Alan Shepard’s success solidified questions for John Kennedy about America’s efforts in space. The young President knew the difference between American and Russian rockets. He accepted the fact that the Soviets had overwhelming superiority in size and power.
What the President also had come to realize was that in spite of appearances, the Russians were not ahead of America because they were better at science; it was the exact opposite. The Soviets had their monster boosters because they couldn’t build a smaller nuclear warhead. They needed the giants to get their five-ton, unsophisticated bombs to American targets. Our warheads, with the same destructive power, were much smaller. They needed only a third of the rocket power to reach their destinations.
For this reason, Kennedy was willing to take the long-range gamble that American science, technology, and industry would persevere and, with clearly defined goals, be able to surpass the Soviets.
At NBC we learned what the President was up to, and I jumped in. “Americans are going to the moon,” I reported, and my boss, Russ Tornabene, shouted down the phone line, “Barbree, I want you on this. Kennedy is speaking before Congress and it’s your story.”
Feeling a historic milestone in the making, I covered Kennedy’s congressional address by closed-circuit television from the Cape Canaveral site where future astronauts would lift off for the moon. In ringing tones, the energetic President told an attentive Congress the nation should take longer strides, America should become the leading player in space, and the country should lead the world into a better future:
I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
John F. Kennedy spoke, and Congress leapt to its feet with thundering applause. If the congressional reaction was any sign of the future, then his “new frontier” had absorbed new life and vitality. Despite the “Bay of Pigs” debacle and a rough start, Kennedy was on his way back. He had absolute confidence that this was a gamble his administration could not lose. Americans would be the first on the moon.
Two months later, Gus Grissom had his Liberty Bell Seven Mercury capsule loaded with one more item than Alan Shepard had had: a parachute.
“Damn, Gus,” argued NASA engineer Sam Beddingfield. “If you need it, you won’t have time to use it.”
“Get me the parachute, Sam,” Grissom demanded. “If something goes wrong, it’ll give me something to do until I hit.”
Beddingfield shook his head but stuffed a parachute in Liberty Bell Seven, and Grissom lifted off from the Mercury-Redstone launch pad on July 21, 1961. His flight was a photocopy of Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight—115 miles up, 300 miles down range. But that’s where any similarities to Shepard’s mission ended.
Following splashdown, Grissom prepared his Mercury capsule for helicopter recovery. He was lying back, waiting for hookup, when an explosion blasted away his hatch. The hatch, modified to use an explosive primer cord instead of the mechanical locks of Shepard’s capsule, had ignited.
Water rolled in and Grissom rolled out. He had to swim for his life as he watched the three-thousand-pound spacecraft slip beneath the waves.
Engineers scratched their heads. Some said the design of the capsule’s hatch made an accidental explosion impossible. They covered their asses by suggesting Grissom had panicked and triggered the hatch release. Grissom denied the charge repeatedly, insisting, “The damn thing just blew.” His fellow astronauts backed him all the way, and an accident review board cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, it left a bad taste in Grissom’s mouth that refused to go away.
The sinking of Liberty Bell Seven would not be the only event to throw cold water on Grissom’s perfect spaceflight. Sixteen days later, the Russians gave what was left of NASA’s pride another swift kick. A second Vostok spaceship, this one named Eagle, carried Major Gherman Titov, Yuri Gagarin’s backup pilot, into Earth orbit, where he played around in weightlessness a full day.
Project Mercury managers and the astronauts threw up their hands. They agreed that Redstone had done its job. But if there was to be any hope of keeping up with the Russians, it was time to get on with launching an American into orbit. And, most important, to get the job done before the end of 1961. History would record the Russians and Americans did it the same year.
But there was only one rocket in America’s stable capable of lifting the Mercury spacecraft into orbit. That was the Atlas ICBM. Atlas worked well with a nuclear warhead on its nose, but its thin stainless-steel skin collapsed under the weight of the Mercury spacecraft. Three times Atlas had left its launch pad with an unmanned Mercury spacecraft on its nose, two of those rockets exploded, dumping chunks of fiery debris into the Atlantic.
The White House told Mercury Operations director Walt Williams to fix it. The President wanted an American in orbit, and Williams was told, in no uncertain terms, “No more excuses.” Williams went after the air force, who held the Atlas contract with NASA, and the job of setting things right went to the toughest test conductor around, a hulking six-foot-one Irish altar boy by the name of Thomas J. O’Malley.
