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First on Feb. 20, 1962: John Glenn orbits Earth

  • 18 February 2009
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  • Published in Space
On the first attempt by the United States to orbit a human around the Earth, NASA astronaut John Glenn became the first American to be successfully placed in Earth orbit. The date was February 20, 1962, and Glenn was piloting his spacecraft called Friendship 7.

NASA astronaut John Glenn and his Friendship 7 capsule lifted off from Launch Complex 14 (LC-14) at 14:47:39 Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Upon reaching the maximum pressure (aerodynamic stress) being felt on the spacecraft, what is called maximum dynamic pressure (or max-Q), Glenn was reported to have said, “It's a little bumpy about here."

The Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) is located adjacent to the NASA John F. Kennedy Space Center (Kennedy Space Center) on Merritt Island, Florida.

Max-Q for these missions occurred between 13 and 14 kilometers (43,000 and 46,000 feet) above the surface of the Earth.

Soon thereafter, the spacecraft was automatically pitched over so that Glenn could see the Earth below. He stated at that time: "a beautiful sight, looking eastward across the Atlantic."

Still later, the Atlas rocket accelerated the tiny space capsule to a velocity of about 17,544 miles per hour (7,843 meters per second).

With all of its fuel gone, the Atlas rocket was ejected from Glenn's Mercury capsule (Friendship 7) and Glenn was inserted into Earth orbit at 14:52 (hours:minutes) UTC, just about 4.5 minutes after liftoff.

Page two continues.

John H. Glenn, Jr. and his capsule (all part of the Mercury-Atlas 6 mission) then made three complete orbits around the Earth.

Glenn’s orbits consisted of a perigee (closest point to Earth’s surface) of about 159 kilometers (99 miles), apogee (farthest point from Earth) of approximately 265 kilometers (165 miles), inclination (angle from the equatorial plane) of 32.5 degrees, and period (time for one orbit) of about 88.5 minutes.

During his first orbit he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, passed over the Canary Islands, past the coast of Africa, and over the country of Nigeria.

While over Kano, Nigeria, Glenn became the pilot of his spacecraft, making a major movement in the vertical (up and down) axis, what is called yaw. Glenn positioned the spacecraft so he was facing forward into his direction of motion—into his orbital flight path.

As he crossed the Indian Ocean, the American astronaut observed the first sunset off of the surface of the Earth.

Glenn described the event as “beautiful.” He then crossed the coast of Australia, seeing the extra bright lights of the city of Perth, as its citizens turned on their lights so Glenn could see them as he passed overhead.

At the end of his first “day” in space, Glenn exclaimed: "That sure was a short day. That was about the shortest day I've ever run into."

Page three reports on problems Glenn encountered on his space trip.

Less then forty-five minutes later he observed his first sunrise from space as he crossed over Canton Island, and less than another forty-five minutes later Glenn saw his second sunset.

Glenn continued to have problems with his automatic yaw thruster on the Friendship 7 for most of the next two orbits. He manually made most of these thrusts for the remainder of the mission.

He also had a supposed problem with his heat shield and landing bag. The sensor indicated they were only hanging on by the straps of the retro package. Normally, the retro pack would be jettisoned, but it remained on for the duration of the mission.

Glenn also found it was troublesome controlling the temperature and humidity of his spacesuit. In addition, because he was controlling the spacecraft manually rather than with the automatic pilot Glenn used up more fuel than normally would have been consumed.

Consequently, because of his fuel consumption and his heat shield problem, ground controllers decided to bring him home after the third orbit.

Glenn returned to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean about 64 kilometers (40 miles) short of the planned landing spot.

He landed on the same day he lifted off, with an official landing at 19:43:02 UTC and a mission elapsed time (MET) of just under five hours (at 4 hours, 55 minutes, 23 seconds).

Page four concludes.

The USS Noa picked up Glenn and his capsule about seven minutes after he splashed down in the water.

Glenn became the third human to orbit the Earth (and the fourth in space). The Soviet Union had earlier, on April 12, 1961, placed one of their Soviet cosmonauts, Yuri Gagarin in orbit within his Vostok 1 (the first human in space).

Later, on August 6, 1961, the Soviets placed the second man in orbit (and the fifth in space), Gherman Titov, on August 6, 1961, onboard Vostok 2.

NASA astronaut Alan Shepard was the first American to fly in space (and the second human), when he reached outer space on May 5, 1961, onboard Friendship 7. He did not orbit the Earth, but made a suborbital trip to space.

Virgil “Gus” Grissom became the second American to fly in space, making his suborbital trip on July 21, 1961, onboard Liberty Bell 7.

A history of the United States’ first manned space program, Project Mercury, is found at the NASA History Division’s website “This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury.”

SpaceTodayOnline contains many articles on NASA astronaut John Glenn, as does HistoryNet.com .

Official NASA transcripts of John Glenn during his Mercury-Atlas 6 mission is found at the NASA website “Mercury Archives.”


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