John Glenn as the First American in Orbit
The attempts began on Jan. 27, 1962. Bad weather forced that attempt to be scrubbed. That was only the first of many occasions when Glenn would climb into his Friendship 7 spacecraft, only to have to climb out because of malfunctions or weather.
Then, finally, on Feb. 20, after further delays to replace a faulty unit, MA-6’s three engines ignited, and the Atlas booster lifted Glenn in Friendship 7 towards space.
“The clock has started," Glenn reported to Cap Com (capsule communications), as the Atlas soared upwards. The flight proceeded nominally to BECO (booster engine cutoff). As the MA-6 pitched over to orbital insertion angle, Glenn could see the Earth through the big window.
“Oh, what a beautiful view," he exclaimed.
The spacecraft performed flawlessly until midway through the first orbit. Then a yaw control thruster began sticking, causing Friendship 7 to drift away from its nominal orbital attitude. There was only one solution. The pilot in the cockpit had to take control of his craft. Glenn did, and for the remainder of his three orbits, he flew the spacecraft, proving conclusively that a great pilot is a great pilot whether he’s flying an aircraft or a spacecraft, and man had to be in control of a spacecraft.
But that was not the only problem ground control saw indicated. An indicator on the ground was showing that the heatshield was no longer locked to the craft. If that was actually the case, the heatshield would come off when the retro package was jettisoned, and the spacecraft and Glenn would burn up on reentry.
Ground control told Glenn not to jettison the retro rockets after they were fired. They wouldn’t tell him why, but he had no problem figuring out why. He had no indication in the spacecraft that anything was amiss, but he kept the package on.
As he reentered the atmosphere at 12,000 mph, the plasma fireball we’re all now familiar with enveloped the capsule.
“That’s a real fireball outside," he reported.
The craft ran out of fuel for the control jets on the way down, but the drogue chute deployed early and stabilized the craft. The capsule splashed down 40 miles short of the pickup ship, but it took the carrier only 17 minutes to reach him.
Glenn had performed flawlessly under great stress, and showed no ill effects from the flight.
Now it was an all out push to learn how to fly in space.