On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn Jr., atop an Atlas rocket, became the third American to leave the Earth’s surface, on his way to fulfill the core objective of the Mercury Project: orbit the Earth and return safely. His flight was met with joy from the people United States, who idolized the seven Mercury astronauts, as this mission would allow the United States to finally catch up to the Soviet Union, who had not only beaten America to space with Sputnik, but they also put the first man into orbit just a month before the American's first astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr.
The first two Mercury missions were undertaken by American astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, demonstrating that the United States could not only send men into space successfully, but that they could repeat the experiment. However, where the United States had been overtaken by Soviet Union Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was orbital flight, something that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hoped to catch up with during the Friendship 7 Mission.
The mission came at a crossroads with the development of the space race, and at particularly chilly relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. Much of NASA’s pitch to Congress depended upon a Soviet lead in the race to orbit, something that the US would meet up with when it came to the Friendship 7 mission, and diplomacy at the time was intertwined with international arms agreements and cooperation with US allies. (Walter McDougall, …And the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 365.) At this point in time, the United States and the Soviet Union were still at the early stages of the Space Race, where both countries had strategic interests in space, namely with the use of spy satellites. As the race progressed, objections to most arguments were dropped. (McDougall, 348). Within this context, it’s hardly a surprise at the reaction to the success of Friendship 7, but also the drive that the Mercury Seven astronauts displayed during their training. There was an acute awareness that the space program was an element of the nation’s security, something that acted as a more visible deterrent for both countries, as an indicator of technological sophistication. (Francis French and Colin Burgess, Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the Space Era, 1961-1965, 138).
The Friendship 7 mission itself was delayed from its original December 20th, 1961 date, due to technical and weather related issues. There were numerous launch attempts, all resulting in a count-down halt, until February 20th, where there were only minor technical delays and a break in the weather, allowing for a launch. (French, 140). At 9:47 in the morning, the rocket roared to life, and Glenn was on his way to orbit.
This marked the first time that an Atlas Rocket was used to launch a human in the space program. The two prior Mercury flights were powered by Von Braun’s Redstone Rocket (William Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, 326), which allowed Shepherd and Grissom into space, but only on ballistic trajectories. The Atlas Rocket, which was also used to launch nuclear missiles, was powerful enough to bring Glenn to an orbital altitude. The Atlas, first proposed in 1946, was now the survivor of an intense inter-rivalry fight between the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. (Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, 222-223)
Glenn’s flight started off better than expected, with a perfect launch, but once the spacecraft reached orbit, a warning light indicated that the heat shield had come loose on Friendship 7, which could mean that the spacecraft and astronaut would burn up in orbit upon re-entry. Mission control ordered Glenn to conduct several tests designed to confirm the nature of the problem, but at that time, he wasn’t told of the issue, but knew that at that point, something was wrong. Glenn was able to conduct three orbits of the Earth, and as the spacecraft reached the point of reentry, Mission Control instructed the astronaut to leave the retropack in place, to keep the heat shield in place should it be loose. After a hair raising trip back to Earth, Friendship 7 landed near the USS Noa. Technical follow-ups with the spacecraft revealed later on that the heat shield had in fact remained in place, and was never loose in the first place: a faulty microchip had malfunctioned, giving off a signal that the spacecraft was in trouble. (French, 146)
The success of the mission helped to fulfill a couple of functions with the US’s image in space. The first aspect was concerned with catching up with the Soviet Union’s achievements in space. With the flight of Friendship 7, the United States had caught up with the Soviet Union in terms of space technology, matching Yuri Gagarin’s flight just 10 months earlier. But the successful flight helped to demonstrate the capabilities of the Atlas rocket once again. While the rocket had been used in a fairly public demonstration with an orbit of the Earth in 1958, Glenn’s use of the rocket to reach orbit was something that was looked upon by millions from around the world. After the mission, Glenn and Friendship 7 went around the world in what was called the 4th orbit, no doubt as a calculated public relations tour that helped to underscore the technological abilities of the United States. (Burrows, 342)
Glenn’s flight was a success for the space program, achieving the goals of the Mercury program: send a human to space and orbit the Earth. The mission demonstrated that the United States could replicate their earlier successes on preexisting hardware, and also demonstrate that the Soviet Union did not necessarily have the final say on spaceflight. But, it also showed that there were issues in command between the crew of the spacecraft and Mission control, issues that would occur later: who would be in charge of the spacecraft in the event of an emergency? In this instance, Mission Control was able to work out possible solutions to the perceived issue on Glenn’s flight, but future missions would strain the ties. Despite that, the Friendship 7 mission was widely celebrated for its contributions to the advances in American spaceflight, allowing the United States to catch up to the Russians and eventually, overtake them in the race to the Moon.