Despite the failures, there seemed to be little concern around the Mercury-Atlas pad. Many thought the problems would resolve themselves. O’Malley called the launch team together. He gave them the new word: “The next son of a bitch who says no sweat, who tells me or anybody else we don’t have a problem, will ride the toe of my boot out the door.” T. J., as he was known, was simply the tough, hard-nosed manager Atlas-Mercury needed. His hard-boiled attitude whipped the Pad 14 launch team into shape—a team ready to work 24–7 to turn the Atlas into a piece of reliable machinery.
The troublesome Atlas systems were modified, the fragile skin was given its own steel belt, and on September 13, 1961, five months after the last Atlas failure, the rocket was ready for another try. Atlas drilled its unmanned Mercury capsule into a perfect orbit, and after completing one trip around Earth, a California tracking station fired the capsule’s retro-rockets and the spacecraft returned for a safe splashdown.
T. J. O’Malley ready to launch John Glenn, the first American, into Earth orbit. (O‘malley Collection).
NASA and the Atlas managers were pleased. O’Malley, the Irish altar boy, had gotten the job done.
John Glenn was ready. He’d been ready from the moment he was selected as an astronaut to be first in space, but Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov had shot the hell out of that plan. No more suborbital flights. Mission number three would go for orbit, and Glenn, as backup to both Shepard and Grissom, was in a perfect position. No astronaut had better credentials. Glenn was born in the heart of the great radio days. To the Marine Corps he was a public-relations dream, and to the public, he was Jack Armstrong, all-American.
He was ready, but NASA wasn’t. Not quite. John Glenn would have to endure the same humiliation that had tormented Alan Shepard. On November 29, 1961, the marine fighter pilot stepped aside while NASA loaded another chimpanzee, Enos, into a Mercury capsule. The Atlas and Mercury capsule performed flawlessly, but the chimp’s equipment failed and the electrical system and light tests went haywire.
Every one of Enos’s display’s buttons lit up wrong. He banged on every lever he could find, but that didn’t help. For his efforts, instead of a banana pellet, he was rewarded with a nasty shock.
Enos came out of orbit biting anything that moved. NASA went through a sort of scheduled greeting, but the chimp wouldn’t let handlers diaper him. Enos had a large erection, but this didn’t stop the proud officials. NASA news chief Jack King paraded the chimp before the media. This prompted a popular woman broadcaster to ask, “Jack, are you going to breed that chimp?”
Satisfied with the chimp’s flight, NASA managers scheduled Glenn’s launch for December 20, 1961. Get into orbit before year’s end was the cry; it was to be a Christmas present for the boss, JFK. But Santa Claus’s elves were not on John Glenn’s side. No sooner than the Atlas and Mercury capsule were erected on the launch pad, there began a series of frustrating delays. It would have broken the spirit of most, but Glenn and the launch team kept pushing ahead. Finally, on the morning of February 20, 1962, after eighty-two days of weather and mechanical delays, Glenn was strapped into the spacecraft he had named Friendship Seven. Lady luck smiled. It was try number ten, and the countdown nudged its way toward 9:47 A.M. Eastern time.
But before Glenn could be launched, there was one last thing. The international community needed to certify that John Glenn was actually on board Friendship Seven—that he had not slipped down the gantry’s elevator before the structure had been moved. So, with the Mercury-Atlas standing alone on its launch pad, lead rocket engine engineer Lee Solid left the blockhouse and escorted the Federation Aeronautique Internationale representative to a clear view of Friendship Seven. From the blockhouse, astronaut Scott Carpenter told Glenn to wave. The FAI representative smiled. For the record, John Glenn was on board and test conductor T. J. O’Malley and his long-frustrated launch team moved the countdown clocks ahead.
John Glenn leaves for the launch pad. (NASA).
The media gathered at Cape Canaveral’s press mound for John Glenn’s orbital flight. Inside its broadcast trailer, the NBC team is on the air. Left to right: news manager Russ Tornabene, correspondent Jay Barbree, and correspondent Merrill Mueller. (Barbree Collection).
Again, Merrill Mueller and I were at the NBC microphones, and when possible, we carried the voices from the blockhouse and Mercury Control live on our worldwide networks.
It was perfect radio. Launch-team members’ voices were in pure harmony.
“Status check,” O’Malley barked into his lip mike, his words carried to the headset of every member of his team. He had to know if all the Atlas-Mercury systems were ready.
