We Had Finally Caught Up With The Russians

February 20, 1962. Launch of Friendship 7. Fifty years ago today.

When I was nine I was a “space junkie.”  I devoured everything that had to do with the NASA Space Program.  I watched every launch on TV, sometimes getting up in the wee hours of the morning to see a launch from Cape Canaveral.  Going crazy when there was a hold at T-minus 30:04:45  and counting.  Then another at T-minus 3 minutes, fifty seconds, and counting.  Wondering if the rocket would ever ignite.  And here’s an eye-opener for you, (maybe), the “T” stands for “Test” not “Time” as most people think.  It may not always be time related.

 During every hold we listened intently to Walter Cronkite and Science Editor, Jules Bergman, explain in minute detail how all the stuff worked.  I had a “Revel” model of the Atlas launch vehicle, launch pad and Mercury capsule.  So realistic that if you filled it with rocket fuel it would probably take off.  I had another model of just the Mercury capsule with the escape rocket tower, and you could see all the interior detail because the model separated in halves.

The odd thing is I never wanted to be an astronaut, as I remember it.  Probably because we knew what it took to be one, and I wouldn’t qualify if just because I wore glasses.  I think it was more the Kennedy challenge, “… I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” that kept me intrigued.  I, like most everyone else on the planet, could not conceive of how this could be done, and the process of how it was done was just too interesting not to pay attention.  And besides, every one of the three networks covered those early launches, interrupting their regular programming to give us all the details hours before the scheduled launch.

John Herschel Glenn, Jr., rode atop a Mercury LV-3B, the same basic Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) first launched in 1950, into earth orbit on this date 50 years ago.  The Mercury launch vehicle had first been used for a Mercury launch on July 29, 1960, a suborbital, unmanned, named “Mercury-Atlas 1.”  John Glenn’s “Friendship 7” was “Mercury-Atlas 6.”  Glenn orbited the earth three times and splashed down in the south Atlantic at T+4:55:30.  The mission lasting four hours and 56 minutes.  John Glenn’s first words after being winched on board the USS Noa and bounced off the side, exiting the capsule through the exploded side hatch, were, “It was hot in there.”

It was a Tuesday.  We all sat around a small black and white TV on the audio-visual cart while the teacher kept adjusting the rabbit ears trying to get a semi-view-able picture.  Glenn was riding on the sixth Atlas rocket built for the Mercury program, and two of the previous five had blown up.  This rocket, after three previous unsuccessful attempts, one of which included a fuel leak in the rocket during fueling on January 30th, roared to life at 14:47:39 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), also referred to as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) .  That translates to 8:47:39 Mountain Standard Time where I was sitting.  UTC uses a 24-hour (military) time notation and is based on the local standard time on the 0° longitude meridian which runs through Greenwich, England.  For example, Midnight in Greenwich corresponds to 00:00 UTC.  It’s used for most weather related times, and most anything to do with astronomical and aviation publications.

The room exploded in cheers and we continued on with our math assignment.  Later that day we watched the recovery on the same TV.  We had finally “caught up” with the Russians and we all knew it.  The “Space Race” was on full speed.

Any of you that have seen the movie, “The Right Stuff,” should know that one of the biggest complaints that the astronauts had was that they didn’t actually “fly” the spacecraft.  They were perceived as little more than a higher species of the Chimps that rode before them.  It was all done remotely from the ground.  However, in the case of Friendship Seven, the system failed and John Glenn had to manually fly the craft for re-entry.

The original seven Mercury Astronauts.

Of the original Mercury Seven, only John Glenn and Scott Carpenter are still alive.

The space program plugged along through the Gemini missions and the Apollo fire, which put the program on hold.  The first manned Apollo flight was scheduled for February 21, 1967, but the fire investigation which determined that  major modifications to the spacecraft and launch pad were needed, delayed the first launch to October 11, 1968.  Around that time my mother and I got into an argument that we would not reach the moon before the decade of the 60s was out as President Kennedy had challenged.  I clearly believed they would, in fact, I was so sure that it would happen before the end of 1968 , that I bet her $300.  Now, neither one of us had $300, so the bet didn’t mean much, but in December 1968 when Apollo 8 went to the moon and passed behind it entering into lunar orbit.  It became the first manned object to leave earth’s orbit and escape the gravitational pull of another celestial object.  My mother insisted I hadn’t won the bet because no one had landed on the moon.  On July 21, 1969, when we landed and walked on the moon, she said little of nothing.  She never paid me the $300, although I would remind her about the bet from time to time.

I stayed a space junkie through all of it, glued to the television, building models, flying model rockets.  It was an exciting time for a kid.




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8 responses to “We Had Finally Caught Up With The Russians

  1. True. It was exciting. I was a little young, but I remember my mom’s excitement and I was thrilled to get to watch the TV!

  2. How I miss Walter Cronkite.

  3. jean

    Aaa-men, nicking futz

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