Astronaut John Glenn’s reason why the Project Mercury mission was a success

Nearly 60 years after John Glenn was the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, here are six things we can learn about his historic mission — in the astronaut’s own words.

“Godspeed, John Glenn.”

Nearly 60 years ago, astronaut Scott Carpenter spoke those words as colleague John Glenn rocketed into space and history as the first American to orbit the Earth. It was the morning of Feb. 20, 1962, and Glenn would return to earth in just a matter of hours, completing NASA’s Project Mercury mission.

Glenn, then a 40-year old United States Marine Corp pilot who’d previously flown combat mission in World War II and Korea, would write in his formal report that the “flight of the Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft has proven that man can adapt very rapidly to this new environment.” That environment would be become America’s new frontier — space.

Glenn’s lengthy 17-page flight report about the mission is part of a larger 204-page document by the NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center titled “Results of the First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight February 20, 1962.” In Chapter 12, the former test pilot outlines why he think’s the mission was successful, what went wrong and encourages NASA — and all humankind — to harness their fears to reach for the stars.

In honor of the late astronaut and the 59th anniversary of his Project Mercury’s MA-6 mission, here are seven things we can learn about Glenn’s historic space flight, in his own words:

NASA’s mission for MA-6

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's had three objectives for the Mercury-Atlas 6 (the name of the NASA program and rocket type) mission, according to Glenn:

  1. “Evaluate the performance of a manned spacecraft system in a three-orbit mission.”
  2. “Evaluate the effects of space flight on the astronaut.”
  3. “Obtain the astronaut’s opinion of the operation suitability of the spacecraft and support systems for the manned space flight.”

Glenn acknowledged the “obviously broad objectives,” and wrote simply that he was to provide “man’s observation capabilities” for “information not attained by other means” — like by mechanical instruments.

“It is in this type of reporting that a manned vehicle provides a great advantage over an unmanned vehicle, which is often deaf and blind to the new and the unexpected,” Glenn adds.

The Friendship 7 Mercury Capsule, with astronaut John Glenn aboard, is shown being launched from Cape Canavarel, Fla., on Feb. 20, 1962. | Associated Press

A shaking liftoff

As the countdown came to an end, and Carpenter wished him “Godspeed,” Glenn records that he “could feel the engines start.”

“The spacecraft shook, not violently but very solidly,” Glenn said of an Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile engine ignition below him.

“When the Atlas was released” he wrote, “there was an immediate gentle surge that let you know you were on your way.”

Glenn wrote that there was a mirror perched in Friendship 7’s — a name suggested by Glenn’s children — small window that allowed him to watch the ground fall away as he climbed into the sky. “I glanced up after liftoff and could see the horizon turning,” he said.

But once Glenn made it to space, and gravity no longer held him to the “couch” — the specially designed pilot’s chair — weightlessness was an easy adjustment.

“Weightless flight was quickly adapted to, and found to be pleasant and without discomfort,” is the first line of his report.

Looking down on Earth

Glenn recorded that he was surprised by the look of the cloud-covered planet.

The Earth’s horizon, contrasted against space’s blackness, was “a brilliant, brilliant blue and white,” he wrote, noting different colors of the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream were visible from space. The Marine aviator said he also could make out smaller details of the Earth’s surface, like the “v” of a ship’s wake in the ocean.

“Some of the most spectacular sights during the flight were sunsets,” Glenn wrote. As it set behind the earth, the sun is “bright orange and fades into reds, then on into darker colors, and finally into blues and blacks.”

A hot reentry into earth’s atmosphere

As the spacecraft returned home, the astronaut fired a pack of “retrorockets,” strapped over the spacecraft’s heat shield, which would slow the capsule down as it fell toward the Atlantic Ocean.

There was concern that the heat shield meant to protect Glenn and Friendship 7 from the anticipated heat on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere had come loose. To secure the shield, flight control officials instructed him to keep the pack of rockets strapped to the outside of the spacecraft rather than detach it as previously planned.

In this Feb. 20, 1962 photo made available by NASA, astronaut John Glenn pilots the “Friendship 7” Mercury spacecraft during his historic flight as the first American to orbit the Earth. Glenn, who later spent 24 years representing Ohio in the Senate, has died at 95. | NASA

“As deceleration began to increase I could hear a hissing nose that sounded like small particles brushing against the spacecraft,” Glenn wrote.

“This is Friendship 7. I think the pack just let go,” Glenn radioed to Cape Canaveral, according to a transcript of his communications. With the rocket pack gone, there was nothing to keep the heat shield in place.

“My condition is good, but that was a real fireball, boy,” Glenn radioed to Cape Canaveral at one point, dropping the call signs and radio formalities from earlier in his communications.

The heat shield stayed in place and parachute deployed at 10,800 feet elevation, allowing Friendship 7 to splash safely into the water about 800 miles south of Florida — just as planned, Glenn recorded.

After splashdown, Glenn and the Friendship 7 were hoisted onto the a U.S. Navy destroyer the USS Noa.

“It was hot in there,” Glenn said as he crawled out of the side hatch of the spacecraft and onto the deck of the destroyer, The New York Times reported then. He was given a glass of iced tea.

Communication is important, even about bad news

As NASA began to notice mid-flight malfunctions of Glenn’s spacecraft, they tended to keep the potential problems to themselves until they had a solution for the astronaut, Glenn wrote. In his flight report, he suggested officials keep the pilot in the loop at all times.

“I feel it more advisable in the event of suspected malfunctions, such as the heat-shield-retropack difficulties, that require extensive discussion among ground personnel to keep the pilot updated on each bit of information rather than waiting for a final clearcut recommendation from the ground,” Glenn said.

NASA appeared to embrace Glenn’s recommendation, a decision that was witnessed publicly nearly a decade later in 1970 when the Apollo 13 moon mission was aborted and brought back to earth after Command Module Pilot “Jack” Swigert radioed Mission Control in Texas about a Master Alarm light going off — “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

This Nov. 27, 2018 photo shows an Apollo Lunar Module on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. | Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

Manual control for success

The space flight of Friendship 7 proved that Glenn, a battled-tested aviator with three years of astronaut training, was the reason for the mission’s success. As technology failed around him, it was the astronaut who was able to bring the spacecraft home.

“The chances of mission success are greatly enhanced by the presence of a human crew in the spacecraft,” Glenn wrote in the first paragraph of his flight report. “A human crew is vital to future space missions for the purpose of intelligence observation and action when the spacecraft encounters expected or unexpected occurrences or phenomena.”

When a thruster malfunctioned at the end of his first orbit, Glenn was able to take Friendship 7 off autopilot and manually fly the spacecraft for two trips around the planet.

“This requirement introduced no serious problems, and actually provided me with an opportunity to demonstrate what a man can do in controlling a spacecraft,” he wrote.

Plan for fear

Glenn wrote that leading up to the historic space flight, people had been worried about his state of mind and asked if he was afraid.

“Humans always have fear of an unknown situation — this is normal. The important thing is what we do about it,” he wrote. “If fear is permitted to become a paralyzing thing that interferes with proper actions, then it is harmful. The best antidote to fear is to know all we can about a situation.”