“Pressurization?” his sharp clear voice demanded.
“Lox tanking?” O’Malley needed to know if the liquid oxygen tank was filled, if there was enough to oxidize the fuel to get Glenn in orbit.
“I have a blinking high-level light.”
O’Malley also knew the signal was false. “You are go,” O’Malley snapped.
“Go for launch.” All tracking stations were in the green.
“All pre-start panels are correct,” O’Malley acknowledged. “The ready light is on. Eject Mercury umbilical.”
“Mercury umbilical clear.”
“All recorders to fast,” T. J. ordered. “T-minus eighteen seconds and counting. Engine start!”
“You have a firing signal,” astronaut Scott Carpenter told his friend John Glenn from the blockhouse.
O’Malley’s boss, B. G. MacNabb, came on the line. He spoke directly to the altar boy: “May the wee ones be with you, Thomas.” O’Malley managed a quick smile. He’d take the luck of the wee ones anytime. He’d been praying all day, and the tough test conductor crossed himself. “Good Lord, ride all the way,” he said prayerfully.
“GOD SPEED, JOHN GLENN!” The call boomed deep from the heart of Scott Carpenter. A quick nod of acknowledgment between O’Malley and Carpenter, and Scott began racking down the final seconds of the count.
The voices fell silent. Atlas was ablaze on its pad, flame pouring from its mighty engines, the vibration trembling John Glenn’s voice.
“Uh…rog-ger…the clock is operating…We’re underway….”
Atlas was now a monolith of flame and gleaming silver with Glenn and his black Mercury spaceship resting on thick ice from the super-cold fuels beneath it, the red escape tower standing above all, pointing the way into a welcoming blue sky.
Flaming thrust pushed the rocket and spacecraft stack toward orbit. The autopilot ticked away the commands, and Atlas and Mercury obeyed as Glenn reported, “We’re programming in roll okay.”
People. A million of them were on highways and beaches, atop buildings, and on streets. Atlas rolled thunder from its mighty throat as it pushed steadily upward and the onlookers went mad—a million voices shouting, cheering, and crying.
Tremendous air pressure squeezed Atlas, buffeted the big rocket, hammered against its steel belt strengthening its thin skin, rattled and shook the machine. It was every pilot’s old friend Max Q, and the marine along for the ride called Alan Shepard, his CapCom, short for capsule communicator, who was located in Mercury Control.
“It’s a little bumpy along here.”
Climbing out of Max Q, the engines were increased in thrust and power. Every second they burned fuel they reduced Atlas’s weight. Then, a little more than two minutes into the flight, the two booster engines were done—they burned out and fell away with the rocket’s rear skirt. This trimmed Atlas to one remaining main engine, called the sustainer.
Friendship Seven was over one hundred miles high and still climbing when the sustainer cut off. The escape tower was gone, the separation rockets spurted, and Glenn and his Mercury capsule pushed away from the now lifeless Atlas.
“Roger, zero-g and I feel fine,” Glenn reported. “Capsule is turning around. Oh! That view is tremendous!”
John Glenn and America were in orbit. A grateful country shed its tears and screamed its cheers. Some of its lost prestige had just been restored.
Friendship Seven set its course for the first of three planned trips around Earth, and Glenn reminded himself he had a debt to pay to American taxpayers. They were all anxious, almost desperate, to hear from him. He offered glowing descriptions of the planet sliding beneath Friendship Seven: the sculpted sands of the deserts, the mantle of snow covering the mountains, and closer to home, the rich deep green of Bahamian waters. He peered down volcanoes, and when it was night, he looked into the blackest of black below and saw great thunderstorms split themselves apart with lightning bolts that left trails of snarling fire.
In that blackness, only the motors and instruments of his spaceship offered any sounds and light. The remainder of the universe had gone mute, and suddenly he was staring at the brightest, most clearly defined stars and planets he had ever seen.
He was surprised by the speed and completion of his first night as he saw the thinnest crease in the darkness behind him, just a sliver of light, and then the sliver grew swiftly, growing into a shout of color and the brightest of suns as the horizon quickly transformed itself from night to day.
Half of his Mercury capsule was now lit; the other half lay in shadow and the dim reflected light from a planet below that was still in darkness. Sunrise on Earth itself was still minutes away.
