THE BEST… AT LAST
John Glenn’s flight – dubbed Mercury-Atlas 6 or, in keeping with Shepard and Grissom’s spacecraft-naming tradition, ‘Friendship 7’ – was eagerly awaited by the United States, although it proved a long time coming. The choice of name, Glenn recalled in his memoir, had been made by his children, Dave and Lyn. ‘‘They pored over a thesaurus and wrote dozens of names in a notebook,’’ he wrote. ‘‘Then they worked them down to several possibilities, names and words, including Columbia, Endeavour, America, Magellan, We, Hope, Harmony and Kindness. At the top of their list was their first choice: Friendship.’’ Although the name would be kept quiet until the morning of launch, Glenn had privately asked Cecelia Bibby, the artist at Hangar S, to inscribe the name on his capsule in script-like characters, adding more individuality than the block lettering employed to stencil Freedom and Liberty Bell onto Shepard and Grissom’s spacecraft.
‘‘From what John Glenn told me later, [he] had decided that he wanted the name of his spacecraft applied in script and applied by hand,’’ Bibby said, ‘‘because Al Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s names had been applied by some mechanic who went into town, got a can of spray paint, a stencil-cut of the names and then spray-painted them onto the capsule.’’ Apparently, added Bibby, Glenn felt that men had such poor handwriting that a female artist would be preferable. When she painted the name on the capsule, Bibby, clad in white clean-room garb, became the only woman to ascend the gantry to Pad 14 at Cape Canaveral and was even told by a disgruntled Guenter Wendt that she did not belong there. So pleased was Glenn with the design that Gus Grissom dared Bibby to secretly paint naked women on the spacecraft as well.
She rose to the challenge, not by painting on the exterior of Friendship 7, but by drawing a naked woman on the inside of a cap used to cover the periscope. Although the cap would be jettisoned before launch, it would be seen by Glenn as he boarded the capsule and hopefully might give him a laugh. Reading ‘It’s just you and me against the world, John Baby’, the drawing was placed there by Bibby’s friend, launch pad engineer Sam Beddingfield. The launch itself was scrubbed, but Bibby got into work the following morning to find a note from Glenn, ‘‘telling me he had
With artist Cece Bibby proudly looking on, John Glenn displays the Friendship 7 logo on the side of his spacecraft.
gotten a big kick out of the drawing”. Bibby was almost fired for her practical joke, although fortunately both Grissom and Glenn intervened on her behalf and saved her. Later in the launch preparations, she sent Glenn another gift: this time a drawing of a frumpy old woman in a house dress, bearing mop and bucket and the legend ‘You were expecting maybe someone else, John Baby?’ Not long afterwards, Glenn’s backup, Scott Carpenter, requested a naked woman for his own capsule, Aurora 7, which would fly the second American orbital mission in May 1962 …
Sadly, the news at the beginning of the year was nowhere near as light-hearted: a launch attempt on 16 January was postponed by at least a week, due to technical problems with the Atlas rocket’s fuel tanks. With each successive delay, more criticism was voiced from journalists and congressmen, who questioned whether Project Mercury – already a year behind the Soviets – would ever succeed in placing a man into orbit. Even President Kennedy, at a news conference on 14 February, expressed disappointment, although he felt that the final decision on when to launch should be left to the Mercury team. Others, however, commended NASA’s frankness in conveying the reasons for each delay. It was stressed that the orbital mission had been planned for over three years and a few more weeks’ delay was of little consequence, a sentiment shared by Glenn himself, who described being not “particularly shook-up” by the postponements.
Indeed, according to planning charts issued by NASA in April I960, the orbital mission was originally scheduled for May 1961, then July, October and ultimately December. A variety of manufacturing changes to Glenn’s capsule – Spacecraft No. 13 off the McDonnell production line – had contributed to delays in its progress: a shortage of environmental control components had virtually stalled work in October 1960 and then extensive re-planning ordered after the MA-3 failure in April 1961 prompted NASA to assign No. 13 to the first manned orbital mission. By the end of August, the capsule had been delivered to Cape Canaveral and early in January 1962 was mated to its Atlas launch vehicle on Pad 14.
Following the 23 January postponement, caused by poor weather, another attempt was scheduled for the cloudy morning of the 27th. Glenn rose early for his low-residue breakfast of filet mignon, scrambled eggs, orange juice and toast with jelly, before undergoing the laborious process of having biosensors glued onto his body and his pressure suit fitted. That day, he lay inside Friendship 7 for more than five hours, hoping for a break in the overcast skies. It never came and, at T-20 minutes, Walt Williams scrubbed the launch. “It was one of those days,’’ Williams remembered later, “when nothing was wrong, but nothing was just right either.’’ Another event, back in Arlington, Virginia, which did not go right, at least for VicePresident Lyndon Johnson, was his plan to visit Glenn’s home… complete with a television crew and a horde of the media.
Johnson also asked for Life journalist Loudon Wainwright, who was in attendance at Glenn’s house as part of the Mercury Seven magazine deal, to leave. Annie Glenn, who wanted nothing less than to have television lights in her home and wanted Wainwright to stay, flatly rejected Johnson’s request. “I understand the vicepresident was pretty pissed off,’’ wrote Deke Slayton, “and that he wasn’t too happy with Jim Webb or Webb’s astronauts at that point.’’ In the weeks that followed, there were theories, Slayton added, “that Webb had gotten ticked-off at John Glenn’’ as a result of the episode and had begun searching for a way in which to better ‘control’ his astronauts. Some observers would speculate that Slayton, assigned to fly the next Mercury-Atlas orbital mission, would be an unfortunate victim of Webb’s politicking. Although it was not a theory that Slayton himself supported, he remained convinced, years later, that the decision made about his career just weeks after Glenn’s flight ‘‘was political’’.
