Looking Behind the Legend of Friendship 7

Glenn inspects the artwork on his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA

Glenn inspects the artwork on his Friendship 7 capsule. Credit: NASA

Today marks the anniversary of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 flight, NASA’s first orbital mission that launched on February 20, 1962. Every year the mission is celebrated as the flight that, at least temporarily, leveled the playing field between the Soviets and the Americans in the early days of the Space Race. But there’s more to the story than its triumphs. When Friendship 7 launched, the Atlas rocket that took Glenn into orbit had a 51 percent success rate. Glenn was never assigned the first orbital flight; he landed the assignment by chance. And the mission nearly became NASA’s first fatality. A warning light suggested the spacecraft’s heat shield had separated, which, if true, meant certain death for the astronaut during reentry.


  • Rene' says:

    Timely item. Viewing “When We Left Earth” (2008). Mr. Glenn’s moment of drama was briefly covered. The role of the heat shield was examined, and the deadly peril in possible dislodgement. But the cushioning function behind the protective covering was not.

    Interesting supplement, and well presented.

    The Saturn V model brings back nostalgic memories! Stirred a deep-sigh for the Golden Days of Space Flight: When NASA’s visions were bold, and public excitement was high. When men dreamed big, and the Moon beckoned nigh. When pioneers dared blaze dangerous trails through the sky, above a nation grown strong through family tie.

    When strength of will, and adventure of spirit, reached above the clouds’ new-explored frontiers, to live or die. Like circling Eagles of Solar height, surmounting challenges on wings of fire, to realize the dream of Interplanetary flight! The pinnacle achievement of hard-won progress, through decade-long climb, to another world gently alight.

    From goal accomplished, through gateway of triumph to stand, to behold with wonder, the Homeworld of man! Around the Moon, from vistas “Magnificent [in] Desolation”, a distant vision of profoundest realization, to all nations of men afforded: the World of their nativity, suspended in blackest Infinity — enclosed in air-vaulted space, their entire history, revealing the Family that is Earth’s human race!

  • David Shomper says:

    But since the heat shield “problem” was later determined to be caused by a faulty switch, he was never actually in danger of becoming NASA’s first fatality.

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