Suddenly, he saw something strange out of the corner of his eye. Lightning bugs, good old-fashioned Ohio summer lightning bugs were swarming around Friendship Seven. Swarms of the tiny creatures. Some came right to his window, and then he realized they were frost, possibly ice dancing and swirling along with him as he moved through orbit.
Glenn had no idea what caused this stunning phenomenon, and he radioed Mercury Control. “I’ll try to describe what I’m [seeing] in here.” Every person hearing his voice snapped to, eyes wide.
“I’m in a big mass of thousands of very small particles that are brilliantly lit up like they’re luminescent,” Glenn explained. “They are bright yellowish-green. About the size and intensity of a firefly on a real dark night. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Roger, Friendship Seven, this is Canton CapCom, can you hear any impact with the capsule? Over.”
“Negative, negative. They’re very slow. They’re not going away from me at more than maybe three or four miles an hour.”
As Friendship Seven moved into brighter sun, the fireflies disappeared, and flight managers shifted their attention to an immediate urgency that could be threatening John Glenn’s life. Shining like a pit of deadly snakes on the Mercury Control’s wall-wide tracking map was Segment 51—a warning that told flight controllers Friendship Seven’s heat shield could be loose.
Everyone stopped. If the warning was correct, John Glenn could be cremated during reentry. Temperatures during the atmospheric plunge would reach 4,000 degrees.
Every member of Glenn’s team concentrated on the problem. They studied every idea floated, but there seemed to be only one in-flight fix: They could leave the retro-rocket pack strapped to the outside of the heat shield. This package contained six small rockets. Three had been used after Atlas shutdown to push Friendship Seven away from the Atlas booster; three larger rockets remained. They would be used to slow the spacecraft for reentry.
The theory was simple. If they left the retro-pack in place after the three de-orbit rockets fired, the straps should be strong enough to hold the heat shield in place until Glenn’s dive took him deep into the atmosphere. There, the growing air pressure would keep the heat shield pressed against the Mercury capsule’s blunt end.
The other possibility was equally simple. If the retro-pack straps did not hold, the first American to orbit Earth would return as ashes.
The managers in Mercury Control decided not to alarm Glenn by alerting him to the problem. This pissed off Alan Shepard, and Glenn heard it in Shepard’s voice. Then, over Canton Island, the tracking station told him to leave the retro-pack in place.
“Why?” he asked.
“You’ll get the word over Texas,” Canton said.
Now, Glenn was pissed. His heart picked up a beat. For the first time in his mission he was concerned. It was not an unfamiliar role for the ace test pilot and combat veteran. He took a deep breath and relaxed his body. He would deal with it.
The Texas station confirmed he was to leave the retro-pack on through reentry. Exactly at four hours, forty-three minutes, fifty-three seconds into the flight, he had to manually override the separation switch and retract the periscope and seal its outer doors. He passed out of radio range before he could ask questions.
Four minutes later, Friendship Seven was over Mercury Control at the Cape. Capcom Alan Shepard told flight director Chris Kraft and operations director Walt Williams in so many words to go to hell. He knew if he were in Glenn’s place, he would want to know. He keyed his mike and gave the whole explanation to John for retaining the retro-pack. The marine was angry he had not been informed earlier. But he understood the decision and told Shepard to pass on his thanks.
“Roger, John,” Shepard told him. “Hang tight, Marine. Navy has your back,” and right on schedule off the coast of California, the three retro-rockets fired at five-second intervals. Glenn felt three sharp thuds at the base of the craft. “I feel like I’m going back to Hawaii,” he reported.
Friendship Seven dropped slowly, skipping over the surface of the atmosphere a bit before sinking into Earth’s protective blanket. Instantly, Glenn could sense the heat build up. The capsule swayed. There was a sudden bang behind him: part of the retro-pack breaking away. He called the Texas station. He couldn’t get through. He had already plowed into the envelope of ionized air, and the ions kept any radio communications from leaving or entering his Mercury capsule.
John Glenn held tight.
Friendship Seven plunged deeper into the heat.
He could not have been more alone.
Alan Shepard tried to reach him. He was calling Glenn with an urgent message. He was trying to tell him to get rid of the retro-pack the moment he weighed 1g, his Earth weight, or greater. This could save Glenn’s life. It could keep the retro-pack from ripping his heat shield apart. The message banged against the ionization layer. It could not penetrate the ions and fell uselessly away, lost unheard in Friendship Seven’s wake.