After the 27 January postponement, Glenn’s launch was initially targeted for 1 February, necessitating the emptying, purging and refilling of the Atlas’ propellant tanks. Then, two days before launch, on the 30th, as the ground support team began refuelling, a mechanic discovered, by routinely opening a drain plug, that there was fuel in the cavity between the structural bulkhead and an insulation bulkhead which separated the propellant tanks. Initial estimates suggested at least a ten-day delay to correct the problem and recheck the rocket’s systems. The 600 accredited members of the media at the Cape could do little but groan as John Glenn’s launch was postponed yet again, this time until no earlier than 13 February.
Most of the journalists quickly dispersed, together with Glenn himself, who spent a few days with his family at home in Arlington, before travelling to the White House for a brief visit with President Kennedy. For the astronaut, it was time of peaks and troughs. “I think people normally build up to a peak when they are getting ready for an event as complicated as this,” he said later, “and here we had a situation where we kept building up psychologically and nothing happened. It was like crying ‘wolf5 over and over again. But I needn’t have worried at all. These people kept working and preparing and lost none of their sharpness.’’ Some psychologists were concerned that he would suffer emotionally under the strain. In Glenn’s mind, the delays simply gave him extra time to run each day, to study, to read and respond to mail (one of which told him that it was God’s way of letting him know that he shouldn’t tamper with the heavens) and to work in the simulators.
‘‘If I was suffering,’’ he said, ‘‘I wasn’t aware of it and neither were the psychiatrists whose job it was to keep track of my emotions. The nearest I came to getting upset was after I visited a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal and a quiet evening with his family. A couple of days later, it turned out that the friend’s children had the mumps. As far as I could remember, I’d never had them. Delays for weather and for technical difficulties were facts I could accept, but a postponement or a possible replacement while the astronaut recovered from a childhood disease seemed a bit silly. It would make quite a headline!’’
On 13 February, although weather conditions remained foul, NASA personnel began to move back into position to attempt a launch. The media’s pessimism was reflected in their turnout: by that evening, only 200 had checked in at the nearby Cocoa Beach motels. Their doubt was well-placed and the launch gradually slipped towards the end of the month. By the 19th, with liftoff rescheduled for the following morning, the Weather Bureau predicted only a 50 per cent chance of a launch: conditions in the recovery zones were fine, but the Cape was poor. A frontal system had been observed moving across central Florida, which, it was surmised, could cause broken cloud over the Cape in the early hours of the next day.
Glenn rose early on the morning of 20 February, to be greeted by physician Bill Douglas at 2:00 am, who told him that the weather still offered little more than a 5050 chance of a successful launch. After breakfast, he underwent the now-customary pre-flight examination and was outfitted with biosensors and helped into his silver pressure suit. Technician Joe Schmitt tested the suit and Bill Douglas ran a hose into a fish tank to check the purity of the air supply – dead fish meaning bad air – which offered Glenn the chance for some humour. ‘‘Bill, did you know a couple of those fish are floating belly-up?’’ Douglas’ shocked reaction as he rushed over to the tank was soon arrested by a broad grin on Glenn’s face.
Out at Pad 14, clouds rolled overhead by the time the astronaut arrived outside the capsule at 6:00 am. However, forecasters were predicting possible breaks by mid-morning, producing a different atmosphere on the gantry, with less casual chatter, as if everyone sensed, said Glenn, ‘‘that we were going for real this time’’. Weather caused the original launch time to be missed and a broken microphone bracket inside Glenn’s helmet required repair before Friendship 7’s hatch could be finally closed and bolted at 7:10 am. One of the bolts sheared, necessitating the removal of the hatch while it was replaced. (Several months earlier, Gus Grissom
flew with a defective hatch bolt, but this time Walt Williams was taking no chances.)
Forty minutes later, the countdown resumed. By the time the pad crew moved clear of the Atlas, Glenn – whose pulse varied from 60-80 beats per minute – was granted his first view of blue skies as the realisation took hold that 20 February might be ‘The Day’. He was also assailed by the peculiar, eerie sense of being atop the silvery rocket. ‘‘I could hear the sound of pipes whining below me as the liquid oxygen flowed into the tanks and heard a vibrant hissing noise,’’ he said later. ‘‘The Atlas is so tall that it sways slightly in heavy gusts of wind and, in fact, I could set the whole structure to rocking a bit by moving back and forth in the couch!’’ Thirty-five minutes before launch, the rocket’s liquid oxygen supply was topped off and, despite another brief hold caused by a stuck fuel pump outlet valve and a last-minute electrical power failure at the Bermuda tracking station, the clock resumed ticking.
With 18 seconds to go, the countdown switched to automatic control and, at four seconds, Glenn ‘‘felt, rather than heard’’ the engines roaring to life far below. At 9:47:39 am, with a thunder that overwhelmed Scott Carpenter’s ‘‘Godspeed, John Glenn’’ send-off, the Atlas’ hold-down posts separated and the enormous rocket began to climb. The ‘gas bag’ was on its way.