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Submitted By officerroe
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Project Mercury, established by NASA back in 1962, was the cornerstone of space exploration not only for the United States, but for the world altogether. The success of this space mission set the stage for many other spaceflights during the 1960’s, including NASA Projects Gemini and Apollo, after reaching some groundbreaking discoveries.
John Glenn had a fascination with airplanes from a very early age and spent quite some time constructing intricate toy models while he was growing up in Cambridge, Ohio. After graduating New Concord High School, he attended Muskingum College where he received a Bachelor of Science as well as an honorary Doctor of Science degree; both of which were in the field of Engineering. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, Glenn went on to enroll in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program in 1942 and upon his graduation in 1943, he commissioned in the U.S. Marine Corps. During World War II, John flew 59 missions in the South Pacific and surpassed that record after flying a total of 63 combat missions during the Korean War. As a result, John received six Distinguished Flying Cross awards along with several other pilot decorations.
In 1957, after serving in the Korean War, John Glenn was appointed to a naval test pilot program where he completed the world’s first supersonic transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to New York in just 3 hours and 23 minutes. This mission, later nicknamed “Project Bullet,” secured Glenn’s reputation as one of the country’s top test pilots, increasing his popularity and drawing the attention of NASA, who was in the process of recruiting astronauts for a new mission—Project Mercury. Regardless of their peaked interest and Glenn’s distinguished credibility as a pilot, he would still have to complete a series of tests before they would go on to choose him as the pilot aboard Mercury-Atlas 6 Friendship 7 spacecraft. After meeting all seven of the criteria, Glenn was selected out of 508 candidates, along with six other astronauts (Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton), forming the group known as the “Mercury 7.”
Although NASA had sent the first American, Alan Shepard, into space in May 1961, his flight was only a suborbital lob and there were still many questions as to how humans could survive and function in space. This prompted the continued research and development of the Mercury Project as they strove to provide answers to those questions. The objectives for this mission were designed in three parts; the first would be to successfully send a piloted spacecraft into orbital flight around Earth. The second was to observe human performance in those conditions, and the final objective was complete the mission with a safe recovery of the pilots and the spacecraft.
Despite the years of intensive preparation, there were quite a few issues that caused some uncertainty about how things would turn out. Many of them occurred before the actual launch of Friendship 7, making it unclear if the spacecraft would actually ever make it into orbit. The launch was scheduled to take place during mid-January but was originally postponed due to untimely weather conditions; heavy overcast made it impossible to attain the necessary photo coverage during the mission. During this time, as spacecraft technicians were making adjustments, they found a leak in the inner bulkhead of the fuel tank that would take them about another week or two to repair, thus postponing the launch date once again into early February. Once the work was complete, the launch had to be postponed yet again due to the weather conditions and it seemed as if they would never catch a break. Things finally turned around as the weather let up, allowing NASA to send the spacecraft into orbit on February 20, 1962. The Friendship 7 took off flawlessly from Cape Canaveral, Florida and during the first stage of the flight, Glenn encountered very few issues. However, as he entered the second orbit, there were two main problems that started to occur. First, one of the capsule’s yaw thrusters got clogged, causing the automatic control system to fail which forced Glenn to have to manually maintain the attitude of the spacecraft. Secondly, mission control received a sensor warning that the landing bag had been deployed. This problem was much more threating due to the placement of the landing bag, which was folded and stored between the body of the capsule and the heat shield. If the landing bag had been deployed, then that would mean that the heat shield had fallen off as well; and if the heat shield was no longer attached, there would be no protection for Glenn during the fiery reentry into his third orbit, which would make his survival virtually impossible.
Rather than alarm Glenn, the mission control crew decided not to warn him immediately because they were unsure if there was an actual problem. Instead, they had him run a series of small tests to see if it would resolve the issue. They also asked him if he had heard and loud flapping noises, which would indicate that the landing bag had indeed been deployed, but Glenn said that he hadn't. Glenn eventually caught on to their concerns and a discussion ensued as to how they would proceed with the rest of the orbit. The standard procedure would have been to discard the retrorocket, however the mission control crew in Hawaii insisted that the warring was an error and was probably nothing to worry about. As he passed over California, they finally informed Glenn to keep the retrorocket intact during his reentry.
It was extremely nerve-wracking as he entered the ionization blackout period where he would have no radio connection to his mission crew before his landing. As he watched pieces of flaming debris fly past his window, he thought it was the heat shield burning to pieces, but to his relief, it turned out to be the retrorocket straps. After a flight of 4 hours 55 minutes and 23 seconds, the spacecraft successfully reentered Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the Atlantic Ocean where the Navy destroyer USS Noa was ready and waiting to recover Glenn. When officials were finally able to inspect the capsule, they determined that the heat shield was never in danger and that there was in fact an error with the sensor.
Once back on the ground, the problems during the flight all seemed to be forgotten as the realization of Glenn’s accomplishment began to sink in. Not only was the Friendship 7 the first manned orbital mission of the United States, proving to be a scientific milestone, it also allowed the U.S. to surpass the Soviet Union in the “Space Race,” which served as a political milestone as well.

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