John Glenn was cocooned inside a growing fireball, and through Friendship Seven’s porthole he saw this fireball devouring itself. A strap from the retro-pack had broken or burned free and was hammering against the glass. It burst into fire and flashed away with bits of flaming chunks of metal whirling and pounding past his view.
“It was a bad moment,” Glenn would tell me later. “I just hoped that everything would not come unglued. If they didn’t,” he smiled, “I would be okay. If they did, well…”
He watched the brilliant orange blaze and burning chunks flying by his window as he had watched the flaming remains of Mig fighters he’d shot down over the Yalu.
Then, he felt the gravity forces building. He could have hugged them. It meant it was all holding together, and he called Alan Shepard in Mercury Control. He was feeling pretty damn good, but there was no way to get through the ions. Not yet.
The heat shield on his back was hanging in there. It was 4,000 degrees outside, while he enjoyed a toasty and comfortable atmosphere inside Friendship Seven.
In Mercury Control they chewed their nails.
Notre Dame engineer Bob Harrington stood behind Alan Shepard. He was in charge of making Mercury Control tick. “Keep talking, Alan,” he begged. Shepard clenched his teeth and called again.
“Friendship Seven, this is Mercury Control. How do you read? Over.”
As instantly as they had come, the ions were gone, and the words penetrated Friendship Seven like the voice of an angel.
Glenn’s reply was a simple mike check. “Loud and clear. How me?”
“Roger,” a grinning Shepard acknowledged. “Reading you loud and clear. How’re you doing?”
“Oh, pretty good,” Glenn said, “but that was a real fireball, boy!”
Mercury Control broke out in cheers and handshakes, and Harrington broke out with the Notre Dame fight song.
There was dancing in the aisles, but flight director Kraft yelled through the pandemonium: “Knock it off. We’ve got a pilot to land.”
Instantly, the celebration ended, and John Glenn’s team was back on the job.
He and Friendship Seven kept losing speed. The Mercury capsule was now oscillating strongly from side to side, rocking badly enough for Glenn to feed corrections with his thrusters. They weren’t much good anymore in the thickening atmosphere.
In the rain, John Glenn and family rode with Vice President Lyndon Johnson in his Washington parade. Only hours later, Glenn and the vice president had moved on to New York City. They are seen here moving down the canyons of Broadway in an overwhelming ticker-tape parade. (NASA).
“What’s this?” he muttered to himself, reaching for the switch to override his automatics and deploy the drogue chute early. He was at 55,000 feet and stabilization was important.
From that point on, Friendship Seven had a perfect splashdown. The first American to orbit Earth dropped into the water near his recovery ship, Noa.
John Glenn arrived in the nation’s capital a hero of Charles Lindbergh’s stature. He had lassoed the Russian lead, and the White House gave him a parade. A quarter of a million people braved heavy rain to watch the astronaut pass. He was then jetted off to New York City, where four million screaming, cheering people greeted him with a tumultuous ovation and a ticker-tape parade.
When John Glenn had satisfied all his national appearances, he came home for a parade through Cocoa Beach and a first-hand inspection by President John F. Kennedy of his Mercury spacecraft, Friendship Seven. (Rusty Fischer & Hartwell Conklin Collections).
I joined veteran broadcaster Robert McCormick in NBC’s Radio Central at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. We broadcast the parade from start to finish, and for this farm boy’s first trip to the big city, about the only thing I felt akin to was Chet Huntley’s roll-top desk.
The next morning NBC got me out of bed to cover an award for Glenn at the famed Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
I stopped by the coffee shop for breakfast and was introduced to food in the big city. The menu said two eggs anyway you liked them. That’s what I ordered and that’s what I got—two eggs. No toast, no coffee, no jam—no anything except two eggs.
In Cocoa Beach in 1962 you received two eggs, sausage or bacon, potatoes or grits, toast, coffee, and orange juice for $1.75. You can image how pleased I was when they brought me a check for $5.75 for my two eggs and a glass of warm water.
I paid the bill and took the elevator to witness John Glenn’s award. He was happy to see a face from home.
“Any beach sand in there?” he smiled, shaking my trousers’ cuffs.
“Some,” I laughed. “How’re you doing?”
“Tired,” he said, his expression suddenly weary. “I’m ready for a rest.”
“For a guy that shortened the distance to the moon, you’re entitled.”
Standing there, it came to me God didn’t turn out too many like John Glenn. When he passes, his epitaph should read:
HERE LIES A CIVILIZED MAN