Man in Orbit
Wayne writes: Fifty years ago today, on 20 February 1962, Lt. Col. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 9:47 a.m. Eastern Time, Glenn in his Mercury capsule ‘Friendship 7′ circled the globe three times during a flight which lasted just under five hours. I was nine years old at the time, and like most boys was fascinated by the space program. I had every reason to expect that by the end of the century there would be bases on the moon, and that travel by rocket would be an everyday event. Also, I wholeheartedly supported NASA, the challenge of space exploration, and scientific study of and in the heavens. I was generally interested in science – two years later, given the choice between a bicycle and a telescope for Christmas, I chose the telescope – and I had a subscription to the ‘Science Program’ published by Nelson Doubleday. This was a series of monthly booklets with full-color gummed illustrations the reader was meant to paste in. I fondly remember having a large number of these, stored in silver and maroon slipcases, though regrettably, I seem at some point to have given them away (see some of the covers here).
I did retain, however, a special seven-inch 33 rpm vinyl disc sent to subscribers in 1962, which presented highlights of Glenn’s flight taken from communications between the capsule and ground units, with occasional comments by Lt. Col. John Powers as the public voice of ‘Mercury Control’. I took the disc to school for a ‘show and tell’, and if memory serves, it went over all right with the rest of the class. I wonder how a simple recording like America’s First Man in Orbit would be received by children today, with no visual element except the still photos on the sleeve. In contrast, one can now go online and watch YouTube videos of the flight (such as this one) or listen to complete recordings of the air-to-ground traffic throughout Glenn’s mission. Both of these would have been, in 1962, marvels of the century yet to come, or the stuff of science fiction.
Looking back, I realize that (again, I was only nine) there was a lot I didn’t know or understand about the Friendship 7 flight. I wondered what all the fuss was about: after all, there already had been two Americans in space (Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom) before Glenn. But those earlier flights were ‘only’ sub-orbital, whereas Glenn had reached a milestone for the United States. Nor was I aware of the psychological as well as technological imperative of putting an American astronaut into orbit, the Russians having achieved that twice already with Gagarin and Titov, or of the underpinning of the space program’s budget in the fierce political rivalry of the United States with the Soviet Union. I was aware of such things by the time of the Apollo missions, and was sorry to see the end of the moon shots with Apollo 17. Orbital endeavors such as the International Space Station are worthwhile but not as exciting, or as potentially meaningful to humanity as a race of pioneers, as manned missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
Image: Front panel of the record sleeve. My mom wrote my name on it before I took it to school.