Russians.


John Glenn: American hero.
Being an American hero after his legendary flight, NASA refused to let Glenn fly again for risk of losing someone of such immense stature. After leaving NASA in 1964 during the Mercury-Gemini transition, Glenn first went into business and then politics, serving in the Senate for a quarter of a century, a position from which he continued to support America's space programs. In 1998, age 77, Glenn again made history by becoming the oldest astronaut when he flew aboard shuttle Discovery on the STS-95 mission.

John Glenn just prior to his return to space in 1998 (above) and STS-95's launch (below)

Now, 50 years later as America's space program languishes, Glenn is pushing for another ambitious, long-term goal: a manned Mars mission

Speaking on what he believes to be the future for America in space, Glenn said that "I think we'll do more exploration, whether it's asteroid, Mars or wherever . . . I think it'll go on beyond Mars sometime — probably not in our lifetime, but sometime."

However, while expressing hope for the future, Glenn has also been critical of the way America has approached space exploration. In recent years, Glenn has reasserted himself as a voice for America's future in space, lamenting the
retiring of the shuttle fleet without an immediate replacement (Glenn, along with many other astronauts from NASA's glory years, obviously see the sad irony of having to hitchhike a ride with the Russians) and as a supporter for the development of a new heavy-lift rocket, much akin to the Saturn V of the Apollo years. This second concern has been addressed in the announcement of the SLS rocket, destined for its first flight in 2017.
Hopefully, as America and NASA celebrates the 50
th anniversary of John Glenn's historic flight, the future will allow for more celebrations based of current triumph, not just past laurels.
Click on the picture for a nearly 1-hour NASA documentary!

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