Friendship 7, 20 Years Later

Random Remembrances


John Glenn  

Twenty Years?  Impossible!  For it seems to me as though it was only a few weeks or months ago.  But then I think of everything that has transpired since that 20th of February 1962, and it has been a long time.

 I guess it remains so vivid to me because, first, it was such a new and unique experience at that time for any person in the free world that it will remain forever etched in my memory, and secondly, I suppose it is a rare day, even now, that someone does not ask me something about that orbital experience, so I have recalled it often. 

Today we concentrate on the research return from space flight.  Indeed, that is the reason for the whole effort, to learn the new, basic facts that can then be put together as part of our innovative, inventing, questing society, whether at the end of a microscope, telescope, on the farm or in our cities, that industry-producing, job-producing quest for the new, for “how to do it better” and more efficiently, that has been the hallmark of America and the key to our preeminent leadership role in the world.  We use research – space research – to look to the skies for energy sources, to zero-g for new products manufacturing and to earth for new analysis of our planet.  If we ever lay down that kind of curiosity in hundreds of fields, we will lay down our mantle of leadership along with it. 

But in those days of twenty years ago, we were just sticking our toe in the water to see whether man could take the whole plunge into the “new ocean” of space.  There were those who had their serious doubts, doctors who wondered whether random motions of fluid in the inner ear would induce uncontrollable nausea and incapacitation, others who doubted man’s ability to even swallow in a weightless state, and still others who surmised that since the eye is supported by a muscle structure which would no longer be necessary in zero gravity, it would logically follow that the eye would slowly change shape with possible astigmatism, myopia, etc.

 These and hundreds of other concerns had to be answered before we would know for certain that man could go into space, not just as a temporary experimental specimen, but as a working researcher, a scientist in this new laboratory of space.  My job on Friendship 7:  see what happens, sop up every impression, determine every change to the senses I could define.  In other words, start answering the question of whether man could go into space and use it to determine new and valuable information.  That flight in Friendship 7 was a first step, which has been followed by many others, each building on preceding flights and experience.  The pure science from these missions gets reported around the world and is put to work in myriad forms and ways that expand their ways and values in exponential form.

 But what of the experience itself?  This travel into the vastness of above-the-atmosphere?  What do you think and feel?  What are the emotions?  I’m asked most frequently – were you afraid?  These questions are probably harder to answer than the straight physics of space, because they are difficult questions to define, even for our familiar earth-bound activities.

 Describe your emotions the first time you drove a car.  Difficult?  Of course.  To describe my emotions while awaiting launch, and it becomes even more difficult because the usual terms of reference for most people are not there.

 Were you scared, I’m asked.  “Just a little,” I reply, “not scared to where I would let it interfere with what I was doing.”  But apprehensive, aware of danger, keyed up, spring-dash loaded to sense whatever might go wrong?  Emphatically, yes.  And I think that is good.  If an astronaut has such a numbed complacency that he did not have that kind of apprehension, he shouldn’t be on the mission to begin with.  But along with the apprehension also goes a confidence stemming from all the training, testing of equipment and working with the launch crews for many hundreds of hours. 

How do you feel when the countdown gets down to the last few seconds?  The standard answer to that one is to ask a counter question:  how do you think you’d feel if you knew you were on top of that machine, comprised of thousands of parts all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract?  That’s the flippant answer, of course.  The real feeling is one of elation and concentration, anxious to go, and putting everything you can into making it a good flight:  a productive flight, a “pay-off” mission and a safe one – a two-way mission up and return.

 The roar of the booster is not loud up on the front end.  You feel the resonance, the slight shaking, but only the slightest of acceleration during lift-off.  Later in the launch phase, when most of the fuel has burned up, the acceleration is nearly 8 G’s at fuel cut-off, detachment from the booster and start of orbital flight.

 “That view is tremendous” was my response on the tapes in 1962.  And it was.  It is still possible to see major landmarks, even roads against contrasting countryside.  Above, space is black, even on the sunny side of the earth, with no atmosphere to refract the “blue sky” we see from ground level. 

All my life I’ve been fascinated by sunsets and sunrises – nature’s greatest exhibitions.  It is hard to understand people who will “ooh and aah” over a Rembrandt or a Picasso, but won’t pull off the road to watch a particularly beautiful sunset.  In orbital flight, you have the pleasure of an absolutely spectacular sunset and sunrise every hour and a half, and ones where all the colors of the rainbow are spectrumed-out by earth’s atmosphere and back out to you in space.  It’s like having the beautiful, eye impressing luminosity one sees in the oranges, yellows and reds in a campfire suddenly applied to all the colors in the spectrum, that same intense beauty.  The colors are even channeled along the curvature of the earth – yes, it is round, in spite of The Flat Earth Society membership card they later sent me from England with the hand written note on it saying “OK wise guy.”  During debriefing back on that February 20th in 1962, someone asked what my general impressions of the day were, and I replied, “Any day that has four sunsets and sunrises has to be great.”

 At nearly 18,000 m.p.h. (5 miles each second), to remain in orbit, it surprises most people to learn you have little more sensation of speed than looking down from a jetliner at 35,000 ft. altitude, but of course there is nothing near by from which to give a visual sensation of such speed – no clouds, not anything.

 Zero-G – weightlessness?  Great sensation, but hard to describe.  No, its not like going over-the-top on a roller coaster, and no its not like under water diving although that begins to get a small percentage of the way to a “zero-g” feeling.  But in zero-g the “deep body senses” no longer give you clues to up and down, and you find yourself every bit as comfortable with your feet toward the sun as with your head in the same position.  Objects float in the spacecraft unless they are restrained.  Water is in a plastic bag with a tube from which to drink.  In that environment, if a normal glass of water was slowly started toward your mouth, then stopped, the water would keep coming towards your face – messy, hence the container and tube.

 Re-entry?  Welcome but tense.  G’s again, slowly building to nearly 8.  I had some earlier automatic control problems on Friendship 7 and had taken over manual control, so re-entry was a particularly exciting time.  Sensation?  I can remember that feeling as vividly today as though it just happened, the feeling of being super sensitive to wherever the heat would come from if all did not work out as planned – but the good news, it did work, followed by free fall to Drogue chute altitude, main chute, water impact, then bouncing up and down in the waves, waiting for the ship to pick me up.  Sensation?  After never having felt better all during the predicted nausea-inducing space flight, I almost got seasick. 

A great day for me ended as I watched the last sunset of the day aboard the U.S.S. Noa

So those are just a few of the myriad feelings and sensations I recall.  I’ve never written much about the sensations as such because, while I fully appreciate the newness of the experience and how it became of such intense interest to many people, I have felt that so much attention was paid to the “human experience” aspect that it overshadowed the real reason for space flight:  the research, the new, the inventiveness, the inquiry into new areas, the adding to our knowledge that makes it all extremely valuable. 

In a more general reference than just to space flight, I’m worried that we’re starting to lose some of that scientific edge that we have had as a nation since our founding days.  We’ve plowed back into research and development a greater percentage of our GNP than other nations.  We’ve garnered new information that has created jobs, industries and a standard of life that is the envy of the world.

 I’m not talking only about space flight.  It has taken its share of budget cuts, in fact, more than its share, and could be giving much more research payoffs to gain the benefits from our 20 years effort and expense to develop this capability than it is.  I’m talking about basic research in general – into agriculture, energy, medicine, communications, to name a few crucial areas – which has been a high priority since our inception as a nation and which will keep us as a leader among all nations if continue to give R & D the high priority it must have. 

I have often said that my space capsule was the “Model T” of the spacecraft.  We went on to develop spacecraft that were capable of taking off and landing again safely (the space shuttle), we developed space laboratories, and we have capabilities of going much, much further.  Can you imagine what it would have been like if we had quit after my Friendship 7 flight?  If we had decided that further development of sophisticated spacecraft was too costly?  Can you imagine what it would have been like if Henry Ford had never gone beyond the Model T? 

If we don’t keep up our emphasis on R & D, on looking beyond our present horizons, on meeting challenges of the unknown, then we truly lose our premier place in the world.